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Visiting Laurel Kendall at the American Museum of Natural History

Laurel Kendall speaks about the challenges and rewards of her role as curator of the Asian collection at the American Museum of Natural History, and Faculty at Columbia University. John and Urmila visited her in her office at the AMNH and were offered a tour of the collections, some aspects of which are highlighted in the interview. In this interview, Laurel conveys the excitement of working in a unique space between the material expressions of cultural heritage and their value for diverse peoples. (Published 3 June 2015.)
1. What does your job consist of as the curator of the Asian collection at the AMNH?
Every day is different. The primary responsibility of an AMNH curator is to produce good research and to publish in both quality and quantity. A curator also has oversight for a collection—in my case all of Asia—which includes fielding research requests, anticipating issues, and judiciously collecting. As a body, combined with other interested parties, AMNH anthropology curators review loan requests and accessions, and issues of cultural patrimony. As projects arise, we work with colleagues in the Exhibitions and Education departments on presenting the public face of the museum. We are also encouraged to teach. I do this at Columbia where the AMNH collaboration is a long tradition. We are also expected to contribute to our professions. I am currently the Vice President of the Association for Asian Studies and will become President of AAS in 2016.
2. Could you give us a summary of the history of the Museum and the Asia collection?
It could be argued that American anthropology began at the AMNH with the work of Franz Boas. His most famous student, Margaret Mead, spent her career at AMNH. Boas turned his sights to Asia when he conceptualized the Jesup North Pacific Expedition as an effort to document the lifeways of peoples on both sides of the Bering Strait. He followed this by initiating the Jacob Schiff Expedition which sent Berthold Laufer to China to document a technologically sophisticated non-western society. Boas imagined an Asian Studies hub in New York, a triangulation of effort between AMNH, Columbia University, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although this grand scheme floundered when Boas left AMNH for Columbia University, many distinguished anthropologists subsequently collected in Asia for AMNH. Harold Conklin in the Philippines, Margaret Mead in Bali, Christoph Von Fürer-Haimendorf in Northeastern India, and Louis Dupree in Afghanistan to name just a few. Some of this material is exhibited in our (now very dated) ‘Hall of Asian Peoples’, curated by Walter Fairservis and opened in 1980. Almost all of the collection is available digitally.
3. Has the field of Museum Studies changed over your career?
Within the museum, the most significant change is the many ways in which the people, who were formerly the subjects of our work, have become partners in our enterprise as native scholars, cultural activists, and museum professionals. In the academy, the most significant change is the growth of Museum Studies, with graduate and undergraduate programs springing up all over like mushrooms after the rain. This has meant the development not only of a critical awareness of the content of museum exhibits but an awareness of how museums work and the politics and practical mechanics of maintaining and exhibiting collections.
4. The socio-cultural and political context of the collection has changed so much since its inception and the world we live in is so different. In what ways is the Asian Collection being made relevant to today’s visitors?
Asian visitors respond to exhibits in the Hall of Asian Peoples in two ways, “We’re not like that anymore.” and “My grandmother used to have one just like that!” The value of our collections is as time capsules. They do not ‘stand for’ such vast and ultimately chimerical entities as China or India but are fragments from particular lives in particular circumstances. Since our artefacts and images also have to be informative the challenge is to suggest those lives and times with a sensory and verbal economy akin to that of a haiku poet in a contextualization as suggestive as that of a Chinese painter who conveys mountains and rivers with a wash of ink. It is both an art and a science.
5. Could you tell us a little bit about your research?
My first project involved female shamans in South Korea. My question was: As women in a male-dominant Confucian society, how did they get away with it? My first book,Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits, described the complementarity of women’s rituals with better-studied male rites. I then looked at weddings, and related events and exchanges as a window on changing notions of gender, work, and family. Change also informed my Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF, a look at how the shamans I had studied two decades earlier, and their clients, gods, and ancestors, had been affected by South Korea’s rapid urbanization, industrialization, and newfound prosperity. I also had an opportunity to work in Vietnam on the question of how contemporary markets and rationalized production processes were affecting the efficacy of sacred objects in the eyes of those who used them. This was followed by work on Vietnamese Catholic statues and how they found their way into secular markets. I became interested in the question of sacred things and contemporary markets more generally, and took these questions back to South Korea. Jongsung Yang, Yul Soo Yoon, and I have explored how Korean shaman paintings came to be collected as art, what they mean to shamans in the first instance, and how the production of these paintings changed in the 20th century. Our book, God Pictures in Korean Contexts (University of Hawaii Press) will appear this fall.


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