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Hearst “Museum” of “Anthropology” “Mails” It In and Misses the Story of Caroline Mytinger

There are many things that can make for a bad museum experience. The Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley does most of them, and wins the award for the greatest gulf between reality and expectations while doing so.

“The Museum houses an estimated 3 million objects plus extensive documentation that includes fieldnotes, photographs, and sound and film recordings.” says Wikipedia and others. I had literally never heard of it – what a horrible oversight! Right under my nose during near two decades living here? It doesn’t merely have material on Ishi, but had been the institution that housed him? (I was first exposed to this real life “Last of the Mohicans” in Kevin Starr’s fantastic The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s). Wow, how could I have missed this?

Of the (according to the museum itself) 3.8 million objects the museum houses, you’ll see all but 3,799,800 of them in person. The Museum has recently made them accessible online here which is a very good alternative to trekking out to Berkeley to see the few on display in one unremarkable, poorly lit room.

If you do want to see this room with a few objects, it will cost you $6, which is $2 more than another option for a non-Bear: going up the nearby Campanile.

West View from Berkeley Campanile
West View from Berkeley Campanile

The objects that you do see are “fine” but with lots of “judgements” in “quotations.” lathered with almost comically predictable objections from the fine curators.

Should something as politically toxic in the People’s Republic of Berkeley as “ideal” always get “quotations”? If so, stay consistent or I’ll think my safe space is threatened:

Quotes aplenty, but “ideal” makes it out alive this time.

The trite descriptions don’t stop at the quotation marks:

Eternal Youth at Berkeley

The irony of this political correctness, confined to one large room, is that they have a potential gold mine to manipulate in Ishi but maybe that gets boring after a while.

The piece de la resistance of hectoring non-explanations is this:  (excuse me for appropriating French culture:)

Painting Race at Berkeley

The study of anthropology is the study of human societies, plural. If there is more than one society, it’s because there is a difference between them and a difference will be studied. The Anthropology Department of Berkeley is almost begging in descriptions like these to shut itself down: how could a white woman make a judgement on someone else? If this is racist out of the box, why is it being shown at all? Who in good conscience can study it? There is no justification save one for studying anything other than yourself…to “encourage us all to think about our unconscious racial biases and assumptions we may make when seeing or depicting someone’s face.”

Here is the evidence of Caroline Mytinger’s crimes:

Faces at Berkeley Anthropology

Spend alf a moment out of the PC echo chamber and it’s hard to think of these paintings as anything other than sensitively rendered paintings not just of her subjects but fellow humans — at a time, as the curators impress repeatedly, there was very heightened senses of race. These paintings were exhibited widely in America and if anything, were criticized for idealizing the subjects, not looking down on them.

The story of her adventure – with a friend setting out to the most remote part of the world in the 1926 to paint, no chaperone, is going to be –Emma Stone, call your agent– a future Oscar winner. Women had been admitted to Berkeley in the late 19th century but not many of them. (You can see this in the photographs of the class of 1926 in the hallways of the tower.) Caroline wrote an account of travels I didn’t look up tonight, but there is a great short piece in the Smithsonian that beats anything the Phoebe Hearst Museum would deign to say.

It is a huge missed “opportunity.” Save your $6, see more of Mytinger’s paintings in the portal and enjoy.

Published inArt and Architecture

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