The Smithsonian reaches out: potlatch to piracy?

THERE is no telling where or when the current wave of domestic cultural piracy will end. The tug of war over whether the Museum of the American Indian should remain in New York City, its home since 1922, or be moved to Washington, D.C., is part of a longer trend rooted in the Smithsonian Institution's ``It-will-show-better-on-the-Mall'' philosophy of curatorship. In the late 1970s a syndicated columnist hatched an unsuccessful plan to ``liberate'' the United States Frigate Constitution from its familiar wharf in Boston Harbor, where she was built in 1797, and sail ``Old Ironsides'' to Washington so Cabinet officers and admirals would have a ``hallowed quarterdeck'' for ceremonies.

This was followed by the Smithsonian's successful $5 million capture of Gilbert Stuart's Martha and George Washington portraits from Boston's financially ailing Athenaeum museum, where they had rested for more than a century.

With its appetite in Boston temporarily satisfied, the Smithsonian Institution - with help from Sen. Daniel Inouye - has now trained its sights on New York's superb native American collection.

Part of that collection depicts the potlatch ceremony as practiced by the Northwest Indians. There are striking similarities between the Smithsonian's collection tactics - based on self-aggrandizement at the expense of others - and the potlatch tradition.

Potlatch was originally the means for a chieftain to enhance his social status. Upon inviting another chieftain to a lavish feast, the guest was then showered with gifts as a sign of the host's wealth.

The guest was then obligated to reciprocate and significantly increase the quantity of gifts offered. Each succeeding round escalated the host-to-guest generosity, until one chieftain or the other acknowledged his inferiority by ending the process.

In the hands of the Kwakiutl people, however, the potlatch ceremony evolved from a benign form of one-upmanship to conspicuous consumption that threatened impoverishment of chieftains and tribes.

A chieftain might lead off by tossing, say, a perfectly good canoe into a blazing fire. To keep face, the guest chieftain would also toss one of his canoes onto the fire, and raise the stakes with, for example, two tents. The host then matched the tents and upped the ante with a wagon, or any other property close at hand.

As the flames reached skyward, each chieftain risked economic ruin for the sake of honor. Eventually, the less-well-off chieftain was forced to stand down.

Historically, our nation's cultural artifacts have been distributed more or less evenly across America's landscape.

With the passage of time, however, endowed museums in central cities prospered and grew at the expense of the outlying, poorer ones. Finally, as the idea of a single, Washington-based, national ``attic'' caught on, rivalries with other leading museums developed, and the distribution of our cultural heritage shifted. The cream of the crop began flowing into Washington as outlying museums faltered and collections were, one by one, drawn inward.

Competition among cities and museums is as natural as the rivalry among Indian chieftains. All cities want to boast about their fine cultural assets and none, but especially New York, is eager to surrender them to Washington.

According to Senator Inouye, by moving the Indian collection to ``the Mall ... our nation's `Main Street' ... a national audience of millions ... not just the 40,000 annual visitors at its present New York site,'' will be possible.

But is the promise of a bigger ``gate'' and the creation of a single cornucopia along a make-believe ``Main Street'' a valid rationale for one museum to prey on another? To make a point, as the senator apparently wishes to do, placing our cultural eggs in one curator's basket makes no more sense than piling priceless artifacts on the Mall and setting them afire.

A nation the size of the US cannot afford the luxury of cultural centralization. Moving a collection from the hinterland to Washington simply reduces the access of one group for the benefit of another - a senseless robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul exercise that only benefits the egotistical wants of the central place.

With its bottomless purse and congressional support when needed, the Smithsonian Institution has become the equivalent of a cultural bully and, like a Northwest coast Indian chief, far too enamored of its own self-importance.

It's time to end public-sponsored cultural piracy. It's time the folks in Washington were reminded there are thriving main streets and civilized life beyond the Washington Beltway.

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