Sunday, January 17, 2010

Behind the scenes in the musuem

I've said it before and I'll say it again. You may read fiction just for fun but along the way you'll end up learning something - despite your best efforts.

As usual, because I have some weighty tomes beside the bed waiting to be read, I turned to fiction popcorn. This time it was The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein who, in 2002, retired from her position as head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office and turned to book writing. Over-achiever! Anyway, it's a formulaic gold mine with her DA protagonist, Alexandra Cooper, righting wrongs all over New York and beyond.

This time we got a behind-the-scenes look at the Metropolitan Museum and its offshoot for medieval art history, The Cloisters, as well as the New York Museum of Natural History. Funnily enough, with Mrs R and the bairn in town this week and spending two delightful nights at my place, we ended up at the Melbourne Museum looking at its wild taxidermy section. My mind was crossing over between fictional and non fictional representations.

Whilst reading The Bone Vault however I learned of Minik, an Inuit (AKA - Eskimo) who was brought to the USA from Greenland along with five other Inuit in 1897 by explorer Robert Peary. This little boy was only six or seven when he, along with three men and two women, were brought back as living specimens to the American Museum of Natural History to be studied. Can you believe it? To our modern minds it is bad enough to think of graves being plundered to bring back skeletons for scientific study but actual living, breathing human beings...

Surprise surprise the five adults all expired ASAP in the germy client of New York. Minik was farmed out to a man involved with the Museum who, sure, raised him alongside his own son but who is also thought to be the man who bleached Minik's father's bones to be put on display in the Museum at a later date. Get your head around that one.

Legend has it that Minik actually stumbled across his Dad's skeleton on display when he got a bit older and, of course, was destroyed by the experience. When older, and troubled, they tried taking him back to Greenland but by then he couldn't speak his native language anymore and his seal hunting and polar bear whispering skills were a bit rusty after a childhood in NYC.

There's an interesting article about all of this at the NY Times site because in 1993 the Museum of Natural History packed four skeletons into separate boxes and shipped them back to Greenland.

There is so much to think about and meditate on when you discover a story like this. It somehow puts new perspective on the reports we might see in the news such as the 2009 one when a skull and other bone fragments, discovered in the home of an elderly British academic, were handed over to the Australian government in a solemn Aboriginal ceremony. Australian diplomats had discovered the remains in an auction of the contents of the academic's home.

It's easy to feel removed from these stories because it all seems to have taken place so very long ago but imagine for a moment if it was one of your own loved family members up for display in a glass box somewhere. I mean it's not like these people donated their remains to this cause; most of the time they were in fact looted from the grave. Sensibilities have changed. Science is supposedly conducted with more sensitivity and humanity - we hope - but it has an unseemly heritage me thinks.

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