Artifacts Take Their Rightful Place as Art

Recent endeavors by museums blur the lines between art and artifact

Etruscan, Greek, Chinese, and Islamic vases find a place among the vast collection of the Harvard Art Museum alongside the work of European masters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Only a few blocks away, Pueblo ceramics from the American Southwest and pottery from the Moche civilization in Peru reside in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. While the few blocks that separate the museums are rather small, the assumptions motivating the division between art objects and ethnographic objects are significant. Recently, though, steps have been taken both on and off campus to complicate the division between fine art and anthropology museums.

Originally the precursor to the modern museum, cabinets of curiosities or wonder rooms displayed a hodge-podge of objects that drew from domains as diverse as natural history, geology, archaeology, ethnography, and fine art. The British Museum, which opened in 1759 and was one of the first public museums, was construed from the very beginning as a “universal museum” with a collection that included art, applied art, archaeology, and anthropology.

As the museum evolved, however, divisions emerged between the fine art museum and the anthropology or archaeology museum. In the 19th century, the Golden Age of Museums, cultural objects were seen as belonging to two different categories: art objects, considered primarily for their aesthetic value and arranged chronologically to trace artistic developments, and artifacts, grouped by civilization and serving as generic representatives of a particular culture. Not surprisingly, the objects designated art tended to be Western, while those classified as artifacts tended to be from so-called “primitive” cultures such as Native American, sub-Saharan African, and Pacific Island. Following this current of thought, the Peabody was founded in 1866, displaying its collections as instruments for social scientific inquiry rather than aesthetic contemplation.

It is only in more recent years that those divisions have come under fire and begun to blur. In France, for example, the former Musée d’Éthnographie du Trocadéro founded in 1878 underwent various iterations before giving way in 2006 to the Musée du Quai Branly, whose controversial name alone indicates a refusal to identify itself as an anthropology or ethnography museum. The collections of the Quai Branly museum are beautifully displayed and treated as aesthetic objects rather than as historic artifacts that serve as lenses into the culture. Like a Greek krater or a Renaissance altarpiece, African textiles and Oceanic masks can be stripped of their initial context and function—their use value, in other words—and transplanted into the museum context where they acquires a new kind of value—aesthetic value.

Closer to home, the traditional dichotomy between art and artifacts is also slowly beginning to break down. In just a few months, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA) will unveil its new wing devoted to the Art of the Americas. The new wing, designed by Norman Foster, will contain over 50 new galleries spread over four floors. Visitors will begin on the ground floor with the Pre-Columbian era and work their way up until they get to the modernist masters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline on the top floor, alongside African-American artist Jacob Lawrence and Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam. Objects from South, Central, and North America will be presented as forming a coherent whole, a particular trajectory through the evolution of artistic practice.

This groundbreaking proposal to exhibit objects from the entire hemisphere, ranging from painting and photography to musical instruments and the decorative arts, points to the dissolving boundaries between the traditional categories of art and artifacts.

Here on campus, the traditional distinction between art and anthropology, embodied in the existence of the Harvard Art Museum, on the one hand, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology on the other, is also being obscured.

On the third floor of the Sackler galleries, Harvard Art Museum curator and History professor Ivan Gaskell has installed a Native American archer’s bow on loan from the Peabody Museum. Many courses taught by History of Art and Architecture faculty also incorporate objects from the Peabody’s collections and hold their sections in the Peabody galleries. This Thursday, April 1, the Harvard Art Museum Undergraduate Connection, which traditionally holds events at the Harvard Art Museum, will host a Night at the Peabody Museum, with student-led tours that treat the objects on display as artworks worthy of art historical inquiry.

Hopefully gestures like the MFA’s inclusion of Mesoamerican and Native American works in an art museum alongside the works of Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley will help illustrate that these marginalized cultures do indeed merit appreciation and that the European masters are not the only artists entitled to aesthetic consideration. At the very least, it will present the viewer with the opportunity to experience the art of civilizations whose cultural output is traditionally relegated to the ethnography museum in order to permit an honest comparison.

—Columnist Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: March 31, 2010

An earlier version of the Mar. 30 arts article "Artifacts Take Their Rightful Place as Art" incorrectly stated that the new wing in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was designed by Renzo Piano. In fact, it was designed by Norman Foster.

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