An Indigenous woman was told to remove her traditional woven baby carrier while visiting an exhibition of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon on Saturday. The museum has since issued a public apology, has reached out to the family, and is revising its visitor policies.
The Karuk mother, who was visiting the major traveling retrospective for Oscar Howe, was asked by a visitors services employee to remove her baby carrier, as it violated the museum’s policy against backpack wearing. She left the exhibition after refusing to remove the carrier and posted about the incident on Facebook, according to the Oregonian, which first reported the news.
In the Facebook post, the woman, whom the Oregonian did not identify, shared a photo of herself and her baby in the carrier smiling while visiting the show. The caption, however, painted a different story, reading, “The Portland Art Museum – where being Indigenous is cool as long (as) you are part of the exhibit and not actually practicing your culture.”
She added, “The irony: we were at an Indigenous art exhibit. Racism is alive and well in these walls.”
On Monday, the Portland Art Museum posted a public apology on its Instagram and Twitter accounts, calling the event “an unfortunate incident in our galleries.” The statement reads, in part, “We deeply apologize for causing harm in this interaction. We are devastated the the family had a negative experience at the museum, especially in an exhibition celebrating Native American art. We want everyone to feel welcome here. This incident does not reflect our values as a museum, and we deeply regret that it happened.”
In an interview with the Oregonian, Kathleen Ash-Milby, the museum’s curator of Native American art who organized the Howe exhibition, said, “The relationship between Native people and museums has not always been an easy one. We are really working hard to build our relationships with our local Native constituents and I think this makes us all really sad that it happened and it could be setting us back in those relationships.”
The institution is currently reviewing its policies on baby carriers to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future.
Backpack bans are common in most art museums, as they can accidentally bump into and damage works on view, as well as be used to conceal weapons or other items that could be used to destroy artworks, like mashed potatoes, soup, or glue, as they have been in recent climate protests. Typically, visitors wearing backpacks in galleries are asked to carry them over their stomachs.