Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. Not for republication by Wyoming media.
The National Park Service quietly shuttered a museum at Grand Teton National Park this week, removing a world-class collection of ancient Native American artifacts donated by the Rockefeller family nearly four decades ago.
The Indian Arts Museum had been housed inside the park’s Colter Bay Visitor Center since 1972, containing a priceless array of rare artifacts representing the cultural ancestry of more than 100 American Indian tribes from virtually every region of the country.
While the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is larger and better-known, Grand Teton’s Indian Arts Museum stood out because of the quality of items on display and the fact that the collection of clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, tools and toys gave visitors unparalleled insight into the daily lives and customs of the earliest Americans.
“I think there are several factors that make this collection important, from my point of view, starting with the quality of the objects,” said Joe Horse Capture, associate curator of Native American art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who has studied the Grand Teton collection. “They don’t have as many objects, but they’re of high quality and importance.”
Yet at least for now, the nearly 1,500 items known as the David T. Vernon Collection — named for their original collector, a Chicago illustrator and friend of the Rockefeller family — have been indefinitely removed from display while the Park Service works to address long-standing deficiencies in the visitor center building that threatened to ruin the very artifacts the museum was established to preserve.
Preserving cultural resources
The closing of the Indian Arts Museum, while unlikely to register as a major event outside the small community of scholars and enthusiasts of American Indian artifacts, nonetheless reflects a significant problem for the Park Service. The agency, already saddled with a $10 billion maintenance backlog, faces mounting criticism that its extensive cultural resources are deteriorating from age, wear and tear, and outright neglect.
A report issued last summer by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association noted that more than half of the Park Service’s 80 million museum artifacts were uncataloged, and that another 28 million objects were at risk of decay or loss.
“A persistent assumption exists among the public, Congress, and even some National Park Service staff that the agency’s primary mission is to protect scenic wonders and wildlife, while preserving historic places, structures, and artifacts is of secondary importance — or worse, a regrettable diversion of time and funding,” the NPCA report said. “This is alarming because cultural resources are vital to helping visitors understand the significance of the people, places, and events associated with our national parks.”
The fate of the Vernon Collection offers a prime example of what’s at stake.
Grand Teton park officials said they had no choice but to close the Indian Arts Museum because the Colter Bay Visitor Center is no longer suitable to house the fragile artifacts, some of which are more than 200 years old.
Among the nearly 40-year-old building’s deficiencies is an outdated climate control system that has allowed excess humidity to cause buckskin moccasins and other items to become brittle and crack. In some areas of the museum, a barrage of sunlight has faded colorful beads and dyes in dresses, said Alice Hart, Grand Teton’s museum curator, who oversees the Vernon Collection and several other large historical exhibits maintained by the park.
Such deficiencies are exacerbated by the fact that the display cases were unsealed, allowing damp air to get inside, as well as insects and even rodents, which laid eggs or chewed some items. In one instance, a wood rat was discovered stealing trade beads from a display case, said Jackie Skaggs, a Grand Teton spokeswoman who used to work at the museum.
Many of the artifacts had deteriorated to the point that NPS in 2005 sent roughly half the collection’s artifacts to the Park Service’s Western Archeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, Ariz., to be cleaned and restored.
With the museum’s official closing Monday, the other half of the collection will be sent to the conservation center for restoration, said Hart, who estimated that the total cost to refurbish all 1,500 items could approach $1 million.
“People are very disappointed that the collection is leaving for right now, but it simply must be done,” she said.
The Park Service says the restored artifacts will eventually be returned to Grand Teton, but only a handful will be displayed at the Colter Bay Visitor Center.
“I know there’s been concern about if there were an earthquake, the building could collapse,” said Skaggs. “And we’ve always been a little worried about fire protection and the fact that insects and rodents have been able to get into the building. So we feel like it’s important for these priceless artifacts to be treated and come back to the park when we have a more appropriate building in place to house them.”
Such an ignominious end to the Indian Arts Museum was not what Laurance Rockefeller had in mind when he loaned the David T. Vernon Collection to Grand Teton National Park in 1972.
Laurance was the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., whose lavish donations helped dramatically expand the northwest Wyoming national park to include thousands of acres in the foothills of the Teton Range. The 24,000-acre John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway connecting Grand Teton to Yellowstone National Park to the north was established by Congress in 1972 to honor his dedication to the 310,000-acre park and several others.
Laurance Rockefeller purchased the artifacts from Vernon, a prolific collector of American Indian artifacts and artwork, and permanently donated them to the Park Service in 1976 with one condition: that they remain on display at Grand Teton National Park.
Yet by the time of Rockefeller’s death in 2004, many artifacts were already in an advanced state of deterioration, prompting Grand Teton officials to send the initial 750 items to the Western Archeological and Conservation Center.
Most of the 750 items had not been on display at the museum, which isn’t big enough to show all 1,500 pieces at once, and only about 325 items in the first batch needed repairs, said Dana Senge, assistant conservator at the Western Archeological and Conservation Center.
But Senge said some of the items are too degraded to be fully restored, and the goal is to at least stabilize leather and buckskin artifacts to prevent further damage.
She said the restoration work on the first 750 items has been completed. “We’ve cleared the decks, and we’re ready for the next group,” she said.
Senge said this week that the entire collection will remain at the Arizona center until a more suitable location is found. But no one is sure when that will happen.
Park Service officials want to build a new museum building to house the collection. But with a sagging national economy and a Congress intent on reining in federal spending, officials acknowledge it could take years to make that happen.
The Grand Teton National Park Foundation, a Jackson, Wyo.-based nonprofit that has helped raise money to build visitor centers and other structures at the park, plans to raise funds to help construct a suitable home for the collection, said Kim Mills, the foundation’s manager of communications and corporate relations.
“This really is one of the finest collections of this type in the world. It needs a place to showcase all the amazing pieces in it,” Mills said.
In the meantime, the Park Service this winter will begin renovating the Colter Bay Visitor Center, including making repairs to the building’s climate control system, lighting and other outdated fixtures.
Those renovations should allow for the display of about 40 refurbished collection pieces next summer, both at the Colter Bay Visitor Center and the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center near the park’s main office in Moose, Wyo.
Those items will be displayed in new, sealed display cases, Hart said.
A gradual decline
Kathleen Born, a St. Paul, Minn., resident and arts enthusiast, remembers vividly the first time she visited Grand Teton National Park in the mid-1980s and stumbled upon the Indian Arts Museum.
The collection of colorful beads, moccasins, saddles and pipes left a powerful impression on Born.
“The objects in that museum are magnificent,” she said. “They are absolutely beautiful.”
So when she visited Grand Teton last month for the first time in more than 25 years, she made it a priority to return to the museum.
She said the objects on display were as moving as when she first visited, but the condition of the Colter Bay Visitor Center was a disappointment.
“I could see there were no humidity controls in the cases, and the sun was coming in much too brightly in some places,” Born said. “The building is not at all worthy of the quality of the pieces on display there.”
Almost as troubling as the condition of the museum was the fact that Grand Teton officials seemed to have allowed the priceless artifact collection to fall into obscurity.
Born said when she was planning her recent trip to Grand Teton, she could not find much information on the Indian Arts Museum on the park’s website. When she got to the park, she said she started driving toward Jackson Lake, hoping she’d eventually find it.
She had no idea the museum would be closing only days after her visit, and that she would be among the last people to see the items before they were packed away.
Hart, the Grand Teton museum curator, acknowledged that the park did not effectively promote the collection and that many visitors discovered it by simply wandering into the Colter Bay center.
“We’ve had people come to our museum who are very knowledgeable about American Indian art, and they come up to our visitor desk and their mouths are dropping,” Hart said. “They say, ‘What are you doing with this collection, and where did you get it?’ They’re just stunned by the range and quality of these pieces.”
Horse Capture, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts associate curator, said the Park Service would also find a receptive audience among present-day American Indians whose ancestors’ beliefs, values and artistry are represented by the collection. Reconnecting the artifacts to their original tribes, he said, is just as important as constructing a stand-alone museum building.
“This is a great opportunity to really, really put this collection in a new light,” he said. “But it needs to have its own building and own identity that says, ‘If you want to learn about native people in the area, this is the place to go.’”
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.