Aaron Glass, Bard Graduate Center Reassembling 'The Social Organization': Franz Boas, Indigenous Ontologies, and the Anthropology of Art


Wednesday, March 3, 2021, 6:00pm to 7:00pm



Over the course of his long career, Franz Boas’s writings on Indigenous art comprised one of his major contributions to anthropological theory and museum practice. Boas’s 1897 monograph, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, written with his Indigenous consultant George Hunt, featured his most extended treatment of Kwakwaka’wakw art, although it was framed in terms of typological classification rather than aesthetics or the Indigenous genealogical basis for heritable rights. The book, which illustrates over 200 museum objects, appeared at a crucial moment of Boas’s career as he became a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. This paper situates the 1897 book in terms of Boas's development of a mature anthropology of art. I discuss the early emergence of his interest in Northwest Coast art; his extensive though inconsistent treatment of museum collections in the 1897 book; and Indigenous conceptions of the artwork. I close with a discussion of how Hunt’s extensive post-publication notes on the 1897 book provide the foundation for my collaborative Critical Edition project to reactivate its ceremonial art according to Kwakwaka’wakw cultural ontologies and genealogical connections.

Aaron Glass is an Associate Professor at Bard Graduate Center. His research focuses on First Nations visual art, material culture, media, and performance on the Northwest Coast of North America, as well as the history of anthropology, museums, and ethnographic representation. Glass’s books include The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History (2010); Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (2011); Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Edward S. Curtis, the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the Making of Modern Cinema (2014); and Writing the Hamat’sa: Ethnography, Colonialism, and the Cannibal Dance (2021). He is currently collaborating on an NEH-funded critical edition—in print and digital formats—of Franz Boas’s landmark 1897 monograph on Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) ethnography, which draws on over twenty global museums and archival repositories.

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