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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Growing Engagement: Community Gardening at the Museum of the American Indian

Community gardens have seen a resurgence in recent years but the practice has been prevalent in the United States since the 19th century. Motivations for creating gardens have varied over time, including food shortages, unemployment, neighborhood revitalization, and building community cohesiveness. In 1926, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI) had its own reason for creating a community garden: to engage and educate the public about plants cultivated and used by the Native peoples of the Americas.

Ten years after the museums’ founding in 1916, construction began on a Research Annex located in the Bronx, New York, where the MAI collections would be stored and made available for study by students and scholars. A key component of the Research Annex site was a garden of Native American plants accessible to the public. Museum staff planned to use the garden as a demonstration of the variety of plants cultivated by Native people. Planted crops included corn varieties, beans, squash, sunflowers, cotton, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, peanuts, tobacco, and amaranth. The gardens were also planted with wild varieties of some of these plants—such as sunflowers—to illustrate how Native people worked with wild plants to develop the cultivated versions we are familiar with today.

Museum garden, looking east toward the Research Branch of the
Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation, 1926 (NMAI N11184)
Museum of the American Indian ethnobotanist Melvin Gilmore was tasked with designing the garden and acquiring seeds from various Native American groups with whom he worked, including the Sahnish (Arikara), Pawnee, and Omaha in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Nebraska respectively.

A Sahnish (Arikara) woman works near a house and garden; turning ears of corn she has roasted. Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota, 1923 Photo by Melvin Gilmore (NMAI N08749)
Once the garden was designed, the museum welcomed people in the surrounding neighborhood and sought their involvement in the project to create a sense of “protective interest.” Working in partnership with the National Plant, Flower, and Fruit Guild—which was based in New York City—and the Metropolitan New York Board of Education, students from nearby Public School 71 were enlisted to work in the garden. Students were given plots to farm and were responsible for tending the vegetables, which they were allowed to harvest and keep. They also helped care for the Museum’s demonstration plots of crops grown by Native people from throughout the Western Hemisphere. The students worked through their summer vacations and, at the end of the season, they held a harvest festival. Museum staff hoped that by pulling in the students to work in the garden, their parents and ultimately the entire neighborhood would feel a sense of ownership for the Annex gardens.

Leonard Drake, Museum gardener and a student at the State Agricultural College at Farmingdale, New York, holding an Omaha yellow pumpkin in the garden,1926. (NMAI N11174)
The project received considerable attention from the local press and was such a success that other institutions in New York adopted the idea. As word spread, the museum was contacted by organizations around the country for assistance in developing similar programs.

Excerpt from New York World newspaper in a Museum of the American Indian scrapbook
(NMAI Archive Center MAI-Heye Foundation Records Oversize box 27)
The MAI community garden program lasted for only a few years. However, it still serves as an impressive example of how gardens can be used for public education and to help build a sense of community.

Maria Galban, Research Specialist, Collections and Research Documentation 

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