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The Map and the Territory: 100 Years of Collecting at UCLA, at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, takes on the ambitious task of re-examining the institution’s vast archives, and strives to do so in a way that acknowledges the histories of imperial conquest that helped shape its holdings. Archival museums like the Fowler have forced the objects in their care to take on the burden of representing entire civilizations—their collections reflecting a desire to record and categorize the geographic and cultural contours of empire, an impulse that has characterized imperial expansion for centuries. And as the keeper of many of UCLA’s Indigenous cultural artifacts, the Fowler Museum cannot so easily divorce itself from that legacy. This show grapples with the question that remains: How can a museum built on these premises move forward, if it should at all?
Oftentimes, within the white walls of the museum, cultural artifacts appear devoid of their historical and social contexts. Such displays often not only implicitly, but inaccurately, suggest that the people who made these objects—along with their cultures—are long gone, and that the objects have ended up in museum collections as if by magic. The Map and the Territory begins to remedy this contextual vacuum by placing artifactual objects in conversation with their more contemporary relatives. Two pairs of wooden Baule statuettes from the Cote d’Ivoire make this clear. The first, from the 19th century, depicts a man and woman, featuring elaborate hairstyles, jewelry, accessories, and body scarification marks. The second pair, placed directly next to the first, is from the 20th century and also depicts a male and female figure. The former wears a business suit and the latter a colorful, polka dot dress. The newer statuettes enliven the older, opening up a dialogue between the works and disrupting the isolation and stasis of the museum archive.
The exhibition’s self-interrogation of display continues with a Plexiglas case of colorful, iridescent birds, tagged and organized by species. This type of animal collection, like butterfly pinning, has long followed imperial conquest, but within the context of this exhibition, it is not so much the fantastic birds that are on display as the display itself. No longer representatives of the “exotic” lands of South America and the Pacific, the birds instead become representations of the process by which they ended up in a museum to begin with.
Toward the exit of the gallery, Tongva artist River Garza curated a small selection of Tongva objects excavated on the Channel Islands and Los Angeles Basin alongside ephemera from the archaeological digs, including a stack of banker boxes that stored the objects, newspaper articles, handwritten notes, and accession lists. By bringing the behind-the-scenes work of excavation and archiving to the fore, Garza inverts our understanding of the modern museum. Mercedes Dorame’s installation explores a similar project of contextualization, using Tongva objects in the Fowler’s collection. Instead of displaying these pots, beads, and tools on individual pedestals, Dorame places them together in a spiraling constellation. They are surrounded by cinnamon and salt—a stand-in for the dirt from the Tongva land known as Guashna (now Playa Vista) where they were excavated. Through this work of curation, the objects are symbolically rejoined with the territory they came from, the past they inhabited, and the present they find themselves in.
As conversations on deaccessioning and returning cultural objects to their rightful owners have expanded, it has become even more important to address—or redress—the years these artifacts have now spent in a museum; to ignore this would be omitting a part of their history. Though acknowledgment alone cannot repair the centuries of looting that built up these archives, The Map and the Territory’s self-interrogation exemplifies how museums can more substantively begin to outwardly recognize their complicity in imperial conquest, thereby strengthening their exhibitions and collections in the process.
The Map and the Territory: 100 Years of Collecting at UCLA runs from July 1–October 24, 2021 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (308 Charles E Young Dr. N., Los Angeles, CA 90024).