Ten Thousand Stories in Chicago’s The Field Museum

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (Source: wikipedia.org)

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (Source: wikipedia.org)

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is in the process of subverting the “bad reasons” for its extensive collections of artifacts from other cultures.

One of the largest museums of natural history in the world, The Field Museum originated at the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492.

Department-store magnate Marshall Field made the initial contribution of one million dollars towards the establishment of the museum. Edward E. Ayer presented his large anthropological collection, and other collections were donated or purchased. The Field Museum has a collection of 1.5 million anthropology objects. Only a small fraction of these items are on display at any given time.

Being once the only formal colony of the U. S., the Philippines is well represented in The Field Museum’s collections. There are over 10,000 archeological and ethnographic objects from the country, one of the largest and most comprehensive Philippine collections in the Western Hemisphere. Cultural objects include textile, personal adornments, weapons, ritual items, basketry, woodcarvings, musical instruments, trade ceramics and earthenware vessels.

Most the Philippine objects were collected in the early years of the 20th century when the Philippines was colonized by the U. S., following the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1902. Between 1907 and 1910, anthropologists from The Field Museum and American soldiers undertook expeditions to the Philippines and collected these objects.

Field artifacts in storage (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Field artifacts in storage (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

The majority of the collection was acquired by Fay-Cooper Cole and his wife, Mabel, as well as William Jones and Stephen Chapman Simms, who altogether collected 75 percent of the artifacts and donated them to The Field Museum. Of the more than 10,000 Philippine objects, only one is on display: the Agusan image. Purchased by The Field Museum in 1922, it is a 4-1/2-pound solid figure of a Hindu or Buddhist deity.

Dr. John Edward Terrell (terrell@fieldmuseum.org), who is the Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum says, “The collections were made before World War I to represent the world in the museum, which was a good reason.”  

The bad reason, he adds, was that the museum was worried that other people in other countries would become extinct. As such, there was an urgency to save their objects. Also, showcasing other races’ objects, which were perceived as inferior, was meant to prove the white-race superiority.

In the past, museums projected an elite and antiquated image. Nowadays, museums play an active role in the community to ensure transparency, accessibility and inclusiveness. Co-curation, which directly involves the community from which the objects of culture originate, is one way of collaboration and community engagement.

The Field Museum is one of the top natural-history museums in the world. It is at the forefront in co-curation and global-heritage management. Because it acts as steward for a huge and unique Philippine collection, it is starting with the Filipino American community in Chicago.

The 10,000 Kwentos (Stories) Project (10000kwentos.org), which started in 2014, is an outgrowth of the co-curation initiative at The Field Museum. Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, a research associate at the museum, organized three storytelling sessions for the following regions in the Philippines: Cordillera, Mindanao, and Central Philippines to gather information and help build a stronger Filipino-American community.

“During storytelling sessions,” she explains, “a sampling of Philippine objects are taken out of storage, so Filipino Americans can share stories in groups.” 

A 10.000 Kwentos story telling session  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

A 10.000 Kwentos story telling session (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Lineup of artifacts  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Lineup of artifacts (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

The ultimate goal of the 10,000 Kwentos Project, which is now headed by Angeles Carandang (msjellybeans@aol.com), is an exhibition based on the project at The Field Museum.

Another co-curatorship is the interactive map Filipino Heritage Story Map (maps.fieldmuseum.org/apps/Philippines/). To reflect their heritage, the 100 ethnographic objects featured in the map were selected by members of the Filipino American community.

The co-curation team in the vaults  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

The co-curation team in the vaults (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

An anonymous donor gave funds to The Field Museum to create a digital archive of 8,000 Philippine objects. The grant was given to an anthropology group, headed by Dr. Terrell and with the support of the 10,000 Kwentos Project. The purpose of the project is to digitally bridge the gap between the collections and changing public views of cultural heritage.

The digitization project is a challenging endeavor, and The Field Museum is seeking volunteers. Cassie Pontone (cpontone@fieldmuseum.org), an assistant collections manager at The Field Museum, is reaching out to the community. She states that there will be an online web portal to host discussion among international-community members. Volunteers will assist in this process through transcription, photographing artifacts, and scanning historical documentation, among others (http://www.fieldmuseum.org/support/volunteer).

Artists are also involved in global-heritage management. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation International Connections grant supports a reciprocal exchange between countries for arts and culture projects. It is a continuation to authentic representations of global heritage and the role objects play in meaning-making. 

Armor made of carabao horn  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Armor made of carabao horn (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Baybayin on bamboo  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Baybayin on bamboo (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Kris from Mindanao  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Kris from Mindanao (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Tortoise shell hat  (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

Tortoise shell hat (Photo by Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles)

The Field Museum is partnering with the Filipino-American community in Chicago in a project titled “Art and Anthropology: Portrait of an Object as Filipino.” The project is inviting five Chicago-based Filipino-American artists and five artists in the Philippines to come together, travel and create individual pieces and one interactive object-inspired art. Dr. Gilles, the project director, points out, “It is the first time the MacArthur Foundation is giving support to a Philippine project.” The twelve pieces of art produced in the project will be displayed at The Field Museum in 2015, and an interactive piece will be created in the Philippines. Dr. Gilles (astudillogilles@yahoo.com) can e-mail information about the project. The deadline for artists’ application is January 15, 2015.

Michael Armand Canilao (migscanilao@gmail.com), an intern at The Field Museum and an anthropology undergraduate student of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is excited to be in the midst of all the projects.

“I feel privileged to have seen some of the Philippine objects at close range,” he says. “But what is important is the projects are bringing people, The Field Museum, and the world together!”

The Field Museum of Natural History
1400 South Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
(312) 922-9410


Rey de la Cruz

Rey de la Cruz

Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., writes from Chicagoland when he is not busy traveling and loving the arts.

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