July 31, 2018
This museum display highlights the cultural legacy and presence of indigenous people in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic among others.
Imagine an exhibit that highlights the history and legacy of an oppressed people funded by the oppressor?
This is what happened recently with the Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Museum in New York City. According to a press release posted in the museum’s web site, among some of the corporate sponsors is INICIA, owned by the Vicini family, the wealthy sugar barons of Italian descent from the Dominican Republic:
Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean is a collaboration of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center. This exhibition and related programming are made possible through the support of the Ralph Lauren Corporation and INICIA of the Dominican Republic. Federal support is provided by the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.
For many decades, pro-immigrant and labor groups have accused the Vicini family of engaging in unfair labor practices. According to the public record, the Vicini family extracted part of their immense wealth by exploiting sugar cane workers of Haitian descent and their descendants in the Dominican Republic.
In 2015, for example, several civil rights, labor and progressive organizations from the Dominican Republic released a statement accusing the Vicini family of becoming wealthy at the expense of sugar cane workers of Haitian descent:
A large part of the enormous wealth that [the Vicini] family has today is the result of the barbarous exploitation to which sugar cane workers were subjected for decades in the sugar mills of their property, which were not allowed to organize or legalize their migratory status and residence in the Dominican Republic.
As of this writing, thousands of sugar cane workers continue to fight for their pensions. As ESENDOM reported last year:
For some time now, elderly sugarcane workers have been mobilizing to demand that the Dominican state pay the pensions rightfully earned in the sugar plantations where they labored their entire lives. But the government refuses to abide by labor law, denying sugar workers their labor benefits under the pretext that former sugar cane workers lack legal documents which were never provided by the sugar industry with the complicity of the Dominican state.
What then to make of the Taino exhibit, a well-meaning show that raises important questions about colonial violence and the survival of a colonized people in the Caribbean but also received support from one of the richest families in the Dominican Republic? What kind of ethical questions does this exhibit raise?
When museum organizers, activists and scholars accept sponsorship or financial support from individuals or corporations that exploit others, do they also contribute by default to legitimize xenophobia, racism and other forms of oppression? What happens when scholars in the social sciences form partnerships with the rich and powerful to carry out research and work that highlight the plight of colonized people? What is the responsibility of curators and institutions? Should there be calls for accountability when museums collaborate with oppressive actors?
The Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean exhibit will be on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Museum from July 28, 2018 to October 2019.