(Note to readers. This post has been added to. Whether inserted into the original text or added at the bottom, additions will be shown in red.)
Working with the graduate students participating in the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology is a pleasure. The students who are attending in order to gain skills for their own long-term research and who are doing their own collections-study projects are an obvious focus for faculty attention, but another group of student (and recently graduated) colleagues are also at the heart of SIMA. These are the collections interns—students who are usually pursuing masters degrees in anthropology and/or museum work—who help to make the student research possible through their facilitation of collections access. The regular collections management staff of the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology are too few and have everyday tasks to attend to, thus the SIMA interns make a decisive difference in the work of the institute. They are excellent. Most days, they are occupied helping the institute participants access collection objects for research, but today they and I took a few moments to look at a couple of treasures as a group. I thank them for joining me in this quick collections adventure. (We snuck away during a seminar. Don’t tell anyone…)
What we saw together was (as I had hoped) a collection of annotated paintings of a type known in English as a “Miao album.” In American scholarship on China and its frontiers, such an album is the focus of The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese “Miao Album” translated by David Deal and Laura Hostetler with an introduction by Laura Hostetler (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006). In such books, Chinese observers (artists/scholars/officials…) documented the cultural life of peoples of the Chinese borderlands in paintings and ethnographic text. None of our group are specialists, but we knew that we were looking at something really important and that these books are inherently interesting. Here are a some images of us with these albums. We did not look at each page, but we took enough time to ooh and ahh over a few pages in each of these fragile, beautiful books. We all hope that they can be the focus of new scholarly attention soon.
One of these books is Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History E424083 and the other is E175187. (You can search them in the public database here: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/#new-search )
The members of our expedition (with me) were Eilanra Abdesho Kavsi, Sarah Baburi, David Gassett and Emily Cain . Herself a former SIMA intern, Emily now works full-time in the Department of Anthropology. Eilanra and David are all studying a mix of anthropology and museum studies at the MA-level at George Washington University, while Sarah has recently completed her own MA degree in these fields, also at GWU.
Our group getting ready to peak at the first of the books on our agenda. (L-R: Emily, Sarah, David, and Eilanra)
Even the cover is pretty great.
Our first glimpse.
This is the first in-person “Miao Album” painting for all of us, myself included.
Baskets, of course.
You can get a partial glimpse of the associated text on the facing page here.
While we normally wear gloves, for fragile things, it is sometimes best to use clean hands.
Our group, studying.
Until the translation proves us wrong, we think it is a game scene.
More baskets, of course.
Our favorite, so far. We do not know yet why these guys are trying to fight but we admire the effort of the women to prevent it. See Note 2 below on how this scene appears in The Art of Ethnography.
Weaving inside, hair care outside.
We were pretty worried about the guy in the blue cap, as with think he might be held captive. We look forward to the finding out what the associated caption says. UPDATE. See note 1 below. Also, see Note 2 below on how this scene appears in The Art of Ethnography.
The paintings are still beautiful, but insects have done what insects do.
Here we begin to investigate the second of the two albums (E424083), this one with wooden covers
In the second album, the paintings span the fold and the text is integrated into the images, as seen here.
Both albums include musicians and include images of this particular type of drum.
More work baskets, of course.
This is a detail from a scene in which four people do something with their arms pulled inside their sleeves like this. Whatever it was, we were interested in it. We also liked the hem of her skirt.
Plowing. Do they take turns pulling? Also, see Note 2 below on how this scene appears in The Art of Ethnography.
There is always work to do, even if the illiterate museum ethnographers do not yet know what it is all about.
The region’s famous basketry raincoats, we think.
Work baskets, one last time.
Note 1 (July 23, 2017). I returned from my time at SIMA and the NMNH in July 2017 and immediately went to look at The Art of Ethnography: A Chinese “Miao” Album (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006). Regarding the picture of a person being held captive noted above (see the picture that is captioned “We were pretty worried about the guy in the blue cap…”), I note that the image shown here is almost the same as, but not the same as, Plate Number 63 (pages 126-127) in The Art of Ethnography. It will take time to sort out what is going on in this instance, but one or the other plate is clearly a copy of the other. The text in The Art of Ethnography indicates that the scene is about the waylaying of solitary travelers, placing them in a wooden yoke, and extorting them to redeem their own freedom. I checked The Art of Ethnography out of the library right before this trip and now have even more reason to read it asap.
Note 2 (July 26, 2017). In reading The Art of Ethnography, I learned about how “Miao Albums” were frequently copied (inexactly) and observed that some of the pages that we saw in the two NMNH albums appear in similar form in the album published in The Art of Ethnography. Here are three known examples (see above):
(1) The scene of the men fighting but being restrained by the women (see p. 28 (#14) in The Art of Ethnography and the E175187 scene pictured here);
(2) The scene of plowing, where a man pulls the plow (see p. 106 (#53) in The Art of Ethnography and the image from NMNH E424083 pictured here);
(3) The scene of the scene of a man being held hostage in a wooden yoke (see p. 126 (#63) in The Art of Ethnography and the image from E175187 pictured here).