Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bard Graduate Center's Gallery and Lecture (Updated)

Left: Image From the Bard Graduate Center's catalog on the Objects of Exchange exhibit
This week, instead of our traditional readings and discussion, we are attending the Bard Graduate Center's lecture on their Objects of Exchange exhibit. While this post will be updated after the lecture reviewing what was heard, I wanted to provide two areas of thought pertaining to the exhibit: the nature of a "Focus Gallery" and the use of media in the exhibit.

At the BGC’s gallery, there are two exhibitions being shown: Objects of Exchange and Cloisonné: Chinese Enamels from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. The largeness of the Cloisonné exhibit with its variety of objects, both in size and style, emphasizes the intimate setting of the focus gallery. Additionally, there is a further separation between the two exhibits as seen in the use of captions. In the Cloisonné exhibit, the captioned titles are focused more upon the design elements and process of fabrication than the cultural importance of the piece. The Objects of Exchange captions encourage the reader to delve further into the cultural significance and construction but assume no familiarity with the topic. They refer to a multiplicity of objectifying angles, ranging from the materials, to the smell and noticeable wear indicating regular usage in distinct items, and the cultural and societal background from which the object was produced. The differences in captions can lead one to interpret the Focus Gallery as more academic, especially when observed in conjunction with the fact that this gallery
was the culmination of a research seminar with the professor curating the exhibit and the students providing the research.
  • What are some of the critiques or observations as to the display of the objects, the layout of the gallery, etc?

An Interactive Tag Cloud is located in the entry, and is one of the few media devices used by the Gallery. The screen with the Cloud is one of the first elements to emphasize the conceptual themes of the “Objects of Exchange” exhibit and the academic nature of the Focus Gallery by showing the objects and their thematic tags: Christianity, diffusion, English text, Hudson’s Bay Company, hybridity, indigenization, misidentification, models, mortuary, multiples, non-canonical, repurposing, ship imagery, souvenir, and transformation. Rather than rigidly defining the thematic purpose of particular objects, the curators explore the multiple themes each object can embody. In such a small, focused gallery, it was surprising to see the use of personalized media in both the form of the flat screen “Cloud,” as well as three small screens placed within the exhibit.
  • What does the increased use of different technologies bring to the exhibit? Are there any weaknesses or problems that are presented by such technologies?

Symposium Review:
To open the Symposium there were the traditional introductions about the exhibit and some of the people involved. However, there was a notable
difference from other symposia, the singing of a victory song by two of the participants. I thought it was poignant as it marked the inclusiveness and variety of view that the gallery presented being celebrated by two Native American participants as a victory in the portrayal of their people and their colonial history.

Throughout several of the speakers, the multiplicity of meaning, explanation and history was emphasized, namely the mutability of an object's portrayal in a museum or exhibitive space. Other themes that seemed repetitive were the reframing of perspectives on colonialism and assimilation, concepts of integrity/authenticity, idea of privileged knowledge. Having stayed for the presentations by Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, Megan Smetzer, and Mique'l Askren, I will write a few words about each presentation.

Kathryn Bunn-Marcus, Heavy Metal: The Weighty Meanings of Northwest Coast Jewelry
  • "We wear our history"
  • In this presentation, we heard not only about the meanings of jewelry, but the experience of objects and their meanings within their culture. In this presentation we heard that objects aren't what they were made to be but what they become, they function in multiple contexts and create multiple, and sometimes conflicting, identities within a community, objects that become ceremonial, economic trade items, etc. Jewelry in the communities spoken about are tied to human effort, not only in their creation, but in the sustaining cultural meanings, social roles.
Megan Smetzer, Creating Beauty from Pain: The Ambivalence of Tlingit Beadwork
Below: Rebecca Belmore's Fringe

  • Beads are a symbol of both beauty and pain, they are a European good that created beautiful objects, however, with beads come European ideas of colonial assimilation and diseases. The indiginization of materials create objects that are worthy of collecting, becoming regalia, and later, subversive works of art such as Nadia Myre's Indian Act.
Mique'l Askren, Choreographing Photography : Issues of Practice and Praxis in Leading the Git Hayetsk Dancers
  • Praxis: Acts of transferring knowledge and history. Practice: not rehearsal, but the active engagement of cultural practices.
  • In this presentation we heard about a dance group, who preform their identity, politics and history. Dancing was not merely the movement of bodies to music but the assertion of ceremonial events, protocols and histories, dances can be used as gifts, a way of extending a culture's rights and privileges beyond their own land. The Dancers are continually extend themselves and write selves into new histories each time they perform.
  • One dance that was brought up was the Visual Sovereignty Dance

What concepts do you think were important to the symposium or in the presentation of Native American artworks? Were there anything that was interesting, disturbing, enlightening in the presentations given by the speakers? Anything you think ought to have been addressed?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast


Friday, April 1, 2011


1:30 pm – 6:30 pm


Lecture Hall, 38 West 86th Street


Objects of Exchange examines the material culture of the
period for visual evidence of historical flux and shifting social
relations within Native groups as well as between them and
the surrounding settler nations of Canada and the United
States. It focuses on objects—variously construed as art,
artifact, and commodity—that challenge well-established
stylistic or cultural categories and that reflect patterns of
intercultural exchange and transformation. Drawing on the
remarkable collections at the American Museum of Natural
History, this exhibition reveals the artistic traces of dynamic
indigenous activity whereby objects were altered, repurposed,
and adapted to keep up with changing times.

Opening words/song by Mique’l Askren and Mike Dangeli

Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse
Heavy Metal: The Weighty Meanings of
Northwest Coast Jewelry

Megan Smetzer
Creating Beauty from Pain:
The Ambivalence of Tlingit Beadwork


Mique’l Askren
Choreographing Photography and Stone:
Issues of Practice and Praxis in Leading the
Git Hayetsk Dancers

Judith Ostrowitz
It Looks Like Manga: The Cosmopolitanism of
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Cultural presentation by Mique’l Askren and
Mike Dangeli


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Exhibiting Archaeology

Left: image of the American Folk Art Museum

One of the topics of this week's seminar relates to the relationship between museums and culture. When one thinks of the objects exhibited in museums, one tends to think of things with exceedingly high and rarified cultural value: portraits by old masters, gold sarcophagi, Grecian marbles, etc. These objects, so central to the 19th century conception of the museum itself, were valued precisely because they bespoke of a "higher" cultural realm which would uplift the viewer from the mundane qualities of his or her surroundings. Responding to the shift in other social sciences away from an over-represenation of expressions of the unique and elite, many modern museums now highlight more quotidian subject matters, a focus which would have seemed impossible to the 19th century curator.
A perfect example to my mind is the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The museum prides itself of its efforts to to "renintegrate the material with its role as a carrier of our cultural inheritance" ( Folk art, characterized by its production by common men and women outside the realm of fine arts, is a perfect example of what was previously deemed "low" art, unworthy of curation, in contrast to the "high art" displayed and preserved in museums. As the American Folk Art Museum is a relatively recent museum (it opened in 2001), one may see in it the reappraisal of the cultures which are preserved within these objects, those previously ignored by the artistic canon.
A similar circumstance may be seen in "commemorative" museums, such as those which specialize in the African American or Native American experience in the United States. In both cases, the museums highlight certain groups which were traditionally ignored by national museums (for instance, the treatment of "Bushmen" in the South African Museum). However, the American Folk Art Museum is, in a certain sense, unique from even these types of museums in that it seeks to integrate a class-based minority rather than a solely racial minority. This is witnessed by the fact that the museum exhibits artwork produced by minorities along side working-class whites. One may consider this museum an effort to breakdown a class barrier because much of the folk art is produced in a rural, domestic setting to which one cannot ascribe the typical bourgeois categories "high art."

It remains to be seen, however, if this museum should be thought of as an "ethnographic" museum, or an "art" museum, or if it is precisely these types of distinctions which are being erased in the process of creating an American folk art museum.

Right: Image from an upcoming exhibit at the Park Armory by the American Folk Art Museum entitled: Infinite Variety: Three centuries of Red and White Quilts

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hawass resigns amid turmoil and looting

On Sunday, Zahi Hawass confirmed that he had officially stepped down from his long-held post as Egypt's Minister of Antiquities. Hawass, who has been closely aligned with the deposed government of former-Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak, has faced allegations of smuggling antiquities abroad on behalf of Mubarak and members of his family. Later, Hawass said in an interview posted on his blog that he will most likely not return to any newly formed Egyptian Cabinet if invited. In the interview, Hawass rebuffs the allegations of smuggling, attributing them to "crooks in the Antiquities department" who would want to defame him. The former Antiquities Minister called for the return of armed guards to vulnerable archaeological sites, many which apparently have been attacked by looters in recent weeks. Apart from that, Hawass does not say much about what else can be done to ensure the security of Egypt's rich cultural heritage. He adds that he "cannot work in this mess" and that he will come back only when there is stability.

Hawass, who has styled himself as "Egypt's Indiana Jones," seems to have resigned right when Egypt's cultural heritage needs him the most.

The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER) presents:

Dale Turner
Associate Professor of Government and Native American Studies,
Dartmouth University
On the Idea of Reconciliation in Contemporary Indigenous Politics
420 Hamilton Hall, Columbia University
March 22, 2011, 4:00-6:30 PM

Saturday, March 5, 2011

H.R. 784: African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Educational Center Act

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Global interactions: slavery in the Americas

Image: African Burial Ground National Monument.



As interest in the burial ground grew, especially among African Americans, some voices rose in outrage against further excavation and desecration of the graves. The cruelties these individuals suffered in life should not be repeated after death. People argued that the spiritual significance of the site went even deeper than its scientific and historical value. This was hallowed ground.
Hanson, J. and McGowan, G., 1998, Breaking Ground Breaking Silence: the Story of New York's African Burial Ground, New York: Henry Holt, p. 107.

"I cried," Noel Pointer, the jazz musician and singer, said of his first visit to the site. Mr. Pointer, who plans to take part in a 26-hour remembrance vigil at the site, beginning at noon today, added: "You hear all about these archeological and scientific terms and you say to yourself, 'This is very interesting.' But until you get down there and you see what the bodies look like -- you see the skeletons of the children laying in the earth -- then you realize that these are people."
Shipp, E.R., August, 9, 1992, Black Cemetery Yields Wealth of History, New York Times,

The discovery of the African Burial Ground in New York City, and the range of issues it raised about archaeological ethics, authority, and overall purpose, served as an event that ultimately challenged historical archaeologists to reconsider what they were doing and for whom.
Wilkie, L. A. 2009. Interpretive Historical Archaeologies. In International Handbook of Historical Archaeology. Part 2. Edited by Teresita Majewski, David Gaimster. Springer, p. 336.

The excavation and warehousing of human remains remains a contentious issue. Should it be decided by the descendent community (if identifiable) or archaeologists whether the ancestral human remains be excavated or not?

The "ethnic marker" studies often fixated on particular classes of material culture that may be considered diagnostic of particular classes or racialized subjects. Artifacts such as colonoware, blue beads, high percentages of pipes, shortened pipe stems, opium paraphernalia, patent medicine bottles, ginger jars, cowrie shells, and particular types of food remains were often used to indicate the race, ethnicity, or class of households and groups.
Griggs quoted in Brandon, J. B. 2009. A North American Perspective on Race and Class in Historical Archaeology. In the International Handbook of Historical Archaeology. Springer, p. 7.

How does this approach differ from making the determination that an iron from a site was used exclusively by a woman?

This week has been titled "Global Interactions." And the slave trade certainly was an international phenomenon. Many slaves were taken from Ghana. Take a brief tour of the Cape Coast Castle Museum with Andersen Cooper (link below). Then when we visit the museum at the African Burial Ground, let's take notice as to whether the overall exhibition leaves us with a sense of slavery being national or international.

Tour of Cape Coast Castle Museum: