Thursday, 8 November 2012

Why the Pitt Rivers Museum is not a Hobbit Museum

Why the Pitt Rivers Museum is not a Hobbit Museum

I'm sure you know, of course, that hobbits have museums. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien says that hobbits have 'mathom-houses', for mathoms: things that are no longer used, but which one doesn’t wish to throw away. They are things filled with the vestiges of lives past and gone, and they accumulate, like fossils: mathoms are dead things.

The displays of the Pitt Rivers Museum look a bit like I imagine a mathom-house would look. It’s dark in there, and there are all sorts of old things. They aren’t actually used much, either: most of them are things from when people did things a different way, or with materials that aren’t used very much any more. The stocks from the village I live in are there, along with bows and arrows, quite a lot of archaic weapons, Samurai armor, shell armbands, string made of out bison hair, and capes made for the royal family of Hawaii which are completely covered in the bright feathers of now-extinct birds. None of this stuff is used any more in the sense it was originally intended to be used. The place is a mathom-house (though, alas, it does not contain the sword Sting).

And yet: jewelry designers come to look at jeweler from around the world. Basket makers can see, in one case, how basket makers around the world have solved the problem of going around corners and finishing rims, in many different media. Authors set stories here, both they and their characters taking inspiration from the maze of cases and their contents. Students come to draw: there’s no end to the things you can draw in this place.

And people come from the communities that the objects came from, to work with them. They come to learn. The ancestors may be gone from us, says one Blackfoot artist, but what they knew is embodied in the things they made, and if we study those things carefully, the ancestors will teach us through the objects. And not just how to make bison-hair string or use it to tie things together, or what they used to get that paint colour. The objects, their materials, their technical processes of making, are tied to people: the community and the social relations in which they were made, and the broader community of other-than-human persons in which they were made. The spirits of bison are in that string, along with an understanding of the proper way to show respect to bison relatives and maintain good relations with them. Making paints, in most North American indigenous societies, requires prayer. Paint is often sacred, used for protection against spiritual harm. You wear paint in ceremony where sacred powers are very strong. Ancestors wore it into battle for protection and success. These things are not ‘dead’—they work very powerfully in the present.

And so the collections are used to inspire creativity and learning in the present. They also provoke memory and cultural knowledge, and help to restore cultural practices, and thus to strengthen Indigenous identity in the present. This is not looking to the past to stay in the past; it is about knowing who you are today. This is not a mathom-house: these things are still very much in use.

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