Campus Digital

CURSO DE ARQUEOLOGÍA Y PREHISTORIA
Dr. Alvaro Higueras


Sesión 6: Arqueología aplicada y su rol en las sociedades del siglo XXI

Helaine Silverman: The Social Context of Violence in Ancient Peruvian Art
(El contexto social de la violencia en el arte peruano antiguo).
American Anthropologist, Vol. 106, No. 4, Diciembre 2004.

El texto original en inglés de la cita en el texto


(p. 724)

In Fall 2003, I was asked by KAM’s curator, Michael W. Conner, to guest curate an exhibition for the Featured Works Gallery, the 16th such temporary exhibition at KAM.3 Normally, faculty initiate featured works exhibitions. In this case, I was assigned the topic of “violence” to coincide with the theme chosen by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) for its yearlong fellows seminar and major conference. I welcomed the opportunity to create a small exhibition drawn from the pre-Columbian collection as a chance to interrogate museum practice in situ. I realized that the topic offered an extraordinary opportunity to initiate discussion on three levels.

First, there is the archaeology itself. Ancient Peruvian pottery and textiles often depict scenes of warfare among human as well as supernatural beings; human warriors and their vanquished victims; human trophy heads carried by humans and supernaturals; battles and scenes of sacrifice; and triumphal processions. For the exhibition, I chose five violence-themed objects in the permanent collection. Brief interpretations of their iconography were presented on labels in the display cases, accompanied by supplementary images that provided more cultural and contextual information. This aspect of the exhibition speaks to the social context of violence in the societies that generated this material culture and argues that these objects and the reallife events they depict must be understood according to their own cultural norms, not ours. (I will not go into further detail about the archaeology of violence in this
essay.)

Second—and radically for a museum venue—the exhibition acknowledges that violence has been done to the Peruvian archaeological record by the unscientific removal of these objects from their original contexts. This aspect of the exhibition addresses the problem of looting that, ultimately, is caused by poverty—a form of social violence that prompts peasant farmers to seek extra income by grave robbing for an insatiable antiquities market. Seven of the exhibition labels of supplementary texts specifically refer to the unscientific circumstances of the objects’ excavation and subsequent illicit departure from Peru (see below). Third, the exhibition challenges us to think beyond aesthetically accomplished pre-Columbian material culture as something to be hung on a wall or displayed in fine cases. The objects exhibited in The Social Context of Violence in Ancient Peruvian Art (March 27–May 23, 2004) obviously had greatly appreciated aesthetic value at the time of their creation as elite material culture and were deployed in a variety of social performances and ceremonies in their own societies. Today, we are looking at ideology-laden materials whose meaning to their Peruvian contemporaries was far different from our literal readings of them as “art.” The exhibition is “contaminated by art history’s complicity with the museum as a form of display” (Bann 1998:237) at the same time that it criticizes the display of pre-Columbian material culture as “art” in art museums and makes subtle reference to their other great exhibitionary venue in natural history and cultural history or anthropology museums (e.g., Ames 1992; Bennett 1995:180–201; Chapman 1985; Errington 1998:22–33; Hinsley 1985; Jacknis 1985; Yanni 1999; and see discussion in Price 1989:122). Indeed, the University of Illinois recently inaugurated a second museum, Spurlock Museum (“a museum of world history and culture,” named after its donor), which also displays pre- Columbian artifacts. The difference between these two museums is striking, including their location (Spurlock is on the eastern edge of the Urbana side of campus and KAM is on the western edge of the Champaign side).


(Conclusions, p. 72.)

Although many fine arts museums have outstanding pre-Columbian collections (The Art Institute of Chicago and Metropolitan Museum of Art come readily to mind),10 archaeologists may feel professionally out of place in these institutions because of these museums’ overwhelming preference for aestheticized display of archaeological (and ethnographic) objects according to the Western canon and category of decorative art. James Clifford (1988a) has written insightfully about the controversial 1984–85 MOMA exhibition, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. Comparing the Museum of Modern Art to the American Museum of Natural History, he optimistically suggests that within their paradigmatic polarity “interpenetration of discourses becomes possible. Science can be aestheticized, art made anthropological” (Clifford 1988a:203). The Social Context of Violence in Ancient Peruvian Art (2004) was an attempt at this interpenetration that simultaneously seeks to challenge the “aesthetic-anthropological object systems of the West” (Clifford 1988a:209) and to make visible the social, economic, and political context of collecting and exhibiting. At the university level, fine arts museums may offer the best opportunity to open up the space of display and critical discussion through their efficient sponsorship of counterexhibits, such as The Social Context of Violence in Ancient Peruvian
Art, that destabilize the very authority enabling the exhibitions in the first place.

 

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