Do you hear a faint crackling sound? Don’t be alarmed, it’s just a paradigm shifting. And about time too.
Today’s New York Times carries a report on policies proposed by the Association of Art Museum Directors; AAMD says museums should take care in exhibiting sacred objects. A particular focus is on indigenous objects, such as Native American religious regalia, and here the report recommends consultation with indigenous groups to shape the way such things are displayed, described and used.
AAMD is an elite organization in every sense of the word. Only a small proportion of museum professionals is eligible to join. Membership is restricted to art museums with budgets above a certain level, and even when they meet that criterion, applicants are subject to review (and rejection).
Fifteen years ago, I was one of the advocates of cultural democracy invited to address an AAMD meeting as such topics were first being raised in those rarefied circles. Things have changed in the 125 years since Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra, exhorting his fellow plutocrats to “Educate, and save ourselves and our families and our money from the mobs!” But the same impulse lay heavy on the air as we ate our individual chocolate mousses from cunning chocolate seashells and sipped our champagne from crystal flutes. It was an interesting experience: if you ever want to know what it would feel like to be a dose of castor oil, accept an invitation to tell a group of diehard elitists in full defensive panic that it is time to open their doors to those “mobs.”
It was only a year after Congress adopted The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, authorizing federally recognized tribes to request the return from museums of remains and objects taken from their ancestors. Until NAGPRA began to have an impact, Native Americans had to travel to major U.S. museums (generally places like the Museum of Natural History in New York and Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, which typically catalogued and stored human remains in much the same fashion as samples of fungi, minerals or bird species) to discover the artifacts of their own heritage cultures and instruments of their own traditional spiritual practices.
Another guest speaker at the 1991 AAMD meeting was anthropologist James Clifford, who talked about a unique plan being made for the Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum in the far north of California, which functions both as a museum and as a safe storehouse for ceremonial artifacts which are still in use, removed from the museum for rituals, then returned for safekeeping. The Museum has been in the news over the last few years, because many of the objects returned to it via NAGPRA have been contaminated with toxic levels of pesticides, posing potential risks to members of the Hupa, Yurok and Karuk tribes who use them in religious ceremonies.
Is this appalling? Of course. Was NAGPRA amazingly long in coming? Yes. Does it indicate the glacial pace of change that AAMD has released its recommendations fifteen years after it first started considering the question? Absolutely.
But even glacial change is change. There is an amazing lesson about progress in human history to be gleaned from today’s Times piece. According to the U.S. census, about one percent of U.S. population is Native American. Yet, like water wearing through a stone, by moral force, powerful and privileged people have been persuaded to adopt and advocate a position respecting the rights of that tiny minority and holding a place for the sacred in a world–the museum world–dominated by decidedly profane considerations of money and prestige.
AAMD’s recommendations apply to all sacred traditions, not just indigenous ones. I lean back in my chair, turning the word “sacred” over and over in my mind like someone sucking the pit of an especially fine apricot. I imagine the question of what is held sacred–and what its sacred status demands–reverberating through the culture, not as a form of combat (as in the proposed constitutional amendment against flag-burning), but as a spiritual practice.
What do you hold sacred? How will you care for it? How will thinking these thoughts shift the world to come?