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Posts Tagged ‘museums’

Attus and ruunpe traditional-style Ainu robes on display at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

I recently came across a podcast interview with Ainu Museum Studies scholar Marrianne Ubalde (Hokkaido University), talking about “Ainu & Japanese Identity.” The broader podcast series this is from is called Asians Represent. I haven’t listened to any of their other episodes yet, but I gather the focus is largely on the representation of Asian people and cultures in popular culture – especially in tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Certainly sounds interesting.

The whole podcast episode was quite interesting, and I encourage a listen, but I wanted to share some thoughts on just one bit of what they talked about during one portion of the conversation. The question of where indigenous peoples should be represented in museums.

At the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – I suppose the main podcast host is based in Toronto – what small display of Ainu objects they have is, apparently, not located within the Japan gallery, but in a completely separate part of the museum, amongst objects representing indigenous cultures of “Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific“; basically, more or less the whole world outside of Europe. (Canadian First Nations are represented in their own, separate, gallery.)

I was fortunate to get to visit the ROM myself for the first time last summer. It’s a pretty great museum, even if the Japan gallery, on the ground floor in a relatively central part of the museum, is surprisingly small compared to the adjacent China gallery, and compared to how much space Japan gets at many other major museums. Sadly, I don’t think I made it to this “Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific” gallery; I wish I had.

The conversation on the podcast critiques this separation of the Ainu from the Japan gallery chiefly through the perspective of saying that by doing so, the museum is reinforcing Japanese nationalist and Nihonjinron myths of Japanese cultural and ethnic homogeneity; it effectively erases indigenous peoples and multiethnic / multicultural diversity from the “Japan” presented by the museum to its visitors. And it instead segregates out the Ainu into this separate space, one which is arguably hierarchically lesser insofar as it is located in a rather different part of the museum and one wonders how many (how few) visitors make it to that “Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific” gallery.

Very interesting to have this pointed out, since actually one of the things I was most impressed with in the China galleries at the ROM was the emphasis on multiethnic and multicultural histories in China. Though small, the China galleries devote several glass cases to the Liao dynasty, ruled and populated primarily by the ethnic Khitans – a horse-riding nomadic people of the steppes who adapted/adopted a lot of Han (Chinese) culture, but who definitely were their own separate state with their own language and customs and so forth. And the exhibit doesn’t shy away from talking about Khitan “innovations,” or the “unique character” of their ceramics and other cultural products. Further labels touched upon the ethnic and cultural diversity of China overall in other periods, as well. I was particularly surprised and impressed to see the ROM devote one display to the histories of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in China. All three have had significant presences in China, going back centuries, and yet it’s so rare that we see them discussed at any length even in textbooks let alone in museums.

So, it’s odd that the Chinese galleries would include such an emphasis on diversity and the Japanese galleries would not.

But, I’m not sure I’m ready to so quickly scoff at the museum’s decision to place the Ainu elsewhere, outside of the Japan gallery; I think the question of whether this decision is woefully and obviously problematic is actually more complicated than it perhaps appears at first.

I can appreciate the pro-multiculturalism argument, that says that we should actively and explicitly push the narrative that Japan is itself multiethnic, multicultural, that Ainu people exist and exist within Japan. That they too are Japanese and deserve to be recognized and “seen.” I get that. Especially amidst stereotypes all too common in the cases of indigenous peoples around the world, misconceptions that the Ainu belong to the past, that they no longer exist. Exhibits focusing on and emphasizing Ainu life and culture today, amidst modern, contemporary, Japanese society, do really good and important work, placing Ainu traditions into a context in which they can be recognized as being no more “backward” or “primitive” or “stuck in the past” than (Wajin) Japanese traditions.

Photo from “Master: An Ainu Story,” a photo exhibit by Adam Isfendiyar at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, Nov 2018. Photos of the exhibit my own.

But, what about the anti-colonial argument that says that the Ainu people and their culture are separate, and that by placing them within the category of the colonizer – that is, within the Japan gallery – it reinforces that they somehow belong to the Japanese state or the Japanese nation, that their cultural beauty is part of “Japanese culture” and contributes to the greatness and beauty (incl. multiculturalism) of “Japan” or of “Japanese culture”? There are Japanese ultranationalists who continue to promote the idea of Japanese cultural + ethnic homogeneity, and there are plenty of people in the general population who as a result of the particular character and content of state education, mainstream media, and so forth have been educated/socialized into thinking similarly and not knowing any better. But there are also imperial apologists and so forth who use assertions of a multiethnic Japan to advance notions of the superiority of the Japanese state or of Japanese culture. They say that “Japan” is made greater, better, by the cultures within it, including the Okinawans and the Ainu, and perhaps more problematically they talk about how these people are made better by their incorporation into Japan, repeating the same imperialist (colonialist) tropes of how the colonizer brought modernity and technology and infrastructure and modern medicine and modern amenities and quality of life and so forth to these people, and educated them and elevated or refined their culture, and took care of them …. So, this too is a problematic set of discourses.

Even among the most well-meaning of instructors, curators, cultural bureaucrats, etc., there can be inevitable, unavoidable, problematic implications in including or excluding groups like the Ainu or the Okinawans. If you say that Ainu and Okinawan sites are “National Treasures” or “National Heritage,” or if you push to get them designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites or UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage inscribed as belonging to “Japan,” well, arguably it’s better than not recognizing them at all, which would be an act of erasure and of dismissing or denying the cultural value or validity and historical significance of Ainu and Okinawan history and culture. But, this also inevitably raises problematic associations with the idea, again, that these sites and cultural practices belong to Japan, or are part of what makes Japanese history and culture so vibrant, so significant, so valuable as “world heritage.” It raises awareness about these indigenous or minority peoples but it also helps advance or promote the colonizer – the Japanese state, the Japanese nation, and its cultural status or cultural agendas on the world stage. It elevates the Okinawans or the Ainu, but it simultaneously allows the colonizer nation to be elevated and celebrated as well, contributing to notions of Japanese benevolence or beneficience towards Okinawa and the Ainu, and/or notions that their struggles or experiences of discrimination are solely in the past.

Returning to the question of where Ainu artifacts should be displayed in the museum, I tried to think about comparative examples, and what might ring positive or negative to me about those. If we think about, for example, Hawaiian history or Hawaiian culture, I think the complexity, the difficulties, are evident there just the same. I don’t like to see Hawaiʻi erased, overlooked, ignored when talking about people or places or cultures of the United States. Because they are Americans, and being there is part of being in the US. If you say “life in the US is like X,” well, that only goes for some places and not others. And especially when so many on the conservative / Republican side of the scale insist on forgetting about or even denying the Americanness, the valid citizenship and valid Americanness, of people from Puerto Rico, Hawaiʻi, and elsewhere, it is important to assert clearly and strongly that this is America, too, and these people are Americans, too.

So I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Hawaiʻi excluded or omitted from some “American history” gallery. And quite frankly, if more Hawaiian art were included in American art galleries, I think that could be a pretty cool strong statement, much like the way the Brooklyn Museum includes so much African-American, contemporary Native American, and other artworks representing a very diverse United States.

Pacific Hall at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, a gallery focusing on Pacific Island cultures outside of Hawaiʻi.

But at the same time, can you imagine a Pacific gallery that’s missing Hawaiʻi, Tahiti, and tons of others because those are each represented in the American, French, etc. galleries? Nonsense. Can you imagine what a tiny, marginalized representation they would get, off in one corner? Don’t get me wrong, an exhibit on Francophone art, or art from the current or past French Empire, or an exhibit on the history of that empire, that really pays attention not only to the French perspective but also to the deep, rich, histories of Tahiti, Vietnam, North Africa, etc., could be fascinating. I certainly enjoyed seeing the Morocco sections of the Delacroix exhibit that one time I went to the Louvre, and I could easily imagine a corner on Gaugin and Tahiti within a more general “Art of France” gallery potentially being quite effective and interesting. But, to subordinate these vast cultures – cultures unto themselves, peoples with their own histories – into being some small marginal part of the history and culture of the peoples who colonized them? If that’s the only representation they’re getting in the museum, my thought is no thank you.

There is so much that can be explored and shown, so much to be shared, taught, conveyed, in a Pacific Islands gallery that highlights the interconnections between Pacific cultures as well as their incredible diversity.

And so, while I absolutely understand the criticisms of having the Ainu artifacts displayed so totally separately from the Japan gallery – and those are indeed valid criticisms, and I do think there’d be great value in having at least some of them displayed there, in the Japan gallery – I’m not sure it’s necessarily such an easy slam dunk to identify their placement alongside Native cultures of the Russian Far East and Alaska as colonialist or otherwise wholly problematic. The Ainu are their own people, with their own history and culture, and while it is certainly valuable and important to emphasize their modernity and their membership in Japanese society – that they exist, that they are Japanese citizens, too, and that their presence and voices matter; that they are no less Japanese citizens, no less members of Japanese society than anyone else – at the same time, I think it’s important to be wary of the ways in which we might inadvertently lend credence to narratives which overlook or erase the coloniality of the situation, and which use Ainu and Okinawan bodies, artifacts, histories, practices to raise up the Japanese nation, Japanese history, Japanese culture – in short, “Japan” – essentially allowing “Japan” to take credit for and gain the benefit, in terms of cultural prestige, for that which, to put it bluntly, the Empire of Japan stole by force.

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Way back in 2014, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco invited artist Chiraag Bhakta to produce an installation artwork for their exhibit on Yoga. The piece, which Bhakta ended up calling #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, was meant to critique the colonization and appropriation of Indian culture.

Right: A sign at the San Francisco airport.

This past October, Bhakta wrote in a Mother Jones article entitled The Whitewashing of “#WhitePeopleDoingYoga” about the museum seeking to appropriate, whitewash, and “dilute” his installation. In the piece, he indicates that lead curators, education staff, and others expressed that “they wanted something innocuous like #PeopleDoingYoga, without the word “white,” because the term “white people” could be “offensive” to museumgoers, donors, and staff. During our initial meetings at the museum, they told me to “turn down the volume” of my critique.” They also suggested that he eliminate a “shrine” Bhakta had designed in which white people would occupy the spaces that should belong to Hindu deities. Mother Jones’ editors indicate that “museum reps acknowledge[d in communications with the magazine] that there had been misgivings over the title and the installation in general, which they emphasize was intended to be “educational” rather than artistic.”

Bhakta goes on to talk about how Avery Brundage, the International Olympics Committee figure whose collection is at the core of that of the Asian Art Museum, was a horrific anti-Semite and racist. He writes that Brundage:

was “the preeminent American apologist for Nazi Germany,” in the words of author Jeremy Schaap. In the ’60s, the Olympic Committee for Human Rights, a group protesting racism in sports, demanded Brundage’s removal as the Olympics president. The committee had exposed his ownership of a country club in California that excluded Jewish and black people from its membership. In response to a potential boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympics, Brundage notoriously said, “They won’t be missed.” (He had been instrumental in preventing a US boycott of the so-called Nazi games in 1936.) Brundage was “a racist down to his toes,” said Lee Evans, an American sprinter on the 1968 Olympic team. “A brutal, racist pig,” said a teammate, Marty Liquori. A “Jew hater and a Jew baiter,” was the verdict of Gustavus Town Kirby, delivered in a 1936 letter to Brundage himself.

As a Jew, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, but also simply as an American and as a human being, I am appalled to learn of Avery Brundage’s politics. And in light of this, appalled that the Asian Art Museum continues to have his bust and his picture and his name plastered all over the place.

This debacle over #WhitePeopleDoingYoga is far from an isolated incident. It is far from the first time that the Asian Art Museum and other major museums have made problematic decisions, done problematic things, have failed in their duty to lead and to educate. When it comes to engaging with other cultures (and with our own), museums should represent the best of us. They should be the ones to educate us about the problems of our wrong thinking, and to lead us into new understandings. Articles like these are an indictment of so much that is so wrong within the museum world, and it is so important that these things are critiqued and brought to light.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, in 2011.

Still, while articles like these, which say “you” or “they” ought to do better, ought to do different, are exceptionally valuable and important in their way, I cannot help but wonder where are the articles that say “how can we do better?” It’s one thing to say “Brundage was a Nazi apologist, a horrible person, and it’s offensive to have his name and face so ever-present in this space.” But it would be quite another to have an article that actually engages with this issue in a complex way: if Brundage is so horrible, then what’s the right way, what’s the best way, to address this? Do we take down all reference to him in the museum? Or would that just be setting the museum up for accusations of trying to hide or bury unsavory history and uncomfortable truths? Do we try to do the reverse, putting up more text (perhaps displayed prominently in the main lobby or near the entrance), more descriptions and explanations of who he was and why he was a horrible person, providing context and explaining definitively that the museum denounces such racist and antisemitic views, but then providing some kind of justification for keeping and using the collection anyway, to use it for progressive, educational, restorative purposes with aims of cultural/social justice? Or is the whole thing just so tainted that the best thing to do is to sell off or otherwise dispose of the collection entirely? It’s easy to point fingers, but as someone deeply interested in the museum world, who has devoted pretty much his entire adult life to the study of East Asian cultures and the pursuit of a career in that field, and as someone who cannot help but to be white but who wants to do the right thing when it comes to these sorts of issues and problems, we need to be discussing not only problems but also solutions. What are the solutions?

The Enola Gay on display at the National Air & Space Museum annex, with barely any context around it. A compromise.

The same goes for the matter of museums having to contend with the real or imagined demands of trustees, donors, and other stakeholders, and with the real or imagined expectations and attitudes of museumgoers (i.e. the public), not to mention the way the museum is represented in the media and seen or known or understood by the public more widely, i.e. even amongst those who aren’t regular museumgoers. I have heard countless anecdotes of tensions between curators and education department staff, or between curators and trustees, directors, etc., regarding exactly the same types of issues as are raised in this piece. Some people may find it offensive; some people might not understand the nuances/complexities of the message here; many people just want their stereotypical understandings reinforced. We’ve seen this when it comes to national(ist) American narratives about Pearl Harbor1, Hiroshima1, 2, and the Wild West1 – the incredible pushback and difficulty that museums get when they dare to question the standard narrative on these events/periods and to offer alternative perspectives (i.e. those of the Japanese, or of Native American Nations, not to mention the Hawaiian people). But then we’ve also seen the criticism the museums get from people like the author here, when museums give in to that pressure, at all, when they compromise on a radical/ progressive/ antiracist/ anticolonial approach, and perhaps rightly so. I’ve heard of outside curators getting incredible pushback from museums when trying to bring a feminist critique to the Japanese “pictures of the floating world” genre which so romanticized the so-called “pleasure quarters” (read: brothel districts) of early modern Japan, and when trying to challenge the positive spin on samurai as cool, honorable, heroic, cultured, peaceful – trying to show how they were, in fact, warmongers. Audiences wouldn’t like it. It’s too shocking to their expectations. People come to the museum to relax, to enjoy, and to appreciate beautiful things, not to be attacked for their beliefs, attitudes, understandings. … Okay, so we know the problem. But instead of just pointing fingers and saying “white people,” how do we actually contend with this? Is the correct answer that museums should simply tell it as it is, hold nothing back, shove the antiracist / anti-colonial truth in people’s faces, like a giant middle finger to all the racists? Perhaps. Should museums boldly expel any staff or board members who are pushing stereotypical, culturally appropriative, colonialist approaches and practices, no matter how difficult that makes things for the museum financially or logistically? Perhaps.

But I’d love to see these things actually discussed, considered, rather than just boldly asserted. What is the right way forward? What is the best way to address these cultural, political, racial matters in a way that considers curators, museum staffers, etc. not as enemies or opponents, not as upholders of “white supremacy,” but as sympathetic human beings who are trying to do their best within a complicated circumstance of competing pressures and logistical challenges? How can “we” as artists, scholars, museumgoers, and museum professionals – not “us” (people of color, outsiders to the museum, critics) vs. “them” (the museums), but “we” as a single group of people with shared interests and attitudes – work together towards shared goals, to face these challenges, and to do better?

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The pavilion puts some 100 immaculate objects from outside Europe on permanent view in a ground floor suite of cool, silent galleries at one end of the museum. Feathered masks from Alaska, ancient bowls from the Philippines, Mayan stone portraits and the most amazing Zulu spoon carved from wood in the abstracted S-shape of a slender young woman take no back seat, aesthetically speaking, to the great Titians and Chardins upstairs.

The young women were unusual for stopping. Most of the museum’s visitors passed through the gallery oblivious.

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them.

Kimmelman, Michael. “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to FocusNew York Times. 3 August 2009.

This is an issue very often discussed. Many (art historians, artists, others) would say that art is meant to be appreciated, studied, admired, examined one piece at a time, or in comparisons two or three at a time, but that one is meant to spend time with an object and really study it, not to glance at it, read the label, and move on. It’s been recommended to me on more than one occasion to go to a museum and pick only one or two or three objects and devote my entire visit to really studying and thinking about one object at a time.

But I am guilty of just the same as all those who flitter or rush through museums, blowing through entire rooms in five minutes flat in a quest to “do” the hole museum. Though I must say, more often than not, I rush through a room only because I am on my way to see something in particular – I breeze past the Greco-Roman statuary on my way to the Japanese section, knowing there’s a particular exhibition there I want to see. Or I rush through the objects in an exhibition because I know they are closing soon and there isn’t much time.

I often wish I could force myself to really focus on a single object, really study it, because I do know that that’s the best way to appreciate art, and that indeed, particularly with certain types of objects, I get very little out of the experience when rushing through. Chinese landscape paintings, in particular, are truly best experienced slowly, exploring each part of the painting, with close attention to details. Look closely, and see that the mountain is not just a mountain; it is full of travelers, monks, retired scholar-bureaucrats; small pagodas and pavilions, tiny streams and waterfalls, and interesting tree and rock formations. But it is difficult to focus on a single object with so many more around, and especially with no one else with you to discuss the piece with, to share ideas and to receive as well as give insights and interpretations.

This is one of the things I most love about art history classes. We are forced by the professor to think only about a single artwork for five or ten or fifteen minutes, and to discuss it, throwing out ideas and thoughts, insights and interpretations. We gain so much more from each piece doing this, and indeed in doing so I have gained insights and appreciation for many pieces which, if I saw them in a museum, I would simply pass them by. I believe that given almost any object, forced to look at it, study it, think about it, I would enjoy and appreciate the experience; we need to do more of this.

So, the next time you have the chance, go to the museum with a friend, and set out from the beginning your plan to see not whole wings or whole sections of the museum, but individual pieces, stopping and focusing, and discussing with one another the work. You might be amazed at what you get out of it.

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As an afterthought, I would like to express that I disagree with Mr Kimmelman’s distaste for gallery labels. Yes, I am guilty of spending more time and attention on labels than on objects, and I do consider this a bad thing when you spare only a few moments to glance at the object – oh, it’s a mask. oh, it’s a sword. oh, it’s a painting of a woman – and move on. But if you do choose to take a little more time to consider the object, or indeed, even if you do not, the labels can serve a very important purpose in establishing for you the context in which the object was created. It helps you know that it’s Manchu, not Mongol, so the next time you see a Manchu work of art, you might recognize it better. It helps you know it’s post-colonial, not earlier, thus helping you understand the political and cultural environment within which the piece was made, and thus understand better the artist’s intentions perhaps.

When properly written, a gallery label consists not only of time and place and materials, but includes a paragraph or two about the artist, the object’s meaning or significance, or its historical context. Many decry labels as detracting from the visitor’s ability to interpret for themselves the emotional impact or aesthetic effect of the object, its meaning or the artist’s intentions, but I am not that kind of visitor, I am not that kind of art historian. I do not see art as something free of its cultural and historical contexts, but rather as something indicative of those contexts, that serves as a window into another time and place; context is crucial to better understanding the art just as the art serves to help one better understand the context. And so, if I am given that context by the curator, I’ve learned something, acquired better tools with which to view, understand, appreciate, and, yes, independently interpret, the object.

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This weekend we are graced with two lengthy and interesting New York Times articles about art in China – one on Dunhuang, the ancient set of caves at the end of the Silk Road, filled with Buddhist art, the other on the recent opening of all public museums in China to free admission. Both key into a number of themes we see quite frequently these days as they relate to China – nationalism, a quest to reclaim and exclaim national cultural heritage, and the self-destruction of China’s policies and attitudes – as well as a more global theme, namely, that of balancing access to visitors with conservation. From Dunhuang to Angkor Wat, to Lascaux, there is a dilemma and and an immense difficulty that comes from the unavoidable paradox that even as we conserve art objects and historical sites for all the world to see, experience, and enjoy, it is the visitors themselves – the humidity in their breath, the oils on their fingers, the light in their flashbulbs, the weight and vibrations of their footsteps – which pose the greatest danger to objects and sites.

Art – Civilization on Display – Buddha’s Caves in Dunhuang (Holland Cotter, New York Times, 6 July 2008)

China’s Legacy – Let a Million Museums Bloom (Holland Cotter, New York Times, 4 July 2008)

NB If anyone knows of a concise term commonly used in the art/history/academic world to refer to this dilemma of tourism and conservation, so that I can create a tag or category for this article, and future ones, and so that I can find more on the topic, I would be most appreciative. Thanks.

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