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Objects of Conquest: A Tale of Two Museums

Objects of Conquest: A Tale of Two Museums

     With every visit to a museum in which the riches of a certain people’s history and art are on display for the casual observer, there is a tug of war between the Ethicist and the Admirer who reside somewhere deep in the caverns of my conflicted psyche. Between sips of iced coffee, these two lazy activists throw stones at each other, only to be tired out before the museum visit is finished, while all three of us will soon be running for the bar stool, jostling for a creamy porter or a crisp ale. This especially happens whenever I go to the Met. One notices the spoils of antiquity bestowed upon our modern city, and there is a moment of awe followed by a “hey, why the hell do we have all this stuff?” Of course there is a whole history of plodding politics and imperial conquests behind every exhibition, and volumes have been written by the victor detailing the booty, while the pillaged people’s story is usually a footnote. Since politics bore me like a frothing filibuster, I shall leave these issues for someone with more time on their hands and less beer to drink than I. Instead I choose to write simply and humbly about my quiet, little afternoon in a peaceful museum in Lower Manhattan.

     I came upon the National Museum of the American Indian almost as an afterthought on a humid July afternoon as the Staten Island Ferry spit me out into Battery Park. Forgoing my least favorite waterfront in the city, I ambled up State Street, skirting around the edges of a behemoth, a great granite structure with gargoyles etched from fire-casted stone looming over the sidewalk from thirty feet above the ground. I wound up at 1 Bowling Green before the entrance of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.

     Now before continuing the narrative, allow me to give a brief history of how this area came to be and perhaps it may shed a little light on what it is, so that moving forward we can continue through the regal halls and glittering galleries of this stately fixture with a fuller illustration of a grander picture.

     Established in 1773, Bowling Green Park is the oldest park in New York City, and it still charms visitors, whether locals or tourists. The centerpiece is a monumental fountain, and if the sun hits the water just so as it rises to the heavens, a rainbow may be seen gleaming through a golden geyser while the flowers of reds, whites, and yellows seem to be tickled by the laughter of the all who pass through the gates of this park, eager to breathe in the air of history. Around the corner from this park and away from the museum is Fraunces Tavern, one of the coolest watering holes in the whole damn city. Built in 1719, American history oozes out of the wooden walls like soap from a sudsy sponge. The guest list plays like a who’s who of Revolutionary War actors: Paul Revere met the Sons of Liberty there for a clandestine strategy session (perhaps they were rehearsing the great lines “The British are coming, the British are coming!”) and a few years later George Washington bid farewell to his Continental Army and toasted the ousting of the former ruling country, which would later infamously bore Boris Johnson, from our sweeping shores. It isn’t just the surrounding sites which are historical. The museum itself and the building which houses it, have long meandering stories with intersecting and diverging paths.

     As stated before, the museum, along with its roommate The National Archives, resides in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. This is a towering granite structure with a shimmering marble interior. Finished in 1907 in the timeless Beaux-Arts style after 6 years of construction, this building stands in the center of what was once New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement which preceded the British invasion, ahem, I mean colony. Like a vicious game of tennis, during the Battle of Long Island and at the height of Revolutionary War hostilities, this area changed hands eight times! Well, if you remember the story of Fraunces Tavern, we all know who won that war (the answer is: not the original inhabitants.)

    So who were these original inhabitants of the island anyway? I am sure through some pot fogged haze, some people can remember way, way back to a state of mind called high school where this narrative was delivered to a room full of horny students anxiously watching the clock for the bell to ring. If you don’t remember, let me bring you up to speed. There was supposedly a trade for Manhattan island between the Dutch and some indigenous folks for some beads, maybe a telescope, and a few other things (the receipt has since been lost) and then presto, peacefully the land deed was signed and the island was in the hands of European liberators, and soon the Manifest destiny would push the great Christian ideals westward while bringing in boatloads of slaves (the inventors of rock and roll, later stolen, too) who would build whatever the rulers needed to be built at the crack of a whip. Meanwhile in the frontier the scalps flew and the tee-pees burned, women and children be damned! This all took place in between the chapters when Thanksgiving was discovered and where Columbus invented germ warfare. This pretty much brings us to the chapter when, way after the problem of the indigenous people was solved by the US government’s Final Solution (later adopted and modified by Adolph Hitler), one of our presidents was caught getting head from his intern. Ironically the wife of that same president is now, possibly going to be our next president-elect by the next Thanksgiving, succeeding the first black president. You can’t make this up, folks.

     Speaking of what goes around comes around, I find myself walking up the steps to the museum with all of these thoughts swirling around in my head, while the Ethicist in me and the Admirer are sharpening their arrows, aiming them at each other with me in the cross-fire.

     The official title of the museum is enough to give someone prone to stuttering reason to utter nothing except a shrug of the shoulders: The George Gustav Heye Center, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, a part of the Smithsonian Institute. Wait! The Smithsonian Institute, I love these guys, I say to myself as I put my wallet away, knowing I won't have to foot the bill for this excursion.

     As I begin the tour of the museum, I am pleased with the temperature of the facility. The air-conditioner isn’t too cold and one is whisked away into this journey of the American Indian at a comfortable temperature of approximately 72.7 degrees Fahrenheit, judging by my best guess. Then I think to myself Ahh, what a name! The American Indian. As if this isn’t the story of 1000 different groups of people. They are cleverly lumped together for the sake of brevity and so as to not allow the Ethicist in me to take up arms in indignant and righteous anger. With the pleasant atmosphere bestowed upon me by the Lords of the Thermostat coupled with the simplicity of the American Indian moniker, we have reached a score of Admirer 2, Ethicist 0. It is looking like a bloodbath.

     The beauty of the interior goes beyond marble into the realm of ethereal. The main room is circular with a colorful mural on the ceiling detailing the recent American history of New York harbor. It is a tasteful work of art not complicated with blood. I mean, there are families around and little kids with dried hands from too much hand-sanitizer, so why not sanitize history; am I wrong?As I head into the first gallery, I ignore any and all qualms from the Ethicist and add 4 arbitrary points to the tasteful, tactful, and cultured Admirer. 6-0, and time is running out.

     The first exhibition is titled Unbound: Narratives of the Plains. This is a comparison and contrast exhibit, where stories of hunts, battles, and harvests had been told in pictures and drawings on canvasses of leather many years ago, while contemporary versions are placed almost side-by-side, keeping the traditional art alive. If one has taken the time to do any studying, the people of the Plains are vast and diverse. These are nomadic people whose canvas of life was constantly changing with the seasons. By these pictures on the leather canvas, one is struck by the urgency and liveliness of the works. One could say, these almost prefigured cinema. You imagine these transportable, sacred visual stories being taken with the utmost care and reverence from camp to camp, and these stories being told before an audience who shares these hopes and fears of a people dependent on the harmonious balance of a giving earth, depicted on the skin of a buffalo. The suspense is palpable for the audience and it shows the storyteller must have been one of the more important figures in the tribe, for they are the keepers of the history, the makers of legend, the ones who pass down from generation to generation the path of their ancestors into a cosmic future.

     Also, the contemporary versions are equally fascinating. They reveal the intrusion of modern mechanisms into the former way of life. Tee-pees are replaced with factory smoke-stacks. The horse has been replaced by the car. One battle depicted is a firefight from the Vietnam war. These intrusions are violent pollutants, and the visual negativity leaps off the canvas. This is the power of art. Any long winded activist could never articulate what simple drawings could say with a few modest strokes, especially while upholding the technique which had been practiced for so long. After leaving this exhibit, I suddenly feel a pang of guilt and awareness which the Admirer protests but to no avail. Admirer 6, Ethicist 6. We have ourselves a ballgame, folks.

     Throughout the following exhibition, contemporary art dominates the walls. During this time, I was going back and forth, trying to look at it with the eyes of someone who is here to just see art with no historical or social context; you know art for art’s sake. Then I swing back and am conflicted about what it all means and even the name of the museum is starting to get further under my skin: American Indian? Isn’t that what Columbus first called them? Can’t we move past that? What about First Nations? The Ethicist and Admirer are in a brutal heavyweight bout. For some reason I deduct a few points each because I too am tired of the debate. 4-4, we may have extra innings. Then suddenly an unexpected turn occurs just as I come to the end of the contemporary art exhibition.

     I had never heard of Terrance Guardipee before setting foot in the museum. I will let you click on the hyperlink of his name to read his official biography as told by his website, the modern day leather canvas. But this is where the intersection of life and history step out of the museum and become real life. Terrance is from Browning, Montana. He is an enrolled member of The Blackfeet Nation and was born in 1968. My mother is from the same tribe and was born eight years before Terrance in Browning. Both of their paths led to Washington State. So all of a sudden these images I saw hanging on the wall became more alive for me. His work is sublime. Old ledgers and treaties are painted over with a mix of contemporary and traditional life. Terrance’s style is that of keeping the art of the Blackfeet alive while making it relevant for today’s art galleries. So seeing these hang on the wall I began to ignore both the Ethicist and the Admirer, their voices becoming more faint, and see a piece of my history displayed, history that is still very much alive. It was like seeing a work of art from a part of my life which is seldom seen in a museum. It was refreshing and a little haunting. All of sudden I heard the hush of soft steps and the quiet breathing of patrons from all over the world feeding their minds with these works of art.

     In the latter exhibits of the museum I passed through ancient artifacts: masks, weapons, hunting gear, etc; pieces that seem to relegate these Nations to a bygone era, when the prior exhibits reminded us how very much alive they are. The artifacts only tell part of the story anyway. It is up to the individual to find out what the story means to them.

     The Admirer in me loved the beauty and craftsmanship of the artifacts while tastefully acknowledging how all things must pass. The Ethicist shook its head at the Admirer, knowing these observations, while superficially true, are not relevant when the art, history, and culture represented at this museum are still living, still continuing. The continuation of this history has reared itself in the news lately as well, with the Dakota Pipeline protests taking place peacefully in the heartland of this country. In this way, I feel as if I was in two museums at odds with each other. Thus, the museum could be a metaphor for our country as well. 

     My favorite piece was a wood carving and came close to the end of the museum. It rested behind a glass case and was a satirical piece of a cigar store Indian, one of the more ugly renditions of a Native American in American popular culture. Yet in this piece he is wearing a suit and tie with a belt buckle that says “Presidential Button”. His tie is red, white, and blue. This simply complex piece explains the Native American story much better than a blogger like me ever could. The artist, George Blake, took a negative connotation, then spun it to something positive. His work is a product of an old vision of America but the artist regained control of the original depiction of this iconic image and made it subtle and unique. Not only Guardipee and Blake, but all of the artists took the legacy of their historical image, put it in their own words and images thus rendering the intention of the museum obsolete; whether positive or negative, reconciliatory or condescending Smithsonian intentions becomes beside the point.

     Eventually I left the museum and walked through this historical area and met my wife after she left work, then we jumped on the R train home. Showing her the pictures of the experience on my phone, I began to formulate how to write about the visit through the museum. What I concluded was this would be a personal artifact to be added into this little humble, museum I call my life, where sometimes an artist from Browning, Montana and I realize we share a past which is much closer than both of us knew, much like all histories which intersect and diverge, regardless of what the Admirers and Ethicists conclude.



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