New York — Last Year, Dr. Walter Fairservis, an anthropologist who specializes in studying Asian peoples, was talking with two New York congressmen. The conversation soon ambled around to the Middle East and it quickly became apparent that the legislators had little real knowledge of the region.
"These men were voting regularly on bills affecting war and peace in the Arab world," complained Dr. Fairservis, "and yet they were almost totally ignorant of the Arab people and their culture."
Such cultural blindness on Arabs -- and all Asian subjects -- isn't limited to congressmen, says Dr. Fairservis, a former research associate from the American Museum of Natural History. Most Americans have a benighted view of the continent.
"There is in the West a real ignorance of Asia," he told Natural History Magazine. "If we look at our Asian foreign policy over the last 40 years, we see a history of igonorance and inertia. We won't admit there are concepts and suppositions about the world other than our own. I feel a certain basic anger."
Fortunately for everyone, Walter Fairservis has done more than express anger over Westerners' views of the Asian continent. He has spent the last 12 years collecting artifacts, preparing texts, and assembling background for the impressive new Gardner D. Stout Hall of Asian Peoples, a permanent exhibition that opened last month at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
For those of us who, like the two New York congressmen, know little about Eastern Culture, the exhibit offers closehand observations of the religious, customs, and life-rituals of half the world's people.
The exhibit was constructed at a cost of $2.8 million and contains over 3,000 artifacts drawn from a collection that dates back to the museum's earliest expeditions in the 1870s to the 1920s. It is in some ways to adventurous an undertaking and frequently says too little about too much. But there is enough in the new hall to absorb the casual scholar and satisfy the amateur anthropologist with glimpses of the world's most diverse polycultural landmass.
The exhibits have been arranged with the two most important land routes through Asia in mind. One lets visitors imagine that they are setting out from the crossroads city of Samarkand with its rich bazaars, hazy, opulent skyline, and desert surroundings. The other leads them from civilization's cradle in Eurasia through central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, North Korea, and on to Japan.
Visitors will get an eyeful of the exotic and the humble, the pedestrian and the extraordinary, originating from the people who live along the route or in the bordering countries: Chinese cricket gourds (boxes) with jade caps; a Thai rice- reaping knife; a replica of the great Stupta burial mound at Sandchi, India, a depository of sacred Buddhist relics; ancient gospel manuscripts from Armenia; tiny figurines carved by Siberian Indians; and movable type from Korea predating Gutenberg.
Some of these objects -- such as musical instruments from Pakistan and a luxurious coat from Afghanistan -- belonged to Dr. Fairservis. Many others were collected during three museum expeditions he led to India and Pakistan. But most came from dusty vaults and bins in the museum's Gothic building in upper Manhattan.
This hidden collection outnumbers, by at least 20 to 1 the artifacts on display in the hall. "I think we were able to show one or two of the 4,000 Chinese puppets the museum owns," Dr. Fairservis explains with obvious disappointment.
The obvious creativity that went into the overall design of Alex Williams, the luminous painted backdrops of Martin Kalmenoff, the bold backgrounds of Frank Mullins, and the sculpture of elliot Goldfinger do much to dispel the stodginess of the standard display cases. One misses the drama and texture that a more creative milieu might have offered. But there is much to study here, much to learn from, much to encourage further scholarship.
The greatest pleasure of the exhibit comes from richly detailed life-size dioramas that depict Asian peoples under- going universal rites of passage:
A Chinese bridge wearing a beaded veil and ornamental gown awaits her wedding party in a covered chair festooned with intricately carved protrusions, figures, and flora, all inlaid with kingfisher feathers. An Indian family, earthy and unpretentious, looks on approvingly, as a gorgeously, but not lavishly, garbed couple gets married. An Islamic woman, wearing a black dress from Kabul, showing not an inch of flesh, stands over the Koranic inscription: "Oh, Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them [when they go abroad]." Malay seafarers haggle in a tent over merchandise which lies on the dirt floor before a doorway revealing a harbor and some ships.
These and dozens of similar life-size dioramas help bring to life a part of the world that has frequently been shrouded in mystery.
"One of our biggest problems was to come up with an answer to the cliches most people have about Asians," Dr. Fairservis muses about the task. "There is the feeling that Asia is either a land of exotic mysteries or suffering masses. This is the great misconception we tried to dispel. I'm not sure we succeeded."
His job has been made harder by a peculiar decision: The museum administration has limited the exhibit to pre-1920s Asia. So there is little here to explain the irresistible, sometimes savage political currents that have swept the continent in modern times.
Dr. Fairservis -- who resigned from the museum shortly after this exhibit opened because of a philosophical dispute over handling of the modern Chinese posters, a copy of "The Quotations of Chairman Mao," other recent Chinese artifacts; but he was told to stay away from Communist China.
He rationalizes this omission by calling the modern political movements "shifting patterns in the scene." But as a frequent visitor to Asia since his service as intelligence officer in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Japanese occupation headquarters, he realizes how much these shifting patterns alter the cultures of a continent. And he acknowledges that, in omitting modern Asia, he was yielding to the museum administration's sensitivities about Vietnam and other volatile Asian subjects.
This senstivity gets in the way of the avowed purpose of the exhibition -- to help Westerners understand the peoples of Asia. And the exhibit designers had to get around the obstacle by presenting modern asia through relics of the past.
Oddly enough, they have achieved a high degree of success.
While he couldn't show modern man in Asia, Dr. Fairservis did give us Bedouins in their tents; Yakuts of Siberia in a shaman healer's hut; Lhasan nobles standing before the high mountains of Tibet; primitive Semai hunter-gatherers from Malaysia; the little-known Ainu people sequestered on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
There are enough tantalizing anthropological tidbits to stir the imagination and entice the visitor to learn more.