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
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
(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
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