Insert by Mark von Schlegell: RE-ENTERING THE SOUTHWEST MUSEUM

“With tears running, O Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather — with running tears I must say now that the tree has never bloomed. A pitiful old man, you see me here, and I have fallen away and have done nothing. Here at the center of the world, where you took me when I was young and taught me; here, old, I stand, and the tree is withered. Grandfather, my Grandfather!”[1]


The mountain of stone on which the museum sat cross-legged was penetrated in two dimensions by 90 degrees axes.

[museum archivist Glenna R. Schroeder:] “The two shafts met on October, 1919.”

Down the road from a high apartment in Mount Washington I walked most days for some weeks into what was Los Angeles’ most permanent exhibition. I was walking to the nearby (also high) Southwest Museum in order to use the library. I was researching the last known giant squid in the universe.

The Museum was separated by a great gorge from the plateau on which my apartment was situated and I used to come down a high and winding road to get there. Deep in this hollow I found myself using the museum’s old entrance: the entrance visitors who came by car and drove up the hill never saw.

Cut into its cliff, roughly cemented with sand and painted desert brown, the Mayan Entrance by Hunt and Burns was executed in 1919, a romantic archaeological hole into the enlightened unconscious. In those years of the mythological L.A. public transport success, with a rail station close by, it was the only way to access the museum above. Passing through the archaeological romance of the dark entrance you entered a long tunnel cut tomblike into the mountain, walled and paved with cold stone. You walked some 240 feet to an eventually shabby elevator that rose vertically to the hilltop, 108 feet above. The walkway was lined with dioramas.

Anticipating the museum to come, the horizontal tunnel presented its own exhibition. The low stone walls were lined on both sides by a series of 20 niches, each containing an electrically lit diorama, small and precise, illustrating for the most part native American life of the past. The dioramas presented their own presentations of the Primitive as enlightenment artifacts along the road to progress. The tomblike nature of the hall, however, intensified and transformed the dialectic in mysterious ways.

These small dioramas produced a sense of their own realism long after they were out of date in every sense of the word. They took years and generations to complete, but they were the first dioramas ever to show in a museum anywhere.

The dioramas made enlightened paradoxes of early anthropology vividly physical. Conceived the same year Freud’s Totem and Taboo was released in English (1919), they were an expression of the current vogue for anthropology at a time millions of “primitive” peoples the world over were being dispossessed. Just as in that book Freud introduces the Oedipus Complex from within an anthropological study of the Primitive, the dioramas relocated the Primitive in their own enlightened gaze.

The dioramas lined up like stills on a roll of film [in order] to properly Americanize this drama. They preserved the bird’s-eye past as if it were the long destroyed, evolutionary and ancient. Industrial artists Tew and Mason drew a stark Hobbesian state of nature in pre and post-discovery America. They demonstrated the superstition, militarism, and savagery of Indian peoples, showing war, ritual, hunting, cold nights, howling winds, fire, stone, ice and sand. Meanwhile the cool clear illumination in the darkness, the winking elevator in the distance, the plain-text plaques classifying each diorama, the laws of perspective artfully exploited to make the backdrop paintings trick out the walls of the niche all projected the invisible power of the present. Years later, when the tunnel was no longer regularly used or renovated, the walls grew harder, the surrounding rock more menacing, the journey to the elevator more oddly precarious. The little landscapes emerged deep in neurosis.

[Museum Director Mason to anthropologist Hodge. 15 Nov. 1940:] “The backgrounds of the exterior scenes were painted by Mr. John Gamble of Santa Barbara, a frail little old fellow and if not feeling well, he sometimes does not paint for weeks.”
The Directors demanded vistas of emptiness, but for Gamble Nature was what is never seen through. Gamble’s vistas embodied the lie of enlightenment’s invisible eye in one dimension, making the rock itself equally as, not less visible than the illusion upon it. Literally projecting upon a cave wall Gamble’s realism is perfectly ambivalent towards the paradox of its own artificiality.

Similar moments abound in Totem and Taboo.

[Totem and Taboo, 1918:] “The scientific view of the universe no longer affords any room for human omnipotence, men have acknowledged their smallness and submitted resignedly to death and to the other necessities of nature. None the less some of the primitive belief in omnipotence still survives in men’s faith in the power of the human mind, taking account, as it does, of the laws of reality.”

Two exceptional dioramas pictured Indian life in a state other than poverty and squalor. Depicting Aztec and Incan civilizations, Tew’s 1/32 scale Palenque and Mason’s Incas shone with treasure, gold and the uncanny alternate reality of ancient civilization density. Richly clad and bejeweled, an Inca noble instructs a single peasant laborer on the side of a stack-gardened Andes peak, (dizzyingly high in Gamble’s illusion) tiny arm outstretched into three tiny vast full-color dimensions.

Incas, portraying agriculture, geography, class structures and economic systems caught the rush of the observer’s omnipotence, miniaturizing the very enormity of the past’s own present. It was the most beautiful of the dioramas because of its simplicity.

[Museum News, 15 Feb 1940:] “Mr. Ned J. Barnes, Chief of the Museum Division of the National Park Service, traces the origin of these instructive miniature groups to Louis S. Daguerre, and Charles-Marie Bourbon, who in Paris about 1823 apparently employed the term [diorama] from the Greek, meaning “to see through”] to designate their invention of a new kind of painting on transparent cloth.”

[Schroeder:] “Miss Marguerite Rose Tew [1885-1975] was hired as the Museum sculptor. She had studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her father had been a friend of Museum Founder Charles F. Lummis, who considered her his “adopted niece.” This connection probably had something to do with her acquiring the Museum position.”

The narrating archivist dresses Tew, artist of one of the worst dioramas, [the Handball Court] and one of the best [Palenque], in Jamesian irony, but as an Industrial Artist she relinquishes her claim to authorship.

[Schroeder]: “Although she commented in the Annual Reports about doing research in preparation for diorama construction, there is little record of what sources she used. Near the end of 1925 “it was deemed advisable, in the interest of economy, to negotiate for additional groups on the contract basis.”

Tew was let go. Enter young Elizabeth Mason, master of the tunnel, entirely unconnected to robber-baron Lummis and his So-Cal historiography. For a decade Mason labored with patience and energy. She corresponded with experts in the field, eccentric anthropologists of that age, one of whom strips naked, paints himself with tribal patterns and sends her photos. Impressed by Mason’s industry, noted Southwest anthropologist Dr. A.V. Kidder predicted in 1927, “the finest opportunity possessed by any museum in the world to bring its public into the halls. The passage exhibits, therefore, should be planned with the utmost care, and carried out with the greatest attention to the psychology of visual impression.”

In the 30’s the Federal Arts Project of the WPA paid for Mason to employ thirty-one out-of-work artists and craftspeople. [“1 supervisor, 1 stenographer, 1 typist, 1 cataloguer, 2 map draftsmen, 3 letterers, 9 painters, 3 sculptors, 1 plaster worker, 1 woodcarver, 1 miniature costume maker, 1 maker of vegetation and accessories for dioramas, 4 photographers, 2 costume pattern-makers…”]

[“A Letter to the Folks Back Home — About those New Habitat Groups”, Fred R. Hinchman, The Master-Key, 1930]: “A semi-dark, but inviting interior presents itself. It is night, and nine Indian men, naked except for some black and white ceremonial paint, have been enacting some aboriginal dance ritual around a huge fire on a cleared bit of ground…. One of the men, nearest the spectator, is holding aloft a flaming torch, while they all peer into the surrounding darkness. The painted, naked bodies of those savages make an interesting picture.”

[The Master-Key, July 1937:] “(Overheard comment:) “I think they are wonderful! They are so much better than their life-sized groups in —-, as I can grasp the idea and sense of the scene at a glance, whereas with life-sized models it takes so much time to look them over that you lose the charm and significance of the group.” On another occasion, when she spied the Indian Costume Figures, a small girl exclaimed: “O Mama! See the little stuffed Indians.”

[Totem and Taboo, IV/3/footnote 3:] “Finally, it is not easy to feel one’s way into primitive modes of thinking. We misunderstand primitive men just as easily as we do children, and we are always apt to interpret their actions and feelings according to our own mental constellations.”

Enlightened historicism plays out the Oedipus Complex by infantilizing its father, the Primitive. Transferred to Greco-Roman thought, it buries the father deep in the historical past, displacing the trauma of the LIVING, ENTIRELY THREATENING FATHER’s massacre. By the apparent light of the Mind, the enlightened settles itself on the ground as ritual slaughter. The Primitive is fore-ordained, killed, Greeked.

[Declaration of Policy of the Southwest Museum:] To help the Southwest fulfill the wisest of all the precepts of the Greeks — “Know Thyself” — by unlocking to its children its underground treasure-house of knowledge with the MASTER-KEY of modern Anthropology, which is nothing less than the science of man.

[#814. in pencil, addressed “Austin” and signed “Emily,” sent to Austin Dickinson in 1864:]

Soto – Explore Thyself –

Therein – Thyself shalt find

The “Undiscovered Continent” –

No Settler — had the Mind –

[Louis Althusser, “Freud and Lacan”, 1964:] “…all the material of this ultimate drama is provided by previously formed language, which, in the Oedipal phase, is centered and arranged wholly around the signifier phallus: the emblem of the Father, the emblem of right, of the Law, the fantasy image of all Right — this may seem astonishing or arbitrary but all psycho-analysts attest to it as fact of experience.”

Plan of the tunnel

“… such deafness to screams of mercy were never heard in time of peace and in the destiny of a nation with its own allies and wards, since the earth was made. With great respect, sir, I am your fellow citizen, — Ralf Waldo Emerson, 1836 [to President Van Buren, on the Cherokee removal, 1838].”

[Schroeder: ] “POMO. Here a bear impersonator scares a group of women engaged in preparing food. “Bear Doctors” had some shamanistic significance in Pomo religious rites. One of these outfits is on display in the California Hall.”

[Totem and Taboo:] “No one can have failed to observe, in the first place, that I have taken as the basis of my whole position the existence of a collective mind, in which mental processes occur just as they do in the mind of an individual. In particular, I have supposed that the sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have had no knowledge of that action.”

[Schroeder:] “EURASIA. This group of three prehistoric Eurasian cavemen hope to defend themselves against a sabertooth cat with a firebrand.”

In 1704 the first enlightened castaway, Richard Selkirk, asked to be set on Juan Fernandez island. During the Massacre at Wounded Knee on 20 Dec. 1890, Sigmund Freud was thirty-four years old.

After my last visit to the museum library, I exited through the tunnel. An Indian janitor was mopping the stone floor worn soft as if by a thousand invisible school children’s sneakers. Their absent shouts filled up the gloomy passage. Though no longer a public place, it was most curiously a historical fact. A diorama of itself, one more monument to a lost imaginary democracy, the tunnel was closed for good (along with the Southwest

* The German text will be published in Mark von Schlegell: Dreaming the Mainstream: Kritische Fantasien der US-Macht (forthcoming from Merve Verlag, Berlin, 2011).

[1] Black Elk, transcribed by Nierhardt, 1932.

Leave a Reply