The Moment of Truth — August 25, 2001
In the Situation Museum
Hi I’m mejeffdorchen and welcome to the Moment of Truth, the electromagnetic moment that flips the bird at the capitalist media, the way a severed human finger found in a chocolate bar points accusingly at the global exploitation of the poor.
In Chicago this past week I’ve been staying in an upstairs flat that has a beautiful ink-and-guache painting of the Hindu god Ganesh on the wall. The painting was done by an Indian tribal artist name Jangarh Singh Shyam. An article in the Indian newspaper The Hindu calls him India’s leading tribal artist. About a month and a half ago Mr Shyam hung himself. For the time being I’ll only say that Mr. Shyam’s suicide had something to do with his being held prisoner in a museum.
The circumstances of Shyam’s death coincide interestingly with the publicity around a book by Kenn Harper called Give Me My Father’s Body. Somewhere on National Affluent Educated Radio last week an interview with Harper aired plugging his book, which tells the story of an Inuit boy named Minik who was taken from Greenland by explorer Robert Peary and brought with five other Inuits to be living specimens in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The other five specimens in the collection died, including Minik’s father. In an inventive demonstration of interactive anthropology, the museum staged a fake funeral for Minik’s father in which they buried a log under a shroud. Minik was unawared that his father’s body, along with those of the four others, was skeletalized and that the brains of the unlucky five were pickled.
Later Minik discovered that a skeleton on display in the museum where he lived was in fact the remains of his father. I don’t know how he figured it out. You’ll just have to read the book or catch a more in-depth interview than the one I heard.
The book has apparently been used as ammunition in the fight by some indigenous peoples to stop archeological excavation of lands that may conceal remains of their friends and relatives. According to an article in the Nunatsiaq News, Mr. Harper doesn’t like his book being appropriated for that purpose. He says that what Peary and the American Museum of Natural History did at the beginning of the twentieth century couldn’t have happened today.
Indeed, the most famous case of an indigenous human being displayed alive for anthropological purposes occurred almost a century earlier when a southern African tribeswoman named Saartje Baartman was exhibited in England and France. She was called the Hottentot Venus. Europeans at the time hypthosized that some of the indigenous peoples of Africa represented the missing link between humans and our ape ancestors. They also liked to gawk at her huge ass, so much so that a plaster cast of it, along with her pickled organs, is still stored at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. And even though her descendants in South Africa demand the return of her remains, the museum, much as its counterpart in New York had in the case of Minik and his father, refuses to part with the dead relatives of a people who are the subject of scientific research.
Can such a thing happen today? I was once told that if I freed my mind my ass would follow. If a Hottentot Venus were to show off her ass in our enlightened age, would she be allowed to take it back home with her if she chose?
Let’s go back to the artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. Shyam was in Japan as the guest of the Mithila Museum in Niigata. The museum’s representative, Tokio Hasegawa, found Shyam such a delightful guest that he apparently withheld the artist’s passport in spite of an agreement to allow him to return to India after three months. Mr Hasegawa was also paying him less than half of what he could have made in India for producing his work, and a mere fraction of what the museum could have expected to get in the Japanese art market. But, market forces aside, Mr. Shyam apparently hung himself out of depression at not being allowed to return to his family.
In fact, Hasegawa loved the company of Mr Shyam so much that he refused to pay to transport the artist’s corpse back to India. And so Japan joins the ranks of advanced industrial powers who keep corpses prisoner in museums.
Which brings me to my own situation. About two months ago I was eating a popular name-brand chocolate bar, when I bit down on a human finger. I kept the thing alive in a jar of amniotic fluid saturated with electric current. Anyway, somehow the batch of candy bars got traced, and the family of the kid whose finger I had found started demanding it back so it could be reattached. Now, I didn’t see why I should have to pay the postage when the accident at the cocoa mill was due to the kid’s clumsiness, not mine. However, not wanting to end up with a book written about me, I offered to give the kid back his digit as long as he came and got it himself.
In the meantime my apartment was annexed by the entertainment company Disneyland-ABC-Time/Warner-Abercrombie, Fitch and General Electric Bank and Trust Insurance and Petroleum, as part of some reality-TV style attraction they decided to try out. So by the time the kid got to my place it was an incorporated museum, and everything in it was part of a display, including myself. So as soon as the kid walked in the door he became property of the museum. So now they have us both on display, him making mouse-ears for sixteen hours a day, and me standing by wringing my hands and apologizing and listening to NPR.
Most of the visitors to the museum find it a disturbingly ironic tableau. I, personally, am getting a little sick of standing in the same position. And it looks to me like the kid’s getting antsy too. A couple days ago someone tried to pick the lock of our display, I guess to set our asses free, if not our minds, but while he was working on it he was shot and run over by some Genovese caribnieri. Then the US Navy came and dropped practice bombs on him. Then some Seattle cops maced him, some DC police clubbed him, some Philadelphia cops set his neighborhood on fire, some New York cops raped him with a broomstick, some Chicago cops broke into his apartment and shot him, and some LA cops were acquitted of it all.
To top it all off, a Hottentot anthropologist scraped him up and put him on display in a jelly jar in the Hottentot Museum of Mutilated White People. They think he might be the missing link between pro-democratic human beings and other things the owning class might accidentally get stuck to the bottom of its shoes.
So that’s how things stand. If anything about the situation changes, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m mejeffdorchen and this has been the Moment of Truth.