“Oh no, we haven’t done the British Museum,” said Cece as she reviewed our checklist of things to do with our grandson Nate on the last full day of his first trip to London. So with lunches packed, we walked over from our flat in Fleet Street to the museum. I was ready to discuss with a ten year-old the ethics of displaying the dead to strangers, but I wasn’t prepared for a display of Native American artifacts that originated in Trinidad, about ten miles away from our cabin in Big Lagoon on California’s northwest coast.
Our strategy with Nate during the whole trip was to expose him to the variety of museums and galleries, give him a taste of a particular exhibition or display, stop before he got bored, and discuss the experience over food. It worked well.
Our first stop at the overwhelming British Museum was an easy decision: the display of Egyptian funerary materials. The two thousand year-old mummies, as they are popularly known, are a big attraction to kids. It’s no longer possible in the United States to display preserved human bodies without the donors’ permission, though not too long ago Native American human remains were a staple of museums. But here in London, the British Museum still shows off its star-power attraction in a large, refurbished, and well-organized room with expansive cabinets and clear explanatory texts.
Cece, Nate, and I joined the procession of teachers and mommies shepherding their charges in blazers and pleated skirts past the shrouded bodies, surrounded by objects needed to “ensure the transition of the individual from earthly existence to immortality.” I found the whole experience unnerving and troubling, but it was a teaching moment. Over tomato and cheese sandwiches we discussed issues of patrimony. “They should give them back to Egypt,” said Nate succinctly. “Can I have dessert?”
After lunch, while Cece took Nate to check out the samurai exhibition, I popped in to the JP Morgan Chase Gallery of the North Americas to see how the British Museum deals with its trove of Native American artifacts. The room is stuffed with objects from all over the United States, displayed artistically. It’s a familiar hodgepodge of stuff, minimally linked to historical contexts, but what caught my attention in the California section were two elk spoons familiar to me from the research I’ve been doing on the history of the Yurok in Humboldt. They look exactly like artifacts I’ve seen in collections back home. How did they get here, I wondered.
Three days later, after we’d sent Nate back to California, I returned to the museum’s Centre for Anthropology to do research on the two spoons and the museum’s third Yurok artifact, described in its data base as a “chert knife.” While the museum’s description of the artifacts and their uses is shaky, its evidence of provenience and provenance is compelling. I couldn’t contain my excitement when a helpful curator placed in front of me the Hewett papers: a handwritten volume, dated from its watermark as “clearly eighteenth-century,” and a folder of original correspondence. Most historical research is a plodding duty. A serendipitous find such as this one happens rarely.
After less than two hours of gingerly exploring the documents, I was convinced that the three Yurok items were acquired by George Goodman Hewett (1765-1834), a doctor who served as a surgeon’s mate on the Discovery, captained by George Vancouver on his celebrated four-year exploration of the Pacific Coast on behalf of the British government. When the Discovery arrived in May 1793 in Tsurai – renamed Porto de la Trinidad by the Spanish, and later Americanized as Trinidad – the ship was greeted by “natives in a canoe; they approached us with confidence and seemed to be friendly disposed,” recalled Vancouver in his well known memoirs. The Yurok were eager to trade for iron – “in their estimation the most valuable commodity we had to offer.”
While Vancouver regarded the items traded by the Yurok as “trivial articles,” he was not a collector like George Hewett. A few years after the Discovery returned to England in 1798, Hewett created a detailed inventory of the materials he had acquired on his voyage with Vancouver, including their provenience. The two Yurok spoons and knife are listed in his carefully handwritten log.
After Hewett died in 1834, his collection and inventory passed on to his family. Many of his “curiosities,” noted a relative, were lost or disappeared. But in 1891, almost one hundred years after the Discovery docked in Trinidad Bay, a resourceful British Museum curator named Augustus Wollaston Franks bought what was left of Hewett’s collection, including his inventory and Yurok items, for 150 English pounds, not a small amount of money in its day. Like Hewett, Franks was a dedicated collector. “Collecting is a hereditary disease and I fear incurable,” he once admitted.
Thanks to this unpredictable chain of event – including my own last minute decision to check out the North Americas collection – I learned that the British Museum owns three artifacts that were made by the Yurok in Tsurai more than two hundred years ago. What Captain Vancouver considered “trivial articles” in 1793 are now displayed for the public in one of the world’s most famous museums, where they are reverentially described in terms reserved for objets d’art: “very fine carving” with “finely incised decoration.”
London June 2009