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‘‘a magic place’’ The Northwest Coast Indian Hall at the American Museum of Natural History Ira Jacknis There is in New York a magic place where all the dreams of childhood hold a rendezvous, where century old trees sing or speak, where indefinable objects lie in wait for the visitor with an anxious stare; where animals of superhuman gentleness press their uplifted little paws, clasped in prayer for the privilege of constructing for the chosen one the palace of the beaver, of guiding him into the realm of the seals, or of teaching him, with a mystic kiss, the language of the frog and kingfisher. This region, to which disused but singularly effective museographic methods grant the supplementary prestige of the clair-obscur of caves and of the crumbling heaps of lost treasure, can be visited daily from ten to five o’clock at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. It is the vast gallery on the ground floor devoted to the Indians of the Northwest Coast. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘‘The Art of the Northwest Coast at the American Museum of Natural History’’ When Claude Lévi-Strauss arrived in New York City in the spring of 1941, one of the first things he did was visit the Northwest Coast Indian Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. Two years later, in the pages of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, he extravagantly praised the gallery for the high aesthetic quality of the Native art that it contained. The French anthropologist had come at a special moment in the hall’s now century-plus history. Although renowned as the repository for the collections and displays of Franz Boas, the appearance of the hall had already changed radically from Boas’s time as a curator at the museum, 1895–1905. The hall that Lévi-Strauss saw, however, has changed little in the succeeding decades. This essay, a case study in anthropological displays, offers a history of the hall—its construcTseng 2004.8.9 07:12 7132 Mauze / COMING TO SHORE / sheet 261 of 548 tion and its influence on scholars, artists, and the general public. With the world’s largest collection from the region, the displays of the American Museum of Natural History have played a critical role in forming our image of Northwest Coast Indian cultures.1 The Hall before Boas (1880–1895) The American Museum of Natural History began its anthropology department in 1873, four years after its founding by naturalist Albert S. Bickmore. By 1877, when it moved to its current site on Manhattan’s UpperWest Side, it had ethnological specimens on display. The debts and poor attendance that plagued the institution during the 1870s soon became a memory under the effective presidencyof Morris K. Jesup (1881–1908), a retired railroad banker. At the same time, Jesup vastly increased the collections and encouraged the conduct and publication of systematic scientific research. Because of the interest of trustee Heber Bishop, the museum began to acquire ethnological specimens from the Northwest Coast (Jonaitis 1988:71– 113). Bishop, who visited the region in 1880, offered a contract to Dr. Israel Wood Powell, the superintendent of Indian Affairs for British Columbia. Gathered between 1880 and 1885, his collection was especially rich in Haida material. The most spectacular object was a 64-foot Haida canoe—the largest Northwest Coast canoe in any museum—which arrived in 1883. Although the Powell-Bishop collections were important, they were greatly eclipsed by the horde of mostly Tlingit artifacts purchased from naval lieutenant and amateur ethnologist George Thornton Emmons—4,000-plus objects in 1888–93, and a second 2,500-piece collection, which arrived in 1894. At the museum’s opening, the ethnology collections occupied part of a mezzanine gallery, overlooking the second-floor hall.The large Haida canoe was suspended from the ceiling, floating in the well above the bird gallery (Figure 1). As museum display has always been strongly influenced by commercial design, it is not surprising that the exhibits looked like the innovative department stores of the time (Leach 1993): many similar objects, generally arranged by type and crowded on shelves in finely made glass and mahogany cases. Despite having some spectacular pieces, the anthropology collections lacked a curator; they were supervised, instead, by Director Bickmore . Consequently, their display was not especially noteworthy. Given the relatively small scope of the collection, all the ethnology holdings were ex222 jacknis Tseng...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780803204324
MARC Record
OCLC
57447374
Pages
508
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-11
Language
English
Open Access
No
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