Decolonizing the (Sitcom) Museum

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Decolonizing the (Sitcom) Museum

In 1987, James Luna, a Payómkawichum (Luiseño) and Mexican-American performance artist, climbed into a glass display case in San Diego’s Museum of the Man. His artwork, “Artifact Piece,” poked fun at what he called “one-sided” museum displays about Indigenous people. Instead of presenting “simply objects among bones,” Luna surrounded himself with his belongings, including divorce papers and some of his favorite records, all neatly labeled to explain their significance. Luna wanted viewers to think about some of the things that “you really couldn’t talk about” in standard museum displays about Indigenous culture, including the “joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people.”

Rutherford Falls, which premiered on Peacock in April 2021, is like Artifact Piece in sitcom form — but even more funny, complex, and insightful. Half the writers for the show are Indigenous, as is one of its three showrunners, Sierra Teller Ornelas, a member of the Navajo Nation. I went to high school in Tucson with her, and I’m not surprised she went on to become a writer and producer for shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore. The improv variety shows and stand-up sets she orchestrated in the cafeteria as a 15-year-old had me crying with laughter nearly every lunchtime. 

The promotional image for Rutherford Falls (via IMBD)

Many other critics have raved about the show’s celebration of Indigenous lives, so I’ll write about how it is also a show about museums. Before her television career, Teller Ornelas put in five years working at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. And while Rutherford Falls is full of art world in-jokes (the Sacklers! NAGPRA! Ambiguous phrasing about provenance on museum labels!), it’s also a radical, utopian manifesto about decolonizing the museum, as well a profound meditation on our relationships to our personal, cultural, and national pasts. 

The show opens with a car crash. Someone has driven right into the statue honoring Lawrence Rutherford, who founded an eponymous (fictional) small town after striking what his descendent repeatedly describes as a “fair and honest” deal with the local (also fictional) Minishonka tribe. This descendent, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), runs the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum. It’s a rambling house jam-packed with family paraphernalia, from toothbrushes to butter knives, all of which Nathan will rapturously describe given the slightest opportunity. (At one point, he goes on and on about the house’s notable “potato salad party,” in a perfect parody of an over-enthused docent.)

The car crash is nothing serious, but it’s not the first time the statue, located in the middle of a downtown street, has proven a traffic hazard. The mayor decides to move it, but Nathan is unwilling to let “Big Larry” go, regardless of the harm he causes. A cascading series of conflicts, both petty and profound, leave the whole community questioning their identities. 

I’ve written a book about controversies over American monuments, and so I appreciate how precisely Rutherford Falls has gotten the details right. Big Larry is just the type of smug-faced, oversized tin soldier of a statue you would expect to find erected by an American amateur sculptor. Disputes over monuments placed alongside narrow roads meant for carriages, not SUVs, often begin with traffic accidents. For example, in 1988, a drunk driver smashed his van into an 1889 Confederate soldier monument in a traffic circle in Alexandria, Virginia, knocking it off its pedestal. The United Daughters of the Confederacy restored the statue using funds from the driver’s insurance — and ignored calls to relocate it. The soldier went back to his pedestal, but had to be repaired and replaced once more after another car accident in 2019. (The statue was finally put in storage in 2020).

A view of the crash that ignites a debate about the “Big Larry” statue in Rutherford Falls (screenshot from the program trailer)

Rutherford Falls revolves around the relationship between Nathan and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding), a Minishonka woman who runs the tribe’s one-room Cultural Center inside its casino. Unlike Ross Geller from Friends, previously television’s most famous museum employee, Nathan and Reagan are realistic depictions of small museum life: the uncomfortable but real dependence on chipper high school interns; the continual need to drop out of high-flying explications of history to yell at visitors who are touching the exhibits; and the seemingly universal mandate that every museum gift shop sell astronaut ice cream. 

Both Nathan and Reagan use their museums as microscopes, focusing solely on what they want to see in the past. Nathan presents a picture of Big Larry as a benevolent patriarch — a rosy version of history he tries harder and harder to defend as revelations pile up throughout the season. Meanwhile, the prize exhibit of Reagan’s museum is a wedding basket. She only accidentally reveals that it was hers, in a past version of her life that she ran away from. 

The show itself, unlike Nathan and Reagan, is comfortable with complexity. Nathan tacks back and forth between allyship and hissy fits of white fragility. Reagan works hard to do the right thing, but finds it hard to change her mind when other people tell her she’s aiming in the wrong direction. The show also constructs backstories for many of its secondary characters, showing that their complexities are the result of historical traumas. The tightly wound mayor (Dana L. Wilson), fused to her pantsuits, is afraid that a single wrong step will prove she isn’t good enough to be the town’s first Black female leader. A white history professor goes to rehab after trying to reenact negotiations between settlers and Indigenous people via a drunken wrestling match; he’s intoxicated both by vodka and the subversive thrill of channeling the voices of past white supremacists. The casino’s CEO, Terry Thomas (played by the electric Michael Greyeyes) usually seems all-knowing; he gives delicious monologues, as when he eviscerates a podcaster-bro who implies he isn’t living an authentically Indigenous life. But Terry still has a couple of moments where life comes at him a little too fast. This is America, this is 2021: none of us have any fucking idea what we’re doing.

The two curators seem to regard each other as equals. But while Nathan expects Reagan to drop everything to help him, he isn’t so eager to return the favor. “Why is your history more important than mine?” she finally asks during a climactic fight (Schmieding and Helms have such great friend chemistry that watching them bicker is as distressing as seeing your dearest group chat go south). 

Reagan is trying to figure out how to make the Cultural Center something more than it is: a sad, fluorescent-lit, industrial-carpeted room whose few artifacts float in a depersonalized “ethnographic present.” The set-dressing detail that kills me is the children’s corner, with its tiny chairs, empty table, and pint-size, totally bare bookcases. The Cultural Center, disconnected from contemporary life, has little to offer visitors. 

Not that there are any visitors. Reagan begins the season by asking Terry for money to expand the Center. Her presentation includes a snazzy flip chart listing the reasons people visit the Center: either they mistake it for the casino gift shop or they’re asking to charge their phones. “Indigenous history is the greatest story never told,” Reagan insists. That’s true, but the genius of Rutherford Falls is the realization that just telling the story isn’t enough. Reagan knows culture is important, but she doesn’t have a clue as to why.

Terry turns down Reagan’s proposal, knowing that doing more of the same thing isn’t going to solve the Center’s problems. Reagan’s next strategy is to swipe a Minishonkan pot from one of the town’s settler historical sites. After she puts it on display, neither the pot nor its theft ever come up again. You could attribute this to sitcom logic, where even the wildest of events is forgotten by the beginning of the next episode, but I think there’s something deeper going on. No authorities will spot the stolen artifact because, even with this addition, no one cares about the Center. Reagan could fill her museum with repatriations, involuntary or otherwise, without changing this. Museums can’t decolonize by changing just who leads them or what’s in their display cases. Their relationships with their audiences must change, too.

The turning point for the Center comes when Reagan finally asks for help. After an encounter with a pair of casino employees, who only visit the Center to make fun of Reagan, ends with one of them commenting that “the only Minishonka artifacts in here are that basket — and those bangs,” she calls them out for not doing anything to preserve Minishonkan culture. To prove her wrong, they put out a Facebook post asking for donations.

Reagan tears through the boxes that pour in, hoping for the ethnographic baskets and pots she imagines belong in a museum and tossing the other stuff she encounters, from a blender to a copy of Young Guns 2. Only just in time does she start listening to the stories that led people to donate these objects. The blender, for example, made many a smoothie at Standing Rock. Teller Ornelas, who grew up weaving traditional tapestry-style Navajo rugs (her mother and brother are still prize-winning weavers), is deeply familiar with such connections between the past and present of Indigenous cultures.

Finally willing to change her concept of what Minishonkan heritage looks like, Reagan puts the donated objects and their stories on display, resulting in an opening reception packed by a community that finally sees themselves. The season ends in a swirl of fabric swatches and architectural models, with Terry committing the casino to build a free-standing museum.

But what will this new museum be? And how will it interact with Nathan’s museum, which is moving to the same cultural complex? It’s not by choice — Nathan has been outmaneuvered. “This version of my family is bullshit!” he complains. “Respectfully, every version of your family is bullshit,” Terry replies. “At least this one is profitable.” Terry wants the museums to draw in visitors who will spend money in the casino. Is this really how history will help us — as a commodity to sell to those don’t share it? Or is there another way forward? Given the twists and turns of this first season, things will definitely not turn out as planned, and I can’t wait to see how.

Debates about decolonizing museums are often deadly serious — as serious as the issues at stake. But the harder the problem, the more we need a space for play, so we can imagine various possible futures. Rutherford Falls asks playful and personal questions about museums and history, but it doesn’t offer any solutions. Instead, it insists on a mechanism: collaboration. The characters who try to work alone get nowhere. In the world of the show, even a project as simple as judging a high school history fair requires consultations that expand wider and wider until an entire PF Chang’s is debating cancel culture. Nobody has all the pieces of the puzzle, because nobody contains all the multitudes that form the whole roiling mess of idealism and exploitation that is the United States. 

Just to be clear, this is a funny show. I am still giggling every time I think about the camera panning from Nathan unexpectedly kissing another character to the engine of his museum’s model train set plunging into a tunnel (an allusion to the ending of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest). The show’s big ideas are all mixed up with jokes and awkward moments and the spectacular outfits of the show’s sole gender nonconforming character (Bobbie Yang played by the hilarious Jesse Leigh). It’s just like life — and what the show insists a museum should be like, too.
Like the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum, too many American museums function like kiddie amusement park rides, whisking you past “It’s A Small World”-style highlights of history before sending you off to enjoy some astronaut ice cream. If they are to operate as places for confronting the totality of our pasts, museums are going to need to be a lot scarier. We need to mourn and rage instead of just reacting with a wan smile of mild educational interest. Tours might need to end with a Valium tucked into that astronaut ice cream — or at least include some Rutherford Falls-style jokes.

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