Staff Q&A/Robert Preucel

Robert Preucel, professor of anthropologyPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

Robert Preucel considers himself fortunate that, just as his interest in Native American cultures and peoples was blossoming, he was able to take advantage of one of the region’s most valuable sources of information on the subject: The Penn Museum.

As a Penn undergraduate, Preucel complemented what he was learning in the classroom with frequent trips to the Museum, where he could explore native cultures through extensive exhibits. The experience, he said, was a formative one, fostering an even deeper interest in the subject and leading Preucel toward graduate school, a Ph.D., a stint spent teaching at Harvard and now, most fittingly, a position back here at Penn that seems tailor-made for him.

Preucel, a Penn professor of anthropology, is also the Gregory Annenberg Weingarten Curator of North America at the Museum and Director of the Penn Center for Native American Studies. Most recently, Preucel helped oversee the installation of a new exhibit, “Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania,” which challenges visitors to reconsider the way they view this little-understood Pennsylvania tribe.

Q. Where does your interest in Native American cultures come from?
A.
I’m from Philadelphia. I was a Penn undergraduate and very early on in college I became interested in native cultures and native peoples through exhibits at the Museum. I was a student of John Whithoff, who was one of these people who was extremely knowledgeable about native cultures and had a lot of friends in the native communities. He was studying the native cultures of the East at a time when people were saying there were no American Indians east of the Mississippi—that they’d all been removed. Which of course was completely wrong. So I guess there’s a certain irony that after starting here I’m back here as a curator of the Museum.

Q. Tell me a bit about this new Lenape exhibit.
A.
This exhibit is quite interesting for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that it raises issues of identity. It tells its story through the means of the Lenape’s Prophecy of the Fourth Crow, and tells the story about the Lenape people going into hiding as a result of colonialism and then emerging out and sharing their culture and rebuilding their world. But this is not the story of all of the Lenape people. It’s the story of the Lenape people who stayed behind. Many of the Lenape went west, pushed out there by settlement and war and other issues. All of this caused them to move. There’s a huge Diaspora of Lenape moving west, and what we’re trying to do is focus on the people who stayed behind. Then again, we have every intention of working with other Lenape groups in the future, and in fact we already are.

Q. What would you like people to take away from this exhibit?
A.
It’s about challenging stereotypes. When you go into this exhibit, you may have a view of what the Lenape are. And that idea will be challenged by this exhibit. It’s about identity. It’s about not only the identity of this community, which is actually not a federally or state-recognized group. They’re not technically American Indians because they don’t fit the requirements according to the U.S. government. It raises the question: Who has the right to say who is or who isn’t an Indian?

Q. What other initiatives are you involved with, especially related to your work at the Center?
A.
Well, we have no Native American faculty here at Penn. And in order for the Center of Native American Studies to address Native American issues from the inside, we need to collaborate with and bring in native peoples. We are working with the administration and different departments here to recruit and retain native faculty. But meanwhile, we’re inviting Native American scholars to work on several projects with us.

Q. What kind of projects have you undertaken?
A.
We recently had with us Richard Grounds, who is a very well known and major figure in the native language revival movement. He helped us organize a conference for native and non-native scholars and native communities to come to Penn in May for a two-day conference. …. The idea was to share best practices and to learn what the status was of languages in these communities. Another focus was the interactions between the academy and native communities. And Richard is actually very critical of the academy, because while researchers will go into communities and work with elders on the development of dictionaries, and while there is some value to that, he also questions why we aren’t working to produce fluent speakers. And until you do that, you can’t say you’re reviving these languages. In his community, there are two or three elders left who are fluent, and he doesn’t want them wasting time with anthropologists and linguists—he wants them working with the young people.

Q. What do you think the Museum does well in the realm of Native American culture?
A.
I think our exhibits represent a progression of the theoretical thinking in terms of this profession. We have three exhibits right now. One is the “Raven’s Journey” exhibit, which focuses on the native people of Alaska and Canada. It’s a wonderful exhibit that was put together by two guest curators. They primarily focused on collectors, the earlier people in the Museum’s history who led expeditions into these cultures—people like George Byron Gorden. That exhibit presents the objects collected by those individuals and talks about those cultures from the point of view of the people who led the expeditions.
Around 1995, Dorothy Washborne put together “Living in Balance,” which features the Hopi and Navajo and Zuni and Apache people. She applied for a grant and invited consultants [from those tribes] to come to Philadelphia and help her put the exhibit together. She asked them which objects they would like the Philadelphia audience to see.

Q. And I assume this new exhibit takes another step forward?
A.
Yes, it was actually co-curated. First, you have an undergraduate student, Abigail Seldin, who is the curator, which in itself is remarkable. But she co-curated the exhibit with the chief of the Lenape people in Pennsylvania, which means they have the right to veto each other. [The Lenape] have curatorial control, which is a … big shift in museumology. And we feel very strongly about that.

Originally published Sept. 18, 2008

Originally published on September 18, 2008