May 17th, 2006


The semilunar woman's knife and the sinew-backed bow

Yesterday I went to the Natural History Museum for the second time in a month. I'm writing an article for AIGA Voice about the museum's geological layers of graphic design; what's wonderful is that, while celebrating diverse historical eras and geographical regions, the museum is also narrating these stories with wildly divergent voices.

One room (Peoples of Polynesia) will be done out in 1970s graphics, colours and shapes, the next (dinosaurs) will be 90s, the next (stuffed animals in fantastical dioramas) 1930s. What's tragic about this museum, though, is that every species it shows, every traditional way of life it documents, seems to be endangered by the selfishness and "success" of the very people wandering about it.

What I love are rooms dealing with forgotten, neglected peoples, themselves decorated in forgotten, neglected styles from forgotten, neglected decades. Rooms where we see a confrontation between a queer and crazy Western style that no longer looks "natural" and a queer and crazy civilisation. Rooms that are cul-de-sacs, hardly visited, humming and juddering with faulty air conditioning, jumping to life with ethnic music and serious, boring ethnographic films. Museums all over the world, assuming they haven't been spoiled by too much money, tend to have these sad, beautiful rooms, rooms filled with a poetry of neglect, anthropology, decor, oddness, wildly lovely music and evocatively clunky graphic design.

I'm attracted to the rooms dealing with people more than the ones dealing with animals. And of course it's North and East Asia which really tug my heart strings. I'm in love with Mongoloid cultures. I love them like a lover loves his beloved. I'm irresistibly drawn to them, to the entire family. I butterfly about, reading the panels out of context, out of order, skipping from one civilisation to the next, disorienteering, revelling in sheer difference. "Two brothers own a limited herd of yaks in common," I read. "The elder brother is married. If the younger brother moves away, he can take nearly half the herd with him as his share. Because each brother would then have few yaks, the two agree to stay together. This arrangement requires the elder brother's wife to marry the younger brother as well. Thus she has two husbands and the property of the household remains intact." I also learn that the Chukchee -- look, they occupy the tiny northeastern corner of the Asian continent, a red corner of your brain you've never visited! -- share with the Eskimo the harpoon, the kayak, the sledge and snow-goggles, and like the Eskimo use the bow-drill for fire-making and boring holes, the semilunar woman's knife, the lamp and the sinew-backed bow.

I gravitate, of course, to Japan. And learn that the Ise shrine -- can there be anything in the world more beautiful than the Ise shrine? -- is rebuilt every twenty years. Nature doesn't let things moulder away, but renews them. And so the priests at Ise build a new version of Japan's most sacred building alongside the current "original", ready to be switched when the time comes. The building is always changing, yet always the same. I also learn (from a tastefully restrained, diagrammatic display using Franklin Gothic, circa 1967) that "Japanese houses, traditionally of wood, paper and bamboo, are now more often made of other materials. Still, traditional elements remain, such as the use of unpainted wood, sliding translucent doors and conventional room sizes. The house and its surrounding gardens are also treated as an organic whole; wherever possible, rooms open to the outside so that natural views can be seen... From the 16th century on, the developing tea cult, which strongly emphasizes simplicity, has influenced the Japanese household. Furniture is kept to a minimum, matresses rolled up and stored during the day and shoes left at the door. Though cold in winter, its openness and flexibility make this house one of the most graceful manmade shelters."

Ah, simplicity, I love it when you're strange!