On Sunday I took V. to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, a fixture of my own childhood, unfailing in the delights of the gems exhibit. I took a picture of V. in front of a geode nearly her own size and posted it to Facebook, with an offhanded comment: “I mentioned colonial theft to Violet but she was all, ‘Can I get a shark tooth at the gift shop?'”
I said it, I think, because I have such conflicted feelings about that museum. Its collection is everything that was wrong with Western exploration and anthropology. I looked it up, later, and discovered that it was in fact founded by Louis Agassiz, an enormously influential contributor to 19th-century pseudo-scientific racism. Agassiz could not bear the idea that white and black people (for instance) were actually the same race, and his legacy in the field is tremendous and awful. As we wandered around the gems exhibit, I kept seeing the labels of provenance and wondering how the people of Brazil, for instance, felt about these wonderful specimens sitting here. I suppose I said it because I wanted to keep track of that little pin-prick of discomfort, not let myself take pure unconsidered pleasure in the results of wrongdoing; and because I want to keep that conversation open with my daughter. Look around. Look at the world. Think about what’s happening. Be constantly engaged, bring compassion and empathy and connection.
(We didn’t really talk about how the shark teeth got into the gift shop.)
But what happened was that a couple of friends brought up the questions of guilt and of solace, and in the ensuing conversation we began to talk about how guilt is unproductive and trying to avoid guilt is even worse: instead you should register the wrongdoing (“wow, this museum made possible in part by imperialist thieves”) and think about how you can change things in the future. On this trip we didn’t even get to the anthropology exhibits, but some quick Googling and comments from an informed friend told me this: for many decades the Peabody museum (part of the HMNH) held the burial remains of almost two thousand Pueblo Indians, dug up by an archaeologist a hundred years ago. In 1999, they sent them home. One report tells us that when representatives of the Pecos Pueblo first saw the ranks upon ranks of acid-free cardboard boxes in which the remains of their ancestors were stored, they broke down and wept in grief and horror.
One thing that I find striking about this story is that after more than seven decades of study and preservation, the museum and its staff managed not to respond with guilt and defensiveness. On the contrary, it’s clear that they took the opportunity to engage, respond, and be changed. (Extraordinarily, representatives of the Pecos Pueblos said that they felt no anger–only the deep desire to bring their people back. That is an amazing and unearned generosity which I am sure made it much easier for the museum.) Two museum members travelled to New Mexico to take part in the reburial. And the director of the museum commented that the process had produced “an intense period of self-examination that will lead to new ideas and new relationships with indigenous peoples throughout the United States. It is a collaboration that has sometimes been painful and difficult because the way is often not marked, but it has brought museums and tribal members together to an extent that has perhaps never been seen before.”
Today, “Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West” features drawings from 19th-century Lakota Indians, curated specifically to show the contrast with the representations of European settlers. The exhibit was co-organized with a contemporary Lakota artist and includes some of his works. It is clear to me that none of this would be possible without the ability to recognize error and wrongdoing, and use that knowledge to move forward instead of being paralyzed by guilt. These situations call for open-hearted creativity. So to answer the excellent questions my friends raised, I would say: don’t waste your time with guilt. Instead, put off your armor. If there is pain and suffering to be felt, feel it. Then step forward.