European art is so often the focus of our attentions. In museums, dominating university courses… it is fascinating but so much non-European art goes unnoticed. I certainly had my eyes opened a few weeks ago when a bunch of us at uni were lucky enough to have a private tour of the Arch and Anth museum in Cambridge by one of the current researchers.
Art and objects, objects and art… one thing that is clear when looking at the huge collection of anthropological artefacts in the museum is that there is a real blur between the two. There is an aesthetic as well as ethnographical value to these pieces.
Something that stands out most clearly in my mind are the Maori paddles that are a part of the founding collection in the museum. These artefacts were handed over by indigenous Maoris to Captain Cook on 12th October 1789. This was the first time that the Maori people had encountered Europeans and as recorded by the ship’s surgeon, William Monkhouse, the Maoris’ “very soon enter’d into a traffick with our people for [Tahitian] cloth… giving in exchange their paddles (having little else to dispose of) and hardly left themselves sufficient number to paddle a shore.”
The artefacts have an aesthetic value that is clear to see. The intricacy of the patterns on the wood are incredible as is the smooth carving of the wood itself. But they can tell us so much more…. They tell us what materials these people had available to them and the origin of the patterns can give a great deal of information about customs and beliefs. Furthermore, the manner of acquisition of items such as these by European tribes is crucial. That these men were willing to exchange the beautiful paddles says something about the value they placed on them… and also their penchant for Tahitian cloth! In addition, it can say something about this indigenous community and their attitude to other human beings. This was their first encounter with men very different to themselves. Suddenly, there were large ships, men of a different racial background and dressed in totally different attire. Yet this Maori community did not attack… they took the opportunity to negotiate. Perhaps an example of early consumerism!
Most enlightening in all this is how these objects can be used as evidence of collaboration between European and non-European, ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ (I use speech marks here are these are contentious terms with their own loaded meanings). This gives a rather different portrayal of encounter- it was not necessary one of domination and destruction by European explorers and ‘colonisers’.
Going beyond written sources and delving into the study of material culture gives a more multi-dimensional view of the past and human relationships. It takes me back to the piece I wrote on the value of material culture in studying the medieval past (see John Baret- redeem me?) and once again underlines how valuable the material and visual sources are to our understanding of the past.
This can be applied to any object, regardless of its aesthetic value (although a bit of beauty is always good for the art historians among us). If you have a chance in Cambridge, take 30 minutes out of your day and have a look in the Arch and Anth museum and consider the artefacts in front of you in a way that looks beyond the surface. The number of anthropological artefacts in the museum are vast but the current exhibition taking place, ‘Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji’ is a great place to start. Like those explorers on Captain Cook’s ship in the 18th century, you never know what you may discover!