Subjects of Whom?


A note before I start. I don’t aspire to represent anyone else’s ideas but my own in this or in any other post. I don’t pretend to speak for any cultural group. I just find, sometimes, that someone (in this case, my son, Matthew) makes a thoughtful comment that makes me look at the world from a different point of view. I don’t apologize when my naïve pleasure in grasping a new idea sends me off in strange directions. I just hope some of you will follow me at least part of the way.

Image, Image, Image

The UBC Museum of Anthropology has an image problem. They’re trying to rebrand, but it’s a tough slog because they’ve missed the most basic public relations tool of all: the name. It has to do with the concept of “Anthropology.”

Think of the concept of being a “subject.” Very colonial. All those poor, benighted heathens in the old colonial days were considered to be subjects of the King of England. Who, as we all know, didn’t treat them so awfully well, and we’ve been reaping the benefits of that error for a century or so. As have the descendants of those original subjects.

So now we’re trying to atone for this abominable behaviour, and the Museum of Anthropology is supposed to be on the leading edge. Create a wonderful setting in which to place the beautiful artifacts of the civilization we trashed. Marvelous idea. Get a famous architect to design a stunning building appropriate to the task.

And everyone who sees it agrees. The whole thing works beautifully. The blend of modern and ancient architecture is world class and world renown.

Except for that “Anthropology” word

Unfortunately, the people who created the whole show missed one little point. They were still looking at the whole situation from a colonial point of view. The “subjects of the king” were now “subjects” to be studied by the anthropologists. Think about it. Do we send anthropologists to study the French? The Russians? No, we call those people historians. When you study people as anthropological specimens, it cannot help but place them in a secondary position.

Think in Terms of Religion

You send anthropologists to study the worshipping practices of other peoples. But you’d hardly dare to send anthropologists to study the Roman Catholic Church. It’s that old ethnocentric belief; “Our religion is the only real religion, and all the other religions are tribal practices and superstition, so we can send scientists to study them.”

To bring this back to our topic, “Our culture is the only real culture, and our scientists go out and study all those other cultures and make analytical judgments about them.” Hah!

If the tables were turned, how would you feel about an anthropologist from another society studying your life?

Modern Indigenous Art

My friend Dusty Hagerüd was “Artist in Residence” at the MOA this summer. He’s a puppet maker, and they have a “Shadows, Strings, and Other Things” motif going on. But his puppets have modern themes: Carol Channing, Kane West, a transvestite or two.

And people come and look at his puppets in this august building and say, “What the hxll are these doing here?”

To which the answer can only be, “Well, he is an artist, and he is of indigenous heritage. That’s one direction aboriginal art is going these days.” And if people can’t accept that answer, then you have a right to ask if they have made the big step forward. Are they denying the First Nations the right to evolve, as all societies do, and become who they want to be today? Do they want to encapsulate the historical aboriginal experience in a nice, safe, anthropological space where it won’t threaten their “real” society?

The Bottom Line

The Museum of Anthropology is never going to accomplish its intention of being the storehouse and display area for the art and life of both ancient and modern indigenous peoples as long as it clings to its anthropological roots. The only real solution is to change the name. If others can have the Museum of Modern Art and the British Museum, why can’t Vancouver have the Museum of Indigenous Art?


PS “Subject” Again

Of course, we all become the subjects of artists. Don’t know where that takes us, but it’s something to think about. The artist always gets the last word.

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