Objects of Exchange: A New Approach to Exhibiting Material Culture from the Northwest Coast


Selections from the American Museum of Natural History
Curated by Professor Aaron Glass and graduate students at the Bard Graduate Center
Detail of mask attributed to Sdiihldaa/Simeon Stilthda (ca. 1799–1889), Haida
Courtesy Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, 16/396
January 26 – April 17, 2011
BGC Focus Gallery
18 West 86th St, New York, NY
For more information on the exhibit: http://www.bgc.bard.edu/gallery/gallery-at-bgc/focus-gallery.html
Fully illustrated catalogue, published by the BGC and distributed by Yale University Press
Half-Day Symposium
April 1, 2011
1:30 -5:30
Free and open to the public.
For more information on the symposium and RSVP
A recent story on the exhibit in the New York Times
Exhibit Description:
The late nineteenth century brought dramatic change to the First Nations inhabiting the Northwest Coast of North America. Increasing colonial settlement, commerce, and governance interfered with existing ways of life. In response, Native people revised earlier cultural practices and forms of artistic production to accommodate these new historical and political conditions. Meanwhile, thousands of objects left the coast in this era of rampant museum collecting. Yet exhibitions often dehistoricize these materials in order to reconstruct precolonial cultural patterns or to classify tribal aesthetic styles. While old museum collections are typically seen to provide touchstones of “classic” or “traditional” art, they are rather repositories of objects that were products of—and witness to— significant cultural upheaval.
Objects of Exchange examines the material culture of the period for visual evidence of historical flux and shifting social relations within Native groups as well as between them and the surrounding settler nations of Canada and the United States. It focuses on objects— variously construed as art, artifact, and commodity—that challenge well-established stylistic or cultural categories and that reflect patterns of intercultural exchange and transformation. Drawing on the remarkable collections at the American Museum of Natural History, this exhibition reveals the artistic traces of dynamic indigenous activity whereby objects were altered, repurposed, and adapted to keep up with changing times.
Rather than approach the late nineteenth century as the culmination of some purportedly traditional moment in indigenous life, Objects of Exchange suggests that the particular contexts of colonialism demanded the rapid entry of Native people into modernity. Although some aspects of colonial culture were certainly imposed upon the First Nations, they also demonstrated considerable agency in adapting and transforming others. New options for identity drew selectively on multiple material cultures as artists set out to strike a balance between constructions of self and other, between ceremonialism and commerce, and between the various values attached to the past, present, and future—decisions that still reverberate for indigenous peoples today. The voices of contemporary First Nations artists and scholars—available in the exhibition and website through audio and video recordings—reflect both the current cultural vitality on the coast and the intercultural histories embodied in these complex objects.
Objects of Exchange catalogue cover. Detail of a photograph of Newitti, British Columbia, by Edward Dossetter (1881)
Courtesy American Museum of Natural History Library, 42298
Curatorial Reflections
by Aaron Glass
From the image on the opening title wall of the exhibition, repeated on the cover of the catalogue, visitors should sense that they are in for a different type of experience. Two words relevant to the material are conspicuously absent from the title: “Indian” and “art.” Rather, particular themes, historical periods and geographical places are signaled. The image complements rather than illustrates the title, presenting not objects per se (especially not the trademark Northwest Coast art object) but rather people—indigenous people dressed in Euro-American fashions, draped in Hudson’s Bay Company trade blankets, directly addressing the camera and thus the exhibition visitor and catalogue reader. Mounted on massive cedar plank bighouses, adorned with family crest motifs and heraldic poles, are signs written in English as well as a Union Jack hanging limp from a flagpole. The image was taken in 1881 at a Kwakwaka’wakw village, known to outsiders as Newitti, by a commercial photographer, Edward Dossetter, to illustrate the administrative report of the first Superintendent of Indian Affairs for British Columbia, Israel Powell, who conducted a tour of provincial reserves that year and who also collected many of the objects on exhibit. The photograph captures social as well as material and political transactions and serves to introduce an exhibition that hopes to reframe the material culture of the place and period in order to convey such convergent themes.

The particular venue of this exhibit shaped our approach in many ways. The Bard Graduate Center is an interdisciplinary degree-granting and exhibition program dedicated to the study of the material world in all of its diversity. Freed from the restrictions often placed on curators of non-Western material culture at art or anthropology museums, I was unencumbered by pressure to frame the objects as fine art or ethnographic artifact per se. Instead, my graduate students and I turned to the American Museum of Natural History collection for material evidence of historical and cultural transformation. While we maintain certain anthropological and art historical perspectives and language, the project was self-consciously multidisciplinary. Moreover, given explicit themes of intercultural exchange and transaction, I sought out boundary objects that challenge standard museological categories—both aesthetic and ethnographic—and that suggest the complexity of indigenous responses to settlement and colonialism. Collection records for the selected objects varied widely in terms of archival richness: some objects had whole files dedicated to them while others arrived with virtually no documentation; some have been exhibited and published repeatedly and others have been overlooked in storage for a century. So we decided to focus on the entire social life of the things, attending variably to cultural contexts for production, indigenous meaning and use, exchange and collection, and histories of reception and scholarly analysis by both Natives and non-Natives.
The Focus Gallery, a new initiative at the BGC, is devoted to exhibitions that derive from the scholarship of our faculty. Focus Gallery exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues originate in graduate seminars and are realized collaboratively by a team comprised of the professor who serves as the curator, graduate students who participate in the seminar, and members of the BGC exhibitions and academic programs staff. The initiative also expands the conventional parameters of exhibition practice by offering a space to experiment with new media components, building on the presence of our new Digital Media Lab.
Objects of Exchange incorporates new media in a number of ways that helped us realize our pedagogical goals. For object labels that required a large number of supplementary or comparative images, we installed small video screens to cycle through the relevant images. Visitors are encouraged to borrow gallery iPods, free of charge, which contain audio clips of interviews I conducted with First Nations artists and scholars discussing the objects and themes of the exhibition; these are keyed to track numbers printed on object wall labels. (While we edited a number of video interviews as well, we ultimately decided that delivering these on an iPod in the small space of a single gallery would be fatally distracting, so we made these videos available on the exhibit website instead).
Most importantly, one research and development tool fed directly into our final curatorial approach. In my seminar, we built a course wiki that functioned as a collectively editable database for the exhibit research. Each object had its own wiki page on which the students entered research information, comparative images, links to websites, relevant clips of the audio interviews, draft texts, and exhibition ideas. The wiki was enabled with tagging functionality, and we initially tagged each of the object pages with the themes relevant to its interpretation, drawn from a list of fifteen semantically overlapping terms evocative of social, cultural, and material transition in the period: Christianity, diffusion, English text, Hudson’s Bay Company, hybridity, indigenization, misidentification, models, mortuary, multiples, non-canonical, repurposing, ship imagery, souvenir, and transformation. These are concepts relevant to the interpretation of the objects rather than rigidly defined categories to which the objects belong. The wiki automatically produces a tag cloud, which visualizes the frequency of tag occurrence—and thus the relative weight of the interpretive frames—through the font size in which the terms appear. Here’s how our tag cloud looked on the wiki, with additional terms used in the research and development stage:
Since each of the 37 objects illustrates multiple themes, it was difficult to decide which objects would be placed adjacent to one another in the gallery and in the catalogue. In the end, we adapted the idea of tagging as a curatorial strategy. Most directly, every object’s wall label and catalogue entry includes a list of the thematic tags relevant to our interpretation of that object. Regardless of its physical placement, visitors/readers can imagine other possible curatorial configurations. In addition, we developed an interactive tag cloud to further illustrate the relational nature of these concepts as they unite the objects in a complex conceptual network. On a touch screen in the exhibition (reproduced on the exhibit website), visitors can click on either an object’s icon or a conceptual tag in order to reconfigure the exhibition according to the various thematic relations between particular objects:
While the location of objects in the exhibition and book must remain static, this digital display allows people to visualize multiple positions and possibilities for engaging with the objects and ideas. (See the essay in the exhibition catalogue authored by myself and Kimon Keramidas, the Assistant Director of the BGC Digital Media Lab, for more theoretical and practical reflections on our use of digital and analog media in the “relational exhibition.”)
Students in my current seminar are conducting additional research on objects that could not be included in the exhibition for various reasons; after the exhibit closes next month, their new research will be added to the exhibition website, which will also reproduce all of the objects and interpretive texts as currently installed. In addition, we are developing an interactive map and timeline in order to dynamically plot the objects in geographical space and historical time, much as the Tag Cloud does in conceptual, curatorial space. Further indigenous perspectives will be offered through additional audio and video commentaries. We plan to launch the expanded website by the middle of Summer, 2011. Stay Tuned! http://www.bgc.bard.edu/gallery/gallery-at-bgc/focus-gallery.html
In the end, the combination of interdisciplinary paradigms and the targeted use of digital media opened up new avenues for approaching the material culture of the Northwest Coast. We hope that by asking new questions about these old objects, we have also contributed to contemporary dialogues around indigenous art and intercultural encounter given the legacy of settler colonialism in North America.