Recently, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and found myself in one of my favorite rooms: the gallery that houses the Temple of Dendur, an Egyptian temple constructed by Petronius around 10 B.C. The Temple of Dendur is one of the Met’s most popular attractions, reigning in tourists from all over the world. It stands encircled by an artificial mote, whose stone bottom is speckled with shiny pennies and foreign coins visitors toss over their shoulders. A view of Central Park shines through a glass wall three stories tall. Every day, couples and friends and fathers with toddlers on their shoulders wait in line to observe the temple up-close. Tour guides point out carvings on its walls.
Less noticeable is a small collection of photographs off to the side that show what the temple looked like when it was still in Egypt, before it was dismantled and moved from its original location, which was around 80 kilometers south of the town of Aswan. These photographs show the temple in what one might call its natural habitat, before Egypt presented the temple and its gate as a gift to the United States in thanks for the US’s help in preserving other monuments from a flood of Lake Nasser. While the story of how the temple got in the hands of Americans seems hardly objectionable, on my most recent visit, when I saw these photographs, it struck me that I had been viewing this temple superficially for years, without any context or understanding of what it meant to those who built it. It made me wonder what tourists from Egypt might think when they walked into a museum in New York City to find a temple that had once stood where they are from, what they’d think about an American institution using it as a way to draw visitors and donations, visitors who will purchase souvenirs and postcards from the museum’s gift shop.
For the rest of my time at the Met that day, as I wandered through galleries full of impeccable 17th century statues created by Mbembe master carvers in Nigeria, past Angkor-period busts from Southeast Asia, I thought about this issue of appropriation. Of course, I’ve heard it argued that if these objects hadn’t been taken by the US and so carefully preserved, they could have been damaged or lost. And of course, I’m glad I get to see them in this space. But I also wondered how objects or temples or pages of manuscripts lose their context and significance here. What are we doing to decades or even centuries of history when we display them so removed from the cultures that made them? And when we come to the Met and take a selfie in front of the Temple of Dendur, what are we really commemorating? What mark does that leave?
I thought about my recent visit to the Met when I saw Tracing Roots: A Weaver’s Journey. The film follows Delores Churchill, a Master weaver and Haida Elder, on a journey to understand the history and cultural origins of a woven spruce root hat found with Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi, also known as the Long Ago Person Found, in a retreating glacier in Northern Canada. The film explores how the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation are the “caretakers” of Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi, and how, after careful consideration, they finally give Delores and the filmmaker, Ellen Frankenstein, permission to view the hat. They were asked not to include photographs of the hat in the film. This kind of control over the image of the hat stuck out to me when I watched the film. As a white viewer, it was noteworthy to experience being denied access to an image or historical object. Usually, cultural ownership is manifested in the opposite way, with predominantly white scholars and art historians and owners of museums holding and controlling the access to objects that are related to the cultural heritage of other groups. It made me think about all the heirlooms that have been purchased or taken away from their original communities, relocated to galleries in cities far away. What does it mean for institutions to have control over what’s in their glass display cases? Their stewardship suggests a certain entitlement to these artifacts.
Furthermore, Tracing Roots brings up questions of representation. In addition to following Delores’ search to see and understand the spruce root hat found with Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi, the film is also a glimpse into the life of a Master weaver and dedicated teacher. The film demonstrates how First Nations weaving techniques are practiced in the present, and how, thanks to teachers like Delores, these techniques will continue on into the future for generations. The depiction of this continuity is a refreshing contrast to how I’ve seen museums display First Nations and other indigenous art. In museums, indigenous art is so often confined to the past. The objects included in museum galleries are beautiful, but they are exhibited as artifacts that suggest conclusions about cultures that once thrived in history but are no longer as culturally relevant. For instance, Katherin Abu Hadal’s article “Why Native American Art Doesn’t Belong in the American Museum of Natural History” points out the derogatory implications of displaying Native American art next to natural objects in natural history museums. She argues that this sends the message that indigenous art is less developed and sophisticated than art from the Western Canon, which gets hung and admired in fine art museums. I would argue that even fine art museums like the Met need to rethink their curatorial decisions. Including substantial displays of works by contemporary non-western artists, such as baskets by Delores Churchill, would send the message that non-western contributions of art and culture are today as important as they ever were.
As museum goers, we should always seek a holistic understanding of an object thousands of miles away from where it was made or constructed. We should question who has control over how research on a peoples’ heritage and history is conducted and represented. Ultimately, one cannot separate something like a Haida basket from its maker, from the hands that dug the roots out of the earth, the fingers that spent days and months weaving them together. Context is a worthy goal if it lets the art speak for itself, and context is woven right into baskets, carved right into the walls of temples.
Julia Rosenheim is studying anthropology and political science at Yale University. She is passionate about social justice, art history, and creative writing. This summer, Julia is working as the outreach coordinator for Artchange, Inc.