By Jim Buchanan
Shana Bushyhead Condill faces a host of challenges as the new executive director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
For starters, the museum is being flooded with visitors as Americans emerge from a year-long COVID cocoon. And while most Americans seem to feel they’re done with COVID, COVID doesn’t seem to be quite done with Americans, thus causing the museum to require masks to help ensure the safety of Cherokee elders on site. Visitors and staff are taking the move in stride.
Other challenges are also unique to our times.
In an age of rapid technological change, museums in general are having to adapt to continue to offer appeal by telling stories that can often be found at the click of a website.
However, those clicks often tell inaccurate stories and spread them far and wide, building on a lot of enduring stories that also don’t accurately reflect Cherokee or Native history.
“Museums need to be able to compete for attention,” said Condill. “I think our challenge is that in this age, access to information and media is everywhere. And sometimes that media is uninformed. That also, however, presents an opportunity because we have more ways than ever to combat that misinformation.”
Condill arrived at her new job with a skill set build to do just that, as well as to tell the story of a people’s culture, having worked in museum and historical fields for more than 20 years. She holds degrees from Illinois Wesleyan and the University of Delaware. She arrived in Cherokee from her most recent posting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
When she heard of the MCI opening she jumped at the opportunity.
“My husband saw the ad in the One Feather for the Executive Director search,” she said, “and it was never a question – we just both knew this was the culmination of everything I had worked towards prior, so I applied and was fortunate enough to be selected.”
The museum was established in 1948, largely built around artifacts collected by Cherokee businessman Samuel E. Beck, who had a keen interest in the preservation of Cherokee heritage. Over the years other collections and thousands of individual contributions were added, and fortunately survived a 1958 building fire that destroyed the structure, as they were being stored off-site. The museum found a home in a building owned by the Cherokee Historical Association until the current museum opened its doors in 1976 and was enlarged and remodeled in 1998. It’s a modern, well-regarded facility, but its mission is not done, says Condill, mainly because the story of the Cherokee isn’t done.
A renewed emphasis will be on sharing the Cherokee story with the Cherokee community.
“We are being intentional about what serving our community looks like. For us, that means listening, and being intentional about seeking out those voices,” Condill said. “Preservation is our mission, but not just for preservation’s sake. The preservation of our history, culture and stories is what makes us who we are today, and leads us into our future whether in business, art or government. Our story isn’t finite – as Cherokee people, we are living. It’s simply a matter of telling the whole story.”
For the broader audience, the job is all about connections, Condill said. “All museums share this goal of connection; it’s what makes us relevant. For our community, it’s our goal to show our connection with each other. For our visitors, it’s highlighting that shared humanity – that thing that allows us to understand each other. Each person is different, but it’s those connections that allow for ‘ah-ha!’ moments.”
Another challenge, Condill, points out, is that many current visitors have no familiarity with the Cherokee story outside of portrayals crafted in dime novels and TV Westerns.
“Where to begin? Watch a western, look at a 19th century American painting, read a book set in the 1800s. But one of the most hurtful is our very existence. There are definitely people who are not aware that Native people are still alive. I would point to the book ‘Not All Indians Live in Tipis.’ I was handed that book as a volunteer at NMAI, and it helped us handle questions that you may or may not even expect. We hear the range.
“I think many of the misconceptions about Native people in general are shared by many of our visitors. It’s our job to help correct those misconceptions, and then move on to telling our story.”
For Condill, it’s all about getting the history right.
“I think it’s our job to allow our visitors to be educated receivers of information,” she said. “I’m hopeful that once a visitor leaves our museum, that when they encounter any media about the Cherokee or any Native group, they are able to consider what they learned here and apply it to that situation. To me, that’s not political. We’re not here to tell you what to think; we’re here to give you more information for you to form your beliefs.”
ON THE WEB: mci.org
ADDRESS: 589 Tsali Boulevard
Cherokee NC 28719