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Reviews: Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Discover reviews the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles.

Apr 1, 2001 6:00 AMMay 4, 2023 8:06 PM


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I RECENTLY SAW The two African masks above in separate shows on the Yale University campus. The eerie Sowei women's mask from Sierra Leone appeared at the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, at the same time the stark, gold-spotted mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was displayed at the Yale Art Gallery a 10-minute stroll away. After seeing the shows, I couldn't help thinking that the masks could easily have been switched from one museum to the other— as could have the entire exhibitions. What is the distinction, I wondered, between a natural history museum and an art museum? We tend to think of these two institutions as vastly different, but increasingly nowadays they are looking remarkably alike, displaying man-made objects in similar ways and telling similar stories about human culture.

The signs can be seen from coast to coast. When an epochal show on Haitian voodoo from Los Angeles's Fowler Museum of Cultural History toured the country, half the venues were natural history museums and half were art museums. When Boston's Museum of Fine Arts installed its Nubian collection, the labels told not only where the objects were gathered but also how they were used. "Ten years ago, if you blindfolded me and dropped me in a museum, I could have told you in five seconds what kind it was," says Ken Yellis, coordinator of the Peabody's exhibition program. "Not anymore. There's a convergence of practices." Art historian Robert Farris Thompson, who worked on the Yale Art Gallery show, agrees. "We are seeking a middle ground between the white cube of the art gallery and the crowded case of the natural history museum," he says.

Granted, the white cube and crowded case remain. In the Yale Art Gallery's modern, refurbished spaces, objects are displayed with pristine clarity. Like old master paintings, each item is given space to speak to visitors in the unique and timeless language of art, although the maker may have intended it for practical purposes. "In the West, we tend to separate art and life," Thompson says. The Peabody, on the other hand, is all about practical purposes, and its displays are anything but pristine. In this Gothic monument to O.C. Marsh, the 19th-century paleontologist whose fossil collections form the backbone— so to speak— of the museum's 11 million objects, cases are loaded with disparate articles, from headdresses to drums to doctoring rattles. "They are not ends in themselves," says Yellis. "They illustrate the various ways human beings have organized their reality."

Despite their different styles of presentation, art and natural history museums share a common ancestry. They grew up at the end of the 19th century, impelled largely by theories of evolution establishing man's dominance of the natural world. To demonstrate that primacy, artists and scientists (often one and the same) as well as explorers and adventurers ventured into the field gathering masses of "curiosities"— art, artifacts, specimens, and fossils— that were dispersed in an arbitrary fashion to natural history or art museums. Over time, natural history museums enshrined the idea of evolutionary progress leading to man, Darwin's fittest of the fit, while art museums sanctified the notion of man as the surveyor of cultures, making judgments about intrinsic beauty. With Western man in control, this meant that many non-Western civilizations were relegated to "primitive" status regardless of their complexity, and the objects they produced were denied artistic standing.

New audiences and global awareness have changed these attitudes. "We can't assume our visitors share the same backgrounds or assumptions," says Yellis. "And we have greater humility about Western civilization. To appreciate and understand cultures, we have to see them on their own terms. Context is king." And context includes both function and form. In the Yale Art Gallery, African objects, such as a Nkisi figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now come with field notes and videos. At the Peabody museum, social and environmental factors are front and center, but so is human imagination. The goal today is meaning: Why do things look the way they do, and why do human beings make them? To reach the answer, says Yellis, "you can no longer separate aesthetics and culture. So much love and care are poured into these objects because their role is important, and they work because they are beautiful."


Keep the River on Your Right IFC Films, 2001

New York artist Tobias Schneebaum headed to Peru in 1955 on a Fulbright grant and promptly plunged into the jungle in search of aesthetic rejuvenation. When he reemerged seven months later, he astounded reporters with scandalous tales of ritual cannibalism among the remote Harakambut tribe. Schneebaum's 1969 memoir, Keep the River on Your Right— echoing the advice of the local archaeologist who had guided him to the Harakambut— became a cult classic for its unflinching, often adoring, acceptance of the tribe's primitive practices.

What drives a man to such extreme explorations? Can he really return home unscathed by the experience? And what has become of the Harakambut, as local cultures wink out around the globe? Opening in theaters this month, a sharp-witted documentary by sibling filmmakers David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro attempts to answer these questions in the most direct way possible: by taking Schneebaum back to Peru.

Schneebaum, now 80 and an anthropologist, art collector, and teacher, initially is reluctant to revisit the scene of his youthful exploits. He suffers from Parkinson's disease and complains about his hip replacement. But he is still a restless traveler, regularly fleeing his sedate urban life to work the Indonesian cruise circuit as a tour guide. Gradually he succumbs to the filmmakers' persistence.

The Shapiros first lead Schneebaum to a village in West Papua, the Indonesian side of New Guinea, where he happily lived among the Asmat tribe during the 1970s. While there, Schneebaum curated a museum to house traditional crafts and teach woodcarving and other skills to new generations. Reunited with the tribe, he is pleased to see members still performing traditional ceremonies, singing old songs, and wearing old headdresses. But the underlying "wild" impulses that he so cherished are starting to be tamed. In part, the Asmat flaunt their heritage because Western visitors expect it. The Asmat are adapting to a new cultural reality. Tourism brings valuable income and appreciative audiences.

The journey back to Peru confronts Schneebaum with greater physical difficulties and with deep psychological fears. One day in 1955, he joined in a murderous raid on a neighboring tribe and, during the ensuing victory ritual, took a bite of human flesh. Although in his book and in interviews he staunchly defended the Harakambut's right to live as they choose, Schneebaum now admits that, in private, he has long agonized over his actions. His distress caused him to abandon painting, and he has suffered nightmares through the years. "Something died inside of me," he confesses.

When he finally finds the Harakambut, he discovers them much changed. Although they remain geographically isolated along the Kosnipata River, tribal members now wear clothing, watch TV, and quaff bottled soft drinks. Most of them converted to Christianity in the decades since Schneebaum's first visit, and they refuse to discuss what they see as their shameful old ways. In embracing the outside world, the Harakambut have lost much of their distinctive traditions, yet they have also gained some political stability and access to needed steel tools. The filmmakers provide a moving portrait of the tribal members wrestling with the trade they made.

For Schneebaum, the most painful tradeoffs are finally in the past. At the end of his difficult pilgrimage, the nightmares subside and Schneebaum, the lonely wanderer torn among the many worlds he inhabits, at last finds some inner peace. Corey S. Powell


Anatomy of A Rose: Exploring the Secret Life of Flowers

Sharman Apt Russell Perseus Publishing, $25.

Flowers attend human rites FROM birth to death, lending joy to celebrations and cheer to broken hearts. But our pleasure in their colors, scents, and forms is strictly an unintended consequence. Flowers perform mainly for bees, butterflies, birds, and bats, and we humans "miss some of the best tricks," author Russell observes. "Flowers have patterns we cannot see, and they reflect colors we cannot imagine." We may view a white flower and delight in its unblemished simplicity. By contrast, bees see a swirl of ultraviolet and blue-green, and flying insects make out dots, rings, and lines on the flower's petals, which mark out welcoming landing strips.

Flowers are determined to be pollinated, and they have evolved strategies that are as flexible as any couplings in the Kama Sutra. In one orchid, a bee's gentle touch causes the stem of the pollen sac to snap like a spring, catapulting the stem and its sticky pollen onto the bee, which is often knocked right out of the flower by the impact. Other flowers release pollen only when a bumblebee lands on the anther and vibrates its thoracic muscles at just the right frequency, essentially singing the pollen out. Indeed, 8 percent of the world's flowers, including those of tomatoes, potatoes, blueberries, and cranberries, need the songs of bees to put them in the mood. Other flowers respond only to a more brutal touch, requiring their animal mates to variously scratch, claw, pry, grab, and rake the pollen out.

"Subtract flowers and the whole world is dead from a human point of view," Russell writes in her elegant prose. "The nonflowering plants on Earth include the mosses, liverworts, conifers, cycads, ferns, and gingko trees. Almost every other plant, everything we and other animals eat, requires a flower for reproduction. We know that flowers are beautiful. We forget they are also essential." Deborah A. Hudson

Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time

Clark Blaise Pantheon Books, $24.

Travel is rife with frustrations, as any contemporary jet-setter can attest. But at least planes that take off at the wrong time are invariably late; get to the airport before the scheduled departure and all you have to do is wait. Imagine the turmoil if passengers arrived early, only to find that they'd already missed their flights. In the mid-1800s, that was a common occurrence for people who traveled by train. The reason: The scheduled times for station stops were based on distant time zones, not the time on local clocks and watches. And that prompted Victorian surveyor and engineer Sir Sandford Fleming to launch a campaign to have the world adopt a standardized system of time.

Before standard time, each city set its own clock according to the shadowless noon as shown on the local sundial. As a result of Earth's rotation, Boston time was 12 minutes ahead of New York time, for example. The abundance of local times didn't inconvenience people much until the advent of railroads. With trains traveling 100 miles in two hours, railroad companies were in a quandary as to how to list stops in their schedules. The solution: Each company used the time at its headquarters, leaving passengers to calculate the difference with local time for each stop.

Fleming found the resulting schedule mishaps infuriating and in 1869 proposed a uniform method of keeping time. Even though the concept seems eminently logical in hindsight, it did not win immediate favor. Localities and countries were reluctant to give up their independence. France, in particular, didn't want to accede to a system in which British time would serve as the standard reference. Finally, after a tireless 15-year crusade by Fleming, the 26 independent nations of the world met in 1884 at the Prime Meridian Conference and agreed to a single world time system. The delegates declared that Greenwich, England, would be the world's prime meridian, where noon would be measured according to the position of the sun, that the international dateline would be on the opposite side of the globe, and that 24 time zones would circumscribe the globe, each spanning 15 degrees of longitude and constituting one hour on the clock. Today, standard time is looked upon as one of the crowning achievements of Victorian— and human— progress. Rabiya S. Tuma

The Karluk's Last Voyage: An Epic of Death and Survival in the Arctic

Robert A. Bartlett Cooper Square Press, $18.95.

The South Pole:An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912

Captain Roald Amundsen Cooper Square Press, $29.95.

Going back to original sources is an all-too-often overlooked pleasure offering readers powerful firsthand narratives uncolored by historical revision and reinterpretation. In these reissues of accounts by early polar explorers, Bartlett, the captain of a ship crushed by Arctic ice in 1914, leaves his crew and, with one Eskimo companion, undertakes an arduous 37-day trek to Siberia to find rescuers, and Roald Amundsen and his team overcome everything from treacherous snow waves to lousy hot chocolate to be the first people to reach the south pole. Eric Powell

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"African Roots of the Amistad Rebellion: Masks of the Sacred Bush" will appear at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, Connecticut, from now until December 31, 2001: www.peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/mende.

"Call and Response: Journeys of African Art" will appear at the Yale University Art Gallery from now until March 25, 2001: www.yale.edu/artgallery.

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