Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, Smithsonian Institution Advance Tribal History

The forthcoming museum in downtown Palm Springs will further a longtime partnership and encourage cultural exchange.

Shana Dambrot Attractions, History

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum will provide a world-class, state-of-the-art platform for the Tribe to share its history, culture, and heritage with the world.

When the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza opens this year, visitors will enjoy a vibrant, open-air gathering place; the luxurious Spa at Séc-he, fed by the Tribe’s ancient Hot Mineral Spring; and captivating exhibits at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, where the history and culture of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians will come to life in dynamic, multimedia fashion and, at the same time, will continue its longstanding partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The NMAI cares for the world’s most expansive collection of Native artifacts, including objects, photographs, archives, and media covering the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. The NMAI’s off-site outreach efforts, often referred to as the “fourth museum,” include websites, community programs, and traveling exhibitions with institutions like the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

In its various iterations over the past 30 years, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum has collaborated with the NMAI to organize an annual Native American film festival and mount the Tribe’s exhibition Section 14: The Other Palm Springs, California in the nation’s capital. The landmark exhibition shed light on a land battle at the core of the conflict between Euro-American expansion and Indigenous people, spotlighting issues of tribal sovereignty, land zoning, leasing, economics, and ethnicity. The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum was the nation’s first tribal museum to become a member of the Smithsonian Affiliates and enjoys access to resources, traveling exhibitions, and reciprocal membership programs.

Just as the Plaza’s meandering Oasis Trail re-creates some of the geological and botanical characteristics of the Indian Canyons while also embracing modernity, the museum’s exhibition space will present a scene-setting historical foundation in its permanent exhibition gallery and robust contemporary programming in its rotating exhibition gallery, according to Executive Director Steven Karr, of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. 

The Tribe entrusted the development of the museum to Karr, whose career includes tenures at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian/Autry Museum of the American West, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and the Briscoe Western Art Museum, where he oversaw construction of a new museum in San Antonio, Texas. 

When he came to Agua Caliente, Karr says Tribal Council was “eager to build a museum that spoke to the Tribe’s history and culture” and described the Smithsonian affiliation as “an institutional “stamp of approval” that opens doors.

Gourd rattles and traditional basketry will be on display with a variety of other artifacts and objects at the cultural museum.

In addition to artifacts and objects on display in the nearly 10,000-square-foot permanent gallery, the museum’s exhibitions and programs will feature art and artifacts from other Native American cultures in a smaller, 2,200-square-foot gallery dedicated to temporary exhibitions. 

The Smithsonian partnership allows the Tribe to celebrate these other Native cultures through loans, exchanges, and traveling exhibitions. “The Tribe takes seriously the fact that they are able to take such steps forward, not only for the Agua Caliente Tribal community, but for other tribal communities in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, even down into South America, the whole of the Western hemisphere,” Karr says. 

Behind the scenes, the museum has installed the most advanced systems for climate control, storage, and conservation for all objects and artifacts in its care.

The museum’s doors will open to unprecedented interest in Native American history, art, and culture, and Karr and his team are ready. When he came onboard, he asked then-Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe, “Who is the primary audience?” “Without missing a beat,” Karr recalls, “Chairman Grubbe said, ‘The primary audience is the Tribe itself.’” 

The Tribal Council then crafted language that would become the museum’s credo: “A teaching tool for tribal youth, a resource for tribal adults, and a lasting legacy for tribal elders.”