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.