The Magazine

When Worlds Collide

The American past meets modern museum doctrine.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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The Ancient Americas

The Field Museum

Permanent Exhibit

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has a new permanent exhibit of savagery and barbarism, "The Ancient Americas." The ancient Americans themselves are not portrayed as savage or barbarous. (How surprising. Knock me over with a feather.) The savages and barbarians are the museum's curators. They plunder history, ravage archaeology, do violence to intelligence, and lay waste to wisdom, faith, and common sense.

At the Field Museum, the bygone aboriginal inhabitants of our hemisphere are shown to be regular folks, the same as you and me, although usually more naked and always more noble. Ancient Americans have attained the honored, illustrious status of chumps and fall guys. Never mind that they were here for 12,000 or 13,000 years before the rest of us showed up with our pistols and pox, so most of their getting shafted was, perforce, a do-it-yourself thing.

And also never mind that "The Ancient Americas" exhibit tells you nothing that a fourth grader doesn't know. I am the parent of a fourth grader. I live in a house cluttered with twig and Play-Doh models of hogans, longhouses, and wickiups, hung with ill-made "dream-catchers" and strewn with poorly glued miniature birch bark canoes shedding birch bark on the rugs. My daughter's bedroom is heaped with the apparel, equipage, and chattel of Kaya, the Native American American Girl doll. The fourth grade classroom's bookshelves overflow with culturally sensitive and ecologically aware retellings of Potawatomi, Paiute, and Kickapoo legends, colorfully illustrated by women who use birds or mammals for their last names.

When I was in the fourth grade, some 50 years ago, my grandmother would take me to the Field Museum. It was a solemn, quiet, awe-engendering place. All of creation's wonders were on display in orderly ranks. Dim corridors were lined with dioramas featuring important animals, shot, stuffed, and carefully labeled. Further corridors held wonders of a sterner kind: Sinister masks from Africa, demon deities of the heathen Raj, alarming Sung Dynasty figurines depicting the exquisite tortures of Chinese hell. Whatever steadiness of nerve I now possess I owe to steeling myself to walk past the display case containing an unwrapped Egyptian mummy.

The Field Museum was interesting even in its least interesting parts. The section devoted to Useful Varieties of Wood fascinated me in the exactitude of its tediousness. The world was full of things and--if I could summon the patience and concentration--those things could be organized, understood, and made to serve a purpose.

The museum fueled every worthy ambition. The mineralogical collection made me decide to become a man of learning and means sufficient to lead an expedition to find an immense amethyst geode, which I would present to Jennifer Riley, she of the auburn hair in my fourth grade class, one row over and two desks up. And the large, gloomy hall devoted to life in the Arctic was a religious inspiration. I looked at the full-scale cutaway of winter quarters in MacKenzie Bay, where you lived in an underground room the size of a Buick, wore itchy seal skins, ate raw whale and breathed the smoke of a Caribou chip fire.

I would bow my head and intone, "Praise God for not making me an Eskimo."

Then Grandmother and I would go to lunch in the museum's cafeteria, an austere room that served school food of the better kind--much as the White House Mess does to this day. Over this comforting fare I would quiz my own family's ancient American.

"Grandma, what's the difference between Democrats and Republicans?"

"Democrats rent."

"Grandma, what's wrong with the people in the bad neighborhoods that we saw from the 'El'?"

"No one is ever so poor that he can't pick up his yard."

"Grandma, which Roosevelt was worse, Teddy or Franklin?"

"Theodore. He had no business meddling in things the way he did after your great-grandfather's friend Mr. McKinley died, and he divided the Republican party, allowing that scallywag Woodrow Wilson to become the president."

One of the best pleasures of my childhood was to walk hand-in-hand with my grandmother up the broad flights of marble steps to the towering bronze doors of the Field Museum. The doors are closed now. The main entrance to the museum is no longer used. These days that neoclassical portico with its view of Loop, lakefront, and Grant Park grandeur probably makes people feel small. The back door has more room for tour buses and handicapped ramps. Grandeur is out of style anyway. The Field Museum was built for Chicago's Columbian Exposition, celebrating (if you can imagine celebrating such a thing) Columbus's "discovery" of America. It wasn't the happiest 400th anniversary for ancient Americans.

The museum is full of noisy children and their caregivers, blended families, and whatever else we're calling kith and kin these days. A long, mouse-maze, airport security-style line must be endured to get tickets. The sculpture of a Masai spearman facing off against a crouching lioness has been shunted to a lonely corner, lest someone somehow take offense. Nowadays offense is taken--snatched and grabbed--as if offense were something valuable to own. And given our umbrage-filled presidential campaign, maybe it is. The brontosaurus has been pushed to the back (that is to say the front) of the main hall and isn't called a brontosaurus anymore. (Doubtless offense was taken by Chicago's Bronto-American community.) Nor is the skeleton of this vast vegan any longer engaged in post-mortem mortal combat with the bones of a tyrannosaurus rex. Modern kids are too loving and caring about dinosaurs to be exposed to such scenes of domestic violence.

Most of the minerals and all of the useful woods have been replaced by a gift shop the size of Macy's (appropriately enough, since Macy's is now the name on Marshall Field's, the department store whose founder was the Field Museum's patron). The cafeteria is gone; a McDonald's has been installed. At least people are still dressed the way I was a half-century ago: In jeans or shorts, T-shirts, and gym shoes. Except these are people of 40 or 50. Indeed, some are as old as my grandmother was when she, in hat and gloves, escorted me. And Grandma had visited the Field Museum during the Columbian Exposition.

I couldn't see what the children are wearing; they are misbehaving blurs to my bifocaled eyes. None seems afraid to walk past the mummy case. I didn't have the heart. Unwrapped as he is, the mummy fits in too well, sartorially, with a 21st-century crowd. At the portal of the "Ancient Americas" exhibit is the first of many, many wall inscriptions telling you what you should be thinking, if you happen to do any of that.

The Ancient Americas is a story of diversity and change--not progress.

Were this a criticism of pre-Columbian societies, you'd be in for an interesting experience. It isn't. You aren't.

Besides the wall inscriptions the exhibit is cluttered with innumerable video screens displaying people yakking in native languages described as nearly extinct. What information is conveyed thereby, and to whom, is an open question. An extensive collection of Inca clay faces appears opposite the "not progress" message. The Inca seem to have been skilled cartoonists in the Wallace and Gromit manner. However, claymation lacks something when it isn't animated. But that's not-progress for you.

"Gallery guides available in Spanish only," reads another wall inscription. This is either overdoing it with the multiculturalism or an implied insult to the effect that Hispanics are too stupid to find their way through an exhibit arranged like a drunkard's version of the museum's ticket line.

A very wordy inscription details the theories of when and how humans arrived in the New World. Translated from the academese: "We dunno." An encomium to the Ice Age hunter-gatherers follows. "People like us," it concludes, "prospered in ancient times." We did indeed--if your idea of prosperity is fastening a "Clovis people" spearpoint to a stick and stabbing long-horned bison, giant grand sloths, wooly mammoths, mastodons, and New World horses until they were all extinct. The economic boom didn't extend to casual wear and sports clothes. Ice Age or no, everyone in the talentlessly painted murals is naked. Nipples seem to have been vague and smudgy in ancient times, and a mastodon or giant ground sloth was always getting in between mural viewers and your genitals.

Under one such painting the inscription reads:

"Look at that mammoth," your aunt cries out as you hike downhill towards a vast plain. The men [sic!] did well .  .  . " Your family and other group members pause to give thanks and honor the mammoth whose life was taken .  .  .

The Americas were peopled, presciently, by future Californians.

"After the Ice Age," reads another wall, "human creativity made the Americas more culturally diverse." Barack Obama was elected, I guess. Nearby is a large mural titled "Eastern Woodlands 2500 B.C.-500 B.C." I'm a resident of the Eastern Woodlands and, except for fewer naked people, they haven't changed much. Perhaps the title should be amended to "Eastern Woodlands 2500 B.C.-500 B.C. and 1969 A.D. when Janis Joplin and Santana Were Performing at Woodstock."

The naked people in the Eastern Woodlands "faced growing population and environmental stresses. This led to periods of conflict with their neighbors."

Fortunately, Chief Obama was willing, without diplomatic preconditions, to meet and negotiate with any ancient American leader. Therefore, the "periods of conflict" didn't result in anything like, oh, members of the Iroquois Confederation capturing, torturing, enslaving, and occasionally eating everyone they could get their hands on.

An office cubicle's space is allotted to the Moundbuilders. Who were they? Why did they build the mounds? How did they do it? Was there free parking? Translating, again, from the Academese: "Got me, pal."

Then comes a prolix wall headed "Powerful Leaders."

Why did people give up power to make some of their own decisions? Central decision-makers were often more effective than groups at organizing large amounts of labor, managing resources, and directing wars.

So maybe it was Hillary, not Obama, who got elected.

This brings us to the Maya and their abominable customs, nicely glossed.

.  .  . sacrifice has played a role in the religious beliefs of many people throughout history and in all parts of the world. .  .  . Even today almost all world religions include sacrifice of some kind in their spiritual practices.

Now wait a damn minute, you infidel apes of social science. Shut your brie holes and listen up. God, the God, the God who didn't make me an Eskimo, does not require human sacrifice, he suffers it: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

That is the difference--perhaps the only difference--between civilization and savagery. And it's not just us Christians who say so. From the time of Abraham no monotheist has practiced human sacrifice; no Buddhist ever has, and no Hindu since the days of suttee and the Thugs. No Taoist, no Confucian, no Zoroastrian, Baha'ist, or Sikh includes murder in his "spiritual practices."

The text on the Maya continues:

Some societies in the ancient Americas, like the Maya, practiced bloodletting or human sacrifice as part of their ceremonies or spiritual beliefs. Why? Anthropologists don't fully know.

Let's finish that sentence. "Anthropologists don't fully know the difference between right and wrong."

In a nook around the corner from Mayan Spirituality a computer-animated movie runs on a continuous loop. "Living in a State Society" offers a different definition of civilization. State Societies are, it seems, all societies in which sticks and grass aren't the principal constituents of housing, wardrobe, and diet. The movie explains that, in a State Society, the "Ruling Classes" are supported by the "State Power Triad" consisting of the Economy, the Military, and Religion. "For the first time," the narration drones, "the ruling class had a different standard of living than others. Why would people want to give up their freedom? For most there was no choice."

The message of the movie is, I think, to build a wigwam, wear a hula skirt, and boil some sticks for dinner. Or maybe the message is to pack the car and move to North Korea. Or, possibly, the message is to get over it, accept Big Chief Hillary, and learn to love her tax hikes, Iraq retreat, and pseudo-Methodist spiritual beliefs (including health care bloodletting) because "there was no choice."

After a twist and a turn in the exhibit's vagrant route you are among the Aztec and Inca. The loathsome Aztec devoted most of their energy to human sacrifices, horrifying in extent and gruesome in technique. The Ancient Americas treats this in a moving-right-along manner.

From mild bloodletting to violent death, sacrifice offered thanks to the gods while maintaining the natural order of the world.

The original New World Order, as it were. Inscriptions also give a nod to media hype.

The Spanish often emphasized accounts of bloodthirsty sacrifice to justify conquering the Aztec people.

You're hustled past the Inca's no doubt better-justified conquerings. You enter a hushed and funereal room with tombstone lettering on black walls.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

In 1492, the first European explorers arrived in the Americas, triggering a devastating loss of life almost inconceivable to us today.

Mao Zedong, please go to the white courtesy phone.

The wall inscription proceeds:

Here, we reflect on the magnitude of loss inflicted on America's Indigenous peoples by European invasion.

The European inflictions are grimly illustrated. The first one upon which we are expected to reflect is the only decent thing (not counting the wheel, iron, cigarette papers, etc.) that Europeans brought to America's Indigenous peoples, "Religious Conversion." Second is "Disease," which should stir our sympathy but hardly our guilt. The exhibit points out that disease was the chief cause of suffering after European contact. Therefore, the horrors that beset The Ancient Americas following 1492 would have happened if the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María had been manned by Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, and Bono.

You escape the pity parlor of When Worlds Collide and traverse a space of video screen talking heads and interactive displays with all their buttons being pounded by toddlers. This is "Living Descendants." The ancient Americans' modern relations are regular folks, as well as their ancestors were, and with clothes on, too, the same as you and me. Of course, if they're the same as you and me, why do they need a room in a museum any more than we do? Well, "despite centuries of injustice and oppression, today's "Indigenous peoples strive to sustain their cultural traditions."

You could say the same of the Irish. Being one, I looked for the exit to go find a drink. I wandered into a solemn, quiet, awe‑engendering place. Looking around the large, gloomy hall I saw the full-scale cutaway of winter quarters in MacKenzie Bay. Its labels are curled and yellowing but unchanged: respectful, factual, precise.

The ancient Americans weren't regular folks. They lived strange, spectacular lives on strange, spectacular continents untrod by man and more remote for them than Mars--or the world of museum curation--is for us. The ancient Americans were tough as hell. They did their share of nasty stuff. But even the Aztec don't deserve to be patronized, demeaned, and insulted by what is--or is supposed to be, or once was--one of the white man's great institutions of learning.

Give the "Ancient Americas" exhibit back to the ancient Americans, and the Field Museum along with it. If any of the heirs and assigns of the Aztec, Inca, or Maya feel inclined to practice a little human sacrifice on anthropologists, sociologists, moral relativists, neo-Marxists, and other conquistadors of modern academia, call it "maintaining the natural order of the world."

P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.