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Talking shop with the MAC's American Indian collection specialist about preservation, social context and narrative

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Tisa Matheson will tell you she's just a "glorified organizer," and she's not really sure why the Inlander wants to interview her.

Her characterization is modest, to say the least, and we soon learn how substantive her job really is at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture.

Matheson, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and originally from Lenore, Idaho, has been at the MAC since 2001 and has been the American Indian collection specialist since 2014. While organizing, storing and maintaining approximately 25,000 different pieces is a huge responsibility, she also serves as a liaison between tribal organizations and the museum to help provide social context for its exhibits.

The responses below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

INLANDER: You do a lot of behind-the-scenes work at the MAC. What part of your job do visitors not see at the museum?

MATHESON: I'm basically in charge of all the Native American Indian collections objects and I assist with a lot of the Native American archival materials, too. And I more or less help strategize in long-term preservation for all the objects. ... It's one of the biggest Plateau collections on this side of the Mississippi.

I would like to say that I have a contribution in changing old museum policies ... to newer inclusive-type policies. There's a stereotype with the museum profession that they are stuffy white guys — scientists, anthropologists — and there's a lot of shifting, especially towards American Indian collections, that we want to be more inclusive in how we preserve, handle and display collections. We'd like to have more input and involvement from the tribes that we're trying to highlight.

Do you think the MAC is helping the effort to include more voices?

It's definitely helping. The MAC already developed this philosophy in the '80s and '90s where they wanted to be more inclusive and share some sort of narrative of developing exhibits with the local tribes. ... For me, building on that, I really felt the issue of changing policy of how we preserve and handle collections and really preserving the traditional background where some of these pieces came from [was important]. There are handling protocols in different tribes.

Can you give me an example of those protocols?

For example, there are certain objects that can only be handled by men, and certain objects that can only be handled by women. We're trying to put a lot more context into the objects. We're taking the anthropology out of it and putting more of a humanities twist on it. These objects actually came from somebody, somebody made them and there's a lot of meaning behind it, whatever it may be, and they were used for certain things and not everybody can handle it — being more interactive with tribal organizations or governments and how they want their story to be told.

I have deep personal connections with all of the neighboring tribes, either through my family or my husband's family, and that helps a lot. I get a better understanding of, hopefully, what they want and how they want their things taken care of. I see [the MAC], and my role, as a steward of the collections, helping these communities be in charge of their narrative.

How important is that?

Very important, because if you don't have that narrative of the community voice, it's just more Indian stuff being displayed. There's no context to it. It's put up as a specimen and not as a family heirloom. ♦