Monday, September 05, 2011


The most common way to destroy value in an artifact is to remove it from its context, whether that is a ruin or a living community, because it strips away some of the information as well as what I like to call “juju,” the valorized quality that some call “spiritual.”  (Spiritual is an abused and commodified term.)  The remains of an ancient settlement in the Middle East was found, evidently a pottery-making center since it was surrounded by shards of pots scattered out on the ground.  One could find various styles of construction and decoration.  Careful (one might even say obsessive) mapping of these shards that came from different periods was done by putting up a string grid and counting every fragment no matter how small.  This showed many useful patterns in the development of the community.  But to anyone not so gimlet-eyed or analytically-minded, this was a place that just had a lot of debris scattered around, valueless and meaningless.
People who find an untouched pueblo full of beautiful intact pots, can hardly force themselves to leave things alone, but if they want to preserve the scientific value, they must.  Maybe they are more valuing of possession or even money.  The problem is both educational and moral.
Consider the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning as a kind of guide.  There have been a number of problematic developments undertaken in good faith, partly because of several conflicting understandings of what the institution should be.  In the beginning the museum was built and provided with exhibits by the Indian Craft Board with the encouragement of John Ewers, a Ph.D. anthropologist connected to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.  Much monetary help came from the Lions.  The concept was that the exhibits would provide information and education about Blackfeet material culture so that “modern” Blackfeet could create new versions of the old material culture to sell.  The model in mind was that of Appalachian quilters.
So the exhibits themselves were meant to be examples of beautiful things to copy, a kind of reference library.  Some formally holy objects were included: elegantly beaded peyote fans and elaborate Thunder Pipe decorated calumets.  The emphasis was on the 19th century, when the legitimate religious nature of Native American objects was not considered nor would have been understood if it were.  Still on the books was a law against performing the religious ceremonies of American Indians, though it was no longer enforced.
The workroom included a circle of tables with drawers at each place so that people could work there together and store what they were doing in the drawers when they weren’t present.  As it turned out, they preferred to work at home -- might need to in order to take care of children or oldsters -- and many were individualists who didn’t want to be copied or critiqued.  Conformity turned out not to be a high value.  There were also storage cabinets for materials and an office (I think) for an overseer, so the hierarchical patterns of a business persisted, like attempts to dictate how things should be made, what materials and styles should be used.
A small shop was presumably where the crafts products could be sold.  It was discovered that generic popular ideas about what Indian goods “were” meant that Navajo silver and turquoise jewelry sold better than, say, authentic parfleches.  Again, an education problem.
Upstairs, guarded nowadays, is a library and offices for management.  the library needs to be guarded after two kinds of raids:  one was an actual bureaucratic purging of all white people files in a Red-Chinese-youth moment -- the material was taken to the dump where bemused folks rescued some of it: accounts and photos of Charlie Russell, Frank Bird Linderman, James Willard Schultz, George Bird Grinnell -- all white men who wrote about Blackfeet.  The other worry was that similarly motivated tribesmen might come to pour blood or otherwise destroy the files as “white man’s colonial records.”  (I’m not sure that ever happened.)  This has led to the bizarre circumstance of a Ph.D. anthro student coming with her U of Montana professor to do some research and discovering that the student (a mature enrolled Blackfeet woman married to a professor) was barred while her white (male) professor was admitted.
The museum complex also included from the beginning a small home for the resident professor/anthropologist who was expected to treat the position as both a curatorial assignment and field research station, continuing to interview and analyze.  John Ewers, as founder, was the first.  Then Tom Kehoe, soon joined by his wife, Alice Kehoe, and then Claude Schaffer, whose papers are now with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary along with the papers of Clark Wissler, the earliest of Blackfeet anthropological researchers.  The first genetically Indian anthropologist was  Raymon Gonyea, Onondaga, who continued on to the Eiteljorg, a far more prestigious and wealthy private institution.  Their written work is both context for objects and also count, in themselves, as artifacts.  But this was not seen.
An early blunder came from the local people, nice middle-class Indians, saying, “Oh, the clothes in the life-sized mannequin diorama look old and shabby.  Let’s fix them.”  So they did: cleaning, repairing, replacing.  At that point they had destroyed the scientific value since the material was original.  (There was no professional anthro at the time.)  But it was natural for people who were engaged in making replicas. 
A second blunder, which was actually a long-standing and pre-existing blunder, was building the museum in the flood plain of Willow Creek, so that the basement storage was invaded by water in the Flood of 1964 and part of the foundation was collapsed.  One of the confusions about the “museum” was that it would be a safe depository for the belongings of people who either donated or kept title to them.  Over and over tribal materials once held in temperature-controlled, humidity-controlled circumstances in well-funded museums are surrendered to tribes who have no way to protect them.  In this case it was thought that because the complex was called a “museum,” it would have the facilities to guard the vulnerable materials, but it did not.  Another crucial feature of a museum focused on collection should be closely monitored inventory and loan control of the exhibits, but rumors abound that things mysteriously disappear and no one knows where they went.  
The government (the BIA, Craft Board or whoever is holding the reins now) find the museum too expensive to operate and wish to close it down.  Everyone immediately objected, not least because it is a feature that brings tourists to town.  The government offered to give it to the tribe, but they couldn’t afford it either.  At least the controversy brought some attention and the grounds were improved with the addition of various features. 
“Artifact spoilers” are often seen as only the thieves, artifact fakers, slippery dealers, conscienceless customers who are looking for trophies, clueless ones who want interior decoration, or popularizers who exaggerate something valid and authentic into a Disney/Hallmark gizmo.  But getting too stringently political about “correctly” making and selling artifacts will cut off the possibility of using the people’s skills to help themselves.

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

This weekend Beth & I went to see Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog and co. devote a great deal of time and energy to the subject of artifact despoliation, and frankly justify the movie as an aid to keep this particular artifact -- the cave of Chavet-Pont-d'arc and its 32,000-year-old painting -- as pristine as possible. The has always been closed to the public, and is now closed also to bona fide researchers. The portion of my ego that strives to be noble acknowledged the necessity of this extreme measure; my id, however, wondered what made Herzog and his cohort so much more special than the rest of us. Paradoxically, the whole 3D effect only added to that sense of alienation and distance.