January 9, 2008 by julianeon
You never know when an unusual object might prompt a fantastic story. Perhaps that’s what the WITS field trips are really all about.
In a glass display case to the left of the Thunderbird versus Whale painting in The Menil Collection art museum’s Oceania section, you can see an exhibit of Native American face masks. Inside the case, on the far right, you will find a brown, fairly nondescript face mask with a circular mouth and two holes for eyes. The label on the wall identifies the mask as a one-time possession of Captain James Cook, a 18th century English mariner.
Captain Cook was a famous explorer in the Royal Navy. He charted many unknown regions on British maps for the first time; one of his trips recorded the coastline of California. He died in Hawaii in a skirmish with the native peoples; his death in the surf became a popular subject for contemporary painters. This mask once belonged to him. We can imagine him turning it over in his hands and perhaps installing it on a table or a desk as his ship bobbed through the seas.
Markers like this remind us that art is not only made by people, but also owned by them. As ownership changes hands, the meaning of the art changes to its owners. To Cook, the mask may have been a souvenir of his travels, connected to people and places he knew firsthand. To us, the historical context has largely disappeared; we appreciate these objects primarily as art, and secondarily as historical objects.
But by writing about an object, this mask for example, we can make it come to life. As times passes, our writing can become like Captain Cook’s mask; after the presence of its owner has all but disappeared, the art remains us to connect us to the story behind it.
posted by Julian Martinez, Writers in the Schools