21 December 2004

History Done Right?

Museums and the Nations should work together more on the telling of the history, both could benefit. . .



Who Should Tell History: The Tribes or the Museums?

CHICAGO - Museums always make use of the past for the
sake of the present. They collect it, shape it, insist
on its significance. When that past is also
prehistoric, when its objects come to the present
without written history and with jumbled oral
traditions, a museum can even become the past's
primary voice.

But what if that prehistoric past is also claimed by
some as a living heritage? Then disagreements about
interpretation develop into battles over the museum's
very function.

That was the result, for example, at the Smithsonian
Institution's $219 million National Museum of the
American Indian, which opened in September in
Washington and calls itself a "museum different."
George Gustav Heye's extraordinary collection of
800,000 tribal American objects is put in service of
contemporary Indian cultures with tribal guest
curators determining how their heritage is to be
presented. The result is homogenized pap in which the
collection is used not to reveal the past's
complexities, but to serve the present's simplicities.

There are, however, other ways in which the
prehistoric past can be revealed, as two exhibitions
in Chicago suggest. At the Field Museum, "Machu
Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas," is
remarkable not just for its careful exploration of the
famed archeological site high in the Peruvian Andes,
but also for demonstrating an almost devotional care
to exhuming a lost past. At the Art Institute of
Chicago, "Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian
Art of the Ancient Midwest and South" is no less
remarkable in its display of objects created by
ancient American cultures, but it is subject to many
of the same forces that molded the National Museum of
the American Indian. Here though, rather than
overturning the museum's enterprise, they merely
distract from it.

First, the Machu Picchu exhibition. Created by the
Peabody Museum at Yale, it offers the largest
collection of Incan artifacts ever shown in the United
States, including robust three-foot-high jugs for corn
beer (which was fermented by the saliva of women who
chewed the maize before brewing it); samples of
bright, geometrically ornamented 500-year-old fabrics;
and a corded "quipu," a linked collection of knotted
strings used to record events and numerical accounts.
The curators are Richard L. Burger, a Yale
anthropologist, and Lucy C. Salazar, a Peruvian

The major question about Machu Picchu has not been who
speaks for its past, but what that past actually was.
The site, with its terraced, mountainous landscape and
stone structures, was known to only a few local
inhabitants when it was discovered by Hiram Bingham
III, who led Yale's Peruvian Expedition in 1911. As
Mr. Berger and Ms. Salazar explain various hypotheses
by Bingham, including one that the site was a sacred
nunnery for Incan "Virgins of the Sun," have been
conclusively disproved. The curators established,
instead, that it was a summer retreat for a ruling
Incan family, built between 1450 and 1470 and used
only for about 80 years before being abandoned in the
face of the Incas' defeat by Pizarro's Spanish armies.

The exhibition also makes it clear what an
extraordinary site Machu Picchu is. Nestled in the
cloud-decked mountains of the Andes, its architecture
serves as a kind of cosmic clock, the sun and
constellations appearing in certain stone windows at
specific times of the year. The exhibition shows how
scientists have used bone fragments to analyze the
Incan diet (60 percent maize), and demonstrates how
Incan skulls were deliberately elongated by molds
placed on infants' heads, presumably for aesthetic
effect. One emerges astonished by this lost world.

Still, there are subtle traces of contemporary claims
evident in the portrayal of this prehistoric culture.
After all, Machu Picchu is now a national symbol in
Peru; in 2001, it was used for the inauguration of the
president, Alejandro Toledo. It is also the object of
almost mystical devotion. Hundreds of thousands of
tourists climb its ruins every year.

In response, perhaps, there are hints of overly
tactful delicacy in the exhibition's descriptions of
Incan society. Incan aesthetic and cosmological
preoccupations become clear, but other aspects do not,
including a rigid social structure that involved forms
of slavery, a religious culture that incorporated
human sacrifice, and a military organization powerful
enough to conquer 2,500 miles of the South American
coastline and build 25,000 miles of roads. Mr. Berger,
in an e-mail message, said that for the Peruvians, the
Incans looked good compared to the Spaniards. The
exhibition wants us to admire, and we do. But we know
less about what we might admire less.

At the Art Institute of Chicago more explicit
pressures are at work, and they nearly derail the
considerable achievements of "Hero, Hawk and Open
Hand." The exhibition is devoted to products of
societies that thrived along the Ohio, Tennessee and
Mississippi Rivers as early as 5,000 B.C. Their
remnants can still be seen in landscapes near Newark,
Ohio, or St. Clair County, Ill., in enormous earthen
mounds and geometric shapes outlined by raised ground.

These structures testify to a highly organized society
barely glimpsed by European settlers. Some sites had
already been abandoned by the time the Europeans
arrived. Others were devastated by diseases brought by
the settlers, which wiped out as much as 90 percent of
their Indian populations.

But as Richard F. Townsend, the curator of the
department of African and Amerindian art at the Art
Institute, shows, these cultures' mastery can be
sensed in the objects produced: a haunting
2,000-year-old elongated face smoothed out of stone
found in Kentucky; a graceful, elegant hand cut out of
mica from about the same era in Ohio; a 500-year-old
wooden figure - half human, half feline - found in

Such a display, along with historical commentary,
would once have been sufficient. But contemporary
Indian tribes, supported by some scholars, have argued
that they have an ancestral connection to these
cultures. And since museums have not traditionally
displayed much sensitivity toward living cultures, the
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
now obliges them to consult with tribes about their
holdings. In preparation for the exhibition, four
years were spent consulting with tribal leaders. But
to what end?

Joyce Bear, the cultural preservation officer of the
Muscogee Nation, has the exhibition's first word,
declaring on the wall leading to the galleries, that
it will "make our tribal people realize that we are
descendants of a wonderful and great culture." In the
catalog, she proudly announces that the exhibition
proves that "I come from kings and queens." The
exhibition ends with a statement about a "new,
sweeping movement of cultural preservation" among
Indians, including a film showing their renewal of

But all this has little to do with the objects on
display and makes it seem as if the exhibition's
purpose were to boost tribal pride. Also, while there
may indeed be ancient traditions that have found their
way into contemporary practices, the nature of these
connections, at the very least, demands closer

One anthropologist's assertion that contemporary
Indian beliefs are "analogous" to those of these
ancient cultures is challenged by others in the
catalog. Mr. Townsend writes that these earthworks
were "built by peoples whose achievements and
ancestral connections to present day tribes are at
best only vaguely surmised." Robert L. Hall, an
anthropologist, points out that Cahokia, an imposing
culture on the Mississippi that was already in decline
in the 14th century, "left no written records and no
native peoples possess oral traditions that
specifically identify Cahokia or even recognize its
existence." In the 18th century, another writer says,
Indians encountered by settlers "did not construct
mounds, nor did any of them have oral traditions
relating to these earthworks."

Even the exhibition's explanations of these societies'
workings seem idealized, skewed by contemporary
sensitivities. In the catalog, for example, an
anthropologist, David H. Dye, explores warfare among
the Mississippi Indians, but it is barely alluded to
in the exhibition, despite the presence of objects
like a pipe (1200-1500 A.D.) sculpted as a bound
captive and a vase whose decorations are "trophy
scalps stretched in a starlike pattern." The
exhibition gives so refined a picture of these
societies that there is no way of knowing how
important such images were, or where historical
evidence of slavery and human sacrifice fits in.

This is also, of course, what happened in the
Smithsonian's Indian museum. Since almost no tribes
had a written culture and oral traditions were
disrupted by disease, massacre, government policy and
assimilation, the tribal curators often seem to know
less about their history than do scholars. Yet
scholars' assessments are ignored in favor of
self-promotional platitudes.

All this is a form of guilty overcompensation for past
museum sins that themselves need re-examination and
assessment. In the meantime, exhibitions like the one
on Machu Picchu serve as reminders of what is
possible. And the objects at the Art Institute can
still be heard straining to speak for themselves,
despite the layers of promotional and political gauze
in which they are wrapped.


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