Edward Rothstein: Should Tribes or Museums Tell the History Presented at Museums?

Roundup: Talking About History

Edward Rothstein, in the NYT (12-21-04):

Museums always make use of the past for the sake of the present. They collect it, shape it, insist on its significance. When that past is also prehistoric, when its objects come to the present without written history and with jumbled oral traditions, a museum can even become the past's primary voice.

But what if that prehistoric past is also claimed by some as a living heritage? Then disagreements about interpretation develop into battles over the museum's very function.

That was the result, for example, at the Smithsonian Institution's $219 million National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in September in Washington and calls itself a "museum different." George Gustav Heye's extraordinary collection of 800,000 tribal American objects is put in service of contemporary Indian cultures with tribal guest curators determining how their heritage is to be presented. The result is homogenized pap in which the collection is used not to reveal the past's complexities, but to serve the present's simplicities.

There are, however, other ways in which the prehistoric past can be revealed, as two exhibitions in Chicago suggest. At the Field Museum, "Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas," is remarkable not just for its careful exploration of the famed archeological site high in the Peruvian Andes, but also for demonstrating an almost devotional care to exhuming a lost past. At the Art Institute of Chicago, "Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South" is no less remarkable in its display of objects created by ancient American cultures, but it is subject to many of the same forces that molded the National Museum of the American Indian. Here though, rather than overturning the museum's enterprise, they merely distract from it.

First, the Machu Picchu exhibition. Created by the Peabody Museum at Yale, it offers the largest collection of Incan artifacts ever shown in the United States, including robust three-foot-high jugs for corn beer (which was fermented by the saliva of women who chewed the maize before brewing it); samples of bright, geometrically ornamented 500-year-old fabrics; and a corded "quipu," a linked collection of knotted strings used to record events and numerical accounts. The curators are Richard L. Burger, a Yale anthropologist, and Lucy C. Salazar, a Peruvian archaeologist.

The major question about Machu Picchu has not been who speaks for its past, but what that past actually was. The site, with its terraced, mountainous landscape and stone structures, was known to only a few local inhabitants when it was discovered by Hiram Bingham III, who led Yale's Peruvian Expedition in 1911. As Mr. Berger and Ms. Salazar explain various hypotheses by Bingham, including one that the site was a sacred nunnery for Incan "Virgins of the Sun," have been conclusively disproved. The curators established, instead, that it was a summer retreat for a ruling Incan family, built between 1450 and 1470 and used only for about 80 years before being abandoned in the face of the Incas' defeat by Pizarro's Spanish armies....

Still, there are subtle traces of contemporary claims evident in the portrayal of this prehistoric culture. After all, Machu Picchu is now a national symbol in Peru; in 2001, it was used for the inauguration of the president, Alejandro Toledo. It is also the object of almost mystical devotion. Hundreds of thousands of tourists climb its ruins every year.

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