This semester I’m lucky enough to be accompanying 22 amazing Oberlin students on the Oberlin-in-London study away program. Students in my Collecting Colonialism class are busy visiting the city’s extraordinary array of museums, new and old, from fine art to ethnographic, in their quest to learn more about the history of museums and the things they contain. Some of the themes we’re thinking about along the way include race and the politics of how museum collections are displayed; art historical vs. anthropological ways of contextualizing museum objects; repatriation; and community-based curation.
Stay tuned here as students blog about their experiences!
On the morning of May 22, 2017 Rosemary Ahtuangaruak received an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Oberlin College for her extraordinary work as an Iñupiaq environmental, cultural, and political leader and human rights activist. Later that afternoon, Oberlin gained something very special in return: expert knowledge from Rosemary about a series of century-old cultural objects made by indigenous peoples of the Arctic and now housed in our Anthropology Department.
Rosemary is from the northern Alaskan village of Nuiqsut, where she has served as mayor, and she has spent her life advocating for the health of Arctic peoples and their lands. Her congressional testimony to oppose oil and gas development in culturally and biologically significant places in Arctic Alaska contributed to President Obama’s decision to ban oil drilling in large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. I was thrilled when, after the graduation ceremony, my colleague, Arctic cultural geographer Chie Sakakibara, brought Rosemary and her family members Lucy Brown and Mae Masuleak over to the Anthropology Department for a quick tour of the Arctic ethnology collection. This collection, a set of about 36 objects that Oberlin obtained in 1889 through an exchange with the Smithsonian1, is one with which Oberlin student Cori Mazer OC ’17 and others had been working over the past several months. Unbeknownst to me, Cori had also been a student of Chie’s, and Chie had invited her too to the gathering. Minutes later Cori arrived, still wearing her graduation robe, and accompanied by her delighted parents.
What was planned as a brief tour emerged, over the course of several hours, as a richly informed consultation, as Rosemary, with input from her Iñupiaq companions, shared detailed knowledge of traditional materials, techniques, uses, and meanings of nearly two dozen ancestral objects from communities across Alaska and Canada.
Before we get to the incredible consultation with Rosemary and her family, let’s take a step back. What, readers might ask, is an Arctic ethnology collection doing at an Ohio liberal arts college? Anthropologist Jane Walsh has shown how, in the nineteenth century, museums like the Smithsonian (then called the United States National Museum) regularly used their specimens as a form of currency, negotiating trades with other institutions in order to build and diversify their own holdings.2 In this Victorian-era economy of scientific collecting, transactions could span multiple continents. Portions of the extensive arctic ethnological materials gathered by famed Smithsonian naturalist Edward Nelson, for example, were disseminated to the Paris Trocadéro Museum, to recipients (possibly private collectors) in New Zealand and Australia, and, closer to home, to U.S. colleges and universities including the Harvard Peabody Museum, Wesleyan University, and Oberlin College.3 Over a dozen objects from the Nelson collection were housed in what was then called the Oberlin College Museum,4 a natural history museum which faded from use in the 1950s (not to be confused with today’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, established in 1917).
Since that time, the objects from Oberlin’s old natural history museum have been housed in departments across campus. They are now being brought together in one digital repository. This is good news for the Arctic collection, and for those who take an interest in it. This means students and faculty, but it also means individuals like Rosemary, members of indigenous communities who are interested in what collected objects can reveal about the lifeways of their ancestors. With ancestral objects scattered across daunting geographic and cultural distances, collection consulting visits like Rosemary’s are becoming increasingly common, as indigenous community representatives and museum personnel seek opportunities to exchange knowledge. The stories and information indigenous consultants provide helps museum professionals store, conserve, and handle collections in ways that are better attuned to the values and traditions of their source communities. A lively literature has emerged on how museums might trade traditional didactic exhibiting approaches with more inclusive and culturally attuned public engagement practices.5
For Native community members like Rosemary, museum consulting visits provide opportunities to view the types of garments, tools, and ceremonial objects they may not have seen since their youth, or have only heard about from their own elders. This is in part what made our commencement day consultation so memorable for everyone involved. Wassilie Berlin, a member of a group of Yup’ik elders viewing ancestral collections at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin in 1996 put it this way: “I’m thankful for the objects we have looked at which we don’t see at home anymore…While the white people push for assimilation, they apparently would also make it possible for us to see cultural objects in gatherings like these.”7
The chance to study, discuss, and re-connect with material culture from an earlier time can also lead to knowledge repatriation when the information and excitement is brought back and shared with the wider community. The “primary concern” of delegations like the Yup’ik elders in Berlin is not, Ann Fienup-Riordan explains, “to reclaim museum objects but to re-own the knowledge and experiences that the objects embodied.”8And so it was with Rosemary and her family members, who brought an infectious sense of wonder and excitement to their consultation of the items in the Oberlin Arctic collection.
Our session was educational, humbling, and sometimes emotional, such as when we encountered special objects like a shaman’s rattle whose residual power warranted a moment of prayer to clear the air.
I will not report here on every object we examined. Instead I want to convey some of the atmosphere and content of our consultation. This includes Rosemary’s commentary, expressed in either direct quotation or summary form below, and Q & A as we sat together over the objects. Interspersed are observations about the encounter and thoughts on its larger contexts from my own perspective as an anthropological archaeologist at a liberal arts college. Heath Patten’s photos and descriptive information compiled by Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely (both OC ’17) provide further details about the objects that others may find useful.
Quyanaqpak to Rosemary, Lucy, and Mae for helping commence a new chapter in the lives of these special objects.
There are four gorgeously stitched membrane bags in Oberlin’s Arctic collection, and I admit to a particular affinity for them. I’m not sure why. My paternal grandmother was a seamstress, albeit of cotton garments in a New York City sweatshop, rather than of animal tissues by the Bering Sea. Perhaps it’s my general fascination with organic technologies: materials made by nature and transformed by human ingenuity—antler into spear points, bark into cloth, or woven grass into baskets. For whatever reasons, these bags speak to me. They are semi-translucent, expressive, and visibly complex. They are also brittle, creased, and in desperate need of conservation. So for both of these reasons the first object we pulled for investigation was a drawstring pouch from the Aleutian Islands, and I was pretty sure it was made from seal gut.
“Heart sac!” Rosemary immediately observed.
Heart sack? I was confused. I knew it was a pouch or sack, but what was the heart part?
Heart sac—from around an animal’s heart, Rosemary explained. Pericardial tissue. Not seal gut, heart sac.
Instantly, the full import of this impromptu consultation came home to me. This gathering promised to be Rosemary’s gift, a labor of love to help educate others about her Arctic ancestors’ ways of life. The other non-Alaskans in the room felt the electricity too. We quickly launched into documentary mode, taking a series of notes, photos, and voice recordings.
The bag is large but close inspection shows it was made from at least three pieces sewn together, which suggests the tissue is from a land rather than marine mammal. This type of material is easily torn during hunting and removal from the animal. This fact, and the quality of the stitching, including a special technique used on the inside, demonstrate this is a very special bag, made for a community leader. It could have been used to collect plants or berries, or to hold personal items, dried meat, or spiritual items.
AVM: Would all seamstresses have been women?
RA: It was probably made by a woman, but shamans could also sew; they sewed all of their spiritual regalia, and the sewing itself was considered a spiritual act.
“You would try to think about it [obtaining a heart sac] but when you go out hunting you don’t go out thinking about how to kill the animal, it’s against tradition to be bold or braggart, taboo to name the kind of animal you want to hunt in advance, it can produce badness around the hunt. You must keep good thoughts, be responsible, not argumentative, take care of your equipment, be respectful of your community – all these were expected of the hunter.” – Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017
Materials: mammalian heart sac, eider feathers, braided caribou sinew strings, non-Native cotton flour sack, possible non-Native thread used around the cotton cloth.
This was my first such consultation, but object-rooted knowledge exchanges like this one are playing a role in a vibrant set of indigenous cultural revitalization movements taking place across arctic North America. The Alutiiq Museum is a tribal museum at the forefront of local heritage renewal efforts through their Alutiiq language, community archaeology, and arts programs. I’ve been fortunate to follow these developments since the museum welcomed me as a dissertation researcher over a decade ago, and I am constantly amazed at the depth and reach of their public programming. The museum is a rich repository of ethnological and archaeological collections from the Kodiak Archipelago.
Perhaps my favorite example of recovering knowledge through object study involves five Alutiiq women who recently travelled to Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki to view Alutiiq garments in the museum’s early 19th century Etholin collection. They returned to Kodiak with new insights into traditional Alutiiq skin sewing techniques which they shared with students in a number of rural high schools. Together, adults and youths completed an elaborate caribou skin parka, which is now on view at the Alutiiq Museum. The lengthy materials list reveals a blending of new and traditional, and includes sea otter skin, ermine, and goat hair, as well as artificial sinew, acrylic paint, and embroidery floss. In the past, the parka would also have been embellished with the beaks of puffins, which are now a protected species. How did the team manage to recreate the beaks?
They 3D printed them.
“This skin preparing knife was made by a very gifted flintknapper. You can tell because the blade is very thin, and the edge was sharped with one, expertly-placed blow. The knife was made for a skilled skin sewer who clearly cared about taking good care of her skins.” -Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017
AVM: So the flintknapper would have been different from the user?
RA: A few people might do both knapping and skin work, but normally tool-making was a man’s job in the Arctic. Exceptions would be two spirits, who embodied both female and male elements. They may have been occasionally made fun of in their home communities but also recognized for their special spiritual powers. Another exception would be a person who needed to learn both skills out of necessity, like a woman without close male kin.
AVM: What would happen if the blade broke? Could you make another and place it in the same handle?
RA: No, probably not. This blade is especially thin and would be hard to replicate. You’d probably need to make a whole new setting.
Materials: wood, stone
This brings us to another dimension of ancestral object conservation, a dimension reflected in Rosemary’s work as an Iñupiaq environmental leader. It is no coincidence that efforts to sustain and nurture traditional cultural practices are taking place across a bellwether region of global climate change. Sea ice is warming at an alarming rate along the Alaska North Slope, and there is increased unpredictability in the availability of resources that the area’s Iñupiat residents rely on for nutritional and cultural sustenance, like the bowhead whale.9Alpine ice patches in the North American interior are swiftly melting, revealing fragments of prehistoric tools and weapons that were once locked in permafrost. In a terrible irony, these valuable records of past peoples and their environments are only emerging for study now due to the forces responsible for their imminent destruction.
In coastal Southwestern Alaska archaeologists and local Yup’ik residents are collaborating in a race against time to recover information at Nunalleq (“Old Village”), a water-logged site that contains perhaps the richest record of prehistoric Yup’ik materials ever found. Evidence of warfare at the 700 year-old site corroborates Yup’ik oral accounts of the famed Bow and Arrow Wars, a period of strife that may have been spurred by climatic changes associated with the Little Ice Age. As the researchers work, receding permafrost and coastal erosion are actively washing the site into the Bering Sea.
AVM: Would this have been made for a little girl to use?
RA: Yes, it could have been a child’s toy but it could also have been a shaman’s tool.
“If they [the shaman] were trying to go against somebody, they would have made something that looks like that person, with the same type of material they wear in their clothing, to give them the power against that person. They would even collect something from that person: like fingernails, hair, even a drop of blood, to add to the shaman-type doll, because it has to have a part of the body from when you’re using the shaman’s tools…[whisper] This is really neat…” -Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017
Materials: wood face, cotton cloth and thread, seal skin and ground squirrel skin parka, feet are probably scraps of caribou fur from around the foot region of the caribou’s body, wolf fur trim at hemline and cuffs is, fur around face may be beaver; head scarf and thread are man-made (non-Native) materials.
The Arctic collection at Oberlin itself houses encapsulates a remarkable depth of ecological knowledge. To cite just one example, our visitors explained how an artisan could use the inner, summertime bark of a willow to create a red dye like that found on Ingalik (Deg Hit’an) servingware. A storage pouch from the Yukon River was crafted from salmon skin, caribou leather, sinew and dye; each material had to be gathered and prepared in specific ways before the bag could be assembled. The bowl and ladle that William Dall collected both feature a distinctive beveled edge that suggests the two pieces were carved by thevery same hand. In contrast, an Iñupiaq arrow is tipped with baleen (the filtering material from a whale’s mouth) tied in a style that was likely shared by an entire community.
The consultation brought home the simultaneous utilitarian, social and spiritual functions these objects once played. In graduate school my professors offered a tripartite scheme to illustrate the different ways an object might “work.” A candle, for example, might have a “techno-function” (to light a room), a “socio-function” (to light a birthday cake), or an “ideo-function” (to light to alter).10 The scheme was never intended as an either/or framework but practically speaking, it is easier for archaeologists, who are often vastly separated in time, space, and traditions from the people they study, to focus their inquiry on reconstructing an object’s practical functioning. It’s humbling to contrast the consequent interpretations with the multi-layered meanings of even seemingly everyday objects when they are presented in context.
Object MCK.C1.ad.0098 for example, is a small container probably used for collecting berries. It has a sinew handle, a sturdy cedar body that has been steamed and bent into shape, and a bit of red staining in its bottom creases, perhaps from escaped berry juices. According to Rosemary, steaming the wood properly was a repetitive and time consuming task: the techniques were difficult to teach and learn, and many uncertainties in the process meant things could still go wrong. So, as with pottery-making and metal-working in many non-industrial societies, steaming cedar effectively called for prayer and song – in addition to technical knowledge and hand skills.
The picture that emerged that afternoon was of a series of cultural treasures. We marveled at the thinness of a carved bone spoon and the perfect stitches a Yup’ik seamstress used to craft a durable storage bag. Rosemary feels several of the pieces were made for someone very special like a whaling captain or shaman, based on their style, the materials used, or the special care with which they were made.
Rosemary’s insights also complicate our understanding of the “everyday” because even common items like a berry container or skin-preparing knife embody both utilitarian and spiritual notions of usefulness that are impossible to dissociate in their indigenous context. Yet their very existence at Oberlin as the subject of consultation is somewhat ironic given that most of these objects, even if beautifully crafted, probably weren’t made to last beyond one person’s lifetime.
Victorian scholars, permeated by a milieu of scientific racism and Western agriculture-based notions of land use and property, tended to view members of hunter-gatherer societies as simple and careless with respect to material possessions;11 they failed to understand how a highly mobile, subsistence lifestyle is incompatible with the vast accumulations of stuff to which 19th century natural history cabinets were the ultimate ideological testimony.
“… preserving, conserving, or even passing material things on from one generation to the next was not part of our culture; our heirlooms are our traditional Inuit knowledge preserved through our oral tradition.”12 -Robert Watt, President, Avataq Cultural Institute (2001)
Naturalist-collectors like Edward Nelson and the museums they worked for preserved cultural objects as physical records of cultural traditions. In doing so, they injected these otherwise transitory things with meanings formed around notions of scientific discovery and taxonomy-building. Today the legacies of ethnological collections are taking new forms as indigenous communities engage with ancestral objects in ways that are not always traditional – gathering over objects arrayed in museum back rooms or campus labs, closely observed, cameras flashing – but are nonetheless important pathways to renewing and sharing deeply-rooted cultural knowledge for future generations.
Rosemary Ahtanguarak’s consultation has helped us understand how the Arctic objects on Oberlin’s campus are irreplaceable repositories of cultural, environmental, and historical information, and it is essential that we (in the broadest sense) continue to learn through them.
Amy Margaris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College and de facto curator of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection. She teaches and publishes in the areas of archaeology, colonialism, museum studies, and material culture analysis. Special thanks to the editorial eyes of Libby Murphy, Chie Sakakibara and Jason Haugen.
1. Amy V. Margaris and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.
2. Jane Walsh. 2002. Collections as Currency. In Anthropology, History, and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, pp. 201-209. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology Number 44, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
3. Jane Walsh, personal communication.
4. Amy V. Margaris. Forthcoming. Bark Blankets and ‘Esquimaux Implements from Alaska’: Revisiting a Historic Oberlin-Smithsonian Exchange.. Smithsonian Institution Arctic Studies Center Newsletter; Amy V. Margaris and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.
5. For example, see Kevin Coffee. 2008. Cultural Inclusion, Exclusion and the Formative Role of Museums. Museum Management and Curatorship 23(3):261-279; Gretchen Jennings. 2015. The #museumrespondtoFerguson Initiatives, A Necessary Conversation. Museums and Social Issues 10(2):97-105; Miriam Kahn. 2000. Not Really Pacific Voices: Politics of Representation in Collaborative Museum Exhibits. Museum Anthropology 24:57-74; Ivan Karp and Steven D Lavine. 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics and Museum Display. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.; and Caroline Lang, John Reeve, and Vicky Woollard. 2006. The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-first Century. Ashgate, Burlington, VT. I am grateful to Emma Baxter (OC ’17) for bringing many of these references to my attention.
6. Aaron L. Crowell, Rosita Worl, Paul C. Ongtooguk, and Dawn D. Biddison, editors. 2010. Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.; Sven D. Haakanson, Jr. and Amy Steffian, editors. 2009. Giinaquq Like a Face: Suqpiaq Masks of the Kodiak Archipelago. University of Alaska Press, Anchorage.
7. Ann Fienup-Riordan, editor, Marie Meade, translator. 2005. Ciuliamta Akluit: Things of Our Ancestors, pp. 403, 405. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA and Calista Elders Council, Bethel, AK.
8. Ann Fienup-Riordan, editor, Marie Meade, translator. 2005. Ciuliamta Akluit: Things of Our Ancestors, p. xxii.. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA and Calista Elders Council, Bethel, AK.
9. Chie Sakakibara. 2017. People of the Whales: Climate Change and Cultural Resilience Among the Iñupiat of Arctic Alaska. Geographical Review 107(1):159-184.
10. William L. Rathje and Michael B. Schiffer. 1982. Archaeology, pp. 65-6. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York; Michael B. Schiffer. 1992. Technological Perspectives on Behavioral Change, pp. 9-12. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
11. Robert L. Kelly. 1995. The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
12. Lucien Turner, edited by Stephan Loring. 2001. Ethnology of the Ungava District, Hudson Bay Territory, p. iv. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Throughout our semester as students in London with Professor Margaris’ “Collecting Colonialism” course, we have seen and read about numerous exhibits in a range of museums in London and beyond. While many would fit into the typical image one might have of what a museum should be, be it archaeological, ethnographic, or even fine art, our focus for the final weeks of the course has been on those that take a new approach, and how those approaches are effective or not. While the traditional museum model has its merits simply in terms of exposure and educational opportunities, the antiquated concept of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is still all too real in places like the British Museum or Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, which can feel more like photo opportunities than learning spaces. So how does a museum counter the threat of diluting or outright deleting information about its materials on display without abandoning the confines of what a typical viewer expects a museum to be? It begins with acknowledging the threat in the first place.
One location that stood out as a bright spot among our entire group for many reasons was the World Gallery at the Horniman Museum in London. Appearing at first as simply rows of shelves crowded with small collected objects — literally cabinets of curiosities — organized geographically, a quick look into any one section would reveal that the curators had actually reversed these expectations entirely. Instead of packing the shelves with everyday items in an attempt to give a broad, all-encompassing view of what culture as a concept looks like, the curators at the Horniman had intentionally selected specific groups from across the globe to focus on, declaring upfront that their intentions were more to give an in-depth look at a range of cultures, not a thinly spread anecdote on every culture. The exhibit even further impressed at the back of the gallery, where a row of two parallel shelves sat facing each other. One contained information on specific anthropologists who had worked with groups whose materials were displayed in the gallery, while the other was full wall to wall of small objects from a wide range of cultures and time periods. Instead of being sorted geographically or chronologically, these items were put into fairly arbitrary and disparate groups (such as red, masks, danger, etc.) in an effort to explain visually how it is the curators’ job to decide how materials are grouped, that these distinctions are not inherent.
For a look at a creative approach to display in a more specific context than the World Gallery, we visited the exhibit on “Sounds of Roman Egypt” at the Petrie Museum at University College London. With incredibly limited space, the Petrie Museum, a dedicated Egyptian archaeology museum, created an exhibit intended to not simply show and tell, but to engage the viewer physically and auditorily. With a computer setup on which one could select specific sounds to listen to, replicas of instruments on display to be played, as well as other items available for the viewer to handle, the actual display of Egyptian materials felt like the weak spot in the exhibit.
What we were missing, however, was the intentionality with which it had been arranged. Roman Egyptian instruments were arranged around a photo of a mosaic depicting those same instruments being played, and were placed inside the display case at approximately the height at which they would have been played 2000 years ago. Bird-shaped shakers, played above the head, were at the top while bracelets adorned with bells to be worn by children were near the bottom of the case, and everything else fell in line in between. While this design was not entirely evident — we had no idea until it was explained during a tour of the museum — it did a lot of work to engage the viewer and elevate the display case to an active agent with the materials displayed within.
While many museums are still reluctant to adapt to modern methods of curation and display, some have made small adjustments to spaces and materials already available. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum recently renovated its Jameel Gallery for the Islamic Middle East so that the Persian Ardabil carpet, one of the most visually compelling items in the museum, would be displayed at floor level, as intended by its creators, rather than hung and more easily viewed in full.
Changes like these are far from total overhaul of an exhibit or gallery, but give significant credit to the object itself as well as the culture it came from. Even in spaces unwilling to make adjustments like these, viewers themselves are coming in with researched information to spread in the form of “alternative tours” (e.g. https://www.theexhibitionist.org/) of materials they believe aren’t being correctly exhibited, working in spite of the curators to bring a new approach to an antiquated display. Whether the changes expected are extreme or not, it is clear that tolerance for incorrect and insensitive information, as well as lazy curation and display, is nearly run out.
The good news is that the museum exhibit is quickly becoming a space where creativity and innovation are as vital as collection and research; the display is just as important as the materials it carries. The benefit, hopefully, is more complete, more engaging information and a more honest way to view collected materials.
As I walk down the halls of a museum, I have a habit of talking over myself – sounds crazy, I know, but hear me out. I approach each object, carefully reading their labels, while, at the same time, giving a mini alternative tour in my head:
“These objects were acquired…” These objects were pillaged…
“Pieces of this collection were gifted by…” Pieces of this collection were stolen from…
“This exhibition was created in collaboration with…” The objects in this exhibition are being displayed against the wishes of their source communities…
“Objects much like this one displayed are still widely used today…” These objects do not bear the same cultural weight/relevance as they did when they first came into the museum’s possession…
I create a sort of cognitive palimpsest for objects I know have a history tainted by colonialism, nationalism, and/or the flat out erasure of a deeper cultural history – like the Benin Bronzes, the Rapa Nui head (Hoa Hakananai’a), or the Parthenon Marbles, to name a few of the big ones. I mentally blot out the words written by museums in favor of my own “deinstitutionalized” and “more socially-aware” narratives. Although I may not have a fully fleshed-out, self-guided, in-my-head alternative tour for every object I see, I try to approach most with what I believe to be a healthy dose of skepticism.
Going to a school like Oberlin makes this “healthy dose of skepticism” I possess seem almost inherent. Not trusting “The Man” comes easy. In our Collecting Colonialism class, “The Man” has seemingly become synonymous with “the British Museum.” This sentiment has become especially clear as we prepare our own alternative tours in the British Museum. We even joked about rearranging objects and replacing plaques like guerrilla curators. This week, as I mused about a possible topic for my (out-loud) alternate tour, I realized that the hardest part would not be picking an object, nor would it be compiling research, nor even giving the tour itself – the hardest part may be approaching this project with even a sliver of understanding toward the British Museum and their, let’s say, more “questionable” choices of display.
Today, we had to opportunity to visit some of the British Museum Oceania materials located in an off-site storage facility in East London, and talked to Jill Hassell, the Assistant Collections Manager, and Julie Adams, the museum’s Curator of Oceania collections and co-author of Fighting Fibres. Jill had pulled out various Kiribati objects for us to observe, like model chiefs’ houses, grass skirts, a coconut fiber breastplate, a shark tooth sword, and a model boat. We also had the opportunity to interrogate Julie for over an hour about what it’s like to work as a curator, for the British Museum nonetheless. She talked about how source communities would visit the very same room in which we stood to see their own objects. This could mean community members spending time with a group of pre-selected objects for a few hours, or even individuals studying a single object for weeks on end.
Julie also described how the source communities interact with their objects – a group of Kiribati weavers spent many days studying the patterns of a giant woven sail, and an artist with Kiribati heritage studied coconut fiber armor to make his own modern interpretation of a breastplate (which we were lucky enough to see).
Also, many exceptions in handling are made for visiting source communities – for example, indigenous musicians can actually play their old instruments, and members source communities often don’t have to wear gloves while handling their objects. She also talked about how in 2014, the British Museum sent out an open invitation for people with Micronesian ancestry to spearhead the curation of an exhibit dedicated to their Micronesian collection. A group of young Micronesian women ended up working with curators from the British Museum for a year, carefully choosing objects, researching their life histories, writing labels, carrying out conservation work, and giving talks on materials that were both culturally and personally significant to them. One of the women was a filmmaker and created a short film about the deep cultural significance of dance in Micronesia, tracing its history up to the present day. In fact, the women decided to have dance and dance costumes be the central focus of their exhibit, prioritizing the display grass skirts over the “cooler looking” (Julie’s words) coconut fiber armor.
It seemed that Julie, Jill, and the other curatorial staff took every measure they could to make source communities feel as welcome in the space and connected to their objects as possible. This is important considering that these objects are often linked to difficult histories, making the entire experience incredibly emotionally charged – Julie mentioned that people sometimes cry when they finally see their objects in person, and that one individual even had a panic attack. Museums dealing with source communities is a delicate task, and, with so much emotion and so many interested parties involved (i.e. the source communities, trustees, curators, etc.), not everyone is always going to be completely happy or satisfied.
Before today’s talk I could have gone on and on about what is written (or, more importantly, not written) on an object’s label, without ever considering that each label has a limit of 75 words and has to be comprehensible to a 12-year-old (so people of many different knowledge and language backgrounds may understand). I could have also ranted for hours about how the British Museum probably refuses to revamp their exhibits to match the more colorful and interactive ones seen in the Museum of London or Horniman Museum because it is too tacky for their pristine image, but never once consider all the money that needs to go into this revamping. I also would have never thought about how disruptive all the sounds, lights, and colors may be to the on-goings of the British Museum – Julie mentioned how the music from the Micronesian dance video bothered the staff and disrupted museum talks.
Before talking to Julie, I would have considered these constraints to be hoops that the evil Museum trustees make the poor curators jump through, rather than, well… practical concerns.
Now, I am not saying that a 75 word limit and the fact that the British Museum “doesn’t do sound” (again, Julie’s words) completely lets them off the hook (the British Museum is still “The Man” in my book), but it at the very least puts my healthy dose of skepticism in check.
We often think of things in extremes and forget that there are in betweens. Repatriation or nothing. But there are other options. In the case of the British Museum, the items do not belong to the museum but to the country of England, which means that (except in the case of human remains) the museum is not allowed to give things back. But it is important to remember that there are other options. The museum can loan things to other museums or even to cultural groups. They can allow source communities to come in and visit the items and can arrange for them to be able to handle and use the items. It isn’t all or nothing.
On our trip to the offsite storage facility for the British Museum, Curator of Oceania Julie Adams discussed a lot of the outreach that they do with source communities. She talked about some of the more major projects they have organized or participated in with communities who wish to study their objects or the objects of their ancestors. For example, she and some other curators worked with a group of I-Kiribati people living in the UK to create a community designed exhibit for display in the British Museum. This process involved monthly meetings with the people involved and produced a fascinating, and culturally relevant exhibit. In addition, Julie discussed frequently bringing in visitors from source communities for hands on interactions with objects.
They have had people come in and try to replicate certain objects or knotting techniques. Some people just want to see objects that are important to their communities. Julie also talked about the reactions of people seeing their important cultural objects for the first time or for the first time in a long time. I imagine it would be a lot like seeing a long lost relative or friend after many years; sometimes overwhelming and always emotional. Some people want to help add their cultural knowledge to items taken long ago which have just been dangling without context. In fact, contemporary cultures can sometimes add important context to objects that have been historically misinterpreted or misunderstood. An example is, the ‘heart-sack’ discussed elsewhere on this blog, which was thought to be seal gut until a native consultant explained that it was actually made of pericardial tissue.
Native expertise can be essential to recontextualizing objects and correcting misinterpretations. It can also be useful in determining what is actually important to contemporary communities. For example, Kiribati is famous for the amazing suits of coconut fibre armor that have been collected and preserved at museums around the world. However, now that more and more of the source community members are consulting with museum professionals, it is becoming clear that perhaps these items which we have taken as a symbol of Kiribati are not actually that important to the contemporary people. Many modern I-Kiribati people actually seem to be more interested in dancing regalia than armor. The reasoning for this is that dancing is still a huge part of their culture while the armor is not. The original methods for making it have been lost and people are only now (via consultations and studying materials held in museums) trying to rediscover or recreate those methods.
In this era of easy communication, it is easier than ever for museums and researchers to contact source communities, to reach out and make connections which can revolutionize our knowledge about objects and practices. It is easier now than ever to consult with the people whose cultures museums are exhibiting. There really is no excuse not to reach out, no excuse not to listen.There may be controversy and claims of theft, but by reaching out and involving the source communities in the preservation of the past, those controversies can be mitigated as much as possible. Opening up avenues of communication and bringing in new voices is essential to keeping museums relevant and propelling them into the future of learning.
Anthropology and race as a concept have undeniably coincident histories. From the seventeenth century onwards, Western racial classifications became ever increasingly reliant on cherry-picked phenotypic or physical traits rather than cultural or ethnographic differences. Anthropology, now often thought of as a field that researches and celebrates cultural diversity as one of our species’ uniting qualities, was not long ago used to justify the disparaging of entire human populations. Some of the worst atrocities in recorded history, including the African slave trade, used phenotypic guidelines to demarcate oppression. While it is now widely accepted—because of DNA testing and historical awareness—that these classification systems are baseless and harmful, their impact has already been deeply ingrained in societal and legal structures throughout the planet. Decolonial and anti-racist work seeks to challenge these systems of oppression, and the evolution of how museums display ethnographic objects from Africa can help us follow this process.
For the last several weeks, our Collecting Colonialism class has been discussing and educating ourselves about the ways in which object collection and display reflect racial hierarchies in the past and present. The issue of unethical collection and how it should be remediated is certainly not clear-cut, as it is riddled with legal, historical, and political complications. However, if any of these objects are to remain under the ownership of former colonial powers for any reason, it’s my belief that the least they can do is offer transparency to their audience while consulting with relevant communities regarding their display. Historically, this has not been the case. As a result, more often than not these exhibitions are reductive, out of context, and/or downright derogatory. In class we discussed the infamous Into the Heart of Africa exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1989 as a case study. The exhibit received immediate backlash from Black Canadians for the ways in which its imagery, labeling, and object placement glorified colonial and missionary violence against African peoples and exotified the continent in a way that entirely ignored its diversity.1 The curator’s official response to the exhibit was that its intention was to ironically criticize how objects came to be in museums, however this was never mentioned in the exhibits advertising nor in the actual text of the displays.1 This lip service to the Black community in Canada and elsewhere continued until the ROM finally issued an official apology 27 years later in 2016.2 Now viewed as a what-not-to-do example in the world of curating, the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit speaks to how displaying artifacts without consulting and respecting source communities can and does reinforce the intergenerational trauma of marginalized people.
Today, museum curators are learning from the mistakes of their predecessors, and our class had the opportunity to visit an exhibit in London that I believe has made serious improvement in the way they present African cultures while openly acknowledging their own fallibility. The World’s Gallery at the Horniman Museum seeks to “show how “things” connect people – practically and emotionally – as well as giving each of us a glimpse into other ways of understanding the world we all share.” 3 The small exhibit was divided by continent, which is typical of ethnographic museums. However, the Horniman explicitly challenged the reductive narrative of Africa as one homogenous entity while acknowledging the colonial history of the objects’ collection. Instead of assembling artifacts from dozens of African cultures and displaying them mixed together without their specific cultural context, only four different communities were represented and each was described at length. Each of these groups occupied a distinctly unique geographic and cultural niche, serving to emphasize Africa’s diversity in an effective way using very limited space. Alongside the display was a large label transparently denoting that hundreds more distinct cultures exist on the continent, and that these four were specifically chosen to express a range, not the entire picture. To me, this is important because it discusses with the public that museums have unavoidable constraints and biases that influence what and how they curate. Before taking this class, I hadn’t really considered this before and viewed museums as encyclopedic sources of information (an opinion I imagine is shared by many museum goers.)
My understanding of race’s connection to anthropology has been substantially widened by viewing this history through the lense of museum curation. In the last 30 years, tangible progress has been made in the way that marginalized societies, particularly those from Africa, are discussed and displayed in the West. Importantly, this progress is being made through the activism and inclusion of diverse and relevant communities in the curation process. Realistically for many people, ethnographic museums are the only look into other cultures that they will have, so representing them correctly and as wholly as possible is essential to challenging ingrained racial belief systems.
1 Butler SR (2000). The Politics of Exhibiting Culture: Legacies and Possibilities. Museum
2 Buffenstein A (2016). Royal Ontario Museum Admits 1989 Exhibition Was Racist. artnet
The comparison between an art history focused and an archaeological focused museum highlights the importance of presentation and intention. Obviously, both types of museums are material and object oriented, but the similarities stop there. In the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum, a decidedly art museum, we see that their chosen objects and the placement of those objects truly create a different atmosphere than the Museum of London, a history orientated one. The objects on display in the Museum of London all have historical context and significance. For example, a stone mace head may not be beautiful but it has a strong historical significance and showcased the importance of the Thames and signified certain cultural factors of the time. This history is also very heavily supplemented by the descriptions and the plaques nearby that teach visitors about the history. The objects in the V&A Museum, on the other hand, seemed to have been picked based purely on aesthetics and attention catching ability. The objects in the V&A Museum have plaques that only describe the items’ appearance and sometimes the objects’ origin.
There are pros and cons to each way of description. For a historical museum, the rich history described helps visitors actually learn the importance of the objects and the history. But the way a museum like the Museum of London is set up, it can be very biased. It only highlights certain parts of history while overlooking or minimizing other less desirable facts. The V&A Museum is less educating orientated and just gives a bare minimum of facts (although some biases can still be seen). This allows people to form their own perception but can also make visitors want more. I would describe the Museum of London as narrating a story with its objects, especially with the very apparent path that we are led on through the displays. The V&A Museum is quite the opposite in the way that it just lists facts, trying to be impartial; the museum doesn’t have an obvious path that leads visitors chronologically, rather it seems to showcase each individual item/set of items by itself. An object is highlighted for its beauty by itself instead of being weaved into a larger story.
The idea of showing the item for the sake of the item rather than for any historical significance is highlighted by the fact that, at the V&A, there are modern art installations woven throughout the older displays. It emphasizes that the museum is trying to show off the art and beauty rather than anything historical since the modern pieces wouldn’t have very much history to it.
Sometimes though, the modern pieces will highlight an older piece like a reflection through time. It can show how style and beauty can be cycled through time like a new vase purposefully mimicking an old vase. Other times, it can detract from the older pieces, like the giant panda display in the China section that seems to reflect nothing other than pandas and China should go hand in hand, promoting a stereotype.
Showcasing shiny attention catching beautiful objects can be seen as an indication of promoting the upper class and those of wealth, the only ones who could’ve owned and maintained these objects. But in my opinion, it was less about showing off wealth and more about showing off craftsmanship.
MODERN (about Syrian refugees)
OLD (display emphasizing beauty)
Islamic Middle East Collection: MODERN (about Syrian refugees) and OLD (display emphasizing beauty)
While only the wealthy could’ve owned most of the objects in the V&A Museum, only the truly skilled could’ve created these objects. A tour I overheard seems to reflect the craftsmanship emphasis; the tour guide was describing an object while proclaiming how painstakingly the creator had to sculpt the object, how lifelike and realistic it was to the animal it imitated.
Last week the Collecting Colonialism class had the opportunity to attend a gallery talk in the British Museum’s Europe: 1800-1900 Gallery. The discussion focused on how the British explorer and archaeologist Austin Henry Layard’s mid-19th century excavations at the Assyrian Palaces of Nimrud and Nineveh, both located within modern day Iraq, were received and responded to in Victorian London. In addition to the numerous drawings which he sent back to England from the Middle East, Layard also transported hundreds of multi-ton bas relief panels taken directly from the palaces of ancient Assyrian Kings.
To a British public for whom these kings had only existed before on the pages of the Bible, it was as if that world had been brought to life. The physical beauty and daunting multi-thousand-mile journey which the objects had endured from Nimrud and Nineveh to London only added to their appeal. Layard became a celebrity and his books became bestsellers. The reliefs he brought back became centerpieces in the British Museum’s collection, a position they retain to this day. Although people from all walks of life were able to enjoy the palace reliefs, it was the Victorian aristocratic class who attached these items to their own identities. They poured money into jewelry and artwork with motifs and designs lifted from Layard’s archeological discoveries. These Assyrian inspired items joined a host of Classically inspired Victorian artwork which had been inspired by the widely consumed excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Troy. These inspired objects formed the basis of the gallery talk we attended.
Many galleries in the British museum seek amongst other goals to illustrate daily life during a period and place in the world. Although the museum’s Egypt and Mesopotamia sections contain unique works which only served the upper classes of those places, the displayed collections also contain examples of common cooking pots or stone tools. In its title, Europe 1800-1900, Room 47 of the British museum is handed an almost impossible task. As the 19th century is fairly recent, a gargantuan amount of material from that period exists. Rather than attempt to give a thin treatment to the material objects with which members of Europe’s different classes would have interacted, the room instead mainly focuses on works of art that would have been owned and used by Britain’s 19th century aristocracy.
Although Assyrian inspired objects served as the starting point for the gallery talk, the talk eventually also discussed works inspired by the Classical world, China, and the Islamic Middle East. To me, this seemed indicative of a sort of feedback loop which existed in the 19th century. As British colonialism allowed for an increasing number of archaeological and anthropological objects to be brought back to Britain, so too did the Victorian upper classes clamor to either claim authentic examples of those objects or to line their homes with archaeologically inspired artwork or reproductions.
These items often took new elements from those archaeological designs and added them to something useful or familiar.
An Assyrian winged bull might become a bookend while a bas relief image of an Assyrian king might be folded and compressed into a comfortable and classical contrapposto and thereafter placed on a mantle for show.
As a result, an increasing number of international expeditions were either undertaken or funded by those same wealthy Victorians for whom association with the unexplored or ancient worlds was fashionable. This created the environment under which artifacts coming from far away could be appropriated and adjoined to British identity. Owning such items became signs of worldliness and connection to international affairs, while the state’s ownership of these same artifacts displayed the glory, dominance, and far reach of the British Empire.
When one visits the National museums of the United States they encounter objects and artifacts attached to the nation and its history. One does not view classical sculpture or winged bulls at the Smithsonian. When one visits the ‘British’ museum though the vast majority of what one encounters does not tell the story of ancient Britain. Rather, with a little bit of surface scratching the story told by the British museum is that of a particular time when Britain and the powerful British upper classes were able to gather a tremendous amount of cultural material from all around the world and thereafter incorporate it into the national identity. Room 47 then stands as a testament to this process of appropriation by which artifacts from Assyria, Greece, Benin, the Levant, and more could become ‘British.’
When considering the influence of display in museums, it is important to clarify the distinctions we make between objects that we consider “art” and objects that we consider “artifacts.” Art is described in the dictionary primarily as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Artifacts are considered “an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest.” While “art” focuses more on the individual, “artifact” puts more emphasis on that object as reflective of an entire culture and situated within a zeitgeist. Inconsistent lines are drawn between art and artifact by curators that are based on museum type as well as a curator’s personal knowledge.
Even within the world of artifacts there is a hierarchy of display where ethnographic objects are either valued as historical artifacts and an embodiment of culture or for their beauty/intricacy alone, and European objects such as artifacts from Sutton Hoo are prized for their intricacy of design as well as historical significance. This has the potential to both simplify a culture as well as diminish their artistic and technological achievements.
I recently visited the Petrie Museum at University College London, which is said to have some of the best collections of Egyptian and Sudanese material in existence. The museum contained an incredible number of “objects,” however the information given was extremely minimal. This museum was somewhat frustrating for me, as someone who has never taken a class on ancient Egypt or worked with Egyptian material culture, for there wasn’t enough information to grasp the significance of what I was looking at. This highlights how museums are designed for specific audiences, and it is assumed that those visiting are coming in with previous knowledge. While the Petrie museum may be free, without more comprehensive museum labels, a full understanding of its contents is unattainable for most people. It is likely that the museum doesn’t have comprehensive information for many objects, or funding for research, but a more in depth description of time periods would be a good place to start. Without this information it is difficult to more fully appreciate/respect a collection and the civilization that it once belonged to, or still belongs to.
Museums have an immense amount of power over public opinion, and the lack of transparency regarding methods of acquisition is dangerous. As institutions that are harbingers of the past, it would make sense to perhaps address their own history as repositories for colonial loot. While we should not assume that ethnographic objects represent modern people and modern culture, curators should grant the descendants of those people/culture some power over display, and maybe even repatriate a few things! I enjoyed the Captain Cook exhibit in the British Museum, for it showcases how museums can display ethnographic items through a de-colonialist lens and also include the narrative of the descendants of those people. This insures that the art objects are not oversimplified, and also brings them into a modern perspective.
Below I have included some pictures which highlight the differences in display of Indian objects influenced by British culture as opposed to objects that are culturally Indian. Note the differences in crowding/layering, and how space influences how much value we put on a single item.