Friday, August 13, 2010

Natural History Museum, New York; is it the worst run museum in the City?

Hall of Northwest Coast Indians

In my newly kindled interest in Northwest Coast American Indian Art, I went to see the great collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It truly has a great collection, of not only Indian material, but an incredible pre-Columbian Collection, both from meso-America and South America. But, aside from some updated displays in the South American section, the other areas are conspicuously neglected. I have been going to this museum for 30 years now, and these areas have never been redone, light bulbs are out, the lighting is terrible and sepulchral, it is nearly impossible to see the great objects of art. And harder still to photograph, but thanks to the miracles of the newest iphone, I was able to take passable images.

I was inspired to re-visit the Northwest Coast Indian collections by my bracelet. While I found nothing quite like what I have, they have a lot of great, if unappreciated objects. One frustrating thing is that they have amazing totem poles and carved wooden columns probably from lodges, but not one of them has any identifying labels to tell you where they were from, who made them, or when. It is as if they are just decoration, when in fact they are extremely rare and important works of art, a collection like this could not be created today, the material is simply not there.
Below are some of the highlights.

These carved bone or whale tooth objects were worn by shaman as talismans, objects that relate their spirit stories and give them power to communicate with the spirits. Each is quite individual, different one from the other. Frequently human figures are featured, but always subject to animal forces, the lowest one has an enormous bird beast swallowing a small human, the mid figure has two fishmen wrestling over what appears to be a doughnut but is actually a mouth of some other beast. The top one has a human cowering between two enormous animal figures, almost Munch like.

Two more of these bone or ivory objects. The one of the left is particularly dense, the human figure is surrounded by power animals. The right one looks like an owl, made of other birds with an animal head on the bottom.

One of the totem poles, or perhaps a column from the interior of one of their lodges. No information is available on where, what or who of these, but they are fantastic. I love the way one animal has the other in its mouth, a chain of life. In the Northwest Coast Indian culture, it is not about one animal eating another, as much as transmitting power one to and from the other. Not that one animal was not eating the other but here for example a killer whale is shown with a seal in its mouth, with a bear biting his tail. Bears don't and can't eat killer whales but both are powerful creatures so in this culture I think this indicates one power leading into the other.

Better image of the killer whale, with a seal in its mouth, its tail in the mouth of a bear.

Another great pole, one figure on top of the other, and incredibly well carved.

A closer view of the pole above. I love the tiny human figure suspended upside down from the mouth of the giant bear, with another human held by another bear above.

The box above is beautiful, but the real gem of this case is the head-dress ornament of carved wood depicting a frog held gently in the hands of a human. The frog is being presented, supported and held, and wielded almost like a weapon, I imagine power radiating from the focused forward gaze of the frog. This is not an animal in panic, he is fully in command of his situation.

And of course the Pre-Columbian collections of the museum are the best of their kind in New York and probably one of the best in this country. Sadly, they were set up in the 60's, and no one has updated them since. The lighting is attrocious, and what few lights they have, many of the bulbs are out, as they were in this case with a series of spectacular Veracruz yokes in basaltic stone. They date to the 5th to 7th Centuries A.D., from one of the great cultures of Meso-America. Used or based on yokes used in the ritual ball game that was the focus of much of their religious ritual, these yokes show the interest in wrapping the object in the creature, here a frog around the piece, much as in Northwest Coast Indian art, and that of Archaic China.

Another beautiful Veracruz yoke in basalt, and another frog, this one however embellished by complicated patterns that are hard to decipher, and perhaps are yet other creatures or divine beings.

A detail of the yoke above, showing the complexity of the patterns of which this frog is composed of. In the dim light of the museum, and bad placement of the yoke in the case, it is almost impossible to make out what is represented.

While I love the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I am frustrated by the terrible manner in which so much of it is presented. It is a throwback to another era, when the art of "primitive" peoples were considered as ethnographic curiousities not worthy of a "real" art museum. Thus they are treated like so many stuffed birds or dead animals or fossils that the rest of the museum is filled with. And those are better lit than the great works of art of these collections. And it has been this way since I have been going to the museum. Yet, no end of money has been raised by the Museum, they built that huge monument to the big bang, the planetarium, which is beautiful and educational, but couldn't they find a few dollars to spruce up what should be considered some of their greatest treasures. Or they should transfer these collections to an art museum that would give the objects the respect they deserve.

The question for my readers, is this one of the worst run museums in New York and the country? Certainly not the world, many third world countries have museums equally ill displayed and lit, but poverty excuses them. But in New York? What is their excuse, except for directors who have no interest in art, with neither the ability to recognize great things nor respect for their own collections.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Haida silver bracelet

I was just in Montreal, which I will post about soon, and bought a silver bracelet by a Haida artist named John Brent Bennett. I have always admired Northwest Coast American Indian art, but don't know much about it. I respond to its highly stylized images, and the great skill and sophistication of much of the objects from those cultures. I have seen other bracelets, and so when I was in Montreal, I went to the Canadian Guild of Crafts on Sherbrooke St., quite close to the Musee Des Beaux Arts. And there were just three engraved bracelets by this Haida artist, and I chose this one because it had the most identifiable features. On wearing it, I have learned a lot about Haida art, and finally have been able to decipher the imagery. And now I understand why I love Northwest Coast Indian art; it is part of a shamanic culture that extends the rim of the Pacific Culture. You find echoes in its imagery from thousands of years and miles apart. It is no accident this, but a product of a way of looking at the world, and communing with it and the spirit world as well as a sustained tradition and contacts that account for these similarities.

Three quarters side view, showing the face with part of the side. What we are looking at is an exploded body of an animal, I think here a badger, or bear, but not sure which. The face is clear enough, the claw is apparent, less obvious is the entire arm, and the rear leg which are also done in the same stylized manner. Once you see it, you see it, before, it was just a bunch of shapes tucked together.

The other side view, you can here make out the foreleg and the rear leg with claws that curl around the bracelet.

Now you might wonder why I would post about what at first glance might appear to be a tourist trinket. Some points to be made; this is hand engraved, and deeply so, by someone highly skilled with tremendous vision and understanding of his cultural traditions. He has captured the essence of a beast in what appears first to be pure pattern. This is an example of shamanic art at its best. I had not thought such traditions could be kept alive in our modern world, I think I may be wrong. Below are the other traditions and objects that this seemingly minor object relates to in my mind.

This basalt yoke is from Veracruz Mexico dating to the 5th to 7th Century A.D., which sold at Sotheby's New York in May of 2005. (Image found on google on It is carved with a stylized image of a frog who is stretched over both sides of the yoke. I see a strong similarity and it is not an accident, both are New World cultures and even if separated by time and space, they belong to the same cultural milieu. The images are not only about spirit animals, the one a shaman would transform into in his trances, but also apotropaic, the object was animate and would ward off evil.

This is a photo of a section of an Archaic Chinese bronze vessel, showing the classic Shang Dynasty toatie mask, which is an exploded monster figure stretched out across the surface of the vessel.

Here, from another google search as was the image above, is a diagrammed taotie mask, with the parts labeled. The same diagrammatic depiction as on my Haida bracelet.

The visual similarity between these archaic chinese toatie masks, my Haida bracelet and the pre-Columbian yoke is not coincidence, despite there being thousands of miles and years apart. As said before, they were all shamanic cultures, where the shaman was taking drugs going into a trance to commune with the spirit world. While not much is known about the more ancient religions, we do know a lot about that of the Haida and other Northwest Coast American Indians, as they are still with us and much tradition has been passed down. They are essentially animist, seeing spirit in all living things, animals being seen as prey and spirits that must be respected and appealed to for their own prosperity and protection. Who is to say we cannot work backwards taking the visual similarities and think that the ancient Chinese also saw the natural world in a similar manner? Or the pre-Columbians?
Such are the musings I have on what some might regard as a tourist trinket.