Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Art to Artifact, Artifact to Art

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to post this while I was in Vancouver. I went to UBC (University of British Columbia) Museum of Anthropology on Monday. Generally, I don’t like anthropology museums, since they tend to make cultures, usually those that were wiped out by the white people who created and now run the museum. This is supposed to have gotten better in the 60s or something, but if you go to the Anthropology museum at Harvard, every third caption is something like “this is the (item) that (armed white male) took from (unarmed person), Chief of the (group) Tribe, (white guy) shot the chief in the back of the head and ordered his slaves to take all of the chief’s stuff.” Yay!

The museum at UBC felt different. Yes, there were numerous artifacts taken from a variety of cultures, most prominently, there were a number of totem polls. However, the most prominently featured item was a giant redwood sculpture by an artist who is a member of an indigenous group. It was huge, made of wood, and portrayed the story of his tribe’s creation myth. After the Great Flood receded and there was again dry land, Raven, the trickster, flew through the air surveying the damage. He found a (giant) clamshell, and prying it opened, discovered the founders of the tribe, the first humans. The fact that this piece of what is clearly art
Why is the Sistine Chapel, painted in 1512, or the Mona Lisa, painted in 1503 considered art, while a totem poll carved in 1884 is considered artifact, a relic of history? When a civilization is destroyed, the humanity of that group disappears. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci,while the totem poll was made by "native Americans." What was different about the totem polls at the museum (and the ones at Stanley Park, which I forgot to mention) is that they are contextualized in the living, continuing history of the cultures to which they belong. The museum at UBC had a declaration of rights signed by a group from one of the First People tribes asserting the right to their land. At Stanely Park, totem polls from before the potlatch ban (the most serious form of persecution against the indiginous peoples of British Columbia) were mixed among more modern ones, which served as art, and in doing so, restored to their fellow pieces that status.

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