Collection Explore
Wendy Red Star
and Beatrice Red Star Fletcher

Rebecca McNamara
Mellon Collections Curator
Tang Teaching Museum

What does it mean to be on display? This question is one of many raised by Wendy Red Star’s Four Seasons series in which the artist wears her traditional Apsáalooke (Crow) elk-tooth dress in four overtly artificial installations. In putting herself in a diorama-style environment, Red Star further addresses habitat diorama portrayals of historic and contemporary Native life.

The first habitat diorama is typically credited to taxidermist, hunter, and sculptor Carl Akeley (1864–1926), who, in 1889, created a glass-enclosed three-by-four-by-two-foot scene of taxidermic muskrats in a marsh for the Milwaukee Public Museum.(1) Over the next few decades, such dioramas became staples of natural history museums as part of broader efforts to educate the “lower classes,” bring nature and faraway environments and animals to urban populaces, and inspire viewers to support preservation efforts. They typically include skillfully painted backgrounds, faux flora, and taxidermy. With intentions of scientific veracity, dioramas are important examples of artist-scientist collaborations, and today, many offer views of environments forever altered by human settlement and its effects.

Human civilizations, too, have been subjects for habitat dioramas. When dioramas featuring Native communities exist in the same museums that display taxidermy and dinosaur fossils, they evoke the dehumanization Native people face(d) by postcontact Europeans and US governmental powers. Further, that positioning of Native people as parallel to hunted and stuffed animals seeps into the subconscious of visitors—notably schoolchildren, tomorrow’s future decision makers.(2)

In 2006, Red Star visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where she sensed “that everything was dead”—until, that is, she came across artifacts of people she knew to be very much alive—those of her own Crow community.(3) Images and objects of Native people are found in natural history museums in part through imperialistic fluke: archaeologists looking for fossils happened upon Native artifacts and brought those findings back to their institutions. The European/ American ethnocentric view of Native people as “primitive” and “vanishing” compelled natural history museum curators to save these artifacts for their permanent collections. Further, throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, “exotic others” performed scenes of daily life in “living exhibitions” at world’s fairs and in museums—Native people, then, were already considered objects for display.(4) By placing herself in a diorama of her own creation, Red Star not only states that her community is alive, but also encourages viewers to recognize that despite whatever scientific veracity might exist, dioramas are artificial environments and artistic creations embedded with notions of imperialism and empire.

For the Tang Teaching Museum’s annual Frances Day celebration, Red Star and her daughter, Beatrice Red Star Fletcher, installed a life-size diorama-style environment in the museum. It was colorful and charming and silly with a hunter’s deer decoy and fake flowers and Astroturf and manufactured mountainscape wallpaper. It approached the ridiculous, but isn’t there a ridiculousness to habitat dioramas of living people? Visitors were encouraged to pose with photo booth props and have their Polaroid picture taken by Red Star Fletcher. With intrigue and laughter, visitors entered the installation and put themselves on display. They felt the effects of a camera’s flash but not the entrapment of glass or bars; when they wanted to be done, they left, bringing their photograph with them, remaining the voyeurs of their own lives.

It was an activity devised to be fun and welcoming. There were no explanations of the project unless one was requested. It was left to the viewer to find the significance in it—if not in the moment, then perhaps later that evening, or perhaps the next time they saw a diorama of a human civilization. Being on display—turning oneself or having one’s image made into an object—is an idea we must constantly interrogate.

Cite this page

McNamara, Rebecca. “Wendy Red Star and Beatrice Red Star Fletcher.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 2 (2018).
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