The Poeh Cultural Center

Grand Tour 12: The Museum Has Become the Artifact

This entry is part 12 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

The museum has become the artifact. These days one can often tell more about a people from how they structure and present their museums than from what those museums contain.

Thursday, May 10, 2018, Santa Fe to Taos: This was a day mostly about visits to various sites and there is enough to say about some of those sites to warrant breaking it up into more than one post. This post will concern itself with our visit to the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, New Mexico and the thoughts that it occasioned about the nature and function of museums.

The Poeh Cultural Center

The Poeh Cultural Center, a museum devoted to the art and culture of the Pueblo people, is an impressive adobe-style structure that turns out to have a relatively small museum space inside. A banner at the entrance boasts about a collection of pots that have been returned to the Pueblo people by the Smithsonian. The banner seems more concerned to celebrate the fact of the return than the pots themselves.

The movement for the return of museum artifacts reflects a change in the role of the museum and our understanding of its social function. Museums were created as academic institutions, for the collection and study of artifacts (a role some still perform today). That evolved into an educational role that over time became less and less about serious instruction and more and more about edu-tourism. Now they are becoming a species of cultural reliquary.

To say that they have become a cultural reliquary, though, is not to say that they have ceased to have an historical function. History is a word covering many uses of the past. Academic history, a disciplined and (ideally!) dispassionate inquiry into the forces that shape human affairs is certainly one of those uses, but so too is the creation and inculcation of the cultural mythos of a society or social group.

Every nation and people has a mythic history that is used to encourage the cohesion of the group and to give them pride and confidence. “Look, people like you have done great things. You can too.” History used for this purpose tidies up the messiness of the past, selects, polishes, and judges to create a mythic story out of the raw facts. Museums often function as expressions of that myth, with carefully chosen and artfully described artifacts as relics of that myth. Every nation and people has such a myth. Saying it is a myth is not saying it is imaginary, it is saying it cleans up the messiness and ambiguity of actual events to provide a definition of who a people believe themselves to be. (I have mentioned one such museum in this series already, the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, which I described as more of a shrine than a museum.)

The return of artifacts functions as a symbolic act for both the sender and the receiver. For the sender, the institution doing the returning, it is a purgation of the old national myth and induction ceremony for a new one. (The creation of the new national myth often involves distorting or misrepresenting the old myth to create a unambiguous moral vision for the new myth.) For those receiving returned artifacts, it serves as a cultural triumph. That certainly seems the case with the pots returned to the Poeh Cultural Center by the Smithsonian, the reason they are so significant. In themselves, the pots appear to be perfectly ordinary clay pots such as every culture around the world with access to clay and fire has used since time immemorial. (Another example of the similarities of the artifacts of ancient peoples that I noted previously). Doubtless there is some subtle historical learning to be had from the peculiarities of their shape or patterns, but nothing, I suspect, that will reshape our understanding of the development of human societies generally or of the Pueblo people in particular. The key thing that the museum claims for them is not some great revelation of new knowledge, but the fact that they were returned. Their significance lies in their possession.

This is not a small thing. For a small society, not wealthy, surrounded by a much larger and richer society, possession, holding on to the things you have, to the things that set you apart, is a form of reassurance that you will continue as a distinct people. The historical significance or distinctiveness of the returned pots is not the issue. The issue is possession of something that was theirs and is now theirs again. The possession of the pots is a stone in the seawall that holds back the tide of the vast culture that surrounds them. This is the function of a museum like this in a community like this. It is a bastion in the seawall that holds back the tide.

But the need for such a seawall is itself a profound change for the culture it seeks to protect. There was no need for the seawall until the tide came. And the idea of the museum is itself part of the tide. The museum is a European invention, born of a European attitude to history. The artifacts that are now being “returned” were seldom taken from the museums of those cultures. For the most part, they had no museums. What we now call artifacts were not, in many cases, objects of value to the people they were taken from at the time they were taken. They were excavated out of tombs and rubbish tips and lost cities or bought in markets. Not all of course. There was also outright theft of valued objects. But a great deal of what we now consider valuable artifacts are valuable only because of the European conception of an artifact, and of the museum as a place to preserve and display artifacts. Museums did not just grow up as a building to store and display artifacts. They invented the very concept of an artifact.

The idea that you would preserve, study, and display something not still in current use, and not actively personal or sacred to someone in the moment, would have been foreign to most times and places. They had a hard enough time meeting present needs without devoting time and resources to preserving things no longer of use. Museums display twisted belt buckles and toothless combs, broken pots and rusted knives, empty tins, and worn-out shoes. One generation’s trash is another generations artifact. Were it not for the collectors, most of these objects would still lie in the garbage dumps, ancient burial sites, or abandoned settlement sites from which they were collected, or they would have been destroyed or sealed under by subsequent building projects (A lot of archeology proceeds one step ahead of the bulldozers). (Burial sites can be a sensitive topic. No one seems to raise a serious objection when an early Saxon burial mound, for example, is excavated and its bones and grave goods transferred to a museum, but that is not true for all graves and all places.) Every culture that has asked for their artifacts back has, in doing so, adopted the European notion of history, of artifact, and of museum into their culture.

As well they might. Culture, after all, is a word taken from the biological world. It is not about stasis, it is about growth. And microbiology is showing us more and more each day how the swapping of genetic material by viruses and the like is fundamental to biological development. Culture is all about borrowing. European culture, in particular, was formed by borrowing. One theory of history is that the calm and temperate Mediterranean enabled many different cultures to develop along its shores and to interact and trade with each other and thus created the perfect environment for cultural development and exchange. This seems entirely reasonable to me. The Mediterranean peoples (Greeks, Romans, Jews, Egyptians, Celts, Carthaginians, etc.)  took turns at being conquered and being conquerors, but no matter which way the tides of war flowed, ideas and practices were seeded in the wake of armies just as they were seeded in the wake of traders and pilgrims. Culture is all about borrowing.

But this presents an obvious conundrum for a small people surrounded by a very large one. Some borrowing is inevitable and desirable. No one, of any culture, would want to go back to how anyone, of any culture, lived in the 16th or 18th centuries. Such borrowing may mildly enrich the large culture without fundamentally changing its character, but without some bulwark against the tide, borrowing in the other direction may slowly obliterate the small culture.

Sometimes the small culture must borrow from the large culture to defend itself. After all, it had no such defenses, and needed none, until it encountered the large culture. The museum is one such borrowing. It is borrowed precisely as a means to create a barrier against the incursion of the large culture and the swamping of the smaller one. And thus the greatest significance of the pots returned by the Smithsonian to the Poeh Cultural Center really is that they were returned, that they are now possessed by the ancestors of the people who made them, despite the fact that, for the people who made them, they were the functional equivalent of Tupperware. Bringing them to the Poeh Cultural Centre is about custody and identity. It is about asserting that the Pueblo people are the fit custodians of their own history and their own artifacts.

But in order to want them back, a people must first absorb the idea that such things are artifacts. It must borrow the idea of a museum as in institution in which to study, preserve, and display artifacts. Thus the role of the museum has changed both for the people who invented it and the people who borrowed it and shaped it for a new purpose.

This role of a museum as a fortress of cultural identity is a significant shift. A traditional museum was a place where people could go to see artifacts from all over the world. As such they served as a way of informing one culture about other cultures. The effect was by no means equally distributed, of course. Generally, it allowed dominant cultures to learn about smaller ones – not a bad thing in itself, since the people of a dominant culture might otherwise be unaware of those smaller cultures – and thus unaware that there was any way for human beings to live or think or act other than their own way. For those with access to them, museums allowed people living in centers of culture and learning to learn about peoples scattered all over the world. They were not a place to learn about yourself but to learn about others.

But that is not the case with a museum like the Poeh Cultural Centre. A plaque in the museum talks about making the pots available for their own people to see and learn from. The museum has gone from a place to learn about other people to a place to learn about yourself.

Of course, every local museum is about the artifacts of its own locality, not those of distant places. Museums like Crawford County Historical Society Museum in Cuba, Missouri, that we visited earlier, are about asserting the significance and identity of Cuba and of Crawford County, Missouri. But museums like that one are not bulwarks against the tide. They are part of the ocean.

One thing might perhaps be lost, though, in this scattering of artifacts across the globe to tiny local museums. It may not be a highly consequential loss, but it is worth noting. There is a certain weight of ages that you feel, a certain awe, a certain stillness, that comes over you as you walk through the galleries of the British Museum (I have never been to the Smithsonian, but I don’t suppose it is much different). The artifacts outweigh the institution. They create a kind of gravity well in the psyche. One becomes lost in time. A tiny museum housing a couple of shelves of pots cannot produce the same experience. There is no weight to the brief visit we make to this small collection.

To the Pueblo people themselves, of course, they will have a different kind of weight, a sense of having something returned to them that is far more than simply the collection of pots. It is a matter of dignity, if nothing else. And in some cases, particularly with artifacts genuinely considered sacred, it is more than dignity. And this museum exists for their sake, not for mine. Do they actually come and visit the returned pots, or the other exhibits, I wonder. Or is it enough for them to know that they are there, close at hand, in the possession of their own people?

The rest of the exhibits at the Poeh museum (on the day of our visit) consists of two galleries and a walk-through diorama. The galleries show the works by local artists. One is angry. The other is abstract. Neither are of any note, but this is a tiny community and exceptional art is as rare as hen’s teeth across the whole globe in the current age. To find it here would be little short of miraculous.

What I find interesting about them is that they display a European attitude to original art. (I include American in “European” here because, in the broad historical, cultural, and economic context, America is a European society.) What one sees more often among native cultures – in any small distinct culture really – is craft. Craft expressing traditional forms with high degrees of technical skill and even artistry is abundant in many such communities. We have seen superb craft on sale and bought a piece in Santa Fe. Craft builds on old art, traditional art. The paintings in the galleries are attempts at new art, which is laudable, perhaps necessary, but rarely successful. Art today is largely moribund. Craft, on the other hand, is rich and thriving, and the separated cultures around the world seem to be far better at it than the dominant ones.

The permanent exhibit is a diorama that starts with a creation myth and proceeds through rooms for pre conquest, conquest, and modern day. The pre conquest is a kind of Eden. The conquest is centered around monk with a cross in one hand and a whip in the other beating a crouching Indian while his son looks on in horror. In the background there is a mission church in flames, representing the Pueblo Revolt, the 1680 uprising against the Spanish colonial authorities in New Mexico. This event, a short-lived revolution that was put down 12 years later, is the central event of the mythic history of the Pueblo people as enshrined and celebrated by this museum. As with many other people, a victory, even a pyrrhic one, can form the seed pearl of a national identity.

The diorama concludes with the present day represented by an Indian child in a typical American living room watching a TV on which a Saturday morning-style cartoon telling of the Pueblo Revolt is playing. I find this last part of the exhibit particularly telling. It seems to me an acknowledgement of just how much the Pueblo people have borrowed from the European/American world around them. The Pueblo Revolt cartoon playing on the television encapsulates the idea of a people who have adopted most of the material culture of the wider culture around them, but who maintain a distinct story tradition. I wonder if that is deliberate, if that is the impression that the visitor is supposed to take away with them from this part of the exhibit.

Is it a good museum? Not really. At least, not in the edu-tourism sense. There is not a lot to be learned here, nor even a lot to see. But then, it was not designed to teach me about them, it was designed to teach them about themselves. It is an exercise in myth-keeping, a bastion in the seawall defending against the tide of a far bigger culture. It is in that that I really do learn something about them, far more than I would have learned even from a far richer collection of artifacts. I learn how they see themselves, the stories that they tell themselves about themselves. These days, the fact that a museum exists in a particular place, and how it conceives of itself and its mission, can teach us far more than anything it may contain. The museum has become the artifact.




Series Navigation << Grand Tour 11: Intimations of Mortality in a Town Too Pretty to be BeautifulGrand Tour 13: Holy Dirt and the Sacredness of Real Things >>
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