The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian honors its Evanstonian founder with a new exhibit
Nearly 100 years ago, a young John Mitchell received his first piece of American Indian art, a Navajo blanket, as a present for his 13th birthday from his uncle.
So began the lifelong fascination of a North Shore insurance and real-estate man, whose collection continued to grow until, in 1977, it became the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, a treasure trove housed in a nondescript building in Evanston. A new exhibit there showcases Mitchell’s personal vision and omnivorous dedication, as much as it highlights the millennia-spanning collection of Native American crafts and artwork that makes the museum a nationally recognized repository of Indian artifacts.
Titled “The Legacy of John Mitchell,” the exhibit also touches on the relationship between the museum and the community in which it resides. “He started by showing [the collection] to Boy Scout troops at his Evanston home,” says museum director and curator Janice Klein. Despite having the dedication and keen curatorial judgment necessary to personally amass a world-class collection of American Indian beadwork, clothing, blankets, pottery and other artifacts over the course of 70-plus years, Mitchell’s aims were decidedly unpretentious. “His [motivation] was just that people didn’t know enough about Native Americans and their art.”
Mitchell’s wide-ranging focus continues to color the museum’s acquisitions. The Mitchell’s artifacts come exclusively from North American Indian tribes; within that parameter, pretty much anything goes. “His interest was encyclopedic, so ours is, too,” Klein says. “He collected some weird stuff, but so does everybody, and some of that is incredibly interesting, too.” Examples of unusual items include a rare, handmade Navajo men’s shirt from the 19th century and a contemporary purse that combines modern glass beads and old-fashioned weaving techniques.
The collection has grown to 10,000 pieces, from tools created in the Paleolithic era 2 million years ago to moccasins and beadwork fashioned during the present day. But “Legacy” primarily spotlights the 3,000 pieces in the collection circa 1977, when Mitchell and his wife, Betty, decided to begin displaying it publicly.
To hear Klein tell it, the old axiom claiming that behind every great man is a great woman was written with Betty in mind. While the exhibit details John Mitchell’s relationship to his collection and the city of Evanston, it also tells us a lot about his marriage to his second wife.
“When they got married in the 1950s, John said to Betty, ‘I have this interest that I would like you to become a part of,’?” Klein says. “And Betty, an intelligent woman in her own right who had varied interests of her own, said, ‘Of course, if it’s something you love, I want it to be something I enjoy as well, but I don’t know a thing about Native American history and art.”
Mitchell suggested Betty start with pottery and weaving and, by focusing on women’s tribal roles, begin to develop knowledge of a particular group. The couple spent the next 30-odd years together, traveling and collecting, until Mitchell’s death in 1985.
Betty remains involved with the museum’s direction, offering critiques during periodic visits from her home in Arizona, where she now lives. “She comes in and lets us know, definitely, what she likes about the exhibits, what she wants to see more of,” Klein says. “Many of these pieces she acquired with John years ago on a visit to some far-flung reservation.”
So in a way, “Legacy” is also a document of the Mitchells’ marriage, as much as it is a catalog of the culture they felt compelled to share with their community, one Navajo blanket at a time.
“Some of it is beautiful, some of it is odd-looking, but it’s all important because it tells the stories of people’s lives—not only the lives of those who made it, but also the lives of those who collected it,” Klein says.
John Mitchell’s “Legacy” continues through July 30.