Facing challenges

by

 

 

Christer Lindberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lecture given at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm on May 19, 2001

 

 

We have to value our culture, and the outside world has to respect that. We want to show the world that we are an organized people. In the future we don’t want to end up engraved in a museum exhibit.

Felipe Tsenkush, Shuar[i]

 

 

Clashing today are two competing world forces: that of globalization of economic and communications systems, and that of local and ethnic identity. Much has changed for the First Nations, or Indian tribes of the Americas, during the last four decades. We have seen the panindianism of the 1960s, rise of ethnic (tribal) nationalism in the 1970s, revitalization and recognition of tribal art in the 1980s, and steps toward a self-government in the 1990s. Recently some tribes in the United States have prospered via gaming enterprises while the Nisga and Inuit of Canada have accomplished ratification of agreements at the close of the century.

 

Not only indigenous peoples all over the world, but also the dominant societies, are faced with new challenges. With particular reference to Sweden, the globalization (of economic and communication systems) has wiped out the old “Swedish model” and replaced an idea of thick social solidarity with individualism and a free market (even in previous “sacred” areas such as healthcare, schooling, etc.). Following these changes, there appears to be an urgent need for remodeling museums as a response to “globalization”.

 

 

It is not particularly important for me to identify what is Zapotec and what is Mixtec or where the pieces comes from…The crucial concern is to know with some exactness what an object tells us as indigenous people.

Manuel Rios Morales, Zapotec

 

 

 

 

We are gathered here to discuss the future of this ethnographic museum, its collections, and future exhibits. Obviously, there are different objectives, different priorities, at stake. Over the last two decades there has been a massive critique of the ethnographic museum in general as a representative of Western power, objectification of the Other, and of theft and confiscation of objects, as well as misrepresentation in exhibits. Museums, and ethnographic museums in particular, are of course affected by both global and local changes. But, museums also have a history and development of their own. The collecting of ethnographic objects, from American Indians and other indigenous peoples, started with the European world expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that time such objects were regarded as exotic curiosities, decontextualized and kept away in private Kunst und Wunderkammer. With the second half of the eighteenth and particularly during nineteenth centuries, these private rooms opened their doors to the public and thus became a part of Western cultural institutions (and heritage). Collecting was systematized and curators began to provide the objects with context, thus making foreign artefacts into messages about distant cultures. Giving voice on behalf of the oppressed felt, and was at the time regarded, as an aspect of democracy.

 

Under the promising banner of post-colonialism and post-modernism some of today’s museums have entered into successful projects in collaboration with native peoples. In New York a National Museum of the American Indian is run and organized by a staff of natives, and elsewhere in the United States a couple of museums on reservation land has gained national, even international, recognition. Here in Sweden, the government has launched its largest cultural investment in modern time to a museum of World Culture in Gothenburg. So why do we have this meeting? Why do some of us worry when everything seems to be all right?

 

Well, things are not as good as they appear to be. Otherwise, one of the topics at this meeting would not have been: “What are the museums allowed to do?” Curators and researchers, myself included,  spoke at another conference just a couple of weeks ago under the heading of “Dangerous Objects”. I assume that we are standing at a crossroad with different paths to the future. No doubt, our opinions on which way to choose will differ and make case for a good argument. However, the serious problem is the state of confusion that now is residing. Currently ethics is turned into politics and it has become more important to demonstrate political correctness than presenting scientific arguments. Facts and knowledge are subordinated to currently fashionable opinions, just as inquiry and scholarly scrutiny are replaced by loose talk disguised as an enlightened tolerance. We are at the risk of ending up conflating respect and timidity, and confusing a willingness to be broad-minded with the narrow mindedness of political correctness. There are clear indications that we are heading in that direction. Let me give you a couple of examples.

 

(1) More and more empty displays can be found in the ethnographic and/or natural history museums in the United States. So called “sensitive objects” have been removed due to pressure from tribal spokesmen. It began with certain religious objects and has continued with anything associated with religious activities. Lately, another category of objects has been increasingly “sensitive”, namely artefacts associated with warfare. They are distorting the image of harmony and peace.

 

 

(2) A couple of my undergraduate students have ventured to do field studies on rez/reservations in Canada and US., collecting information for their term papers. These papers are not printed and published, only xeroxed for the seminar. Yet, in each case there have been attempts to control, even conduct censorship. One student who has been visiting the reservation more than once, is under pressure to write “the correct things”, not by her informants, but by people living outside the local community.

 

(3) At the 20th American Indian Workshop in Lund, Sweden, in April 1999, a scholar faced a very hostile verbal attack for showing photographs of a Blackfoot Sundance. These photos were taken more than a hundred years ago, and furthermore with the consent of the dancers. From the viewpoint of certain native activists, these photos should now be banned, even in a scholarly context.

 

(4) The recent publication of some scholarly works challenging, or more correctly, balancing the romantic image of the Indian as an ecological custodian of the earth, has stirred up emotions. Again, calls for banning written texts are heard.

 

Those who promote, defend and support such actions – may it be natives or nonnative, scholars of anthropology or cultural studies, museum curators, or others – often use concepts such as tolerance, respect, and democracy. But, to support these and other actions of restriction makes the relativist a servant of the fundamentalists, just as the pacifist is the servant of the killers. Democracy and human rights along with respect and tolerance will never prevail if we are beginning to accept and support the politics of prejudice and censorship.

 

 

We want white people to understand the Indian life, Indian priests, Indian early history, and contemporary Indian life.

Joe Medicine Crow, Crow

 

 

Is it possible to give the public a better understanding of Indians if knowledge and information are censored? Is anyone ever to benefit from a discussion or exhibit if some of the facts are not allowed to be put forward because they are difficult to face, not promoting a simple “good” image, or might be offensive to someone?

 

 

We, as native peoples, have idealized ourselves.

Tom Hill, Konadahah Seneca

 

 

Are objects to be hidden or repatriated upon demand? Speaking generally I will favor a very critical attitude toward all such demands. There are, of course, exceptions, but artifacts collected for museums are to be available to the public, for the pursuit of research and learning. As requests for repatriation cannot be ignored or avoided, museums should take a firm stand against such demands. At least in the Swedish context, most collections have not been made by force, theft or confiscation. It is indeed import not to forget that these collections are part of the Swedish heritage as well.

 

 

The relationship between natives and collectors is a very complex field, not a simple question of good guys versus bad guys. The transfer of artifacts was a social phenomenon, including gift-giving, business transactions, and occasionally trusts and friendship. Some objects have been stolen or confiscated, but the idea that Indians as a rule have been forced to surrender their artifacts is a misleading notion that denies people of the past the capacity of have being actors in society. We know about the extended network of ancient trading and realize that native middlemen were very active in the colonial fur trade, etc. Why it is so difficult to accept that Indians sold artifacts to museum collectors, including used religious objects no longer regarded powerful and sacred? Most sacredness is actually read into old objects, not in the least with political purposes, by present-day native activists.

 

In order to meet First Nations with respect and tolerance, it is necessary to maintain the scientific debate open for questions, reflections and arguments. In the case of museums, particularly ethnographic museums, the latter should not absorb a nation’s guilt to past wrongdoings. Instead they can provide information and knowledge about such injustices. If we agreed that such a goal is worthy of attention, then history can never be reduced to stories and opinions in the sloppy (“anything goes”) manner that my story is as good as anybody else, and in the long run as good as any story. On the contrary, history must be argued in terms of facts and arguments. Accordingly, museums are to strive toward knowledge and serious scholarship instead of promoting the idea of shaping the institution into amusement centers and meeting halls. Disney World is quite successful in turning ethnic diversity into a celebration of exotic music and dance, so why compete?

 

Museums must change is the saying of the day. There is a rush to reorganize and retool this institution that has a long history. Exactly how, and perhaps also why, seems to be much more uncertain. According to the official statement of ICOM, museums are instruments of social and cultural development and in their role of preserving and promoting heritage, museums are guarantors of the cultural identity of peoples and communities. ICOM, also state that, “drawing on 200 years of history of public museums”, the mandate is to collect, conserve, exhibit, educate, and communicate.

 

Now, taking a look at the changes announced for the new and forthcoming Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg the emphasis seems to focus the concepts of meeting-place and entertainment. Located at convenient vicinity of Lisseberg, the amusement park of the city, the new museum is expected to draw a mass audience on a daily basis. The building space is generous, while the intellectual input appears to be very narrow. Collecting, conserving and exhibiting objects appears to be, at most, a secondary priority. As long as anything is presented in a fashionable way, by the latest computer technology, the educational aspect is taken for granted. This “ethnographic museum” will function as a social rendez-vous, celebrating cultural richness with dance and film. (I still designate the Museum of World Culture as an “ethnographic museum”, because nobody has so far referred to it as a theater or cultural center.)

 

 

The world culture museums are, obvious, a sign of transformation of the contemporary state from a strategy of nationalization to one of pluralization. The new museum in Sweden is, from beginning to end, a political enterprise. The Temples of the Muses are becoming Temples of a current ideology that disregards both collections and knowledge in favor of the politically and economically significant project of pluralization. If Musée Quai Branly, which has been named Musée des Arts Premiers, is constructed in a long tradition of French presidential monumentalism, the Swedish counterpart is designed in the name of “political correctness”. In France the closing and/or remodeling of ethnographic museums at least has a goal, the turning of tribal objects into art, whereas nobody seems to know what to expect of the Swedish one, except that it is going to be a nice meeting-place.

 

 

 

 

Post Scriptum

 

The attempts to control research continues and has gone as far as personal threats against a scholar who is working with issues pertaining to native religions. The category of objects too sensitive for public display is increasing day by day, and access to archival field notes and diaries are no longer given. Upon my request for archival access Jonathan Haas, MacArthur Curator of the Americas at The Field Museum in Chicago, responded in a letter dated October 18, 2001: “In regard to gaining access to the Dorsey archives, it is not possible at this time to grant permission. The Dorsey notes and records, particularly with regard to religious activities of different Native American groups, contain material that is considered highly sensitive and restricted by contemporary Indian groups.” Dorsey’s material is considered “sensitive and inappropriate for scholarly research”.

 

Ultimately, the symposium in Stockholm was a discussion about how to display Native American peoples and cultures in ethnographic museums. As Christian F. Feest outlines, such a discussion concerns three broad questions, i.e., the general issue of representation, the ethnographic museums as institutions, and the role of American Indians in Western history, ideology, and cultural production. Numerous books and articles touch upon this subject today, many of them confusing and one-sided to say the least. Following all the efforts of deconstruction, it is very hard not to conclude that there has never been made a single exhibit out of respect and sincere admiration for the Indian peoples.

 

My conclusion is that the ethnographic museums of today are under pressure, maybe even under siege, from two quarters. One actor is the political elite who tries to use the ethnographic museums as an ideological tool in transforming the national state into a plural society, i.e., not merely in descriptive terms, but in the normative sense. The other pressure group consists of native communities, putting the ethnographic museums on the political agenda. While native opinion does not speak with a uniform voice on this matter, certain members of its intellectual elite seem to play a prominent part. One may, of course, only speculate about their reason for this. Perhaps these intellectuals entertain a hope to promote their personal career by claiming cultural copyright. I believe that curators and other museum officials should stand firm against both parties, not giving in to popular views, but remaining confident in their own professional judgement as regards the proper role of museums in the documentation and exhibition of cultural artifacts. Easier said than done, of course. Indeed, a challenge for the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i].All quotes in italics are from the exhibit All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.