Representation and Meaning

Here is reproduced an article by Julie Cruikshank, useful for thinking about objects, museums, representation, and meaning. The article first appeared in 1992, in Anthropology Today 8 (3): 5 - 9.

Oral Tradition and Material Culture

Multiplying meanings of 'words' and 'things'

Julie Cruikshank

The author is an assistant professor at the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Museums have occupied an ambiguous place in North American anthropology since Boas set them adrift from the disciplinary mainstream early in the century. After a decade of intense involvement with the American Museum of Natural History, Boas resigned in 1905, convinced that it was impossible to represent culture adequately through such a restricted part of heritage as physical objects (Boas 1907). When he departed, he took with him his fledging science of anthropology, and in the decades that followed, material culture studies gradually became segregated and associated with museum anthropology while university anthropologists moved on to study behaviour and ideology (Collier and Tschopik 1954). Museums were further marginalized in anthropology once they became identified as a material manifestation of colonial encounters from which many anthropologists now seeks distance (Trigger 1988).

A contested issue in contemporary anthropology centres on how best to convey, in words, the experience of another culture. Increasingly, museums face similar challenges about the use of things to represent culture, particularly when material objects displayed in exhibits convey conflicting symbolic messages to different audiences. This paper arises from my interest in juxtaposing two seemingly restricted ethnographic approaches - analysis of oral tradition and analysis of material culture. It also considers how indigenous peoples in Canada are making spoken words and material objects central to debates about cultural property and representation of culture.1

Representing culture through words and things

In the short history of anthropology, analyses of spoken words and of material objects have usually been compartmentalized. Yet there are a surprising number of parallels: both were originally treated as objects to be collected; then attention shifted to viewing words and things in context; recently they have been discussed as aspects of cultural performance, just as now they are often referred to as cultural symbols or as cultural property.

The analogy has obvious limitations, given the ambiguous boundary distinguishing utterance from object. Spoken words, embodied in ordinary speech, may be ephemeral physical processes. But they become things when they appear on paper, on artefacts or when they are recorded in magnetic or digital codes on tapes or disks, or in film or videotape. Material objects, especially the portable kind found in museums, can have meanings read into them quite different from those their markers intended, but those meanings tend to be framed, interpreted, understood in words. Yet this blurred distinction underscores the parallel ways in which verbal utterances and material objects are used in both to symbolize the past and to stake out positions in discussions about cultural representation, copyright of oral narratives and ownership of cultural property. Museums, with their collections of artefacts, folksongs and folklore have so often been compared with archives, though, that it is worth examining the parallels.

Two recent incidents sparked by exhibitions at Canadian museums are instructive because they show the multiplicity of stories viewers read into the material world of 'things', especially when those things are exhibited in museums. A 1987 exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, The Spirit Sings, focused on the artistic traditions of Native Canadians. According to the curator, Julia Harrison, one objective was to draw attention to how much of this artistic heritage is housed in foreign museums; another was to educate the Canadian public about the richness of that heritage (Harrison 1988). The exhibition came under intense criticism for exhibiting indigenous heritage as art rather than exposing the colonial underpinnings still governing relationships between Native people and Canadian institutions. Protesters objected that major funding for the exhibit came from Shell Oil, a company drilling on lands claimed by the Lubicon First Nation in northern Alberta. In November 1987, the Canadian Ethnology Society debated and passed a resolution supporting the boycott (Harrison 1988a:7).

In 1990, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto mounted an exhibition, Into the Heart of Africa, which called attention to Canada's complicity in colonizing Africa. Curator Jeanne Cannizzo attempted to document the cultural arrogance of Canadian soldiers and evangelists in Africa, and to demonstrate the contradictions involved in 'collecting' culture - tracing the life history of objects '... from ritual object to missionary souvenir and finally to museum specimen...' (Cannizzo 1989:12). Both the subtlety of the message and the absence of clear coalition with Africans in Toronto resulted in a boycott of the exhibit groups claiming to represent Africans and charging that the exhibit was racist. Sympathetic observers suggest that the curator's error was to use irony. No matter how clever the curatorial narrative, the message seems to be, the authority of the outside observer is suspect (Da Breo 1990).

The more museums become the scapegoat for the sins of objectification in anthropology, the more directly they re-enter anthropological debate, possibly because they embody so clearly the sets of social relationships in which the entire discipline is embedded (Stocking 1985; Dominguez 1986, 1988; Bean 1987). As we near the end of the century, museums and anthropology are once again discussing the same issues. Because museums are institutions open to the public, they often occupy the front lines in that debate.

A critical problem involves situating museums, within a larger anthropological discourse. Until recently, a conventional way to explicate one's research interests was to begin by acknowledging the anthropological ancestors - Boas or Malinowski, or perhaps Evans-Pritchard or even Julie Steward - then framing one's own questions within a web of kinship created from that sometimes unwieldy scaffolding. Currently, the convention involves distinguishing oneself from earlier anthropologists, alluding to the crisis of representation, making appropriate linkages with critical theory, deconstruction and post-modernism and locating oneself in theory from outside anthropology. Such a truncated summary shows how brief anthropology's history is: most of the 'pioneers' also drew on theory from outside anthropology because they were inventing the discipline. Ultimately, though, casting the net ever wider within the western intellectual tradition in order to represent non-western cultures more adequately raises some troublesome issues.

Museums and anthropology are undeniably part of a western philosophical tradition, embedded in a dualism which becomes problematic as a conceptual framework for addressing issues of representation. Entrenched oppositions between 'self/other', 'subject/object', 'us/them' inevitably leave power in the hands of the defining institution. If anthropology museums provide a convenient focus for examining the control of cultural representations, this should not mask the fact that the same issues permeate late twentieth-century society. Museums may house and maintain 'legal ownership' of personal and ceremonial property, providing a powerful representation of indigenous peoples' feelings of powerlessness. But governments are under pressure to work out equitable settlements for Native communities which have been denied their legal, contractual rights to land and to grant those communities greater political autonomy. Indigenous peoples do not define land rights, self-government, control of material culture, or control of images in ethnographic monographs, fiction and film as separate issues with distinct boundaries.


Anthropological discourse, like any other, proceeds primarily be re-examining the boundaries of categories formerly taken to be self-evident. 'Words' and 'things' seem to stand at opposite ends of a spectrum - the one associated with linguistic expression of ideas, the other with physical manifestation of ideas; the one ongoing and changing and the other arrested in glass boxes.


In the earliest years of anthropology, words and things were treated as objects to be collected: the Linnaean concept of material objects as natural history specimens parallels the folklorist's notion of narrative plots as collectible, mappable, comparable things (Chapman 1985; Stith Thompson 1965). Boas, early on, considered them to be 'pre-existing' attributes of culture (Jacknis 1985), somehow pure because they seemed to him less influenced by the ethnographic observer than other aspects of culture. Museums and folklore journals built up their independent collections for 'later study'.

Yet this notion of putting words and things in museums and archives as though they are discrete, unmediated, objective artefacts is one that continues to be contentious. Rosaldo has been critical of the ways some historians equate oral testimony with archival records that can be stored for eventual use. He argues that oral history has only one purpose - reconstitution of the past, not collection for its own sake, that oral traditions are texts to be heard, not documents to be stored - cultural forms that organize perceptions about the past, not 'containers of brute facts' (1980:91). Similarly, Cole and Parezo each demonstrate that museum collections don't 'just happen' as the general public assumes. They are shaped by explicit objectives of the collector and the funding institution. Their meaning frequently requires an understanding of the social conditions under which they were collected as well as the conditions under which they were produced and used (Cole 1985; Parezo 1985, 1987).

Anthropological writing about the social life of things still seems less self-conscious than writing about words, possibly because words have come under the deconstructive eye of linguistics while objects remain a relatively unanalysed common-sense category of western culture. Critical attention to objects, though, is opening up parallel discussions about how we constitute material culture (Tilley 1990). Analyses of the ways 'things' are embedded in social relations (Appardurai 1986), or of how objects become commodities (Kopytoff 1986, Dominguez 1988) help to revise perspectives about what constitutes an object in the first place.


As anthropologists began to look at the social and cultural settings from which words and things were being gathered, notions of context became increasingly important. This emphasis exacerbated the contradictions inherent in collecting detached assemblages of objects and narratives to represent something as complex as culture. An initial response was to try to reconstruct context - dioramas and stuffed animals in museums, summaries of dates and places dutifully reported with narratives. But none of these directly acknowledged that physical things and words wrenched from their social and cultural setting become part of another semiotic sphere that cannot be redressed by contextual padding. The contradiction drove Boas from museums, though he never acknowledged it as completely in his continuing work with oral tradition (Jacknis 1985).

Boas was hardly in this willingness to see texts as having a life of their own. Octavio Paz discusses how European colonial expansion spawned early fascination with recording texts; this, in turn, formed the foundation for later collecting of 'primitive' art. Chronicles recorded by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, Chinese texts studied by Jesuits and eighteenth century philosophers and Sanskrit texts that preoccupied German Romantics were all interpreted from the cultural distance of the armchair, just as indigenous art would be later (Paz 1990:19; see also Jonaitis 1981; Feest 1984). Malinowski, a better fieldworker than Boas, was more critical of the tendency to study narrative on paper, rather than for its function in real life: 'It is easier to write down a story than to observe the diffuse, complex ways in which it enters into life, or to study its function by the observation of the cast social and cultural activities into which it enters. And this is the reason why we have so many texts and why we know so little about the very nature of myth' (1926:111).

The notion of context continues to be troublesome in anthropology. It is no longer sufficient to be sensitive to the setting and situation in which an object is collected or a story is heard. We have also to understand its continuing life. And to do that we need to develop ways of retaining the setting. Storytellers are well aware of this in northern Canada; for example, some elders order accounts of their life experiences by incorporating ancient narratives to explain contemporary events in their own lives (Cruikshank et al. 1990). Many of the explanatory stories they tell were recorded almost a century ago by ethnographers who thought they were recording a disappearing folklore (Swanton 1909; Teit 1917). Hearing such stories in 1990 from living narrators, suggests convincingly that these are not so much the 'same stories' as ongoing ideas, continually reinvested with new meaning.

Likewise, the idea that objects are unique, discrete entities raise questions about what constitutes an object in different cultural settings. A notion underlying much of museum practice, that objects in museums are frozen in time and are primarily evidence of the past, is not universally shared (cf. Fenton 1966). In many non-western cultures they are understood to be not inert things, but to have life histories that do not stop when they enter museums (Kopytoff 1986; Zolbrod 1987). A Trobriand kula necklace or a Northwest Coast copper, for example, accumulates value during its life. Following a recent theatrical performance at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, Okanagan actor Sam Bob commented on his ambivalence about performing there: 'I wonder whether the things here are really happy? I wonder how they feel about being here?' Objects and words both have ongoing stories: their meaning cannot be fully captured in a synchronic analysis.


A further shift in analyses of both material and oral traditions gives greater place to the ongoing social life in which both occur - the growing attention to performance (Bauman 1977, 1986). Increasingly, museums are becoming centres for cultural performance of indigenous music, dance and political statement, attracting audiences who may have concerns very different from readers of ethnography.2 This presents both ideological and practical problems for museums where the primacy of the object has long been a fundamental principle, and where conservators have a mandate requiring them to minimize alteration to objects. A conservator at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology has had to confront a range of decisions: from the claims of performance artists that their creativity is inhibited if they must avoid physical contact with the totem-poles, to the less visible effects resulting when a performance creates vibrations or when large audiences crowd the exhibits and subject them to accidental touching. Performance is an interactive process and at best it centres on social relationships between objects and people, a direction some museums are clearly acknowledging as central (Anderson 1990: 170-1). But this may call for a significant re-evaluation of museum practice.

In the field of verbal arts, a wide public is losing interest in attempts to represent the world realistically in a casually connected, continuous, seamless, linear narrative (Krupat 1989). Native oral traditions have roots in procedure and methods different from written literary texts. Increasingly, indigenous writers are experimenting with literary forms, redefining ethnographic authority on their own terms and challenging images of their cultures presented by nonwestern writers, film-makers and anthropologists.3 In Canada, museums are one of the locations where discussion of these issues occurs.

Aboriginal peoples have demonstrated a masterful ability to mount symbolic protests drawing attention to asymmetrical social relations. Museums, holders of symbols, have an opportunity to host debates about cultural representation and even to point out contradictions in the complex relationship between object, performance and meaning.


Approaches by anthropologists, museum professionals and indigenous peoples converge (and conflict) most closely in definitions of culture that focus on ideas about symbol and meaning. In the 1970s, Clifford Geertz argued that culture could be understood objectively by studying the public symbols which members of society use to communicate worldview and values. The meanings of those symbols are embedded in social relations and the project of anthropology is to explicate the balance between locally understood meanings of social worlds and the independent existence of social relations (Geertz 1973). More often than not, meanings are contested. Fowler, for example, discusses how in one Native American community, people from different age groups have different interpretations of which objects are 'sacred' and which 'profane', with younger people often giving greater latitude to those boundaries than do their elders (1987). Meanings of symbols may also be unconscious: British observers sometimes point to Canadian state symbolism - ranging from crowns of royalty to Inuit carvings and Northwest Coast totem poles - as an unverbalized attempt to distinguish Canada from its neighbour to the south.

Objects can make powerful statements about legitimacy. Curators may display and describe objects thoughtfully in terms of their aesthetic, ceremonial or historical importance. Those same objects may be experienced simultaneously as symbols of family heritage by some members of indigenous communities and as symbols of cultural oppression by those who are critical of their location in institutions seen to have participated in colonial encounters. Still others may see material culture as a strategic resource which can be used to communicate an ideology of cultural identity in negotiations with governments who deny their existence as autonomous cultural groups (Handler 1985; Pelto and Mosnikoff 1978).

Social relations of class also generate contested meanings, with western-educated professionals of indigenous ancestry choosing to, or being expected to, speak on behalf of indigenous communities (cf. Keesing n.d.). Indigenous communities are no less complex than other communities, nor do they exist outside state and society where class is an important element in social relations. Hence, contested meanings become especially problematic for museums located in urban centres and affiliated with universities where hegemonic values prevail.

Again, there are parallels with oral tradition. If the growing emphasis on the importance of the indigenous voice poses pitfalls, perhaps the greatest is its centrifugal force toward essentialism, the attribution of ideas and concepts to 'the indigenous voice' when the words are actually being supplied by a Eurocentric ideology (Mascia Lees et al. 1989). Indigenous writers legitimately claim the right to add their voices to discussions about culture, because their voices are so rarely represented in written texts. However, if their audience credits individual writers with representation of a generalized 'Native Voice', their entire project is undermined. The furore over who has the right to tell and publish Native stories is experienced very differently by Canadian First Nations who have a concept of the social location of stories in community, and by those non-Native writers who see authorship as an index of individual creativity and speak in terms of 'travel of the imagination' (Bowering 1990). Indigenous writers, mindful of both arguments, sometimes find themselves caught in the middle in this issue.

Cultural property

Words and things intervene decisively in definitions of culture, a problematic concept in anthropology and one gaining new meanings and significance in discussions about representation. Entire books have been written charting the definition of culture in anthropology, where it is conventionally treated as a set of ideas, concepts and values that give people competence as members of their society. But the term culture is increasingly up for grabs. It is becoming part of political discourse, particularly in countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia (see for example Urry 1990; Keesing n.d.).4 Indigenous peoples are developing their own definitions which often differ markedly from definitions given either by anthropologists or by members of the general public.

Despite Boas's protestations, museums by their nature tend to emphasize an idea of culture based in physical objects. Object-based definitions of culture present particular problems in the museum with which I am most familiar, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. In British Columbia, there is a strong representational tradition of monumental coastal art, and that is the tradition that dominates MOA. It reflects an impressive variety of beautifully carved totem-poles, masks, and wooden boxes, made possible at least partly by he coincidence of a rich marine environment and the availability of cedar. The intensive exploitation of coastal waters and annual salmon runs permitted sedentary communities and the kind of accumulation of wealth that could support specialists who addressed their talents to the creation of large and complex carvings. Often spoken of as Northwest Coast 'art', these works are also complex statements about social and ceremonial workings of the communities in which they were created.

The arts of the interior part of the province, and particularly the northern interior, are equally complex but harder to display. Successful harvesting of resources on the interior plateau required mobility. It was important to keep material possessions to a minimum so that only essentials were carried from place to place. More important than the physical object was the ability to recreate a snare or a container or a house when and where it was needed. Intellectual culture was carried in one's head rather than one's back (Ridington 1982). Archaeologists have sometimes remarked that were it not for oral tradition, remarkably little could be known about the past of subarctic peoples because so much of their material culture perished. Speaking of the southeastern Yukon, Worman comments that 'It is humbling to realize how much of this transforming trade was carried on in perishables and how scanty the archaeological record for it is in view of its documented significance. Almost invariably we will underestimate the volume of trade in the prehistoric record in this area, given the likelihood that much of it was also in perishable items...' (Workman 1978:94). Oral tradition is a complex and intricate art form in the Yukon, critical for passing on essential information. It weighs nothing ad can accompany a traveller anywhere, but it rarely appears in museums.

In an introductory undergraduate course I teach at the Museum of Anthropology, a Native student from the interior of British Columbia once explained that she would like to write a paper about the culture of her own people, but that since she understood that it was coastal peoples who had culture, she would be unable to do so. Her perspective comes at least in part from messages given by museums. Museums are cultural products of western societies, where fetishization of 'things' leads to an object-dominated aesthetics. A definition of culture that promotes representational art inevitably does so at the expense of other definitions.

Reinventing museums

An axiom of social science is that how we situate ourselves say a lot about the kind of analysis we make. If museums are to become a forum for public discussion of symbols, we have to reconstitute our idea of material culture as an analytical tool to include social relations as well as other voices.

In many parts of North America, attention is shifting from metropolitan museums to the activities of community based museums, and the possibilities of collaboration between these two kinds of institutions in oral history projects, exhibition display, education and research (Ames and Haagen 1988; Haagen 1990). Smaller museums may find themselves better situated than large museums to contribute analytical and practical strategies to discussions about representation. In the Yukon Territory, northwestern Canada, the Yukon Historical and Museum Association has been hosting annual conferences based on a collaborative model since 1980. Each year a theme is chosen: subarctic archaeology, subarctic material culture in museum collections, and aboriginal maps are examples from recent years. Academics, museum educators and aboriginal people are invited as participants, and a forum is created to try to integrate indigenous knowledge with western scholarship. With the local museums association overseeing loans of material culture from metropolitan museums and archives, these sessions provide a venue for discussing a range of topics where indigenous oral tradition may contribute to an understanding of material culture. These conferences have generated further projects funded by both territorial and federal levels of government, employing elders, young people, anthropologists and archaeologists to undertake collaborative projects in Yukon communities.

Another model for collaboration comes from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. This museum holds collections of Salish weavings, including 3,000 year old basketry retrieved by archaeologists from wet sites at Musqueam. The Musqueam weavers, a group of indigenous women interested in studying and re-learning old techniques and reintegrating weavings into a ritual context, approached the museum to study its collections. With the assistance of curator Elizabeth Johnson and other museum staff, they prepared their own exhibition of contemporary weaving, including the words of weavers in labels and catalogue. The process provided a context for communication between weavers, visitors and the Musqueam community, underscoring a point made too rarely in museums - that these are evolving traditions, not specimens of extinct arts (Johnson and Bernick 1986).

The Makah Cultural and Research Center provides a striking example of ongoing collegiality between a community museum and university-based archaeologists. In 1947, an archaeological site was identified at the old Makah village of Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, USA. A landslide approximately 550 years ago engulfed the site, sealing some 2,000 years of continuous occupation from normal climatic processes. Excavation over the next eleven revealed 55,000 artefacts - mostly made of wood or wood products - and 40,000 structural remains (Renker and Arnold 1988: 30304). Well aware of the issues surrounding the site, the Makah Tribal authority at Neah Bay obtained funding to engage in collaborative research with Washington State University. They built their own museum where the artefacts are housed and displayed and went on to develop language and cultural programmes at the centre. Research, exhibition and education programmes have developed an evolving relationship between community and researchers.

Coalitions between community and museum do more than merely smooth jagged relations. They also contribute methodological insights. The most clearly formulated, finely-tuned ethnographic projects inevitably become reformulated and take unanticipated directions as soon as one takes collaborative research seriously, not as consultation but as central to methodology. Collaboration reinforces the lesson that we should be prepared to be surprised by the results of our research, or there is no point in doing it. Such an approach also suggests convincingly that theory should intervene at the interface between scholarship and community, rather than remain a framework for structuring research. Any theoretical and methodological guidelines that emerge from collaboration will have to be based as firmly in indigenous traditions as in anthropological narratives.

[missing picture below]

The imperial advance: glorification of empire? or illustration of a brutal historical reality? This engraving appeared in the Illustrated London News for 21 March 1874. It appears in the catalogue, edited by Jeanne Cannizzo, for the 1990 Toronto exhibition Into the Heart of Africa. See also our cover illustration and caption on page 21 of this issue.

1 I would like to thank Michael Ames, John Barker, Jonathan Benthall, Miriam Clavir, Marjorie Halpin, Elizabeth Johnson, Nancy Marie Mitchell and unnamed reviewers for comments on an earlier version of this paper, and for ongoing discussions of these issues.
2 During the spring and summer of 1991, for example, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia co-sponsored a land claims forum drawing several hundred people each evening, hosted a forum on the issue of Native writers and writing, and provided the venue for a dance performance written and developed as a collaboration between a Gitksan artist and a non Native choreographer. The Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. recently purchased a Nuu-chah-nulth screen from the collection of Andy Warhol and hosted a major ceremony held by the family to mark the return of the screen from New York to the Northwest Coast where it was made (Hoover and Inglis 1990).
3 Two journals recently established in Canada, Trickster: A Magazine of New Native Writing, published in Toronto, and Gatherings: The Enowkin Journal of First North American Peoples published by Theytus Books in Penticton, British Columbia, have attracted national attention. In the United States, these issues are addressed directly in a number of publications, with Native American writers who explore their own convictions about the location of cultural voice.
4 It is worth noting that the concept of culture is equally contested within anthropology. Some anthropologists see culture as enabling people to function in society; others see culture as an ideological construct that disables people by preventing their objective analysis of reality. Still others argue that it is reality that is culturally constructed while others that culture is fundamentally a system of classification.

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