Wednesday, April 18, 2001

It's odd how literature and life tends to twist in little loops about each others. Yesterday I went to visit a part of the Smithsonian collections, the museum of Native Americans or American Indians at Bowler's Green on Manhattan. The ride in to Manhattan is about an hour from this corner of Brooklyn where I stay, and I picked up a book to read on the ride. The book was Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. This is what I read (p. 11) "And just as with ethnology, which plays at extricating itself from its object to better secure itself in its pure form, demuseumification is nothing but an other spiral in artificiality." And from reading that line, I walked into the museum and heard sincere voices speak of how they would want to see their people wear the ancient patterned hats with the same ease and pride as they were originally worn. They would show how their families consciously recreated customs from museum pieces or how they recorded the knowledge of their own relatives, to make it part of the exhibitions at the museums, so they could be "saved" and part of a way to regain a proud past.

Or as Baudrillard says: "In the same way, Americans flatter themselves for having brought the population of Indians back to pre-Conquest levels. One effaces everything and starts over. They even flatter themselves for doing better, for exceeding the original number. This is presented as proof of the superiority of civilization: it will produce more Indians than they themselves were able to do."

While I do not entirely see the logic behind Baudrillard's claim that reality is no longer real, but hyper-real, I did see how the museum while preserving knowledge and history from a culture which was about to be absorbed, did the same thing as the Norwegian Husfliden did to the Norwegian national costume, the "bunad". In establishing the myth of Norwegian-ness in opposition to being Danish or Swedish, local or tribal particularities were emphasised, explored and "certified" as real Norwegian style and patterns. This was then spread as the Norwegian original costume. Colourful. Beautiful. Rich. I just gave mine to my daughter, because I just can't afford buying her one, and all girls where we live get one for their confirmation - about 2000-2500$ worth of embroidered wool and linen, handmade silver brooches and buttons… But is it real?

There is no reality behind it but the desire for identification. But that desire is real, and it makes even very young girls wear dresses of a style long gone by, wear them in public and with pride, flowing veils, heavy skirts, impossible head-dresses worn with the pride of a national identity which we claim reclaimed. Still. Norway is a very young nation. We only fake a national history going back to the viking ages. And in the same manner the Native American Museum fake a historical structure comprehensive to the present-day historians and ethnologist.

I have to think a while before I know at which level there might be reality. I have a few more subway rides to make, and I want to visit the cloisters as well, to find out if the chapel Baudrillard writes of in 1981 was actually returned to France.

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