A Guide to the Highlight Tour

by Dewayne Matthews

These notes reflect my own ideas and understanding and not those of the Heard Museum or Guild. Please let me know immediately of any errors or misconceptions you see, plus any corrections, suggestions, additional information, or insights you can share. 

Next to tours of the Home exhibit, the Highlight Tour is the tour most frequently offered by Las Guias and for some guests is their main experience of the museum. For many guides, the Highlights Tour is the most rewarding and fun tour to give at the Heard. But what is a Highlights Tour, and how can Guias offer guests the best possible experience?

A Highlight Tour:

  1. Is a brief (relatively speaking) introduction to all the exhibits currently showing at the Heard (with the possible exception of Home).
  2. Is a maximum of 45 minutes long. Unlike Home Tours that often exceed 45 minutes, this really ought to be the maximum for Highlight Tours to allow guests time to go back and experience exhibits on their own.
  3. Includes an overview of Away From Home and Substance of Stars to prepare guests to experience those exhibits on their own.
  4. Assures that guests see easily overlooked exhibits like the sculpture garden and In the Service Of.
  5. Includes the history of the Heard museum and its founders (the courtyard is the ideal place for this).

The objective of a Highlights Tour is to encourage guests to explore the museum more deeply and, especially, to come back.

Organizing the Highlights Tour

Given the fact that guides must cover up to ten exhibits spread throughout the museum in 45 minutes, it is essential to be well-organized!

  • Define the route. Obviously, you need to know the route you will follow through the exhibits. There are many possible routes that guides can choose, but there are two factors in particular that should be considered in choosing a route. The first is that backtracking should be kept to a minimum. The second is to decide where you want to finish, because guests will often stay in that area after the tour ends. One possible route that works well is as follows:
    • Kitchell Gallery (The North Star Changes). Welcome guests by the information desk, briefly describe the tour, and present an overview of the exhibit (currently The North Star Changes).
    • The Fence (optional). Some guides present the Art Fence as an introduction to Home while passing through this area. If time permits, it’s a great idea because most guests on a Highlights Tour will not have taken the Home
    • Sculpture Garden and Jacobsen Gallery (Substance of Stars). While some guests are seated on the bench, present both exhibits and encourage them to continue their visit by entering them.
    • Courtyard. An excellent place to present the story of Dwight and Maie Heard and the museum. Access to the elevator is very convenient. Warn guests to watch their step.
    • Dickey Gallery (Away From Home). Present an overview at the entrance to the exhibit. The benches are perfectly placed, but be mindful of the heat and don’t stay long.
    • Pulliam Crosswalk (In The Service Of). If the group is around 12 people or less, it is possible to present the exhibit while guests look at the items. Otherwise, let people know what the exhibit is about before entering and let them see it as they walk through.
    • Berlin Mezzanine (Indeterminate Beauty). The personal history of T.C. Cannon offers a poignant and powerful connection to In the Service Of. Continue downstairs and direct guests to the elevator at the end of the hall if needed. Give them directions to find the next stop (Ohl Gallery) but keep an eye out for them or ask the person at the information desk to direct them.
    • Ohl Gallery (Arriving Forever). Wait for anyone using the elevator before presenting the exhibit.
    • Crossroads Gallery. Continue with The North Star Changes.
    • Sandra Day O’Conner Gallery (Grand Procession). Enter the right hand doors and walk through in the direction of the Grand Gallery.
    • Grand Gallery (Special Exhibits). Provide an overview of the exhibit at the entrance to the gallery and if time permits, present one or more of the works in the main room. Given time constraints, do not go downstairs, but offer a teaser so guests will linger to explore on their own.
  • Select items and the story they tell. Being sure of what you will show and say is perhaps even more important in Highlights Tours than the Home Tour because of the short time available for each exhibit. In many galleries, you will only have time to show one or two items.
  • Be flexible. If guests ask questions showing a particular interest in one of the exhibits, by all means feel free to go into more depth. However, understand that you will need to adjust later on in the tour to keep on schedule.
  • Suggested Talking Points for Highlights Tours

To prompt your own thinking about what to say and present on a Highlights Tour, here are some ideas:

The North Star Changes. Brenda Mallory is a member of the Cherokee Nation, one of three federally recognized Cherokee groups in the US. The name of the exhibit, and the piece at its entrance, refers to the fact that even the North Star—the symbol of permanence and absolutes—changes over time. Today, the North Star is Polaris, but it shifts over time through different stars over a 26,000-year cycle. Mallory’s work explores this idea that nothing is permanent and everything changes. Much of her work is made from reclaimed and repurposed materials which she takes apart and puts back together in a different form. This also reflects that she grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma where the focus was on “making do” – using whatever was available to make or fix things as needed.

The name of the exhibit is also written in Cherokee using the Cherokee syllabary, which was developed by Sequoyah in the early 1820s. Each of the 85 characters in written Cherokee represents a syllable.

The installation in the Crossroads Gallery called Recurring Chapters in the Book of Inevitable Outcomes directly addresses Cherokee history. Mallory says the black columns, which look like metal but are actually made of wax soaked cloth, represent houses and forests burned during the forced removal in 1838-39 of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in what is now the southeastern United States (the Trail of Tears). But in keeping with Mallory’s theme of regeneration even in the face of destruction, seeds have been released which spread and start unexpected new life in new places (including the top of the stairs!).

[Note: The North Star Changes closes on February 5, 2024.]

Sculpture Garden. While easily overlooked, the Heard has an outstanding sculpture collection; both in the outer courtyards of the Museum and in the Sculpture Garden. The Sculpture Garden has a particularly noteworthy collection of works by Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser. Houser’s father was a first cousin of Geronimo and was imprisoned with him in Florida and Alabama before the Chiricahua were moved to Oklahoma. In 1914, Alan Houser was the first Chiricahua child born after they were finally released from captivity. Houser studied painting at the Santa Fe Indian School (two of his paintings are on display in Home), but gravitated to sculpture, where he became one of the most important artists of the 20th Several of his pieces are visible from the bench, including Gift of the Earth. It’s also worth mentioning two pieces by his son Bob Haozous—Woman in Love and 4 Buffalo Standing Sideways.

Substance of Stars. Through the doors is an exhibit that focuses on the relationship Native peoples have with the earth and the sky as told from the perspective of four groups: the Haudenosaunee (from New York and Ontario and formerly known as the Iroquois Confederacy), the Yupik (Arctic people from the Bering Sea in western Alaska), and two groups from the Southwest: the Dine or Navajo and the Akimel O’Otham. Just inside, guests will see a spectacular composite photograph of Shiprock in New Mexico, taken by Dine artist Steven Yazzie, and an equally spectacular Navajo weaving of Shiprock from the 1920s. To the right is the Sky Dome with four short films by filmmakers from each of the groups which show through images and sounds and without narration what their homelands are like. As the curator, Sean Moody, said about the exhibit, its purpose is to remind us of the simple pleasure of experiencing the earth and sky. Guests should be urged to see the exhibits upstairs in Substance of Stars, which include a remarkable collection of older and more recent work on the theme of people’s relationship to the earth and sky, as well as the natural world more broadly.

History of the Heard Museum (presented in the Courtyard). Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard moved to Phoenix from Chicago in 1895 because of Dwight’s health. He was a large landowner and publisher of the Arizona Republic newspaper, and Dwight and Maie became avid collectors of Native art from the Southwest. As is sometimes the case with collectors, they ran out of room in their house, which was located where the pink, high-rise apartment building now stands that can be seen from the balcony. Dwight Heard died a few months before the museum opened on the day after Christmas in 1929, so it was Maie who shepherded it through its first twenty years. It is said that guests could ring a bell by the entrance off Monte Vista Street and Maie would come and guide them through the museum. An independent, not-for-profit institution, The Heard Museum grew considerably in size and stature over the years.

Away From Home. The history of American Indian boarding schools is shameful and tragic, but it one that we all must understand and come to terms with. As the Indian Wars of the Great Plains were winding down, the federal government established a system of hundreds of boarding schools, beginning with one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879. The rationale for the schools was to support assimilation, which became official policy after it became clear that American Indians could not simply be exterminated or driven further west. Assimilation was based on the belief that the “Indian Problem” would go away if American Indians lost their identity and were assimilated into the mass of the American population. The way to accomplish this was to take children away from their families and communities, isolate them, and forbid them to speak their language or learn their culture. In effect, the U.S. declared war on native children. Assimilation remained official federal policy well into the 1960s, and it was not until the 1970s—one hundred years after Carlisle opened—that tribal communities were able to assume control of Indian education. The video screen that can be seen through the doors to Away From Home reminds us that the true victims of this century of oppressive policy were hundreds of thousands of children, each of whom experienced boarding schools in their own way.

In The Service Of. After just seeing the reality of boarding schools, it is perhaps surprising to guests to learn that American Indians have the highest rate of participation in the Armed Services of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. American Indian veterans say they serve to defend their home, community, and family. The Heard has a long tradition of honoring American Indian service members and veterans, which this exhibit continues. The Navajo Code Talkers weaving by Helen Begay and the biography of Lori Ann Piestewa are particularly meaningful to guests. All the items on display either honor service or were made by well-known American Indian artists who are veterans, like Doug Hyde and Rick Bartow. The painting by T. C. Cannon is based on a photograph of the Lakota chief Spotted Elk, a man of peace, who was killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre along with almost 300 of his brethren.

Indeterminate Beauty. The story of T.C. Cannon is undeniably compelling, especially when presented immediately after In The Service Of. He was a Kiowa/Caddo artist born in rural Oklahoma whose artistic talent was recognized as a child. Upon graduation from high school in 1964, he enrolled in the then-new Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. With teachers like Fritz Scholder and fellow students including Doug Hyde, Earl Biss, and Kevin Red Star, IAIA in the 1960s was reinventing and redefining Native art. After graduating from IAIA—then a two-year college—Cannon enlisted in the US Army and served in Vietnam, earning two Bronze Stars. He lived and worked in Santa Fe until dying in an automobile accident in 1978 at the age of 31. At the time of his death, he was on the verge of major breakthrough with a one-person show at a gallery in New York.

Cannon explored themes of oppression, displacement, and Native identity, but his painting style was obviously influenced by painters like Van Gogh and Matisse. This is shown very clearly by two pieces on display: Collector #5, a figure derived from a 1858 photo of Chief Petalesharo of the Skidi Pawnee Nation sitting in a wicker chair placed on a Navajo textile with a Van Gogh painting over his shoulder; and Two Guns Arikara (Arikara is a tribe from North Dakota), in which the subject is wearing a combination of traditional regalia and a cavalry uniform in an ornate Victorian-style sitting room while holding two pistols casually across his lap. These pieces are woodblock prints made by Cannon in collaboration with two master Japanese printmakers. The colors and metallic inks make the prints extraordinarily vibrant.

[Note: Indeterminate Beauty closes on April 22, 2024.]

Arriving Forever into the Present World. Western art is usually understood in terms of linear, chronological time, so it is understood and presented in museums as a progression through distinct periods. The art of the past becomes “traditional” in contrast to the “contemporary.” Focusing on three art forms of the Southwest—weaving, pottery, and basketry—the exhibit shows how concepts of circular time—like the cycle of seasons and the stars—is perhaps a better way to understand and appreciate Native art.

This point is made noticeably clear by the Diné weavings on display in the exhibit. A “contemporary” piece by D.Y. Begay is strikingly abstract, yet made from locally-sourced wool and natural dyes in the traditional way. The oldest piece on the exhibit (and one of the oldest Dine weavings in existence) is a First Phase Chief’s blanket from the mid-1800s, but it is as strikingly contemporary as the newer piece. There is nothing about a Germantown weaving from c. 1890 that suggests it is “traditional.” More recent weavings clearly reflect and expand upon the techniques and designs of the older pieces, keeping them relevant and contemporary.

Two pictorial baskets are displayed side-by-side, creating an artistic dialogue through circular time. A 2015 basket by Tohono O’odham artist Annie Antone depicts couples dancing to chicken scratch music. Next to it, an older Akimel O’Otham basket depicts figures that appear to be farm workers. Both show people involved in day-to-day activities, and the newer basket lends new insights that help in appreciating the older one.

[Note: Arriving Forever closes on March 3, 2024.]

Grand Procession. These dolls or soft sculptures were created by five women who are all members of Great Plains tribes: Jamie Okuma, Rhonda Holy Bear, and Joyce, Juanita, and Jessa Rae Growing Thunder. All are multiple award winners at shows like the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Indian Fair and Market, and it’s easy to see why. The piece by Rhonda Holy Bear called Maternal Journey is particularly striking. Notice the child in a cradle board strapped to the horse and the beauty Holy Bear conveys in the faces.

Early Days. Early Days is an overview of art by Indigenous artists from (as Canadians say) sea to sea to sea. The exhibit includes pieces produced as early as the 18th century, work by key figures in the history of Canadian and indigenous art, and contemporary works by emerging artists. The works are from the permanent collection of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection located just north of Toronto.

At the entrance is Headdress—Shadae by Dana Claxton, which shows a woman completely obscured by a spectacular array of beads and other cultural items. The McMichael curator Bonnie Devine said that Claxton told her she was inspired to produce the piece (one of five similar works) by the experience of wearing a necklace to a public event. A non-indigenous woman came up to her and gushed about how beautiful the necklace was and then without asking reached in to pick it up and look at it. Claxton said the experience made her wonder if the woman even recognized her as a person or whether she thought she was just another interesting artifact. The photo shows the beautiful items collected by this woman named Shadae, but since her face is obscured one can’t help but wonder who she is. In an interesting sidenote, Claxton’s family are Lakota descendants of Sitting Bull’s followers who evaded the US Army and escaped into Canada in 1876 after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

If time permits, show guests another piece in the exhibit before inviting them to explore it on their own. My personal favorite is by Nadia Myre and just behind the entrance. On a trip to London, Myre went “mudlarking” on the Thames and found a large number of clay pipe stems that had been tossed overboard by sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries. She realized that many of those sailors voyaged to North America, and further that the pipes were used to smoke tobacco, a New World product. Myer made clay beads like the pipe stems to create a sculpture in the form of a wampum belt, which were often made to record agreements between indigenous groups or between indigenous peoples and Europeans. As a result, this piece explores the intersection between European and indigenous North American worlds, which is likely of particular relevance to Myre since she herself is of indigenous and European ancestry. Bonnie Devine commented that many of the pieces in Early Days are autobiographical in nature, and the artists—perhaps like all artists—are using their art to explore who they are, where they come from, and what is important to them.

[Note: Early Days closes on January 2, 2024 and will be followed by the exhibit Maria and Modernism, which opens on February 23, 2024.]