On Exhibit

While in Hawai'i, we visited Pu`uhonua o Honaunau, the Place of Refuge. The Place of Refuge was an important site in the traditional Hawai'ian religion, which, like many Polynesian religions, has a number of very important tabus (referred to in Hawai'ian as "kapu"). Breaking a tabu usually meant death - unless you could make it to the Place of Refuge first. Pu'uhonua o Honaunau was next to the royal compound and therefore well-guarded as well as walled off and relatively inaccessible by land. The only means of access was via the ocean, usually by swimming. If the tabu-breaker managed to survive the undercurrents and waves, priests at the Place of Refuge performed cleansing rituals that allowed the tabu-breaker to rejoin society.

Today, the site is no longer in use as a religious refuge. The restrictive tabu system was abolished in 1819, when the Queen sat down to eat with her son - an action prohibited by tabu. (Incidentally, the first Christian missionaries did not arrive on the islands until 1820.) Instead, it's now a National Historical Park, run by the US National Parks Service.

The park offers several of the ancient sites and a number of reconstructions, including a reconstructed temple and several thatched buildings. We got a brochure at the park office and wandered on inside. We walked from place to place, following the guided walk that explained the nature and function of each site, until we reached one of the thatched buildings. Inside the building stood a number of tourists, eyes fixed on a brown-skinned man clothed only in a loincloth who was carving something. Perhaps the most striking feature of the scene, however, was the fact that the carver was sitting behind a rope, visually and physically separated from the people who were watching him.

For some time, I stood, watched the room, and listened as he patiently answered questions about native traditions and about himself. It turned out that he was not Hawai'ian, but from the Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia (which explained his heavy accent); his views on religion and cosmology were more difficult to understand, partly because of his accent. Directly facing him, on the other side of the rope, a tourist couple stood asking questions - from "What is native religion like?" to "Where are you from?" - and listened to his answers, literally open-mouthed. A number of other tourist folk stood around and listened.

I wanted to listen, because I thought he might have some interesting things to say and I am, after all, working on a dissertation that touches on some Polynesian cultures, but after a while I couldn't stand the atmosphere in the building and had to leave. Outside, I ran into My Boy and my brother's girlfriend, who'd both left the building a bit earlier than I had.

All three of us, as it turned out, had left the building for similar reasons: we'd felt uncomfortable with the way the man was positioned behind the rope, as if he was an artifact. It seemed as if he was put on display, a living exhibit, and participating in that by being spectators made us feel queasy.

The exhibition of human beings has a long history. People from other countries were often brought back by travelers, for display at the royal court or exhibition in the streets. Christopher Columbus had Native Americans sent back to the Spanish court, for the entertainment of the court and to teach language to the Natives, since they supposedly had none of their own. (He also cut off the breasts of native women to send back to Spain, but that is another story.) In the early 1800s, Saartje (Sara) Baartman, a Khoi Khoi woman from South Africa, was taken to England and exhibited as a freak: The Hottentot Venus, they called her, drawing special attention to her genitalia and other marks of her supposed racial inferiority. In the early 19th century, police in California found a man whom they believed to be a vagrant. It turned out that he was the last survivor of his tribe - and thus, far from being a vagrant, was actually an original owner of the land, though California law would not have recognized his right of ownership. Alfred Kroeber, a noted anthropologist, heard about the man and came to investigate. When Kroeber realized that the man - who became known as Ishi (the Yahi word for "man") - was the last of his tribe, he decided that the world needed to take advantage of this man's existence. From his "discovery" in 1911 until his death in 1916, Ishi lived in the Anthropology Museum of a UC affiliate (which later became UCSF). That's right: he lived in the museum, a living exhibit.

There are plenty more examples; World Fairs were notorious for their displays of "natives" from various parts of the world, even to the point of building a facsimile of a Cairo street or numerous African villages, complete with native inhabitants. The people exhibited were gawked at, measured, and studied, but most importantly, they were dehumanized. They were exhibits, objects, something to be stared at, museum pieces that represented their entire race or nation.

That's the background. What was going on at the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau park was not quite the same thing, of course; for one, the man appeared to be there of his own accord, and was happy to talk about his beliefs and background. But the fact is that he was behind a rope, part of what was being displayed. He wasn't walking around like the visitors, and he wasn't sitting behind a desk or in some other position of authority like the park rangers. No, he was roped off, a native informant on display in a reconstructed native building.

In 1992, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña did a brilliant performance in a number of European and American cities that brought into focus the problems of human exhibits. (If you want to see what this performance actually looked like, check out their video about the performance, "The Couple in the Cage.")

"In order to address the widespread practice of human displays, Fusco and Gomez-Peña enclosed their own bodies in a ten-by-twelve-foot cage and presented themselves as two previously unknown 'specimens representative of the Guatinaui people'in the performance piece 'Undiscovered Amerindians.'Inside the cage Fusco and Peña outfitted themselves in outrageous costumes and preoccupied themselves with performing equally outlandish "native" tasks. Gomez-Peña was dressed in an Aztec style breastplate, complete with a leopard skin face wrestler's mask. Fusco, in some of her performances, donned a grass skirt, leopard skin bra, baseball cap, and sneakers. She also braided her hair, a readily identifiable sign of 'native authenticity.'

In a similar fashion to the live human spectacles of the past, Fusco and Gomez-Peña performed the role of cultural 'other' for their museum audiences." Click here for more from this source.

Fusco and Gomez-Peña did it to draw attention to the fact that treating people this way, turning human beings into spectacles, into native informants performing their "otherness" in front of an audience, is wrong. And the fact of the matter, too, is that it's a system of symbols that is in place whether the person on display is there voluntarily or not. For him, individually, it's a better thing if he's there by choice; but the message to the audience, in the end, is the same. Here is a man on display. He is roped off, sitting with the exhibits, and being treated like a walking, talking exhibit. The questions asked him were put to him as a representative of the island natives (never mind that he wasn't even from Hawai'i itself; apparently, the Marquesas were close enough).

Among the questions he was asked, no one asked his name. (And perhaps I should have asked that; it might have served as some small interruption of the system - but how much interruption at the cost of how much participation?) The fact that no one asked his name is not a coincidence; he wasn't there as an individual. He was the native informant, part of a long structure of human exhibits, a structure - as Fusco and Gomez-Peña's exhibit performance shows - that is deeply embedded in Western culture. If we want to change our responses - or better yet, change an exhibition culture that ropes some people off as artifacts - then we have to think about them. Not to think about them will merely mean replicating these structures, reproducing without question a system of exhibition that dehumanizes and objectifies.

Aug. 14, 2002


Some more thoughts on exhibits

Students in anthropology seeking extra credits can add to their grades at Darkest Africa where primitive Africans disport themselves for the edification of World's Fair visitors.
The Official World's Fair Weekly on the 1933 Chicago Fair; quoted in Burton Benedict, The Anthropology of World's Fairs.

The "native villages" were in fact among the most enduring features of all the exhibitions from the 1870s. . . . [H]ere was the prime way in which people in the metropolis were brought into contact with the conquered peoples of Empire. Here were racial stereotypes illustrated, Social Darwinism established in the popular mind, and control of the world expressed in its most obvious human form.
John MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire.

"[A] variety of public exhibitions - colonial, national, international and those organized under the aegis of Africa-interested learned societies - produced a set of obsessively repeated characters which were made to stand in for the multiplicity of cultures comprising the African continent." The repetition of these characters - which were imbued with "authenticity," claiming to be "'real truthful representation[s]'" of African life - contributed to the sense of Africa as a backward, primitive and above all pre-modern world. "For . . . these displays then, and by implication [for] the cultures they represented, time stood still."
Quotations from Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa.

One time, after I had been bombarding Tom with questions, he finally snapped: "If you quit acting like Harry Reasoner, maybe you might learn something." Another time I was talking with a group of Navajo about how tourists should behave. "Don't ask questions," one woman told me. "'What is that for?' 'Why do you wear that?' 'What does that mean?' Just step back and bite the Albuquerque bullet. Don't try to understand us in one day. You Americans are always looking for instant religious satisfaction, like instant mashed potatoes. But it's a lifetime thing. We live it every day."
Do you have any special word for "tourist"? I asked. There I was, doing just what the woman had said not to do.
"I call them 'moon children,'" she said. "They must've come from the moon, 'cause they have no respect for the earth, and they're so pale."
Alex Shoumatoff, "The Navajo Way," from Lunsford & Ruskiewicz, The Presence of Others.


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last updated 14. August 2002

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