Unintelligible as much of the theory-based post-modern culture criticism has been over the last few decades, many far-reaching questions have emerged that are quite significant in terms of Montana lives. Naturally, much of it has had to do with Native Americans, but much of it also is very relevant to European-based peoples, to say nothing of the African and Asian heritages. Many of these issues are about education or museums, which most of us probably think of as educational. Since Montana formed as the Industrial Revolution was transforming the planet, much of this material is crucial to the future.
What IS a museum? In preparing Bob Scriver’s biography, I read a number of books that examine the origins of museums and the history and development of collections. Mostly they seem to have arisen from people’s natural inclination to save things they liked or that seemed to have value. The early Popes had a room like a vault where they kept precious objects, often commissioned from outstanding artist/craftsmen or perhaps gifts from great kings and leaders. In the modern United States, objects created in crystal by someone like Steuben Glass -- gorgeous, fragile, and one-of-a-kind -- might be presented.
In the 19th century, when taxonomies were the great obsession, natural history buffs (often amateur) required extensive accumulations of insects, bird skins, eggs, and so on, all in the interest of grouping them into categories and thus discovering something about creation. This was one of the duties of Lewis and Clark. (Now, of course, all those taxonomies and “family trees” have been blown away by DNA analysis.)
In those times anomalies and freaks interested a lot of people. Bob was of a “one excellent example of each” turn of mind, probably coming from the assumptions of taxidermists with hunter clients. He was always having to shoo away people who wanted to give him albino skunks or two-headed calves for the Scriver Museum. (This museum is dispersed now.) He continued this frame of mind with the bronzes, keeping “one of each,” which is now the basis of the estate entrusted to the Montana Historical Society.
Another influence from the 19th century was the growing awareness of “the last of these.” This continues today with even more anquish as we see whole species, whole languages, entire peoples, whole life-works, disappear under the wheels of time. Rare-ness has always been a criterion for value. Museums treasure the last dodo bird, the last passenger pigeon.
At present we see a great fascination with family trees so that -- running parallel with DNA studies of inheritance -- many people are looking up their own pedigrees, the begats that brought them to this place and time and the stories of those lives. My newly discovered branch of the Welsh sister descendants brought me two new documents, one a transcription of a Christian Oklahoma homesteader family and the other a book length account complete with photos. The closer we get to the present, the easier it is to find documents such as letters -- until we get to email. The Internet, of course, has been an amazing help when things are scannned and posted.
The idea that a museum is a repository for documents and objects is a strong one with an intense emotional engine, whether or not values are shared by others. When my mother died, one of the hardest problems was finding new homes for her most prized objects: the bisque porcelain hen that had been brought intact in a pioneer wagon by burying it in a barrel of flour, the huge blown-glass bluegreen Japanese float found at the beach, a gold lustreware vase that had been saved from disaster many times. We were shocked to discover that no one wanted them, not even dealers.
19th century anthropologists collected skeletons with no particular thought for their meaning to families. 20th century accumulators stole the heads off “death house” burials with grisly disrespect. Sometimes they kept such objects secret, showing them only to their closest friends, and other times skulls rested on the back bars of taverns, grinning at the clients. Reversing this practice has been a battle for NA activists.
Family is such a deeply embedded aspect of humans that the celebration of family versus their branding as traitors and failures has dominated much of historical interpretation. Quite aside from the discomfort of homesteaders living next to the Native Americans pushed off the same land, is the on-going rivalry among families of both populations, so strong that it still affects ordinary commerce in towns. My cousin once remarked to me that the “Pinkertons” which are the branch of my maternal grandfather were not as good as the “Cochrans” which are the branch of my maternal grandmother, because the Cochrans walked to the West on the Oregon Trail -- making them tougher -- but the Pinkertons came on the train, which was somehow weaker. I pointed out that the Pinkertons came quite a bit later than the Cochrans and would be FOOLS not to take the train, since by that time there WAS one! I think he had gotten the idea partly because a Cochran ranch was honored by the state of Oregon as a “Centennial” 100-year ranch. The Pinkertons never had anything but a prune orchard that went bust. Prosperity and endurance are the pioneer criteria. Maybe they’re pretty basic to all humans.
But there ARE other issues of value. For instance, whether or not Two-Guns Whitecalf posed for Fraser when he created the buffalo nickel is a matter involving considerable prestige and people have spent hours poring through archives to figure it out definitively.
What I’m leading up to is that the Montana Historical Society, kindly accepting papers, collections, and family heirlooms for decades and decades, is bulging at the seams. Storage is so crammed as to make items impossible to locate. Staff works in a small labyrinth, elbow-to-elbow. Yet there has been little discussion of what the real defining goal of the historical society -- much less its museum which many people see as its only function -- ought to be in the future. By what principles are decisions to be made? And if there is anything that the post-modern critique insists upon, it must be a “people’s” decision, not fiats from high-status, high-power, high-dollar experts.
Is the point of an historical museum to interpret what has happened? Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is my favorite example of interpretation-based exhibits, though the Glenbow is Calgary is also outstanding. Or is it to show off the importance of an area or a people? Might it be to store information as a way of researching and developing the future?
Should it be a way of preserving valuable objects like the CM Russell paintings? Or should it be a kind of public gallery developing art in general, as the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls has become, raising questions about the relationship with private for-profit galleries? The CM Russell, which needs to build an endowment for maintenance, lately put its Couse paintings up for auction. Couse was a major SW painter of Native Americans, but the curator felt they were “outside the mission” of the museum. The Montana Historical Society owns works by de Kooning and Picasso, which would fetch a pretty penny on the current hot art market. Can these be defended as part of Montana’s heritage? Or consider the Alberta Bair ranch, stocked with fabulous European objects.
Questions abound and should not be answered by decisions already made without realizing the limitations they can impose.