As some of you may know, I went to Oxford last weekend, and spent a number of hours at the Pitt Rivers, the city’s anthropology and archaeology museum. I’d heard many things about this museum before–that it was a “mess”, or maddeningly dark and cluttered, or antiquated, or that it depicted non-Western cultures as overly weird compared to Western ones–so I was very much looking forward to visiting it myself and forming my own opinion about it.

As it turns out, I think the Pitt Rivers has become my new favourite museum–and here are 7 reasons why.

1. It’s all about celebrating human creativity. Where most museums will divide and display their objects based on their geographic region, the Pitt Rivers divides and displays them according to their function, or the common problems they were meant to solve. So there’s a display that’s all about bagpipes, one that’s all about fire-making technology, one that’s dedicated to traps made to catch small mammals (mostly rats and mice), one that’s dedicated to amulets–and, in each of this display, objects from the South American rainforest will be sitting next to objects from nineteenth-century Naples and ones from modern-day Oxfordshire and ones from Ancient Egypt and ones collected by Captain Cook in the Pacific. So you can compare and contrast the different ways people have done the same things across the world and throughout history and prehistory, and marvel at just how damn inventive humans can be.

A display that's all about hair removal technology--that is, mostly, razors.

A display that’s all about hair removal technology–that is, mostly, razors.

2. Each visit will yield new discoveries. Yes, it’s dark–to see some of the objects, you actually have to ask for a torch at the front desk. And yes, the displays are amazingly cluttered and crowded, with labels inscribed with sometimes really tiny handwriting–for which you may want to ask for a magnifying glass at the front desk, too. But this means that, each time you visit, you’ll definitely find something you hadn’t noticed before. And, since entry to museum’s entry is free, you can visit as many times as you want.

A particularly chaotic display, focussing on human form in art. You could dedicate an entire visit to this one display--or see it every time you visit, and discover something new each time.

A particularly chaotic display, focussing on human form in art. You could dedicate an entire visit to this one display–or see it every time you visit, and discover something new each time.

3. It challenges you to think for yourself. There are no clear start- or end-points by which to organise your visit. This might, at first, cause confusion and a sense of disorientation. But, actually, it’s liberating–you are encouraged to make your own sense of the museum, and draw your own connections. (NB There are a number of hints, here and there, of what the museum wants you to reflect on, but they definitely enhance the visiting experience rather than take away from it.)

3. They take great pains to avoid stereotypes of other cultures being “weird” or “exotic” when compared to Western ones. Specifically, they’ve included a large number of modern-day or relatively recent European objects in the displays–from a breast implant in the display about body modification, to Oxfordshire skates in the skates and snow shoes display, to Eiffel Tower souvenirs, to playing card decks that people still use today in Italy. But most impressive is what they’re doing with the shrunken heads–which merits its own, separate point.

4. What they’re doing with the shrunken heads. Through labels underneath the heads themselves, a cheap pamphlet you can get at the museum shop, and both text and a podcast on the museum website, the Pitt Rivers has made a valiant attempt at explaining that the heads are not something weird and barbaric that some violent and primitive tribe still do in some remote jungle location today, but something that occurred in a particular time and place but doesn’t happen any more, and that, in that particular time and place, it made sense within a particular worldview. Most wonderfully, the museum points out, not only that violence has long been a feature of European life as well, but also that the fact that Europeans collected these heads, and display them in places like museums, is just as interesting to think about, as a cultural phenomenon, as the act of shrinking the heads itself.

5. You can see the following things:

A "philosophical" snakes and ladder set from nineteenth-century India, in which certain squares are inscribed with the word for one of the Hindu virtues, and allow you climb a ladder up to the corresponding reward, while others are inscribed with the word for a sin, and force to slide down a snake towards the corresponding punishment.

A “philosophical” snakes and ladder set from nineteenth-century India, in which certain squares are inscribed with the words for Hindu virtues, and allow you to climb a ladder up to the corresponding reward, while others are inscribed with the words for sins, and force you to slide down a snake towards the corresponding punishment.

A badass helmet made out of a kind of blowfish.

A badass helmet made out of a kind of blowfish, from Kiribati, in Micronesia.

A Micronesian sailing chart from the nineteenth-century–the sticks represent the main directions of wind and currents, and the shells represent islands. Photo courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

A tiny stick nineteenth-century Chinese barbers used to tickle their customers' eyeballs. The idea was to cleanse the eye by making it shed tears.

A tiny stick nineteenth-century Chinese barbers used to tickle their customers’ eyeballs. The idea was to cleanse the eye by making it shed tears.

A metal collar from Burma, made to be worn by children, so that evil spirits would mistake them for dogs, and leave them alone.

A metal collar from Burma, made to be worn by children, so that evil spirits would mistake them for dogs, and leave them alone.

A policeman's amulet from nineteenth-century France--made out of a coin, a piece of hangman's rope, and the skin of a "sadistic murderer named Campi".

A policeman’s amulet from nineteenth-century France–made out of a coin, a piece of hangman’s rope, and the skin of “a sadistic murderer named Campi”.

6. The amazing website. Seriously, if you can’t visit the museum in person, then the website is a more than adequate substitute. And if you have visited the museum in person, the website has loads of resources through which to find out even more about the objects you’ve seen. My favourite section is probably the one in which you can click through the museum’s huge collection of amulets, but there are also detailed introductions to the museum’s biggest or most important collections (such as the South American rainforest material, the photographs of Native North American life, or the things collected by Captain Cook), and a staggering number of blogs and multimedia projects that I’ve barely had the chance to explore properly.

The Pitt Rivers, like any other museum, is not without its flaws. For example, I think they could do a better job at problematising their Benin collection, which, like the Benin collection at the British Museum and a number of other places both in the UK and in Europe, was forcibly removed (some might say looted) from its country of origin by the British during a “punitive expedition” in 1897. The Pitt Rivers does acknowledge the origin of these objects, but I think they could talk about the ethics of displaying them in the same way that they discuss the ethics of displaying the shrunken heads.

Equally, I’m sure there are other things about the Pitt Rivers that are super-cool, besides the ones I’ve listed, but either I don’t know about them, or don’t know them well enough to write confidently about them.

But the main point of this post is that absolutely fell in love with this museum–and that, hopefully, whoever ends up reading it will want to go, and fall in love with it too.


For the last month or so, I’ve spent one or two days a week leafing through old typewritten letters between collectors and dealers, in an attempt to figure out how the Pre-Columbian objects at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts became part of the museum’s collection. This is for my MA thesis. There’s loads of fun or interesting stuff in these letters, but, since it’s all private correspondence, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it–no matter how outrageous some of the dealers’ pronouncements on the legality of their activities may be.

However, I did find something cool today that’s probably ok for me to share–old-timey Australian anthropologist Henry Ling Roth’s account of how the weird little collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Halifax’s Bankfield Museum formed. The Bankfield Museum became a museum in 1887, after having been the home of Edward Akroyd–who, in the nineteenth century, had been Halifax’s foremost woollen and worsted manufacturer. (Halifax is in Yorkshire, by the way, and both woollen and worsted are types of yarn). Roth curated the museum’s collection between 1900 and 1925, and wrote some notes on the museum’s Pre-Columbian material. Without further ado:

At a great Exhibition held in Halifax in the year 1841 there were shown amongst other interesting exhibits, two interesting collections of domestic articles made by the natives of Ancient Peru. They were stated to be belong to a Mr J. Egan, but the name should have been spelt Hegan a member of the Liverpool firm of Hall, Hegan & Co. […] After the Exhibition was over Mr Hegan gave the two collections to the Museum of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society where they remained until the year 1896 when they were transferred with other forgotten relics to Bankfield Museum.

In the Exhibition Catalogue one collection is spoken of as ‘Peruvian Antiquities: Contents of the Tomb of a Cacica, or ancient Peruvian Princess, of the Nation of the Atacames, Found on the Southern Point of the Coast of Peru in the Valley of Sama near the mouth of the River” & consisted of about 30 enumerated articles. The other collection is spoken of as “A Unique series of Sepulchral Urns, Vases, Drinking Cups, Bottles, Paterae, & other domestic Utensils & personal Ornaments, Musical Instruments, etc., discovered in Ancient Tombs in the Valley of Sama, Lacumba, etc., in Peru & also in the Cordillera”, but none of these articles are detailed so that we cannot say whether all the things have come down to us. Strangely enough a large portion of the pottery has been labelled ‘MEXICO’, although it is distinctly Peruvian.

Further on, Roth lists the items from the tomb of the “Andean Princess”:

“A part of the Undergarment of the Cacica.

“The Upper Garment or Shirt without Sleeves.

“The Belt or Faja, worn by the Cacia, & denoting her rank among the aristocracy of the Inca’s dynasty.

“The Thorn of the Cactus, used as a Pin, anterior to the introduction of the Metals, & proving that the interment was prior to the arrival of Europeans.

“The large Kerchief called Andro, in which the Cacica carried her various implements.

“The Spindle & the Sticks forming a Loom for weaving, with the latter of which all woven articles of dress were made. Around the Sticks is a Faja or Belt in a process of manufacture.

“The Hinda or Sling now in use among the Indians of the Cordillera.

“Three instruments for making Fringes.

“Two Vichuntas used for opening the wool of stuffs.

“A smaller Kerchief to hang in front, used as a pocket.

“A Comb called Chucha.

“Spoons of different forms.

“A Wooden Spoon in the process of formation.

“A Wooden Knife used in dancing.

“Workbag of the Cacica, with her spindles etc.

“Balls of Thread found in above workbag.

“A Masorca of Maize entire, found hanging over the head of the Cacica.

“Remains of a fishing net.

“Spices with which the Mummy was found embalmed.

“Remains of net-work.

“Locks of Hair & Leaves found in Paringuita, hung over the Head of the Cacica.

“An Earthen Vase called Ura, found full of Maize.

“Vase or Bottle found full of Chicha.

“The Skull, Hair & Head-dress, & part of the Skeleton of the Cacica.

“A Skull found in the Tomb of the Cacica.’

“A large number of the articles enumerated is missing, as was to be expected, & it is not possible to determine which are some of the things. Then several have been misnamed, or imaginary qualifications given to them. There is no skull with part of the skeleton, but there is a dried head with some skin & hair attached & decorated with the locks of hair – but wooly – as above mentioned. As for the other skull, Whiteley Ward told me more than once that as a boy he & other youngsters used to make a football of it & had no doubt that it had long since been kicked to pieces. The “wooden knife used in dancing” is nothing more than a weavers beater-in.

“There is also a Mummy of which I have been able to find any record except the label which reads as follows: – ‘A Natural Mummy of a Female. Discovered in January 1834, along with seven others, within a cavern, on the mountain of Gamiza, one of the highest passable points of the Andes, in the neighbourhood of Tunja, a city three or four days from Bogota, the capital of New Granada. Presented by Miss Staveley, Springfield’. There was a John Staveley, a South American merchant in the thirties of the last century in Halifax, who was one of the earliest members of the Halifax Literary & Philosophical Society, so it is not improbable that this mummy found its way to Halifax through his business connections with the South American continent.

Oh and let’s not forget

“a Halifax mechanic, Mr C.H. Hitchen, [who] brought home and deposited in the Museum some very crude pottery from the ruins of Huanacho, which he excavated in Mar-June, 1887, & one large urn from the sacred (?) city of Pachachonac on the north coast of Peru, which he purchased in April, 1897.”

There are many reasons why I like this passage–the unrestrained use of ampersands, the copious capitalisation of words, the weirdly compelling list of looted grave goods–but, perhaps most of all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the haphazard, bizarre and gleefully unethical way that many of the older museums formed. Also I can’t believe they just let kids play football with a crumbling Pre-Columbian skull–was it lack of concern/respect for primitive cultures or people, some forgotten Great Football Shortage that pushed people to desperate measures to enjoy their favourite pastime–or just sheer madness?

As a note: from the website, it does not seem that the Bankfield Museum displays any of these objects any more. Perhaps they still hold them in storage, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pre-Columbian stuff was sold on to art dealers or other museums–it seems likely that a silver llama on display at the Sainsbury Centre used to be on display at Bankfield (Roth describes a similar llama in his notes, and feels compel to explain that a llama is a “native sheep”).

I know I promised a short series on the Wari, but I was in Paris last week, and I’d like to write down my thoughts on the Musée du Quai Branly while they’re still relatively fresh.

If you want to experience sheer wonder at human creativity and cultural diversity, then the Quai Branly is the museum for you. They’ve got everything there from Easter Island heads to Native American totem poles, from half-caribou half-walrus shaman masks from the Arctic to creepy voodoo doll’s heads from the Caribbean, from contemporary art produced by Australian Aborigines to Medieval Ethiopian murals, and all kinds of masks and costumes, gods and goddesses, weapons and musical instruments. And the way the objects are presented makes them even more spectacular than they would be by themselves: objects that were “sacred” to those who first made and used them are placed into small chapel-like rooms to the gallery’s sides, each one designed in a different way, and, in the main gallery, I was particularly impressed by how the Ghanaian goldweights were arranged–almost as if they were the splendid debris of an explosion frozen in time–or as if they were a particularly fine infographic.

Half-caribou half-walrus mask

Half-caribou half-walrus mask from somewhere in Alaska. I think it’s Yup’ik, if I remember correctly.

Voodoo shrine

Voodoo-related object of worship from the Caribbean. I’ve lost my notes on who made it/when, so if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!


The Ghanaian golweights display.

But, but, but. When it first opened in 2006, the Quai Branly was widely criticised for a number of practices which seemed a little… anachronistic.

First, a bit of context. Many museum collections have their roots in colonialism. Back when Western nations had empires, it was considered important to collect objects from the farthest reaches of their colonial possessions, and then display them back home. This for a number of reasons, but, in most cases, it would be fair to say that a collection was meant to celebrate, in some way, the colonial endeavour–for example, by demonstrating how “primitive” conquered peoples were and therefore how much they needed white rulers to “civilise” them, or by showcasing the objects as if they were trophies, almost like severed animal heads in hunting lodges.

In recent decades, however, most museums have tried to shake off their colonial undertones. This in a number of ways, including: involving so-called “source” communities (that is, communities whose ancestors manufactured and used the museum’s objects, or ones like them) in the curation of both permanent and temporary exhibitions; ditching words like “primitive” or “advanced”, and any terminology or way of displaying things that might give an impressions that cultures are being ranked from least sophisticated to most sophisticated; trying to give a sense of how cultures change through time, rather than trying to preserve a timeless, “authentic” idea of what the culture is thought to be like; returning certain objects to their place of origin; and even explicitly tackling colonialism and related phenomena (slavery, racism, turn-of-the-century wars) in their labels and exhibitions.

The Quai Branly, however–when it first opened, and during its first few years of business, it did a number of things which people didn’t agree with. In no particular order: they did ditch the word “primitive”, but in favour of the word “first” (as in, they described the arts of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as “first arts”, les arts premiers), which many see as just as bad as primitive; they refused to repatriate a number of objects, including Maori warrior’s heads from New Zealand; they did not collaborate with source communities (with the exception of a number of Aboriginal artists who designed a few beautiful murals and the painted roof); they presented non-Western cultures as timeless and changeless; they completely failed to mention colonialism or slavery; and so on. They also enshrouded the gallery in darkness, which some saw as an unfortunate reminder of colonial ideas about Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as dangerous places, mostly made up of jungles, forests and caves, with plenty of shadowy spots for predatory animals and “savages” to hide in waiting for the perfect ambushing opportunity.


One of the murals specially commissioned by the Quai Branly to a number of contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists. This particular one depicts the Milky Way, and was designed by Gulumbu Yunupingu. It can only be seen from outside.

It’s been almost eight years now since the Quai Branly first opened, and I think it’s fair to say that an effort has been made (by individual curators? by the administrative board? I don’t know) to change at least some of these things. Loads of new lights have been installed, to dispel the gallery’s darkness. The Maori heads were returned to New Zealand. Some contemporary stuff was acquired, providing visitors with a vague sense that Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia change through time as much as Europe does–a few contemporary Aboriginal paintings, and several huge display cases with some really cool stuff from modern-day Bolivia and the Caribbean (which was actually a nice contrast from how museums usually do this sort of thing–that is, by including one painting or art object from one contemporary artist, tucked away in a little corner, or just at the end before the gift shop, where visitors either won’t see it or won’t care).


Costumes for the Devil and his mistress, for the Bolivian Diablada festival. Highlight of my visit.


Costume for the Archangel Michael, also for the Diablada.


This bear (ukuy) is also an important figure in the Diablada–originally it was a spectacled bear, which you can actually see in the Andes (if you’re lucky), but for some reason now it’s a polar bear. The effect of one too many Coke adverts perhaps?

However, besides this, I don’t think the Quai Branly has made any more efforts to collaborate with source communities, nor could I discern any attempt at problematising where their objects come from–I don’t think colonialism is ever mentioned, except perhaps for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, which is simply presented as “the end” of ancient American arts and cultures. Also, they still use the term “first arts”.

And, because this is mostly an archaeology blog, it’s worth pointing out that Quai Branly labels also fail to mention both the illegal trade of antiquities and looting, which is very probably how many of the archaeological objects got there. To be fair, this could be said of most museums, even ones that could otherwise be considered more “enlightened” than the Quai Branly, but it’s still worth pointing out.


“This item was part of a hanging several metres long found on the north coast of Peru in 1951. With its exceptional dimensions, iconography and range of colours, it was divided into several panels to be sold more easily”. This is the only reference to looting and the illegal traffic in cultural material I could find at the Quai Branly–worded in such a way that it almost seems like a reasonable thing for an ancient Peruvian textile to be mutilated this way.


If you see an ancient terracotta from Djenne in a museum that isn’t the one in Bamako (Mali), the likelihood is extremely high that it was looted, and found its way out of Mali by illicit means. Perhaps the label should mention this?

The Quai Branly, then, is an infuriating mixture of absolutely awesome objects and displays, anachronistic display and curatorial practices, and a few successful and semi-successful attempts at correcting some of these practices. If you haven’t been, I recommend you go–both to see the objects on display (especially the Diablada stuff), and to think, how would you do things differently? Is there a way of talking about looting, colonialism or the illegal trade in cultural materials that will actually grab museum visitors’ attention? Is the darkness really an issue, or is it just overthinkers overthinking it? What would you substitute the term “first arts” with, assuming a term like that is needed to describe what the museum is about? And what contemporary cultural phenomena from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia should be included in the display, to give a sense of how non-Western cultures have changed through time?

Answers to these questions, other questions, criticisms, or comments are, as always, very welcome, both from those who’ve been to to the Quai Branly and from those who haven’t.

Since seeing it some time in October, I’ve been raving to almost everyone about the British Museum’s current exhibition, Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC - 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC – 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

For one thing, it’s a selection of artefacts that cannot fail to cause wonder in visitors. A necklace made out of gold-covered jaguar claws! A jaguar with a parasol (left)! A minuscule, grinning bat-man creature with a pair of wings that looks like an impossibly elaborate hairdo! Wonder is so incredibly important for this sort of thing–people talk about the way sex is often used to grab people’s attention, but sheer wonder is just as effective at ensnaring the public–and ensuring that they stick around long enough that they actually end up learning something about whatever it is they’re feeling wonder for. I remember one of my teachers in school giving us this piece of advice: whenever you’re studying something, and it’s starting to get a bit boring, the best thing to do is to think “wow, that’s amazing!” at the end of each sentence. Pretty soon, your mind starts thinking that the stuff you’re reading actually is amazing, and the information sticks to your brain much more easily. It does work!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he's chewing the coca leaves!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he’s chewing the coca leaves!

It’s not just because the objects are made of gold that they are spectacular. In fact, I was a bit worried, before going, that the exhibition would be too “bling”: that is, that it would focus too much on shiny stuff and how shiny it is, and de-emphasise both the people that made and used the shiny stuff, and all the other non-gold things they made and used and valued as well. Instead, there are loads of beautiful ceramics, and a whole room whose main message is “it wasn’t all about gold for ancient Colombians, here’s some stuff that was equally if not more important”–such as feathers, textiles, and animal matter. And as for the ancient Colombians themselves, it seemed to me that the curators chose exactly the right objects to give a strong sense that there were living, breathing, squishy humans behind all the bling and jewellery: a disarmingly lifelike ceramic sculpture of a man chewing coca leaves (right), a big fleshy nose adorned with a huge bull-ring emerging from a funerary urn as if the urn itself were still haunted by the spirit of its occupant, a small gold effigy of a man removing a mask from his face… Of course, it’s also possible that this is just my overactive imagination, combined with the fact that the message “we study things in order to get to people” was so strongly inculcated in me at University, that I’m always pushing myself to imagine the human context within which the stuff I see in museums was originally used. In other words, I’m not sure if anyone else, who doesn’t study the same sorts of things as me, would also get such a strong sense of the people behind the artefacts.

Mannequins at Lima's Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

Mannequins at Lima’s Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

The only real criticism I had to make about the exhibition was that the curators could have used mannequins like the ones they have at Lima’s Museo Larco (left), or at least small illustrations next to captions, to show people how exactly the jewellery on display was worn: without explanations like these, it was a bit difficult to figure out, at least for some of the pieces.

However, the other day I came across a critique of the exhibition that made me reconsider my extra-positive opinion. It is titled “Not far ‘Beyond El Dorado’: Grumblings about the British Museum, Colombian gold, and looting in public display”, and it appeared on Donna Yates’s wonderfully named blog about looting, antiquities trafficking and art crime, Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector. I don’t agree with everything Yates says: I don’t agree that people will learn little from it, or that it’s all about gawking at gold, and I certainly don’t agree that the exhibition will do more to encourage the El Dorado myth than to dispel it. If anything, my feeling was that the curators designed the exhibition to give visitors a smug sense of superiority towards the sixteenth-century adventurers hunting for the mythical golden city: the exhibition starts by explaining how all the early explorers really cared about was gold, and how they couldn’t care less about what the objects that were made out of it meant to the people who made them; then, by shrouding the following rooms in darkness and filling them with a not-too-cheesy “jungle noises” soundtrack, they make you feel like you’re the one discovering these things for the first time, but doing it right, by also reading the captions and learning about the objects’ original cultural contexts. You could easily argue that there is no substance to this, that no way is an exhibition like this going to make up for all the wrongs suffered by indigenous South Americans by the hands of Europeans, that it’s just hollow easing of Colonial Guilt, and I would agree with you, but I do think that it does at least encourage people to reject the myth of El Dorado from the very start.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

As for the stuff about shamans (right) being “crap”, I don’t know that much about ancient Colombians, so I can’t comment, although I’m aware of so many other instances of the illegitimate use of the word “shaman” by archaeologists (might write a post about this soon), that it wouldn’t surprise me too much if Yates was right in rolling her eyes at that part of the exhibition. And I didn’t notice all the inconsistencies she noticed regarding the different culture groups the objects belonged to–though there is a map at the beginning of the exhibition with the main culture groups, apparently it doesn’t mention many that are subsequently mentioned in the captions.

But I think Yates’s most important point is that the British Museum completely neglected to talk about the matter of looting. Almost all the objects on display do not come from legitimate archaeological excavations, but from looting. Their legal status is not in question, as they were bought or seized by the Colombian government, and they are now usually on display in Bogotá’s Museo del Oro, rather than in some anonymous Swiss collector’s mansion. But looting is a huge problem people should know more about. For one thing, because it means we don’t know where exactly the objects comes from (not just in terms of geography, but also in terms of stratigraphic layers, as well as in terms of structure–for example, an ancient trash pit as opposed to a pottery workshop), we will never know for sure what they were used for, why/whether they were important for people in the past, and often even what time period they’re from (I don’t know if you noticed, but most of the objects I’ve drawn have extremely vague dates–600-1600 AD for the ceramic figure, for example). This assuming the object, like the ones at the El Dorado exhibition, end up in a museum, rather than someone’s private collection, where they will often be unavailable for study. Moreover, because looted objects have a tendency to be sold to tourists or smuggled out of their original country, they deprive the latter not only of its cultural heritage, but also of the possibility of, for example, creating a museum of local history and prehistory, with which to attract more visitors to the country.

How would I tackle the problem of looting, if I were a curator? A good idea might be to replace captions that tell you what we know about the objects, with captions that tell you what we don’t know about them, and may never know about them, because of looting. Of course, this emphasises the problem that looting represents to archaeologists, rather than the one it represents to source countries.

But one or two panels on looting would also work fine. If the El Dorado exhibition had some, they would fit quite well with the theme of “we moderns have enlightened attitudes towards these objects, early explorers were just greedy”, by turning it on its head, and showing that greed towards these things is alive and well in the modern age. If placed at the end, this might have had a particularly powerful effect, as visitors would have just spent an hour or so patting themselves on the back for all the un-greedy learning they were doing, and how much better Europeans like themselves are towards Colombians now.

But there were no such panels, and so an excellent opportunity to get people thinking about looting and antiquities trafficking was lost. Hopefully, similar exhibitions in the future will not make the same mistake, although it’s likely that many will.

I don’t want to discourage people from seeing the exhibition (which will run until 24th March 2014)–as I said, there are a lot of amazing things on display, and I do think it’s possible to learn something from it. But be aware of the issues I’ve highlighted, and think–how would you have talked about looting, if you’d been one of the curators? and why don’t they talk about it?

For more about looting from this blog, check out my post on ransacked Pre-Columbian cemeteries in Peru.

If, dear readers, you’ve seen this exhibition and would like to share any thoughts about it, even if they don’t have anything to do with anything I’ve written, I’d be very glad to hear someone else’s opinion!

Suggestions for further reading

Donna Yates’ aforementioned blog, and her page on the Trafficking Culture project website, are highly, highly recommended.

In last Sunday’s post, I expressed my frustration at the fact that, more often than not, we can only experience ancient monuments/ruins through our sight–no touching, no licking, no sniffing, nothing that helps us experience the monument/ruin as it was experienced by people in the past, and nothing that helps us square it with the information we are given by guides. Though I didn’t point this out in the post, this is is often the case with artefacts displayed in museums as well, which are usually kept inside glass cases. At the end of the post, I suggested that an interesting alternative to the sight-dominated way in which people usually experience ancient monuments/ruins (and, I am adding now, museum artefacts) might be to design (video?)games through which these things can be taken apart and then put together again, or built/crafted from scratch following ancient architectural or artistic conventions–sort of like the popular Prison Architect game.

I’ve since realised that a much simpler solution would be to draw what you see. I’m not sure how I managed to forget this while writing Sunday’s post, since I’ve done it before, most recently in August, and loved it every time. I guess I’ve never done it with ancient monuments/ruins though… which is a surprising oversight on my part.

Drawing takes time–time to consider, and wonder about, every inch of the thing you’re looking at. No detail, however small, can go unnoticed, unless you’re deliberately producing a very rough sketch–and even then, it’s likely you’ll notice a lot of stuff that your eyes, left to roam by themselves, might not necessarily have picked up.

(Which leads me to a short, but, I hope, interesting, digression. I find that, left to their own devices, my own eyes kind of scrabble around to no effect, too anxious to find cool details to actually find any. Alternatively, they end up tracing the same paths up and down an object, noticing maybe one thing but not three others because the latter lie outside the paths. I’ve read studies tracing where people’s eyes tend to focus when looking at different things, and how there may be cultural differences in what our eyes tend to focus on–e.g. when looking at someone’s face culturally Asian people tend to focus on the margins, while Europeans tend to focus on the eyes, or so I read many years ago in some magazine or other–so I wonder if the fact that I get trapped in these paths has anything to do with the fact that the people who produced the objects I’m looking at looked at things differently. Which, in turn, makes me wonder if we can tell anything about where the eyes of ancient people tended to focus based on the objects they produced.)

Huastec Front

The front of the Huastec “Life/Death Figure”, now at the Brooklyn Museum. The notes say “J-shaped earrings” and “Ehecatl-Q Aztec wind god”.

Huastec Back

The back of the Huastec “Life/Death Figure”, now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Note the corn growing from the back of the living figure’s legs, and the funky jigsaw-puzzle way the leg bones connect.

So, for example, if I hadn’t drawn this beautiful Huastec sculpture they have at the Brooklyn Museum, I think my eyes would have been too preoccupied with its face, and maybe the general contours of its body, to notice the comparatively huge round hole on the statue’s belly, and the similarly-shaped ones under its ears. These made me wonder if they were meant to be filled with orbs or spheres of some kind (made with semiprecious stone perhaps, or silver, or gold–which maybe are missing now because the Spanish took them)–and if the eyes, too, which I suddenly noticed could also be described as two large round(ish) holes, could also have once held similar ornaments. But then I also noticed that the dwarf skeleton on the sculpture’s back has a protruding stone sphere tucked underneath its ribcage, more or less at the same height as the hole on the other side. This made me think that perhaps the the central hole, at least, was deliberate, and meant to draw some kind of comparison between life and death–a comparison which is somewhat counterintuitive to my Western mind, since I would have assigned the protruding organ (which I described in my notes as a “heart”, given its position on the skeleton) to the living figure, and the empty hole with the dead one. All these relationships and questions–I don’t think they would have occurred to me if I hadn’t drawn the sculpture–certainly I didn’t notice any of this while researching Huastec art a few months ago, and used a photo of this very same sculpture for my post on the Whacky Huastecs.

The fact that you have to connect your eyes to your drawing hand also probably brings some kind of advantage. Perhaps by connecting your eyes to your hand you end up experiencing a shade of what it was like to design or produce the object.


According to Maerten de Vos, this is what was going on in America when it was discovered: 1. people tapping maple trees, 2. people riding around unicorn-led chariots, 3. bow-and-arrow inside circular enclosures, 4. cannibalistic BBQs, and 5. pervy armadillos smiling pervily.

No doubt at this point some readers will be thinking that they can’t draw and therefore this is not the way forward for them. To those readers I say: anyone can trace, on a piece of paper, something that even vaguely resembles whatever object is in front of them–so what if the end result would never be considered for display in an art gallery. A very interesting and recent study showed that, the higher up you are in the world of sciences, the less your drawings of things like cells resemble what they are like in reality. This suggests to me that the point of a drawing doesn’t have to be to provide a perfect reproduction of something: rather, it can be simply to convey the overall idea, or feel, of something. An example from my notebooks: I’ve recently been to a small exhibition on unicorns, at The Cloisters (the Medieval branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum) and I saw this 16th century engraving (left), by Julius Goltz (copied from Maerten de Vos), which encapsulated so many bizarre ideas I had to copy it. But how? There was so much detail, and no way could I do justice to all the muscles involved in unicorn locomotion! and I could never possibly draw that carriage and fit everything in the pad and do perspective! But in the end I simply focussed on the key details and drew those, roughly, and found that the fact that my unicorns’ legs were lumpy didn’t detract from the general idea I wanted to capture. I am very, very happy with the result.

What about you, readers? Does anyone else like to draw things they see in museums? If so, do you think I’ve left anything out, in terms of why this is an excellent thing to do? Answers to these questions, and more questions or comments, would be welcome, as always, in the comments section below.


The story of making a novel about Hild of Whitby

the many-headed monster

the history of 'the unruly sort of clowns' and other early modern peculiarities

Declutter My Clutter

Live better with less

Feminism in Cold Storage

A library is thought in cold storage. -Herbert Samuel

Not Chai-Tea



Just a redheaded woman who is obsessed with books

the Little Red Reviewer

Book Reviews: Scifi, Fantasy, and the stuff in between

Live, Laugh, Love With Gladz

All Things Beauty, Books And Anything In Between


A place where books and imaginations spring into life

The Critiquing Chemist

Literary Analysis derived from an Analytical Chemist

The Untranslated

A blog about literature not yet available in English

Book Snob


Strange Bookfellows

new post every Monday and Thursday