PRINT May 1991



PERHAPS EVERY IMPERIUM has had its official collection, and perhaps these collections always began as piles of war trophies. Some of those piles have lasted: in the 1970s a bill was introduced in Congress to provide for the establishment of a museum of the Central Intelligence Agency. In London there is an Imperial War Museum. Others have vanished, like Montezuma’s zoo for animals from the far reaches of his empire—a museum of natural history. But whatever has happened to the piles physically, they have transformed themselves as institutions. When the European states began to expand their empires, the line between art and beautiful things from other places became too fine to draw. There came to be mixtures of art, war trophies, and tourist curios, museums of collections.

The United States began without a history. In its process of self-realization and self-recognition, the nation has had to reconcile its narrative—of religious freedom, liberty and justice for all, success through hard work—with its actuality of intolerance and violent aggression. It has had to balance its lack of culture with its culture. This has always been a state project, but also a more local one, as American individuals and communities have invented thousands of eccentric beliefs, icons, and dance steps with a desperation that looks like energy. But more, both state and individuals have raised the phenomenon of collecting to absurdist heights. The matchbook collections alone are worthy of a national museum. The Library of Congress as a book collection has grown to unusable proportions.

There is something endearing about such classic collections as coins or stamps, wherein collectors agree on astronomical prices for items without hint of intrinsic worth. (Artists have tried the strategy with limited-edition prints, without a tenth of the success.) So many collections seem at first inexplicably obsessive, without monetary value or interest. Of course we can say that they have to do with control over some small part of the universe. But the setting of the U.S. has also made a bond between collecting and “history.” “History” in America is a part of nostalgia, and nostalgia is a disease deriving not from a loss but from a vacuum. Something like the British Guy Fawkes Day is unimaginable in the U.S., though there are plenty of incidents that could inspire it. Instead, American institutions collect the fragments of Lincoln’s skull. And if an American farmer finds arrowheads in his fields, he has a collection and a narrative, which may be individualized and isolated but which nevertheless conform to the official collection and narrative.

The Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian, recently taken over by the Smithsonian Institution, was something like a cross between the farmer’s arrowhead collection and the collection called the “Elgin Marbles.” It was isolated even in New York: geographically by being too far uptown, culturally because New York maintains an old-world cynicism that allows little space for the U.S. narrative. To American Indian leaders, much of the collection was stolen or illegally purchased. American Indian communities have been asking for the return of some of the objects for years. Now that the Smithsonian has the entire gigantic collection, the demands grow stronger.

Recently I was on a panel with three other American Indians discussing the return of the collection to respective communities. A man asked what we would do, for example, with the thousands of pairs of beaded moccasins. We had no real answer. What could one do with thousands of beaded moccasins? The Smithsonian is, perversely, a perfect place for them. It is the ultimate official collection. It is so much bigger than any other collection in history that it seems to collect everything, though actually it collects only what it, as the imperial collection, considers American evidence. From that it constructs an American story. (Never the crime, only the defense.) It has become the authorial and authorizing voice on collecting as a phenomenon, as well as on collecting’s relation to history.

Over the past twenty years the Smithsonian has evolved into an industry for the production of history and of knowledge, with magazines, television programs, special events, traveling shows, and branch offices. The institution publishes books, including a multivolume set titled The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America, through which, according to an ad in last October’s issue of Smithsonian magazine, we may “experience the dramas of colorful times past and discover our nation’s wealth of historical treasures . . . on a special tour through the places that shaped our nation’s destiny!” Road maps are included, the instructions are complete. This same issue of Smithsonian contains an editorial about the new National Museum of the American Indian, to be built from the Heye collection. The editorial is nervously sensitive about the possibility of being forced by law to return some of the articles to American Indian communities. After agreeing that American Indians must be able to retrieve the bones of ancestors because the right to such remains is, “after all, the root of one of the West’s great tragedies, Antigone,” the editorial concludes that “we can best serve the Indians by actively seeking out ways to make available our material and human resources for community building and strengthening.”

Last summer the Smithsonian held a daylong meeting in Albuquerque and heard from “a number of Indian and museum spokespersons representing many viewpoints.” Surely those viewpoints have been collected, and just as surely they will be packaged and properly displayed.

The cover of the October Smithsonian shows a collection of model monsters from the movies’ LucasArts studios, with the caption “Creepy creatures from the masters of make-believe.” The lead article is about LucasArts and special effects. The stories of both Star Wars and Back To The Future I and II have been taken by the U.S. public as stories about the U.S., and Smithsonian has made it official. Another piece discusses Lincoln Ellsworth, a little-known early Arctic explorer. The article is beautiful. Ellsworth, “the forgotten hero of polar exploration,” was a rich man who bought his way into one of Amundsen’s expeditions and then paid for his own. He "claimed more than 400,000 square miles of Antarctica, much of it now known as Ellsworth Land, for the United States!’ The article ends with a photograph of the new Lincoln Ellsworth commemorative postage stamp.

“After 130 years, Americans are finally learning about the late, anguishing role black soldiers played in the Civil War.” So begins an article about black soldiers, timely now that so many are fresh from a new war. Has information on blacks in the Union been repressed all these years—perhaps by the same government that operates the Smithsonian? Is the Smithsonian, then, in bringing these facts out, the good cop to some other government agency’s bad cop? As presented here, the information itself is sinisterly governmental. The central idea is that black men wanted to fight for freedom and their country and many people did not want them to. But many of those black men had recently been slaves, and all had come to the U.S. through slavery; to present their predicament “historically” as an ambition to become “good Americans” is unacceptably simpleminded. Should an African-American now arrive to treat the situation more analytically and comprehensively, how will his or her voice compete with the Smithsonian?

Two of the photographs accompanying the article are especially poignant. They are “before-and-after” shots of a black boy about 12 years old, taken by the army for recruitment propaganda. The “before” shot shows the boy dressed in rags so ragged we can imagine that the army may have provided them. But his physical stance and expression seem to show a belligerent independence. In the “after” shot, he is dressed in a neat drummer’s uniform, and seems cowed and afraid. We wonder if he was ever able to prove himself to himself. Or did he become an American after all?

The following article uncovers a historical scandal: the 1905 Paris Salon that introduced the Fauves. Next we are shown pigeon fanciers around the world. Smithsonian must be a post-Modern magazine.

Not much happened to William Kernan, an Irish immigrant who came to New York State in 1800, except that he acquired much land in the “trackless wilderness” and became rich and prominent. Yet he merits an article in Smithsonian, written by his great-great-grandson, who was “inspired by the recent centennial of Ellis Island.” William Kernan did not report having encounters with Indians, although once he was chased by wolves. The inspirational theme of his story can only be that it happened (since nothing else seems to have happened) and that it was collected. The story’s “typicalness” must be reassuring. It makes every American family yarn worthy of collection, famous for fifteen minutes. If a later Smithsonian uncovers the genocide of the Iroquois in Kernan’s part of New York State, there will be no need to revise his story. The two articles can be displayed separately, and we can be proud of facing the troublesome parts of our nation’s past. But Kernan’s story is more collectible and more a part of the collection industry.

There are more than 200 advertisements in this issue of Smithsonian. Of these, 62 are about collectible products. One may “build a memory” by ordering a model airplane kit. The consumer goods include some American Indian lines; there are six ads for Indian things. Many more ads allow Americans to buy representations of dolphins, hummingbirds, and whales, or one may purchase the “endangered species collection” necklace. There are two articles about travel by car. There are ten advertisements for cars, all full or double page, so that they dominate visually. There are 21 ads about travel. There does not yet seem a way to include products or souvenirs of black American history except in folk art collections. Ads tell readers with “typically American” backgrounds that they may buy books or services to trace their family trees; the existence of these products serves as a message to not-so-typical citizens.

The Smithsonian amasses power from everything it contains. Tourism and history, Hollywood and American Indians are all part of the same collection. The country can be run more efficiently, more cheerfully, and “multiculturalism” itself can become a source of power for the state. What if, however, American Indians actually force the Smithsonian to return some substantial part of its collection. The collection itself may not be badly damaged; it has millions of pieces. But the idea of the collection is the Smithsonian’s real collection, and that can be damaged. All this century American Indians have gone to court to claim the right to exist separately from the United States. That litigation is ongoing, and the written laws are on the Indian side. If the Smithsonian, just as it is making its final consolidation, must be the first to concede to any sort of American Indian autonomy, its function as the imperial collection is diminished in a central area of its project. Could Rome return shields and spears to the Gauls and still serve Gallic communities?

Jimmie Durham is an artist and writer who lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico.