Sunday 20 October 2013

Ethnology, what is that for you in the US? (2)

Continuing the discussion of what Peter Tompa, paid lobbyist for the dugup antiquities trade  ('My Comments to CPAC re Honduran MOU Renewal', CPO, October 18, 2013) contributes to the understanding of how the discipline of ethnology (ethnography) is defined by US law  it seems to me another point needs making.

For me one of the most utterly shocking aspects of the US is how 'ethnographic' collections of items representing Native American cultures, part of the long human history of the continent, are all too frequently displayed in Natural History museums, reducing the carriers of these cultures to the same status as the shellfish, butterflies and trees of the continent. They are presented as the background to white settlement, a divine hiccup, a false start, on the path to Manifest Destiny.

This is utterly disgusting and I really do not know why we do not hear more about thinking people over there are not protesting very strongly about this.

So it is that we see the material culture of these people reduced to "ethnographic collections" in a Natural History context. Some pretty egregious examples of this can be seen in the organization of a number of US museums. A prime example is the North American Ethnographic Collection at the New York American Museum of Natural History). Another example is in the Idaho Museum of Natural History, I first saw this on my own visit to the Florida Museum of Natural History (dinosaur Sue was being exhibited alongside at the time). There's the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg. Over near ACCG's Dealer Dave, we have the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. Then there is the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Draper Natural History Museum, Cody, Wyoming, and so on.* Surely here is a huge distortion of the place of ethnology in the human sciences.

Dismissing the Other as part of the animal world seems a typically American approach. In Canada [Museum of Anthropology Vancouver, Canadian Museum of Civilization Ottawa], Mexico [Museo Nacional de Antropología, Museo de Antropología de Xalapa], Great Britain [Museum of Mankind until 2004], Austria [Museum für Völkerkunde Berlin, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde], Germany [Ethnological Museum], Russia [Russian Museum of Ethnography, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography], Australia [Berndt Museum of Anthropology] and many many other places museums exhibiting ethnographic items and presenting these cultures to the public are organized in the framework of anthropology, why is the US kicking along behind?

There is an interesting online article about this by Dustin Wax: "In the Flesh In the Museum: Representations of Indians in American Natural History Museums" (from Savage Minds), and more recently an article asking the same issue as I raise here: Katherine Abu Hadal, 'Why Native American Art Doesn’t Belong in the American Museum of Natural History', Indian Country Today, 2/20/13  (see also: Jon Weier, 'Strangely ahistoric sensibilities at the American Museum of Natural History', Active history March 26, 2013 ["the anthropological collections presented these cultures in a static, primitive and completely outdated fashion."])

When are cultural property theoreticians and activists in the States going to get a stop put to this further manifestation of degrading treatment of the Native Americans in the US? 

* there are exceptions of course, Berkely for example. 


Cultural Property Observer said...

It’s good to see that you are such a supporter of indigenous rights. But if so, how can you support the US MOU with Honduras, which after all, recognizes that recognizes the primacy of the Honduran state (which is no friend to such interests) even when it comes to indigenous artifacts? Why shouldn't the indigenous peoples of Honduras do what they want with their own artifacts—even if that means selling them to make ends meet?

Paul Barford said...

Firstly, it's not a case of "indigenous" rights, but common decency. How would people react if Jewish cultural heritage was displayed as "natural history" alongside the stuffed monkeys?

Secondly, if native Americans of Arizona want to spraypaint their names over ancient petroglyphs in their Arizonan desert, it's nobody's concern but theirs?

In what way do you divide this "heritage" that you make it specific to individual groups? Surely (as in the common heritage model) the whole point on which the ACCG's silly activities are based is that the heritage of Greece or Italy, Turkey or whatever is not "theirs" but "ours" (so "you" too can lay claim to it)? Do you not detect some gap in your logic there?

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