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Claude Lévi-Strauss as Museum Ethnologist

Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work is important to me and to the fields in which I work–Native American studies, folklore studies, cultural anthropology, social theory, etc.  On the occasion of his passing, I won’t say much more than I have already said, that I found his work to be inspiring and directly useful to my own studies. The topic on which we corresponded once–dual organization among the native peoples of the Southeastern United States–provides a very easy to grasp example. As a museum person and the editor of a journal in the field of museum-based anthropology and folkloristics, I thought it would be worthwhile to make a case for Lévi-Strauss as a museum anthropologist.  Of course, this was hardly his core identity and it won’t be how he is remembered, but here are three pieces of evidence that I would recall.

As the NYT obit. reminds us, he spent two years as a curator at the Musée de l’Homme (1948-1949) and he was instrumental, near the end of his long life, in its transformation in the context of the birth of the Musée du quai Branly. His role as a collector of artifacts and in the painful birth of the MQB (and the death or transformation of the Musée de l’Homme) has been discussed a great deal in the recent literature on these topics.

His book The Way of the Masks (University of Washington Press, 1982) provided a clear and accessible account of how his approach to structural anthropology could be applied to the study of visual art and material culture, in this case the carved masks of the native Northwest Coast of North America.  The book is also the place where his love of Northwest Coast carving and for the “Boas halls” at the American Museum of Natural History is most evident. It is, in part, a declaration of allegiance to the Boasian tradition of Native American art history and museum anthropology.

Also of interest to museum folks, particularly to students of photography and visual anthropology, is the collection of his ethnographic photographs from Brazil:  Saudades do Brasil:  A Photographic Memoir (University of Washington Press, 1995).

This is all just food for thought among my material culture and museum studies colleagues. As an ending to this note, here is a passage from my colleague Henry Glassie’s review of Way of the Masks:

Folkloristic critics who think Levi-Strauss’s textual emphasis prevents contextual understanding do not understand the theory of context and have not read much structuralism. This new work proves that structuralism is a variety of contextual analysis in that it recognizes all objects to be incomplete in themselves and therefore of necessity bound for meaning to things they are not. When Levi-Strauss studies masks, he studies them in their connections to myth, ritual, spiritual orientation, social organization, economic transaction, ecological situation, and historical development. In addition, and crucially, he argues that just as myths provide contexts for each other, becoming locked in the head through a system of transformation, so too are masks contexts for each other. This awareness that contexts, the associations that  breathe meaning into facts, are located not in the sensate world but in the heads of creators who when making a mask know of other masks, in their culture and in other cultures-this awareness is essential to the historian who studies texts in the context of other texts, to the ethnologist who must study people from the literature about them or consign vast numbers of societies to oblivion, and to the ethnographer whose responsibility does not end at the observation of discrete, situated actions. [Glassie 1984:483]

References Cited

Glassie, Henry

1984  Review of: The Way of the Masks by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Journal of American Folklore. 97(386): 482-484.

Update (11/4/2009)

See the links gathered at here.

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