Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Museum Review: Hall of Pacific Peoples, American Museum of Natural History


Some people have wondered why there are exhibits on human culture in the American Museum of Natural History. They are mistaken to wonder like this, because humans are indeed part of nature. The same natural forces that shape the lifeways of other biological species shape our own. We are dependent on nature for sunlight, water, food to eat, oxygen, &c, and today we are becoming increasingly aware of just how delicate and specific our environmental needs actually are. Besides, some would argue that other biological species also produce and experience "culture," just as we do. So there really is no hard and fast line between "nature" and "culture," or between "human history" and "natural history."

But critics are also right to wonder about the specific inclusion of human groups into the American Museum of Natural History, because only certain human groups are represented here: there is a hall for Northwest Coast Indians, a hall for Eastern and Central US Indians, a hall for the peoples of Central America, a hall for the peoples of South America, a hall for Asian peoples, and a hall for African peoples. And, of course, a hall for Pacific peoples. But what is missing? Duh...the hall of European peoples! There are at least 87 different European ethnic groups. I am the descendent of some of these peoples, including Jews and Finns. The criticism leveled upon the AMNH is that by including all human groups except Europeans, the museum is basically saying that all peoples besides the Europeans are the product of "natural," rather than "human," forces, as if biological evolution was the only explanation for why Asian peoples are different than African peoples, as if human agency is solely the province of white peoples and all others are motivated only by the tides, winds, and sexual selection. The flip side of this is that, for a long time, human history only encompassed (from the Euro-centric perspective) the stories of the Bible, with events in Egypt and in the Levant. Then came the great Roman and Greek city-states and empires and so on...then 1492...and human history in a nutshell was about the expansion and development of the white race(s). Of course, much of the Museum of Natural History has been planned and designed by white peoples, and, much of the history of natural history museums concerns the theater of empire: that the USA could get its hands on so many biological species and cultural artifacts from around the world demonstrates to that very world the global and hegemonic reach of American empire. So it is no wonder that Euro-Americans have refused to place themselves on equal footing among the other ethnic groups on the museum floor. That a US museum could taxonomically organize all the world's peoples (sans Europeans) and the world's species showcases our nation's ability to control the way that people understand the relationships of peoples and species in this world. The signature of the curator at the entrance of the exhibit hints at the true power dynamics (the dynamics of representation) that work to present the world to us in this way. (For an example of something completely different that a museum can do to represent human culture in a way that honors the equality among all of us, check out the National Museum of the American Indian, where American Indians curate the exhibits themselves, where indigenous groups A-Z share equal space together, and where contemporary creations are given equal weight with traditional anthropological collections.)

...Anyway, I promised myself I would write an optimistic review of a museum exhibit for once...or at least try to! (See my previous reviews of Oceanian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.) The truth is, I love visiting the American Museum of Natural History. Furthermore, they have the greatest gallery of Oceanian material culture in the entire city of New York, if not this side of the Bishop Museum.


You enter the Hall of Pacific Peoples, and the first thing you encounter are the private objects of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist and founder/designer of the Hall of Pacific Peoples.
On the left are objects gifted to Mead by the indigenous peoples she lived and worked amongst in the Pacific. At right is her cloak and walking stick.

You turn the corner and, before entering the actual Hall, you travel past rows of photos of contemporary life in Oceania.
I really appreciate this opening experience, because it reminds us, the viewers, that the present is not locked in the past, but rather that Pacific peoples are still here, still changing with the times.

Margaret Mead's touch is everywhere in the Hall of Pacific Peoples. And she was undeniably an amazing person with an amazing influence upon Pacific peoples and upon Western views towards Pacific peoples. She studied at Columbia University in the 1920s with revolutionary anthropologist Frank Boas. While working on her PhD (awarded in 1929), she conducted fieldwork for nine months in 1925-26 on the island of Taʻū in the Manuʻa archipelago, American Samoa. The outcome of her fieldwork, besides her PhD, was the book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). It is considered a groundbreaking work in American anthropology, especially for someone who was only in their 20s at the time, as Mead was.

Map of American Samoa showing Taʻū in the Manuʻa Islands.
What was life like in Taʻū during the 1920s? How strong was the American presence? I don't know...so we'll have to read Mead's book!

More on Mead a little later....

Upon entering the actual Hall, to the left is a large map of Oceania. The different cultural groups on display in the hall are color-coded here on the map.
Indonesia: Orange
Philippines: Yellow Orange
Australia: Red
Micronesia: Light Blue
Melanesia: Greenish Blue
Polynesia: Light Green

Museum visitors beware: the Micronesia section is just one small wall in the far back, right section, tucked away behind all things Polynesian. Why does Micronesia always get such a small area? Australia, Philippines, and Indonesia - although these groups are not always considered part of "Oceania" - encompass about half of the Hall of Pacific Peoples. The rest is split between Melanesia and Polynesia, most likely because these are the two cultural areas where Mead did her fieldwork and research.

In 1928-29, Mead left Columbia again to live among the Manus people of Great Admiralty Island (aka Manus Island) in the Admiralty Islands. On the way to the Polynesian section of the Hall, I stopped to learn a bit about the Manus people...

In the spirit of showing at least one exhibit item not related to Polynesia (sorry, I am so obsessed with Polynesia!), here is a diorama of a Manus village on Manus Island.

Mead's use of dioramas in the Hall of Pacific Peoples is one of the highlights of the exhibit: children especially enjoy transporting themselves into the worlds of people other than themselves by viewing scenes of daily life in a diorama village.

On the other hand, these dioramas fail to explain the chronological date of when this scene is supposed to be taking place. With this omission, the dioramas falsely offer an "essentialist" explanation of Pacific life, as if this is the regular, traditional, original, essential way that people lived here. But as Mead should have known, cultures are dynamic and fluid rather than static. If this Manus scene is what she saw in 1929, then it is very likely not what we would have seen in 1829, nor what we would see in 2010....

On to Polynesia....

I was not quite sure where the Polynesian section began, but then, as I turned away from the Manus diorama, I saw this dark image stenciled onto the back wall of a divider in the room. I looked closer at it: it is a Marquesan tattoo design! Aha! Polynesia!

First stop in the Polynesian section: the Māori. This whole gallery here, pictured behind the main object, is devoted to Māori material culture.
The object is a pataka (storehouse) used by a Māori chief. Here the chief would store those mana-rich objects that he hoped to protect from theft. Many types of animals (real and mythical) appear to guard the storehouse door...
Besides the intricate carvings, I also appreciate the quality of the wood itself, especially the rich red color...

Detail of the pataka door. This may be a type of human figure, but also perhaps a lizard figure. (I still haven't figured out why the lizard figure is common in Polynesian art. I know that lizards are not indigenous to any of the volcanic Polynesian archipelagos, because there was no way for a lizard to get to any of those oceanic outposts! But in Aotearoa, there was this guy: tuatara.)
Regardless, the figure on the pataka door is meant to frighten away would-be-thieves. He assumes a stance, including the extended tongue, which reminds me of Māori haka (a traditional dance form).

I continued to poke around the Māori section, and found this most interesting object: it is just one of many cloaks made of flax exhibited in this glass case. But this cloak is fascinating because of the red and green material used to decorate it: wool!

I found it interesting that the Māori, of all Polynesian peoples, had little success with making tapa clothing. Like all Polynesian voyagers before them, the original Polynesian settlers of Aotearoa brought the paper mulberry tree (Hawaiian: wauke) with them. The bark from this tree was, until Aotearoa, the primary material used by Polynesian peoples in the production of clothing.

But the climate in Aotearoa was different than that experienced by the Polynesians elsewhere, and paper mulberry just would not grow that successfully. So the Māori turned to the native flax plant and made most of their garments from flax.

The finest Māori flax cloaks (on display but not pictured here) were decorated with feathers from the kiwi bird; these cloaks were called kahu kiwi. Just as Hawaiians used colorful bird feathers to decorate their olonā fiber cloaks, kiwi bird feathers provided extra mana to the wearer of a kahu kiwi cloak.

But this cloak is different, because it exhibits some refreshing historicity! That is, we can probably date this cloak to the late nineteenth century, if not the twentieth century, because of the use of wool as a replacement for kiwi feathers. I don't suggest to know anything about the status of kiwi feather harvesting at this time, but rather I suggest that wool was a new product, a newly locally produced product, perhaps cheaper and easier to acquire, or if not, then more mana-rich than kiwi because of its rarity and associations with foreign power. Sheep and wool signaled a changing New Zealand, and this cloak shows how Māori could adopt to those changes without losing any of their artistry or identity.

I next turned to Hawaiʻi. Here is a beautiful yellow, black, and red ʻahuʻula (feather cloak). I will spare you the details about the birds and ideas involved in the production of this cloak, and direct you to a previous post where I discussed Hawaiian featherwork at greater length.

A comprehensive view of the Hawaiian collections on exhibit. These include another beautiful, even larger, ʻahuʻula (cloak); some unfeathered olonā objects, such as a mahiole (helmet), and a religious figure; at bottom left are calabash gourd poi containers, poi pounders, fishhooks, etc.
This provides a nice overview of traditional Hawaiian material culture, but unfortunately there are no objects here to express how Hawaiian material culture evolved after 1778. This exhibit could learn from the Māori one with the wool in it...but what type of "modern" object should they include?

Detail of the mahiole (helmet) on display. This is an unfinished helmet; it would normally have feathers attached to it and completely covering it. But this unfinished mahiole gives us the opportunity to appreciate the intricate fiber work performed by Hawaiians using olonā fiber. This type of fiber work similarly provides the foundations for the larger ʻahuʻula capes.

A Night at the Museum....(sigh)....

A very cute American child standing in front of a replica moʻai.
It was hard for me to take a photo of this moʻai without other people in the way. Most of the time, crowds of children (and parents, too) were grouped around the moʻai as relatives took photos of them. Different than this well-behaved girl, most visitors also made funny gestures or made verbal comments of a strange order while standing in front of the moʻai.

What is it about this object that attracts Americans (and tourists) so much?!

"Dum Dum"...Take One

"Dum Dum"...Take Two

"Dum Dum"...Take Three (even in another language!...Gee, and I thought all Easter Island statues only spoke English!)

Take Four: the "reel" deal, from the movie Night at the Museum (2006).

OK. So I get it now. There was a pretty bad movie in 2006 that lots of people seemed to really enjoy called Night at the Museum. It took place at the American Museum of Natural History, and viewers of the movie were led to believe that among many other objects in the museum, the Hall of Pacific People's moʻai statue could come alive at night and converse with Ben Stiller. Not only that, but this moʻai could only speak in a very simply language, frequently using the words "dum dum" and "gum gum" to try and get his point across. (Note that these syllables are not necessarily found in Polynesian languages.) Somehow kids across America (and apparently across the world) have come to think of this moʻai's name as "Dum Dum," and that if he is not fed "gum gum," then he will be very unhappy.

And so the whole two hours I was in the Hall of Pacific Peoples I could not stop hearing for even one minute the constant sound of kids entering the Hall and screaming "Look, dad, it's Dum Dum!" or worse: "He wants gum gum." I actually even overheard a security guard mentioning that some visitor in the past had placed gum into the moʻai's mouth and then the museum staff had to clean it out! Thankfully, this moʻai is only a replica, not a real one.

So what does this crazy fascination with moʻai...excuse me, "Dum Dum"...mean for peoples' understanding of Polynesian cultures. It does not appear to have helped at all. I witnessed incredibly few people reading informational text near the moʻai. I even saw a group of children led by a tour guide to the moʻai and even the guide said very little about why moʻai were built, what they symbolized, or anything about the people, the Rapa Nui, behind the construction of moʻai.

What a missed opportunity for all of us to learn more about Rapa Nui and its people. And can you imagine how it would feel to be a Rapa Nui tourist in NYC and see the way that these kids (and adults) respond to what is a sacred object in your culture?!

The Samoan Diorama

Another prominent diorama in the Hall is this one of a Samoan village. Remember that Mead spent nine months in 1925-26 in American Samoa during her first fieldwork.
This view of the entire diorama shows the geography of this ocean-side village. Each structure apparently has its own unique purpose, as further images will demonstrate.

This detail shows a taro plantation at foreground, and people in a hut in the background cooking the taro (?) It is not clear to me what gender these taro workers are, but if "ancient" Samoa was anything like "ancient" Hawaiʻi, then these taro producers would be male.

Here, women are making tapa from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. It appears that they are keeping colored dyes in the overturned calabash gourds, and they are using bamboo stamping rods (Hawaiian: ʻohe kāpala) to create designs on the tapa.
The man at front appears to be drinking from a coconut...
These men are dancing. I don't know, however, what type of dance this is called....

Inside the largest hut, a man appears to be receiving a tatau (tattoo) on his back.

There is something, of course, somewhat comical about this diorama scene, in that it is hard to believe that everyone in the village would be engaged simultaneously in all these traditional arts and practices. What we don't see are those Samoans who traveled into town to go to market, to buy objects, or to trade objects, or those engaging with foreign traders offshore (should this scene reflect an earlier age of cultural contact). But in fact this ahistoric scene reflects a time in space that is impossible to pinpoint. The men dance for no one -- no one is watching -- perhaps they are only rehearsing. Everyone is at work, and yet early white settlers and missionaries considered Polynesian peoples to be the laziest on earth (which is just to say that, it wouldn't hurt to show some Samoans sitting around watching TV, depending on what time period this is supposed to represent). There is so much not going on here, that even though I think it is an interesting and beautiful diorama, it really tells us very little about Samoan people and how they negotiated their lives among each other and among outsiders.

Continuing along, there are displays on tapa manufacture, like this one showing the use of the bamboo stamps, as mentioned above.

Detail of various tapa from across Polynesia.

Beautiful Marquesan uʻu (clubs)
I have long thought that Marquesan uʻu might just be the most beautifully carved wooden objects in the whole world!

And here is some more tapa....but wait! That's not real tapa. It is actually cotton cloth (not paper mulberry bark cloth) decorated as tapa!

Yes, in fact, I was about the leave the Hall altogether when I took a double-take glance at this faux tapa. Just like the Māori advantageously began to use wool to decorate their cloaks, apparently some Polynesians (it is unclear where this faux tapa is specifically from) began to use cotton as a simple substitute for producing tapa. Consider how the utilization of foreign cotton may have liberated women from the labor of having to pound bark into tapa all day. On the other hand, we might regret the loss of indigenous knowledge that takes place when a women gives up bark for cotton, but still there is the process of dying the cloth, that which gives the cloth its distinctively Polynesian look.

I find this object incredibly interesting, because it may very well have any of many stories behind it. Perhaps it was produced for a foreigner who preferred cotton, or for a foreigner who simply did not recognize the difference between cotton and bark and got scammed (I am checking right now to make sure that my tapa from Hawaiʻi is the real deal! Phew! it is.) Or perhaps it was produced for local use, because cotton was cheaper, or because, as I said, it liberated women from their labors. Whatever the story, we can be sure that this peculiar object - cotton decorated as tapa - speaks much more to the historical realities of Polynesian life over the past two and a half centuries than any of the other, more "traditional" objects in the museum do.

In Conclusion

(Note the cotton tapa at bottom right.) I looked up and noticed this gallery before me, all of what we could term "hybrid" objects: variations on traditional Oceanian material culture in the wake of cultural contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans. There are ornaments utilizing shirt buttons, harmonica sidings, watch parts, glass, &c.

The exhibit text states that native societies underwent greater cultural change than Western societies did when confronted with cross-cultural contact and material exchanges.
Is that really true?
For every example displayed here of a Oceanian production that has incorporated aspects of European or Euro-American material culture, could we not also display objects of European or Euro-American production that have incorporated aspects of Oceanian material culture?
I think that we could...and I hope to design such a virtual exhibit in a future blog post.

In the gallery next to that one, I found this: Oceanian objects visually representing white peoples. There is a Balinese shadow puppet representing a German. A Polynesian statue depicts a man with beard and top hat, perhaps an American.
These objects are so fascinating, and yet they comprise such a small part of the Hall of Pacific Peoples. But at least they are here! -- here to remind us that Pacific peoples exercise their own agency (and are not just acted upon) when in contact with foreign peoples, materials, and power.
It is not just that Europeans and Euro-Americans have long commented on Pacific peoples, but look: they have also commented upon us. If the museum could be more like this - more like a conversation - then I think we might all become a tad bit happier with the role of museums in society...even Margaret Mead, I think, would agree with that (had she lived to see this day)...and, yup, I think even "Dum Dum" would be happy!

So go visit a museum! And look at everything critically! And above all else, have fun!

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