Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Captain Morgan and Colonial Panama

The ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, the Rio Chagres, and, 200 meters offshore, Lajes Reef (Captain Morgan Rum Co.)

When most people think of Captain Morgan, they think of cheap rum. However, Archaeology magazine published a fascinating article by Samir Patel, “Pirates of the Original Panama Canal,” about a major underwater archaeology site off of Panama’s Pacific Coast, that reinforces Henry Morgan’s reputation as one of the greatest privateers and naval strategists of his time, while showing that, even at its most single-minded, good archaeology can illuminate whole eras.
Rum Mascot Captain Morgan (wikipedia)

            The site in question is Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Rio Chagres, the head of the old overland route across the isthmus that brought precious metals and the wealth of the Pacific to Spain – as Patel says it was once “the world’s most valuable river.” Morgan began his pillaging of Porto Bello, at the time the third-most important city in the New World, here, as he destroyed the fort before sailing north and looting and burning the city. Unfortunately rough waves and treacherous geography lost him five ships that foundered off Lajas Reef, 200 meters offshore.

Actual privateer Captain Morgan (wikipedia)


            The battle is well documented, but Texas State University archaeologist Fritz Hanselmann is still looking for the remains of the ships, especially Morgan’s flagship Satisfaction  - and his work has the financial backing of the Captain Morgan Rum Company. There has been some success – eight cannons, six of which were raised. If verified, they would be the only surviving material evidence of Morgan’s raid. This is difficult however, as small cannons such as these were extremely heterogenous, even on the same vessel, and were often bought and sold between ships.

            So it raises the question, at least initially, of what the point of the excavation is – certainly no one is denying that the battle of San Lorenzo occurred, and Henry Morgan is one of the most thoroughly documented pirates in history. Since his privateering was sanctioned by the British government it was perfectly legal, and he died wealthy and happy on a 400,000 acre sugar plantation in Jamaica. He had no reason to hide anything.

            The answer is around the edges of the histories. As Hanselmann notes, “If significant portions of ships are found, spatial analysis of their layouts or modifications might reveal some of these social dynamics, such as whether Morgan had his own cabin or shared quarters with his men, as some pirate captains had. The design of the ship itself could reflect its culture.” Similarly, discoveries of other wrecks around Lajas Reef, such as a merchant vessel already found, can tell us much about the nature of Panamanian trade and shipboard and colonial culture at the time. By conducting this sort of investigation under the easy to explain (and easy to obtain funding for) guise of “sexy” archaeology like finding Captain Morgan’s flagship, the archaeological world can benefit in all kinds of ways.

The ruins of Porto Bello today (wikipedia)



Businessweek Article on Captain Morgan Rum's branding and archaeological funding: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-06-05/captain-morgan-s-search-for-the-real-morgans-brand-treasure

Friday, April 26, 2013

Saving the Vasa


   The 17th century Swedish warship Vasa set out on its maiden voyage as symbol of military power and a source of national pride. King Gustavus II Adolphus, in the midst of a troublesome conflict with Poland, needed his new weapon to revolutionize naval warfare in the Baltic. As a result of his interjections, engineers increased Vasa’s originally intended length and added an additional gun deck to hold heavy cannon, ensuring its place among the elite warships of the world. Measuring 69m in length and 52m in height, weighing 900 tons, and carrying 64 cannons, Vasa launched on August 10, 1628 before a massive crowd that had assembled to catch a glimpse of Sweden’s new floating behemoth. Roughly 1km into its first trip, a gust of wind blew the top heavy ship onto its side. Water flooded into gun ports that were open for ceremonial fire, quickly pulling Vasa and half of its crew 35m down to the bottom of Stockholm harbor.
oops
   Vasa’s sinking granted it a unique position in history. The doomed ship represents both an impressive logistical endeavor and a colossal economic failure. Designed to intimidate enemies and inspire allies, it was visually stunning and physically overwhelming, but its construction cost over five percent of the nation’s GNP and its loss was catastrophic. Perhaps this duality factors in Vasa’s ability to intrigue the public.

   After being rediscovered in 1956 and raised to the surface in 1961, painstaking efforts toward preservation were immediately undertaken. Oxygen deprived conditions at the bottom of the cold, polluted harbor kept Vasa well protected from destructive organisms, leaving it in remarkably good shape. However there was some degradation, which becomes a problem as the water logged wood dries and collapses around the compromised area. To prevent this shrinking and crumbling of the hull, it was sprayed with polyethylene glycol (PEG): a wax compound that absorbs into the wood and takes the place of water. This was done every 45 minutes for 17 years, after which the wood was allowed to dry for nine years. In 1988, Vasa was moved into a climate controlled building that both preserves the ship and presents it as a primary museum display.


Boarding Vasa is forbidden, but you can get pretty close

Note the elaborate designs. These carvings would have originally been pigmented quite colorfully
   The Vasa Museum, while nearly as visually impressive as its namesake, has not been the ideal environment for the aging warship it was intended to be. After a particularly rainy year of 2000, it was discovered that humidity levels needed to be more strictly regulated in the museum. The problem arose due to PEG’s tendency to absorb and desorb atmospheric moisture. If conditions are too humid, destructive micro-organisms can thrive and wreak havoc on the exterior. Additionally, the increased water weight could put overwhelming strain on a hull that wasn’t designed to support the weight of the vessel on land in the first place. If allowed to dry out, the wood could weaken and crack, endangering critical support joints. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, humidity fluctuations cause moisture to transfer throughout the wood. This moves sulfur, imbedded into the wood during its stay in the polluted harbor, to open air where it can react with corroded iron from bolts and fittings, creating an erosive acid compound. In order to keep the humidity at an appropriate, constant level and prevent all of this microscopic mayhem, a new, more effective climate control system was installed in 2004 and a vast array of sensors are constantly being monitored and upgraded. This has resulted in a far more stable environment for the delicate Vasa.


Vasa Museum
  Fittingly, Vasa’s new challenge is economic. All of this restoration and preservation is wildly expensive. Fortunately, people love the Vasa and its museum is the most widely visited maritime museum in the world. However, due to concerns with the limitations of the climate control system, the number of daily visitors is capped. Economically driven demands to allow entrance to larger numbers of paying customers are now pushing against fears that the building's climate will be compromised. This is the delicate balancing act that Vasa’s caretakers have to manage if Sweden’s most beloved naval disaster is going to survive half as much time above the harbor as it did below.

More Info:
Time Capsule from the 17th Century: Stockholm's Vasa Museum

Maintaining a Stable Environment: Vasa's New Climate Control System

The Chemistry of the Vasa 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Welikia Project: Uncovering the Ecology of Pre-European New York City

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Believe it or not, New York City has not been around forever.  Though it has garnered a reputation as one of world’s largest and most important metropolitan areas, compared to many other major cities around the globe, New York is actually on the younger side.  In fact, if one were to look back a mere four hundred years, where we now see grids, asphalt and towering structures of stone and steel, we would actually see a rather unfamiliar picture: a lush, sprawling and diverse natural landscape. 

Such was the finding of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia Project.  Originally dubbed the Manhatta Project, this research initiative was an attempt by scientists to reveal the original 1609 ecology of the city’s largest borough, and has since expanded to include all five boroughs and parts of western Long Island (hence the name change).  The results of the study are actually quite striking, as evidenced by the interactive “Welikia Map,” essentially a Google Maps rendering of 1609 NYC.  A visitor to the Welikia Project’s website will find that the map renders a wholly alien New York, an ecologically rich landscape covered in streams, forests, marshes, hills and other natural phenomena, a fascinating look at a city that we so often take for granted. 
Map of "Welikia"

The Welikia Map even boasts an interactive feature that allows the viewer to more closely examine the wildlife and landscape of individual blocks, and then compare those features to its modern day manifestation.  From an archaeological standpoint, however, the most intriguing aspect of this feature is the tab that allows the viewer to explore the lifestyle and landscape of the Lenape people who inhabited the area before Europeans arrived.  When I first visited the Welikia Project’s website, I was actually worried that I would only find an ecological survey of 1609 New York, void of any reference to the humans who lived as a part of that ecosystem for hundreds of years. I was, however, pleasantly surprised, as the interactive Welikia Map allows for exploration of the landscape habitat of the Lenape, as well as the species of animals and plants they would have hunted and gathered.  For example, in the area where Columbia University currently stands, the landscape most likely did not allow for Lenape encampments or trails, but the ecology did include many animals that the Lenape hunted, including the Wild Turkey and White-tailed Deer, and plants that they gathered, such as the Lowbush Blueberry and Lyreleaf Sage.
Morningside Heights, 1609


As an archaeologist, one aspect of the Welikia Map that is a bit discomforting is the fact that the modern New York grid is mapped across the original 1609 ecology, not to mention the modern borders of boroughs, cities and states.  Though the interactive tabs do allow for a more direct experience of Welikia, I still feel that the map does not allow for a truly experiential study of the landscape.  How is one to truly understand the pre-European landscape if one is consciously aware of the fact that the meadow he or she is exploring is now on Fifth Avenue, or that the forested area he or she is interested in is currently home to the Spanish Embassy?  In addition, the stark change from diverse natural landscape to modern day grid dangerously borders on the territory of suggesting that European settlers mapped order onto an area in which none previously existed. 
Modern grid mapped onto 1609 ecology of Manhattan Island

Now, to be fair, this is not necessarily the responsibility of the Wildlife Conservation Society; their goals are almost purely ecological.  The study does, however, provide valuable tools for archaeologists and other researchers who would seek to expand upon this reconstruction of the 17th century New York City landscape.  Some have already taken this opportunity, including Marguerite Holloway, assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, whose recently published book, Measuring Manhattan, centers on John Randel Jr., the man who, in 1808, set out to map the modern grid of Manhattan Island.  Originally charged with writing a piece on what was then the Manhatta Project, Holloway became fascinated by Randel, whose data scientists depended upon in their ecological reconstructions, and eventually turned that fascination into a full-length biography.
John Randel Jr., from nytimes.com

One final mission of the Welikia Project that could prove fruitful for further archaeological study is to turn to the “modern biodiversity” of the city, relating the landscapes and lifestyles of contemporary New Yorkers to those of the area’s pre-European inhabitants. 

Though these represent only a fragment of the possibilities afforded to us through the Welikia Project, they show the ways in which the Wildlife Conservation Society has opened the door to understanding the meaning of landscape and place in relation to the original ecology of a major metropolitan area; the effects of modern mapping on a diverse natural landscape, as well as the effects of that landscape on the mapping process; and, finally, a way of experiencing the cityscape as an unfamiliar space, as a vibrant ecosystem filled with a myriad of foreign habitats, just waiting to be explored.

Welikia Project website: http://welikia.org

Wildlife Conservation Society website: http://www.wcs.org

Article on Marguerite Holloway’s Randel biography: http://news.columbia.edu/grid

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hopi Mask Auction Raises Questions of Ownership



"I am saddened to learn that #Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris." 


Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, American institutions receiving federal funding have returned hundreds of thousands of cultural items to their tribal owners. Often, specific repatriation offices and individuals are staffed to facilitate the safe return of objects (and human remains) to their rightful owners. It seems, however, that foreign nations fear similar processes of repatriation.

65 of 70 Hopi masks grossed 931,000 Euros ($1.2 million) during last Friday’s controversial auction in Paris. Five went unpurchased. Hopi members expressed that these items had been stolen from Hopi altars or confiscated by missionaries at the Arizona reservation during the 1930s and 1940s. Hopi members and their allies attempted to raise awareness about the sale of their sacred ritual objects – Katsinam (known as “friends”). These objects have a spiritual connection to the ancestors of today’s 18,000 Hopi peoples and are said to embody the spirits themselves. The French, however, were unsympathetic to requests for return. It was reported that the auction house suggested that the Hopi buy back the objects for themselves, since they believe that “art” in private collections cannot be considered sacred. Only one of the objects (selling for $4,900) was purchased with the intent to repatriate.

A judge’s ruling allowed the auction to proceed as planned, though protestors disrupted the sale numerous times. How should we re-evaluate old debates over art ownership (the Elgin marbles, for example)? Are sacred objects more than just “art?” Are property claims more valuable than respect?


Hopi Bo Lomahquahu, center, with other protesters outside the auction on Friday. Photo by Michel Euler/Associated Press

More information can be found:
and
and

And an informative article published before the auction:

I have chosen not to display images of the masks on this blog, but the pieces can be viewed at the Drouot’s auction house, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou:

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Art History vs. Archaeology

     As a disclaimer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is my favorite place in all of New York City, with the Museum of Natural History running a close second. Despite my love for it, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the exhibits. As an archaeology student, I am always wondering about the deeper questions behind the pieces that they display – why was the piece chosen for the museum, why did the artist choose to display the subject of the art, for what purpose was it made, and most importantly to me, what did it signify to people at the time of its creation? Unfortunately, the information provided by the museum often fails to answer these questions. 

The exterior facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

     One section of the museum where these questions really should be answered is the Greek and Roman Art collection. Thousands of people per day enter this section full of pre-conceived, uninformed, or highly romanticized notions of the classical world; I find that the information offered by the display plaques often fails to help broaden visitors’ perceptions and knowledge of the past. For every description of how a piece was physically created, there is a lack of explanation on how it ties into the symbols and cultural understandings of its contemporary people. We are rarely told how the ancient Greek or Romans would have processed or interacted with these objects that are physical depictions and remnants of their daily lives.


The Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, part of the Greek and Roman exhibit.
Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/~/media/Images/About%20the%20Museum/
Museum%20Departments/Curatorial%20Departments/Greek
%20and%20Roman.ashx?mw=495 

Piece 52.11.4, terracotta kylix (drinking cup)
Source: me
     An example of an art piece where more description would greatly enhance the experience of the object would be number 52.11.4 in The Bothemer Gallery II, a Terracotta kylix described by the display plaque as: “shows a man propositioning a youth. The composition is admirable for the easy juxtaposition of the figures, the characterization of the man by the purse and of the youth by the athletic equipment on the wall, and the emphasis placed on the hands in the center”. While not technically incorrect, there are deeper implications to the image on this drinking cup than this esthetic description reveals. The drinking cup would have been used at Symposiums, spaces of revelry and companionship where pederastic relationships would have been glorified. While some people know that the Greeks were much less biased against homosexuality than we are today, what they do not realize is that there were very strict rules about pederastic courtships and how they could be initiated, how they are not just sexual but necessarily ingrained in the function of society. This is a very peculiar kylix because of the presence of both the athletic equipment and the coin purse – the equipment indicates that the youth was a citizen, of rank and status enough to practice in the gymnasium, and while gift giving was a necessary part of Greek courtship, the gift of money is very out of place in this scene. A young man is usually given a symbolic gift from the potential lover, such as a hunting trophy, that indicate the worth of the older man he is about to give himself to; coins are portable and less permanent than an exchange of land or something more meaningful. Money is the gift that is given to courtesans, prostitutes, and hetairai, rather than proper, respectable Athenian citizens. 


     In the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, there is a large ornamental vase called  a calyx-krater, used to mix wine and water at Symposiums and other banquets. The plaque says: “The peristyle courtyards and gardens of the villas belonging to wealthy Romans were filled with fountains, sculpture, and monumental ornaments such as this vase...three maenads, followers of Dionysos, dance in abandon to the music of wooden clappers. Gnarled trees above the handles evoke and outdoor setting”. Again, for someone with little knowledge of Greek and Roman life, this description is lacking. There is no
Calyx-krater, number 23.184
Source: me
explanation given for why these particular figures would decorate such an object – attributing it to the depiction of a rustic scene is an incomplete description. In order to understand the presence of the women, the viewer must understand the conditions of a Symposium, the honors of the god Dionysos, and the symbolic meaning of a maenad. Symposiums were under the jurisdiction of Dionysos because of the vast quantities of wine consumed during them, as he was the deity of wine, drunken revelry, and chaos. More than that, the figures of the maenads might suggest something extra: they were symbols of unrestricted sexuality, wildness, and brutality. Their place of pride on the krater implies that the Symposiums these were used at were not civilized affairs of intellectual exchange as recorded by Plato or Xenophon's Symposium dialogues, but nights of frivolity and drunken mistakes. Another hint at the particularly tempestuous nature of this krater are the faces on the handles:
Calyx-krater, number 23.184 (Handle detail)
Source: me
the wild unkempt hair, pudgy features, and a dark expression might signify that they are satyrs, the constant companions of the maenads. They were also representatives of Dionysus, with similar sexual and savage characteristics.

     While there are many more examples of this throughout the Museum, this is not necessarily a critique, but a difference of opinion on what is important for the visitors to know. The museum approaches each piece from an “art history” perspective, making the viewing experience about the power of the onlooker’s interpretation in the present; I believe that visitor should be given more information about the cultural and social symbols from an archaeological perspective to fully appreciate it in the present. These description plaques do not point out important information about the Greeks and Romans in the past that would help modern viewers understand how these people would have perceived the objects they created.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rewriting History: Historical Reenactments


          Historical sites in America are thick with historical reenactments and living histories. From famous attractions, like Colonial Williamsburg, to lesser known sites, such as Mansker’s Fort, it is far from difficult to find a historical site with people in period clothing walking about. Americans have a fascination with their own history, a fact which is made obvious by the popularity of shows like “Band of Brothers” and “Antique Roadshow,” as well as the mere existence of the History channel. This love of history is often transformed into historical reenactments, which are both fun for the actors as well as the audience. However, the ubiquity of historical reenactments does not mean that they are uncontroversial, as their accuracy tends to be suspect with historians.
 Camp Music at a Civil War Reenactment (source)

Many historical reenactments claim to be recreating a true and factual history, to be portraying history as it actually happened. In a public context, they often present themselves as a learning experience, not just an enjoyable activity. Yet, these claims are often tenuous at best. While some historical actors take great time in researching the events and characters to create more accurate portrayals-- often referred to as the “progressives,” they are undoubtedly outnumbered by the “farbs,” or those who put considerably less time and effort into their historical reenactments.
 Civil War Reenactors on Tank (source)

What is at stake here is the whitewashing of history. With half-hearted reenactments, which serve the actors’ desires to roleplay more than a desire to educate, come misrepresentations of history. Actors and audiences focus more on nostalgic material, such as day-to-day activities or technology, rather than the actual atmosphere of the time. Racial, class, gender and other important issues get submerged under conversations about gun types and food preparation. Even important aspects of battlefield experiences are left out of battle reenactments. Instead of seeing something which points to the horror and blood of Civil War battles, one might instead see an actor or two reposing on the grass, playing dead, or even just a group of people in period costume relaxing and peacefully playing music.
Civil War Battle Reenactment (source)
 
As one historical reenactor laments, the audience is partially to blame for the whitewashing. Chris Ketcherside writes, “Most often the public simply asks, ‘What kind of machine gun is that?’ and the discussion ends there.” Anti-semitism among Allied soldiers in WWII or racism against African Americans in the Civil War are topics most of the audience would not feel comfortable seeing ‘lived out’, if they would be interested in them at all. Yet, these aspects of history often seem to be entirely lost in reenactments, even for the interested audience.



Afternoon Tea at the Plantation (source

The historical sites on Moss Wright Park in Goodlettsville, TN are exemplary of this misrepresentation of history. Moss Wright contains two historical sites-- Mansker’s Fort and the Bowen Plantation House. Mansker’s Fort is rife with historical reenactments, having numerous events open to the public, and even more for group trips, where one can watch a blacksmith at work and receive treats from pioneer women. Despite being a replica fort, Mansker’s advertises itself as “authentic,” as a place where one can “experience the lifestyle” of a Cumberland settler. Yet, there are conspicuous absences in the history provided. For instance, the Native American community is rarely represented, and if it is, it is by white men and women portraying Natives in the one-dimensional role of the villain, emerging from the woods and chasing the runners as they jog down the park paths.
 Advertisement for Masnker's Station Event (source)


 Field Trip to Mansker's Fort (source)


Even more disappointing than this misrepresentation of Native-Settler interaction is the absence of history from the Bowen Plantation House. While the site name is the “Bowen Plantation House,” the Goodlettsville website prefers to refer to it simply as the “Bowen House,” which “is truly a Tennessee treasure.” According to their website, “Through [Captain William Bowen’s] hard work and own ambitions, [he] became prosperous in the new settlement and eventually owned over 4,000 acres.” Not only does the website suggest Bowen acquired his status through individual accomplishment, but it does not make a single reference to slavery. If it is possible to erase slavery from the narrative of a plantation, Goodlettsville surely attempts to do this.


Wedding Celebrations at the Bowen Plantation House (source)


The problem of historical reenactments is the willingness of the audience to believe what they see, and the desire of the actors to produce an idealized portrait of the past, one that does not account for disease, horrific medical practice, and the grim reality of race, gender and class relations. Historical reenactments present themselves as ‘authentic,’ and as a learning experience. Yet, while technology may or may not be adequately represented, crucial dynamics and realities are left out of the event, as they do not fit harmoniously into the narrative the actors wish, or are desired to, create.

For more information:



Friday, March 1, 2013

Sounds of Silence


           The right to voice—both one’s own as well as the voices of others—has long been a problem in the Western world. While previously, the voices of minority groups were ignored if not entirely denied, the problem now seems to be who has the right to represent the voices of certain groups. The problem to right to voice seems to be especially problematic with regards to modern Native American groups.
            In the past, the Native voice was entirely disregarded, as the history of the U.S. and Native groups is littered with broken treaties, stolen land, and genocide. The problem of Native voice now, however, seems to be a conflict of who has the right to represent the needs and desires of Native groups. While many Native groups are not only willing but also desirous of the ability to speak for themselves, they seem to be continually hushed. While the art world is particularly sensitive to the needs of these artists, their progression in the arena still highlights core problems.
            Undoubtedly, Native American artists have come a long way from the heyday of the Santa Fe Indian School, where their needs and abilities as artists were dictated by the white director of the school. Yet, unfortunately, it seems that Native groups still have some way to go before they obtain sovereignty in the art world. This problem arises at the MAD Museum’s Changing Hands exhibit. While the exhibit undoubtedly progresses the field of Native art and is considerate the needs of Native American artists, it still works to illuminate how much work needs to be done.
            The three part exhibit aimed to be progressive in its showing of modern Native Art. Surely, it is more progressive than most. It allows the artists to present their works as they choose, and to give their own artists' statements. While the exhibit tends to discourage tribal affiliation, it accommodates artists that express tribal affiliation as particularly important. Yet, there is some irony in the curators of the ‘progressive’ exhibit, advocating Native sovereignty and presence, being a middle-aged white man and woman. While the curators seemed particularly adapt and sensitive to the rights and needs of their artists, it still begs the question of why Native Americans aren't running their own exhibits, or why they aren't fully integrated into the art world without being isolated as Native artists. It seemed to indicate the notion that, yes, Native Americans still exist, and can adapt to the times, but their voice is better represented by us. It is surely a marvel that the charge for Native groups to transcend stereotypes and other boundaries is led by non-Natives. The sub-title of one of the exhibit’s events is particularly striking: “We Are Still Here”. Well certainly, Native groups are. But why is it Ellen Taubman and David McFadden declaring it?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Mediation of Museums




The National Museum of the American Indian, located in Bowling Green.

            Museums take on a sacred notion in today’s society.  They are places of learning, of knowledge, and of “culture”.  But too often we go into museums expecting to soak up some wisdom from this objective pool of knowledge and consequently fail to recognize the many biases and subjective decisions that go into a museum’s presentation.  Keeping this in mind, I took a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this past weekend, hoping to gain not only insight to American Indians’ cultures past and present, but to see what conscious decisions went into the museum’s design and how that may influence a visitor.
            The first thing one notices upon entering New York’s NMAI is that it is located within the former U.S. Custom’s House.  The architecture of this building harkens back to the classics, with over 40 Roman columns depicting Mercury, the God of Commerce, and 12 statues representing the sea powers of Europe and the Mediterranean. 
            But the most breathtaking element is the rotunda, which immediately greets visitors upon their entrance, and surrounding it are elaborate murals depicting both early American explorers, such as Columbus, and the course of a ship entering the New York Harbor.  This art is elaborate and stunning, but seems inherently off in a museum dedicated to the one group of peoples who did not come through the U.S. Customs House on their journey to America, but in fact preceded it.  It quickly became clear to me that although this is a museum dedicated to Native Americans, the presentation of their culture would be mediated through a European lens.

A portrait of Columbus in the main rotunda of NMAI.
            But aside from the questionable building choice for the NMAI, the exhibits themselves were quite enjoyable.  The ongoing exhibit, Infinity of Nations, held most of the archaeological material.  It had a somewhat confused layout, but its disregard for a strict linearity and rigidity was refreshing, with smooth transitions between different tribes and societies that had been near neighbors or inhabitants of the same area at different times.  While most of the labels and explanations were basic, there were some additional plaques I appreciated.  One such plaque was found under a bow and arrows from Tierra del Fuego Province, it said:

In the old days there lived an evil and powerful woman named Taita. She controlled the whole area and was selfish, giving nobody any water to drink. Only she hunted in those days, sharing only a small part of her catch with others. Without her permission, no one was allowed to work or undertake anything; lacking weapons, nobody killed animals. Many of the people were weak, dying of hunger and thirst. Finally a wise and able young man named Taiyin killed Taita with his slingshot. He took the evil woman’s bows and arrows and showed them to his people, for until that moment they had not known of such weapons. The men copied these weapons and made these bows and arrows for themselves and went hunting, successfully killing guanacos.

This plaque was great because it did not try to justify the story of the bow and arrows by labeling it as a native myth or legend, but simply presented it in the same manner as any Western “fact” found on other plaques.  I took this to be a promising sign of NMAI trying to incorporate various sources of truth and knowledge into their exhibits.
            Overall the NMAI was a beautiful museum, with a variety of contemporary art alongside older, archaeological remains.  Special exhibits currently on display include C. Maxx Stevens: House of Memory, Julie Buffalohead: Let the Show Begin, and Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.  Check out these exhibits for a sample of the current identity of Native Americans, and remember the next time you visit a museum to think twice before accepting everything as an objective presentation.
“Hostage” by Julie Buffalohead, on display at the NMAI alongside more of her work until April 28, 2013.