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.


Jenn said...

I completely agree! My first visit to the museum was February 2010, and aside from the shiny brand-new dinosaur exhibit and Rose Center, all of the exhibits felt dim, dusty, and if curators set up the exhibit in 1962, screwed in a couple lightbulbs, locked the display case, and walked away. Send your blog post to Ellen V. Futter, President of the Museum!

Anonymous said...

I must agree as well. I would think the Movie" A night at The Museum", and the never before seen enthusiasm would move directors towards presentation s that are at least as current as 1983? It is he'll to get into. I have a 30" waist and I felt fat going through the revolving door. A great pre foyer hall to ticket purchase ,like the one at the Brooklyn museum of art is needed.
It could use a few atreum window expases like the Met. The planetarium part resembles a miasmic sadism to wanted through as well.

Make me want to stay, or perhaps return??

Anonymous said...

For your consideration.