Documenting Museum Collections: some Hurdles

Documenting the Indigenous objects preserved in museum collections is a fascinating and exciting task. It can also be frustrating, when the information about them is too patchy, and researchers have difficulty understanding and interpreting them. In such cases, they have to search the archives again, cross-reference the available information, and use comparative and multi-disciplinary methods to make the silences speak.

Inventory of the Cabinet of Natural History Versailles 1806 Archives Yvelines CROYAN
Inventory of the Cabinet of Natural History (excerpt), Versailles, 1806, Archives départementales des Yvelines,1LT-675

The musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac's Royal North American Collections are no exception to this rule. Inherited from the musée de l'Homme and other French public institutions, these collections have been the subject of considerable research over the last two decades, yet some aspects of a number of objects' origins and history still remain unclear today.

There are several reasons for this lack of documentation. The Royal Collections are, firstly, very old. Secondly, they were assembled from a number of sources, objects changed hands several times, and too often the first collectors did not provide adequate or sufficient information about the objects they sent to Europe or brought back with them. In this respect, the uneven information coverage in fact tells us about the objects' history, how they were collected and treated, and how they were regarded.

Even when information exists about an object, it must be thoroughly verified, and compared with other sources, before it is communicated. This prudent approach is required if only because the information has been gathered and written up in the spirit of its time.

Joseph-François Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times Croyan
Joseph-François Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, Saugrain l'aîné, Paris, 1724, plate 2 (detail).
Source : / BnF

Thus the first collectors and conservators classified these objects using their own categories of meaning and world-views, and in the light of the contemporary knowledge available on the Indigenous peoples of America, which was both incomplete and biased. How little one knew about the extraordinary depth of these cultures, when first collecting their material objects as though they were the relics of outdated peoples! Moreover, the information we possess today on an object's links with some well-known person or event may have been engineered by the original seller to obtain a higher price on the market!

Museums that house precious objects from the past are not only spaces where collections are built up and preserved; they are also places where knowledge is created and disseminated. Documenting and interpreting objects are thus fundamental aspects of museological work, and curators are expected to verify and publish the provenance, cultural origin, uses, meanings, etc. of every object in their care, however difficult this may sometimes be. An inaccurate interpretation is by no means unimportant, since it is liable to distort our understanding of an object and its associated culture for a very long time. Some authors have been a little rash in proposing relatively unfounded interpretations, for example, the historian Fernand Braudel. In his book Le monde de Jacques Cartier [The World of Jacques Cartier] (1984), Braudel claimed that a certain pair of moccasins had been brought back by the famous navigator Jacques Cartier for the King Francis I. Cartier was the first French navigator to explore the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, in 1534, and he named this territory "Canada", after the Iroquoian term kanata ("village"). Yet there are no sources to support this story of the moccasins. Likewise, a whole series of painted hides in the musée de l'Homme's inventory has been linked to the French Jesuit missionary Père Jacques Marquette, who is known for exploring Central – Northern North America, around 1673-1674. However, this attribution is purely speculative.

Mocassins Paris CROYAN 71.1878.32.265.1-2
Moccasins, North American Plains, before 1750. Hide, porcupine quills, sinew. Formerly in the Cabinet des médailles, French National Library, musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, 71.1878.32.265.1-2
© musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre

In the case of the Royal North American Collections, one of the best-known examples of erroneous attribution concerns the wampum belt known as "of the four Huron nations". In the 1980s, it was mistakenly associated with Samuel de Champlain, "the founder of New France." It would indeed have been exciting if an object commemorating the founding alliance between the Huron-Wendat peoples and Champlain had been preserved, but the appearance of the beads and the wampum in general, the fact that Champlain never mentioned it, and the way in which this mistaken interpretation developed strongly suggest that Champlain never touched nor even saw this wampum. The attribution was eventually refuted, in 2007, but not before it had been amply repeated, published, and disseminated without anyone taking the time to verify it.

Wampum belt Paris CROYAN 71.1878.32.61
Wampum belt, North America, 18th century. Shell and snails, leather, plant fibers. Formerly in the Cabinet des médailles, French National Library, musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, 71.1878.32.61
© musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Patrick Gries

We sincerely hope that by combing through the archives (in all sorts of media: writing and print, sound archives, still and moving images, oral history, and so forth) - and by combining different research methodologies and disciplinary approaches, we shall at last be able to get a better understanding of these invaluable objects, which bear witness to an encounter between two worlds.

Wampum belt Paris CROYAN 71.1878.32.61
Wampum belt (detail). Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, 71.1878.32.61
© musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, photo Patrick Gries
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Jonathan LAINEY

Jonathan LAINEY

Curator, Indigenous Cultures, McCord Museum, Montréal


  • Jonathan Lainey, « Le prétendu wampum offert à Champlain et l’interprétation des objets muséifiés », Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 61(3-4), 2008, p. 397-424.




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