Friday, October 4, 2002

Cloth and Clay and the Consequences of Classification

The Virtual Museum of Canada has sponsored the excellent online exhibit Cloth and Clay: Communicating Culture. First, I admit that I am mostly impressed because of the subject matter: Pre-Columbian textiles and ceramics. And they used top-notch research on the Inka, which makes me really happy. If you want to see where I grew up and did my MA fieldwork, check out the Andean Highlands section.

I also find the Let the Objects Speak section quite interesting from a museological perspective: "Select any object to learn who made it, what it is, and where and when it was created. You can also read what the objects themselves have to say...in their own words." This indicates a paradigm shift in the representation of cultural artefacts, but I could really do without the first-person narrative: "I used to have a great deal more blue thread woven into me, but for some reason, the dyes or mordants used to colour my blue threads caused more degradation than those used to make other colours. However, now that a picture of me can be scanned into a computer, it is possible to restore much of my colour and brilliance to a level consistent with my best preserved sections." I know that it is meant to make history more personable and meaningful, for which I congratulate the curators, but I'm not sure it succeeds at communicating a reflexive position by museum collectors and interpreters.

I worked a couple of contracts for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) a few years ago, and I always remember one particular exhibit they created. They brought a dozen or so Native Latin American artisans, poets, shamans etc. to view their collection and select objects for exhibition. Next to the displayed objects were those people's rationales for choosing particular artefacts. I was most fascinated by those people who selected objects from different cultural heritages, and who claimed they chose a particular sculpture because they thought it was beautiful, yet wondered as to its cultural significance. While I'm not sure it was ever the curator's intention, the exhibit threw light on the museum collection process and struggle for contextualisation. Take this case: the Smithsonian collected 6500 pieces of Zuni pottery between 1880-1885, which destabilised the pottery making traditions as design sources were removed from the pueblos. When you see the massive exhibit of these pots, that fact is absent - and yet I would argue it is quite relevant to the interpretation of those objects. To give the NMAI credit, they are now mandated by federal law to repatriate artefacts as requested by Native tribes. (My second contract involved the repatriation of human remains to Peru for reburial - last I heard, the Smithsonian had over 100,000 Native American skeletons in their closets.)

Back to Cloth and Clay - unfortunately, I was struck by a few IA-related problems and was reminded of the consequences of classification. First, the navigation within sections can be confusing and inflexible at times, and I would have liked to see a means to navigate across exhibit sections: i.e. if I wanted to see everything they had on Andean cultures, I would have to enter and exit three separate sections. The exhibit follows a largely natural history type of classification, based on artefact typology and discrete culture areas, and the navigation enforces this engagement with the objects. Effectively, this prevents a user from making connections between technologies and cultures not intended by the curators, and I have always considered that an unfortunate effect of most museums. Virtual spaces offer the possibility to walk through the walls that traditionally separate exhibits, or to take short-cuts to more interesting sections. So while the title of the exhibit rolls off the tongue quite nicely, it still remains Cloth and Clay: The Museum Communicating Culture.

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