Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Wild Men and Wild Ideas: Repatriating Culture

The University Museum continues to modernize itself in celebration of its centennial. Its latest adventure (viewable through June) is “The Dayaks: Peoples of the Borneo Rain Forest.” These are the so-called “wild men of Borneo,” except that they were far from woolly-headed in the exquisite ways they adjusted to the particularities of their terrain—and I do mean rain.
The 500 ethnological objects presented in the show were, said Oceanic curator William Davenport at the press opening, the inaugural collection of the museum in the 1890s. Three Philly patricians brought them back to illustrate what they had observed and learned from their dicey adventure—dicey because the colonizing powers (the Brits and the Dutch) had only recently decreed that the headhunting trait of the tribes was uncivilized and henceforth verboten.
About 1.7 million Dayaks lived in the interior of Borneo when the patricians went on their ramble. Dr. Davenport estimates twice as many live there now. Borneo and Brunei are variations of the same appellation, which means “The Kingdom,” possibly applied by the outsider Chinese and the Malays.
The island has been inhabited for 40,000 years, but the Europeans only “discovered” it in the 16th Century. “Dayak” means “outsider”—neither Muslim nor Malay. They lived along the river banks, gathering each clan in a great longhouse from which they plotted their subsistence economy moves.
They raised rice by the “swidden” method—cleared rainforest was used to raise one crop, then allowed to lie fallow for a decade. They cultivated fruit and other vegetables, raised pigs and chickens, and felled small game with their poisonous blow darts.
The elaboration of this highly complex low-tech blowgun mechanism is one of the highlights of the show. Nobody knows how they stumbled upon the mortal fact that antiar causes cardiac arrest and strychnine paralyzes the central nervous system. But the blowguns had to be a tight fit in order that one man’s lungs could get up the power to send the projectiles far and fast enough to bring down the game.
It took eight to nine hours of the closest kind of work to bore the holes, and the blowgun barrel was rubbed to a high polish with sand and abrasive leaves. Low-tech geniuses always leave me weak in my mental knees in admiration.
Another aspect of their material culture that surprised and pleased me was their ikat system of dyeing, in which the threads are dyed before they are woven. As Dr. Davenport pointed out with great relish, “This gives you a soft-edged weave that is very appealing visually.” The chromatic range is not wide, but the garments and masks are enchanting.
I was also astonished by the stuffed hornbill bird in the exhibit. Davenport added to my astonishment by observing that here are hundreds of hornbill species. I wondered what quirk of evolutionary development generated this great horned bill. Davenport answered with scientific care that no one was really sure.
I hypothesized that maybe it was for sexual display. “Probably,” he conceded. It pleased my sick mind that the horned bill was most likely to engender horniness in potential mates.
I drifted into conversation with Davenport on the subject of repatriation of objects to their original cultures. I told him I had been dazzled last May in Sydney when the director of the Australian Museum proudly explained that he was opening his museum’s major bicentennial exhibition by returning in solemn ceremony objects from his museum to the countries of their origin—Vanuatu, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
His main criteria for voluntary repatriating objects were that the country lacked this crucial artifact in its repertory and that it was equipped to curate it responsibly. Davenport turned me over to museum director Richard Dyson for the official position of the U Muse on repatriation.
Dyson admitted that the museum community in North America was in the midst of some conscience-raising on the subject and that in fact some questionable West African objects up for sale had recently been rejected in toto by the museum community.
He granted that stolen objects absolutely had to be returned (although even so august a cultural figure as Andre Malraux began his “museum without walls” career—an interesting phrase in this context—by taking Indochinese artifacts back to France in the 1930s).
Dyson also felt that the sacred objects had to be returned to a living society, not a successor modern state. It’s a question full of ambiguities. In Noumea, the young half-Kanak (his mother is French) museum director said he had problems when he conducted elders on tours of his museum. The New Caledonians didn’t feel comfortable with their ritual objects “out of place”—i.e., not in the villages which produced them.
Visits to shows like the Dayaks make you think interesting—if problematical—thoughts.
Reprinted from Welcomat, Hazard-at-Large, March 7, 1990

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