Friday, 15 November 2013

Cultural frames and cultural property -- part seven

Raven is dominant in this Haida carving of
walrus ivory and inlaid shell. Mid-19th cent.
Dallas Museum of Art. Wikimedia public
domain image
Haida Gwaii is an archipelago of more than 150 islands off the NW coast of British Columbia, Canada. The name means "islands of the people".  Of the population of 4,761 (2008), more than a third are native (Haida). At the time of the first colonial contact, the population was more than 10,000. Devastated by smallpox, by 1900 only 350 people remained.

Reminiscent of the ancient Celts, the Haida "have a complex class and rank system consisting of two main clans: Eagles and Ravens" Also reminiscent of the ancient Celts as well as the Orphic Greeks, and Buddhists the Haida believe in metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls), which is (erroneously) associated with reincarnation. In the popular modern idea of reincarnation, the entire personality occupies subsequent bodies. The Dalai Lama clearly explains the difference in The Buddha Nature: Death and Eternal Soul in Buddhism. As individuals, we are a product of our genetics, education and experiences. What remains is what the Dalai Lama refers to as the clear light. This concept does not violate anything in most forms of quantum physics, including those of David Bohm and Wolfgang Pauli. Common to both Tibetan and Haida belief is that it is sometimes (but rarely) possible to pick one's next parents before death under some circumstances. Also, in both, the previous identity of a person's soul, or clear light can often be detected. A new Dalai Lama is identified by such a process. It is important, to both Tibetans and Haida, that the remains of a person should revert back to nature so that the soul can freely move on. In the damp climate of  the British Columbia coast this present no problem whatsoever, but in Tibet the climate is not so accommodating and bodies may be subjected to "sky burial". After being hacked to pieces and fed to vultures, there remains no trace.

In the nineteenth century, some archaeologists looted Haida graves at Haida Gwaii and  the remains ended up in The Field Museum, ChicagoIn 2003, these remains were returned to the Haida for reburial:
It would have been easy dwell on the insensitivities of archaeologists and anthropologists who looted the graves in 1897, 1901 and 1903 for "scientific purposes." Instead, Chief of the Haida's Tanu Raven Wolf clan, CheeXial Taaiixou, holds the Field Museum in high regard.
"We can't blame the museums of today for the wrongs that have been done in the past," the chief said, noting how important the afterlife is for his people. "We can thank them for insuring that our ancestors' remains have been guarded for the last century."
That the article used the word "looted" is especially interesting to me as I have observed that this word is commonly used used by some archaeologists to condemn the actions of detectorists, collectors and museums, often on behalf of the modern nations who allow them into their countries to loot graves and display the remains in their own museums. In fact, one prominent blog is titled Looting MattersWe are supposed to believe that this sort of looting is fine as it is for science and not for profit. Yet these same archaeologists receive salaries for this work, or obtain grants for their studies, and most museums obtain income from admissions, and the sale of image rights from the very people they claim to be the real owners of this heritage. While archaeologically excavated objects sent to museums receive no criticism, objects that are purchased are subjected to all sorts of virtually religious vitriol. These same archaeologists often demand collecting histories for everything, knowing full well (I hope!) that such histories are actually quite rare and are mostly encountered with famous pieces recognized as masterpieces -- one of my greatest faults is my inability to easily differentiate between hypocrisy and ignorance.

Moving from matters of the obviously sacred, let us now look at another cultural group: artists. I have never heard of a professional artist who did not wish their work to become international. Yet, quantities of their work are being "repatriated" to countries now occupying regions where ancient professional artists worked or sold their work, even though these same artists most often were selling their work to individuals and not even ancient states. Implicit in these actions is the belief that the ownership of great works of art, after the death of the artist and regardless of the wishes of the artists or their heirs should revert to the nation. My wife was a Canadian poet and often used to say, in reference to Canadian writers, "Canada devours its children and then worships their bones". Many artists are no strangers to poverty -- Vincent Van Gogh only ever sold one of his paintings and that was for 400 francs not long before his death. His work was mainly supported by his brother, Theo.

There are many archaeologists who do not make their work freely available to the public and yet attribute financial greed to dealers and never cite any exception. My friend, Robert Kokotailo who owns Calgary Coin Gallery used to be an oilfield geologist -- which was a very lucrative profession. Yet he left that to suffer a severe drop of income by becoming a full-time coin dealer. While he is doing much better these days, he says that he has less income, now, that he would have had he remained a geologist. He certainly never expected better. He is very knowledgeable about ancient to modern coins and freely shares that knowledge, both to visitors to his shop and through his online reference guides. His guide to Chinese coins is especially notable and contains much original research. You will notice that valuations are also included and this is something that you never see being provided to the public by museum workers -- snootily, giving the impression that such things are below them -- but it's probably just as well, not only do they have no idea about such things, but often are not very good at attributions and matters of authenticity. I once saw a web site of  a Japanese museum of Chinese porcelain where everything illustrated was a modern fake. Unlike specialist dealers, most museums never see enough of any category to be that knowledgeable.

The money is evil meme is also passed on to many metal-detectorists, who take pride in never selling anything, yet it is specialists (like myself) who gain much knowledge from those detectorists who do sell. An ideal situation would be for a detectorist to specialize and also purchase objects within that specialty from the proceeds of other sorts of finds. They then could create web sites to share their specialized knowledge. They are often highly knowledgeable about the past of their local area, while even local archaeologist are often only knowledgeable about the few sites that they have excavated. Sometimes, this detectorist knowledge is passed on to dealers to whom they sell finds and one of these dealers showed me a Celtic settlement which struck its own coins and specialized in leather work. A Roman road passed through the middle of the settlement. None of this was known to archaeologist and the land owner was fearful that, if came to their attention, his farming work would be hampered by all sorts of regulations.

All of the above groups of people represent different cultural frames and can thus be viewed as cultures in their own right. The lack of proper respect and communication between them does little to advance knowledge, neither does efforts to restrict such knowledge to "official" or "nationalist" bodies. Any culture is preserved through individual interest and the combinations of cultural frames produce so many different perspectives. Not only that, but the sum of the parts is always greater than the whole in these cases. This is how cultures are created and spread in the first place, and the study of cultures should follow those same paths. Perhaps common sense is not that common after all.

On Monday, part one of a critique of the introduction to Rethinking Celtic Art.

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