Art vs. Artifact: How nomenclature defines our value of Indian culture

Jon McMahon here, back with another attempt to bring a little museum theory out of the academy.  Hopefully without causing a major exodus from our fanbase.  In my last entry I mentioned that museums have been extremely influential in how people view Native peoples.  Now I’m going give you one example of how they have done that, for better or worse.  Back in my school days I needed to understand how certain museums chose to display their objects by distinguishing the differences between two major types of museums since the art history approach displays and interprets objects very differently than museums with an anthropological perspective.  Here’s a little look into what museum types like us think about when presenting Native art.

The “art vs. artifact” distinction has been made for decades amongst art historians and anthropologists. The basic arguments lie in the biography of an object and how it is displayed and interpreted to the public. In general, anthropologists (like me for example) would argue an object that has no contextual explanation or provenience has lost its meaning and the life of it and its maker are lost to the world. An art historian would be more likely to appreciate the object for its aesthetic value, an emotion elicited from the work, monetary value, or if it makes some kind of sweeping philosophical statement about its subject or even the observer. Putting these objects into a sociocultural context, the anthropological method is more holistic than the classical art history models since it incorporates all aspects and avenues of culture in its practice, often including the art history model (– COUGH- says the anthropologist – COUGH-).  Objects with artist information accompanying them, or in diorama type settings to show them in the context of the culture are two very different ways of understanding or learning in the visitor’s mind.  Maybe a hybrid of the two is in order?

“Tradition: Art of the Seminole was an example of an art exhibition with some interpretation.”

These kinds of influences have shaped the way observers see and interpret art since they have been indoctrinated into the notions that non-Western people create art that is different from “fine” Western art. One needs only to ask a museum patron what kinds of qualities make non-Western art appealing. Many will give you answers like “primitive art is unchanging” or “it reminds me of the universal qualities we all possess but are afraid to show.”  These racist notions imply that the people who created these objects are somehow not in control of themselves or are similar to Western children or the mentally deranged.  In the past, when museums have embraced these kinds of values, even in an ironic parody, it has rarely ended well.  I’ll avoid mentioning any names here.

“Unconquered Imagination was our last attempt at hosting a contemporary art exhibit.”

So basically, the whole debate is convoluted and may be impossible to answer to everyone’s satisfaction. Many museums have negotiated this by including elements of both approaches in their displays with some success. The Native American displays at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Denver Art Museum (DAM) are good examples. By displaying Western objects as art and non-Western objects as artifacts people made the derogatory distinctions based on their own ethnocentric biases. On the other hand, by displaying Western and non-Western objects together you risk losing the original context of the traditional object and artist intent is lost, therefore rendering the object devoid of its original power and purpose. I prefer a mixed approach to presenting Seminole culture. Like I’ve said before, sometimes museums get it wrong and when we do we get it really wrong (see my blog dated June 8, 2010).  For example I am not a fan of dioramas since they often portray Native Americans, including Seminoles, as frozen in the past.  But I would like to see more contemporary and modern art installations in our galleries to show that Seminoles are a living, vibrant people who express themselves in ways beyond the stereotypes of the “museum Indian.” 

In the coming years we have a number of things planned that should be crowd pleasers and fulfill our mission of bringing more contemporary art into the limelight. Naturally these are all issues our interpretive plan committee will take to the Seminole communities but I am curious as to what our readers think.  How would you choose to display Native art in a place like the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum?


Author: Jonathan McMahon

Research Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

3 thoughts on “Art vs. Artifact: How nomenclature defines our value of Indian culture”

  1. I hope you continue educating everyone about the differences and what is so important to know… that people are still living and not just museum pieces. I wish I lived closer so I could visit on a regular basis. Thank you!

  2. Excellent insight! Thank you for addressing a subject that is too often avoided by museum officials. A reflection beyond simplisitic descriptions of art and artifacts is sorely needed in museums today. Thanks Again.

  3. I am encouraged with the dialogue discussing our interpretations of our diversity of art objects and culture. This is the essence of United States’ culture.

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