Between Artefacts and Art: A Passage to Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Royal Ontario Museum
- Fan Zhang
My fieldwork in the Royal Ontario Museum was carried out on Saturday, April 15, 2012 between 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The focus was Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada, the exhibition space for artefacts collected from Canadian indigenous population.
Before the fieldwork, considerations had been taken on what was to be observed: the objects displayed, how they are displayed, the museum space, or the actors in that space including museum staff, visitors and myself? How the phenomenon observed in a mere two-hour visit would be relevant to indigeneity and broader theoretic concerns had also been contemplate.
The observational focus in an ethnographic field trip should be on people. But museum is not a natural or communal habitat. It is an institutional space designed on particular philosophies and aesthetics for particular purposes. In the aftermath of neoliberalism, it is also more or less a business. Its human side, on the other side, is often expressed implicitly in its spatial arrangement and the display of objects. Entering a museum space without a critical eye on thoses issues resembles entering the university anthropology program without knowing what are being taught – one will be confused by the sheer messiness.
The pedagogic confusion in the university anthropology program had always been the focus of my interest, hence my attempt at writing an ethnography of the anthropology department in Professor Tania Li’s seminar. Due to the sheer scale of the topic, it turned out to be a mini-ethnography of the anthropology undergraduate students association. One of the key findings is the segregation of three strains of anthropology, namely cultural anthropology, archaeology and physical anthropology. A closer inspection shows that there are more than one rifts within cultural anthropology: between those focusing on contemporary societies and those on the so-called “primitive” societies, between political activism and scholarly contemplation, between those with stronger sociology tendency and those with stronger cultural studies tendency, between the study of political economy and the study of symbolic culture. Anthropology has an identity crisis.
Royal Ontario Museum has an identity crisis too, so has its First Peoples exhibition.
There are at least four types of non-speciality museums: natural history museum, historical museum, ethnographical museum, and art museum. In New York, Paris an my hometown Shanghai, those museums are separate entities. The distinction between Paris’ art museum an ethnographic museum with regards to African exhibitions was a sensitive political issue during the Mitterrand era. Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian museum seems to be an exception, but it is actually a gigantic conglomerate comprising different museums, galleries an research institutes.
Royal Ontario Museum’s ambition of “being them all” results in a more provincial-looking museum (instead of a metropolitan one), which is embodies in the two showcase exhibits standing side by side in the old lobby: a stuffed polar bear specimen seems to be crawling away from an Egyptian pharaoh statue from 1500 B.C. I chuckled a little when I entered the museum main space in this unpleasantly cold and gloomy weekend afternoon.
It was the Archaeology Day. The lobby was full of small children playing around “hands-on” tables under the instructions of staff from museum’s archaeology department. To my right, a glorious white Buddha statue in the open-space Chinese galleries could be seen from distance. I had been to those galleries many times and found its ambience not objectionable. There is certain cultural importance in ROM’s Chinese collection. Bernardo Bertolucci in shooting his 1987 psychoanaltic-Marxist-Orientalist film The Last Emperor (shot in Beijing’s Palace Museum) actually came to ROM to do research on Chinese period clothing. But my destination today was the First Peoples exhibition on the left side of the main lobby.
The indigenous artefacts are housed in the formerly Geology Museum the stone inscription of which is still solemnly above the entrance of the gallery, which is a closed space. On the right side of the old main entrance, it was the first exhibition guests could visit. But it is in a relatively quiet corner now. Unlike the East Asian collections whose direction is clearly marked in the hallway, there is no special sign for it. I witnessed a visitor who spoke English with an accent asking for the “native hall”.
Lighting is crucial in establishing meanings of exhibitions. Darkness either expresses depths of history or the “art” dimension of objects exhibited. As of now, ROM’s long-winding European gallery on the third floor is the darkest. Before the renovation, the ground-floor Chinese gallery was the darkest – the display then was organized on dynastic sequence, but it since became the brightly-lit with open-space arrangement. Spatial expansion, postmodern juxtaposition and “on-your-face” aesthetics are emphasized: the Taoist Muriel, cave Buddhist and airport waiting seats seem to get along very well.
The lighting of the first peoples exhibition can only be described as neutral and disinterested. Scientific reasons are given on the left side of the gallery entrance. A small notice board reads: “The controlled lighting is intended for the preservation of the exhibits”. The gallery, described as “spacious” on the museum website, looked rather stuffy and dull in neutral light. Many visitors during my two-hour stay walked fast past showcases. Almost no one stayed in front of a single piece for an extended time. Unlike the Chinese galleries, no one took pictures in front any exhibit.
But the exhibits here are full of intriguing details. The opening exhibit showcases recommendations from ROM’s indigenous advisors. Items include snowshoes, cradle, seal oil lamp, table cloth and headdress from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Nunavut and British Columbia respectively. The caption indicates there are six advisors, but only five advisors’ recommendations are in the showcase. The discrepancy is unexplained.
This opening showcase is rather inartistically arranged. It looks more like a token tribute to native self-determination in a museum setting. The five advisors in the photographs look relatively young and professional.
The gallery introduction is just beside this showcase. It features two quotes about the origins of first peoples: one from aboriginal mythology, the other from historical documents of earlier European residents. This binarism, in a way, determines the rest of the gallery: “culture” signifies indigeneity while “history” signifies European participation.
A related fact is that the indigeneity – as demonstrated by artefacts exhibited – is characterized by its collectivity (very few indigenous individuals are named), while the European participation is characterized by its individuality and in the Paul Kane gallery case, its art dimension.
It is a joy to learn Paul Kane’s story and to look at those glorious paintings. His romantic devotion and his determination to grasp the disappearing history with art provoked something profound in me – like any layperson, I always find personal narratives, as opposed to scientific classification, is a much more effective way to engage in history. But I was the only one paying attention to those paintings during my short stay. Other visitors simply bypassed the section. Probably they had preconceptions about what a native gallery was about – they didn’t feel like to look at European paintings here.
The artistic value of Paul Kane’s paintings is not for me to say. Meanwhile, it is hard not to treat him as an ethnographer. Do those two identities necessarily exclude each other?
From its very beginning, anthropology is combating language and text with visuality. Visual analysis is central in E. B. Tylor’s conception of animism and James Frazer’s sympathetic magic, even when the materials those armchair anthropologists used in theorization came from their reading of texts. “Looking”, as the term “participant observation” indicates, has been central to ethnographic fieldwork since Malinowski. French anthropology is known for its philological and linguistic tendency from Durkheim to Levi-Strauss, but the importance of early 20th-century involvement of surrealist artists in anthropology should not be discounted. Postmodernism, the dominant mode of thinking in anthropology at the moment is actually a derivation of the surrealist art movement. Better known postmodern thinker Foucault opens his Orders of Things with a detailed analysis of Velazquez’s Las Menines.
Despite the central role of visuality, text is still overpowering in anthropology. After all, anthropology, even when not claiming to be a science, is an academic discipline whose evaluation is based on textual production. A lot of criticism of its textual tendency, interestingly, has to be done in an highly difficult and often esoteric language.
A radical idea is to reconstruct anthropology department into a kind of fine arts department and to divide the curriculum into “studio” (or fieldwork) section and history and theory section: the former could accommodate more artistic expressions either literary, visual or musical. Even fictional practices might be allowed in order to express affects more truthfully.
A conflation of art criticism and anthropological theory would be highly interesting. One art work could be examined, for example, is Kane’s 1845 painting Fishing by the Torch Light: in it, a group of Wisconsin Menominee are spearing fish at night. In the original sketch taken during Kane field trip, the native fishermen wear European clothing, but Kane changed them into traditional attire in his studio painting recreated from the sketch. The spatial, temporal, material and subject transitions occurred in the process would be a good topic to discuss.
Paul Kane collection, in fact, is one of the earliest ROM collections. It was donated by Edmund Osler of the University of Toronto in 1914 to the so-called “Ethnology Gallery” at the time. The disposal of the word “ethnology” in ROM exhibition is at the same time a reflection of ROM’s transition from a research institute to educational institute as well in its public profile as well as the result of concerns over the subjectivity versus objectivity with regards to Canadian indigeneity. As mentioned above, the change from objectivity (“ethnology”) to subjectivity is not complete, for only when artefacts become art, the collective becomes the individual, and culture becomes history, would the indigenous subjectivity be established. But here we only have art, individuality and history of Europeans.
Speaking of individuality, I was the only single person visiting this gallery. All others came at least in pairs. Curiously, the great majority were either non-white or spoke non-English. I count about twenty-two groups of people. There were young couples appearing to be boyfriends and girlfriends, and more mature couples often with children. A possible gay male couple was spotted. There was one single father who spoke a Eastern European language carrying his very young daughter on his shoulders. Only four groups among them spoke English as mother tongue.
Collections in the First Peoples Gallery are as much indigenous patrimony as European-Canadian patrimony. Besides the Paul Kane collection, the most important exhibits include William Armstrong collection, Evelyn Johnson collection, Edmond Morris collection, and last but not least, Robert Flaherty collection.
I stopped at the Tsimshian exhibit before entering the small video theatre. A young Caucasian male who appeared to be highly knowledgeable about native history walked by with his female companion on brisk pace. “The living standard had always been different between the east and the west” he said, “the east was poor, and the west was rich … they had all those salmons …”
Salmons reminds me of my trip to BC a few years ago. On my way to Tofino, I visited the British Columbia Museum in Victoria which has a much larger aboriginal collection. I distinctively remember … yes, the lighting of that museum which is darker and far more elaborate. The museum layout also seemed to me a lot more dramatic than that of ROM’s – but of course, the first peoples’ artefacts are the star attraction there not here …
The Tsimshian collection holds particular interest to me. I read Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Story of Asdiwal recently. There are a lot of controversies around Levi-Strauss’ analysis: Does his structural analysis really has anything to do with the Tsimshian people? Or is it just a useful metaphor? Again, this is a philosophical debate on the nature of anthropology: is it analytic science, or is it creative art? Those two need not to be separated.
In a recent conversation with an archaeology PhD student who carried out his cave painting investigation in the Skinner River region, I found that ethnographic practices – and mythology for that matter – was not part of his project. This surprised me a little, considering the subject matter of his research.
There is a distinct disconnection between the study of human biology, the study of material culture, the study of symbolic culture (such as mythology and rituals), and the study of political economy in anthropology. Levi-Strauss, in his introduction of structural linguistics into anthropology, opens up the possibility of an all-encompassing system. Pierre Bourdieu attempts to materialize this linguistic system while Foucault politicises it. The Nadasdy book we read in class is very much a superb application of those thinkers’ theories, although I do believe he could have gone deeper.
Entering the darkroom of the video theatre, in a way, was a great relief from the neutral lighting of the exhibition space proper. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was showing. On screen in black and white, an Inuit couple with three small kids were making an overnight stay in an Igloo under a grand snowstorm. Off screen in complete darkness, a Russian couple with three small kids had their eyes glued to the screen …
I left the gallery with a degree of satisfaction with the family. Here is my very sketchy final thoughts:
Unlike Flaherty’s film which is a classic in both anthropology and film history, The ROM indigenous gallery is in a limbo: it has been out of the terrain of ethnology but yet to be inspired into the realm of art. It’s neutral lighting and random display demonstrates a lack of sense of direction. People come and go – as I mentioned above, no one has been staying in front any piece for a prolonged duration except for me – and it was in front of the Paul Kane collection. The gallery looks very much like the offices and libraries in the back of the ROM complex: there are a lot of treasure hidden in those old and rather shabby-looking spaces, behind the postmodern Lieberskind facade.