Shifting Ontologies in Museum Collections: Amazonian Featherwork as Religious Artifact, Art Object, and Cultural Heritage Site
Adrian Van Allen
(Musée du quai Branly)
Paper short abstract:
Tracing the material, semiotic, historical and technological connections between Amazonian featherwork objects in Parisian museums, my ethnographic research examines the shifting ontologies of museum objects as they transition between religious artifact, art object, and cultural heritage site.
Paper long abstract:
Objects tell complex narratives, through their creation, circulation, and the connections they embody between people, places, materials, and interests. An Amazonian featherwork object, such as a Tupinambá cape of scarlet ibis feathers (Musée du Quai Branly, N.71.1917.3.83) tells a specific narrative of colonial encounter, as traced through its creation in the 16th century, to display in royal cabinets of curiosity, to its contemporary conservation in an ethnographic museum as a valuable site of cultural heritage and craft practice. This paper traces the material, semiotic, historical and technological connections between a group of Amazonian featherwork objects—capes and headdresses crafted from birds—now housed in Parisian museums. My ethnographic research within the Musée du Quai Branly examines the shifting ontologies of museum objects as they transition between religious artifact, art object, and cultural heritage site. Bird skins, feathers and cotton fiber were assembled into objects that signified power and authority as religious artifacts, then as exotic art, and finally as embodiments of cultural heritage—with each iteration carrying different kinds of meaning, value, and potential use. These categories are now being challenged yet again, I argue, as museum collections emerge as valuable sites for wider audiences to reconstruct ecological and cultural pasts—from indigenous communities interested in historic weaving techniques to biodiversity conservationists collecting genetic samples from feathers. Examining how value-as-meaning is created through changing material practices of conservation, I explore the unstable ontological status of these featherwork objects as they move between collections, contexts, and imagined futures uses.
Anthropology in the Art Museum