Interview with Dr. Christina Welch (2/3)

In this interview feature we will be looking at Cultural Appropriation, artefacts in museums, religion, witchcraft and gender (with a particular focus on the elderly). This post follows from the previous post about Dr. Welch’s research and teaching. This is a part two (2) of three (3) interview with Dr. Christina Welch. Gentle reminder that the upcoming conference on Death, Art and Anatomy at the University of Winchester will commence on 3rd-6th June.

Interview by Emily Saunders and Samantha Holderness

Emily: You mentioned about the Cultural Appropriation. So it was your dissertation and PhD which drew you into that?

When I started here, I took a module on what was then Primitive Religions and I was completely fascinated by the fact that people in this country dress up as Native American Indians but Native American Indians don’t go and dress up as pretend Yorkshire people with flat caps and ferrets down their trousers – you know, you get those stereotypical views. I was really fascinated by that and so I really delved into the appropriation of Native American imagery and that’s trickling on. I do need to write it but the anatomy stuff is being funded at the moment so consequently that has to take priority. But it is quite fascinating and what’s been interesting is people have dressed up as Native Americans in this country since 1850 and the images that they use have not changed ever since.

Emily: And it’s in the mindset more today with how much of an issue it is really?

It’s quite interesting because when I was doing my research, there was a conference at the British Museum and I spoke at the British Museum and the local Pow Wow community, some of them took umbrage at what I was saying. And I went to a Native American tribunal, I actually got threatened to be tomahawked, actually it was really quite strange. [I] had letters here saying I wouldn’t be allowed to do my research, it was terrible. But, they looked at my work and agreed that what I was writing was correct, and actually made some changes in the movement at the time. And I think it’s sort of gone back a little bit. But it’s something I will carry on with. Again, it’s all visual, spiritual, it’s historical. I seem to be drawn to the historical, visual, more spiritual stuff.

Sam: So is that something you’ve always had an interest over the years or is it something which suddenly came when you studied at university?

It’s probably something which came out of studying at university.

Emily: I’ve seen that you’ve also written about artefacts in museums. What do you feel from your research is the issue with change to museums and colonial representations? What do you feel is the major challenge?

It’s really tricky, because museums are set up differently and there very set up in a western mindset. So I was at the Wellcome Collection last week and several of the things they’ve got there includes beaded pouches from Native American communities that would contain umbilical cords. Now, for Native American people they would not necessarily want them on show as something to look at or display, it’s a sacred item, so there’s some issues in the way that museums curate. Some museums in America don’t show the whole of the artefact, they cover part of it, so the whole thing isn’t on view, or will cover over and explain what’s under it and say we’re not showing this because. So they’re hiding but showing at the same time, and I think that’s a really interesting way of doing things. But because we don’t have an indigenous community I think it’s something which is quite hard for a lot of westerners to get their head around. So I think it’s going to have to be a case of give and take. Places like Glasgow, the museum up there, gave back the ghost dance shirt that came from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show that was stolen, effectively, by a member of the Wild West Show and then passed on [and] sold to the museum. And they’ve got a replica. I think that might be a nice way to do things.

The Pitt Rivers Museum have got some amazing photographs of Blackfeet people and what they’ve done is they’ve taken it back to the communities. The communities have helped them interpret so whereas Westerners would look at it and go, ‘Oh look, really interesting this costume’. They’ll go, ‘that’s Uncle Joe’ or ‘that’s Grandma’. So, what they’ve done is they’ve taken copies of photographs so people have got the photographs and they’ve got the photographs, and they’re curating them in different ways so the community can curate them as they want to. They’re just photographs so they’re slightly different although there are elements of sacrality in there, but too complicated to get into in a blog really! But certainly, for museums it is really difficult. The American Art Museum in Bath have a Kachina and a Sharman marker, and because the museum is set up as an art museum they see it as a work of art, but the Kachina isn’t. The Kachina is actually a sacred other-than-human person and it is sort of semi-sacred and it’s being passed round to children in primary schools and I do think there’s some issues with that. And I think I mention that in my article, but it’s a really tricky issue and I don’t think it’s going to be solved easily and I think it’s going to be rolling on for a long time.

Emily: I think there is that major issue with primarily viewing it as art as well especially with African artefacts.

Again, what’s interesting with a lot of African and indeed some Native American artefacts – I don’t want to be overly homogenising – but, for a lot of indigenous people it’s actually the act of creating rather than the actual finished object itself that’s important. In a way, what happens to it at the end isn’t perhaps as important as what’s doing it, providing it’s looked at properly. But then it still is sacred and should be looked after, and if it’s a living object person, then being stuck in a cabinet somewhere and not interacted with, there’s all sorts of issues there.

Emily: There were a lot of them in the British Museum with plaques saying they were meant to fade away or be destroyed afterwards and now they’re on display. So it’s that sort of juxtaposition?

It is, in some ways it’s good because we’re learning about cultures and that’s got to be a good thing because it helps us understand. It’s having that balance, isn’t it. And I can’t remember, I think it was the British Museum – but one museum actually had a curator from the host community come in and work with them on some of the objects. But, obviously what’s on show is a tiny proportion of what’s in store and in a way there’s perhaps more problems with what’s on store than what’s on show. At least what’s on show is being interacted with and it sounds really superficial but if you think about Toy Story, it’s that idea that if this is a living human object person then maybe it is interacting with other living human object persons in its own sort of way, but if it’s stuck in a cardboard box in a store then what opportunities does it have? I don’t know, I think it needs a lot of nuancing and it is a really difficult issue.

Sam: I suppose one that won’t be solved quickly.

No, and there’s a museum in Australia that has Australian shields and it’s been said it can only be curated by a man and if it was a choice of the place burning down or being rescued by a woman, it would be better for the place to burn down. Because they were so sacred that women should never see them, and if women see them bad things will happen. So, the whole myth and ritual stuff it gets complicated. I don’t think it’s an easy topic, but it’s definitely an ongoing one and it will rumble for a long time.

Sam: You mentioned gender there, can you tell us a bit more about how this plays into the study of religion and how you go about that personally within your research?

Well, gender is everywhere. You can’t look at anything without looking at gender really so it feeds into everything from dress to ritual to myth, so gender’s just a background to everything I do. But in terms of research then my slightly dodgy erotic death art, gender’s really played into that. In the West, we tend to have an understanding – it’s not universal across the West – but we do tend to have an understanding in the West of a male Grim Reaper. Partly because Adam in the Bible brought death into the world, you can then see women as Eve as life. So you can get this nice juxtaposition with death versus life in a lot of these images. Particularly if they come from a Germanic context. It sort of fits in there and in terms of my carved cadavers, there is actually only one carved cadaver in this country of a woman, Alice de la Pole, who’s the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer. And she’s a tier transi, so on the top she’s imaged as this beautiful young woman and then underneath is her naked cadaver – she’s got her shroud so it covers her – but she’s imaged as this seventy year old woman with naked shrunken breasts and she’s in a church and it’s really quite controversial figure. It’s in marble. I can’t imagine that at the time there would have been any naked sculptures of women showing their breasts so it’s a real statement piece. I need to a little bit more about that. Catherine Medici, about a hundred years later, had one done by Robbia. But when she saw it, her naked, emaciated, aging self, she decided she didn’t want it finished and would have a much nicer one. But that was a hundred years later, so Alice de la Pole’s really quite an interesting figure.

Sam: So ahead of her time, would you say, in that sense?

I would say outrageously ahead of her time really. I can’t imagine anyone now flashing their boobs in their seventies to be honest but there she is for the whole world to see. Not that it’s easy to see her. That’s interesting as well, in order to see her you have to peep through holes so there’s – it is modern-day voyeurism, I’m sure at the time it wasn’t as understood as voyeurism, there’s all sorts of other issues to go into for that. But there is this voyeuristic looking through the hole and seeing this terrible looking woman as she’s dying, naked. There’s something really quite interesting to do some research on that, from a gender perspective.

There’s also some very interesting gendered stuff I’m working on at the moment in terms of my carved cadavers because the upper effigies, they are symbolic. They were never meant to be directly looking as life but a lot of them – or some of them – certainly seem to have used female models for male bodies. Obviously, you can’t read back but you could read into it now as transgender bodies. I think there’s some interesting gendered work to potentially do on that.

Sam: Have you ever considered, or have you in fact, looked at groups like the Parsee community and how they are portrayed both in visual culture and how they are perceived?

No. I do teach about Zoroastrianism but I haven’t done any writing or research. There’s so much, so little time. And the anatomy of these carved cadavers is something – there is definitely something interesting. I never thought I’d be pushing back the boundaries of anatomy in this country in the fourteen and fifteen hundreds. There is something there that is really grabbing me at the moment. So, no I won’t be looking at the Parsee community, it’s just the Native American Indians at the moment I will go back and do a bit more work on so I can get my book out. That also will have to wait a little while.

Sam: Going back to your speciality with death, you have a good knowledge of poetry, in particular from the medieval period to the Victorian Period, as an expression of remembrance. So, could you tell us a bit more if there are any similarities or differences in how this was perceived in poetry?

It is important to understand how death is approached over different times and regions and although poetry is a good way to understand death as an expression of remembrance there are ways we know about it through other mediums One place in time and region in particular in Renaissance Italy from Baccchio tells us a lot about it, namely people’s attitudes to who had the Plague and how the dealt with it. Simply they locked those away who had the disease and ran away out of fear no matter how old the person was or who they were in relation to you. This included whether they were your mother, father, brother or sister. It is generally perceived that there is an idealised view about how the elderly were to be looked upon as wise and that they should be treated with dignity and respect. Sadly as these narratives show that was simply not the case in the event of something serious like the Plague, the elderly were left to die. If plague was rife there certainly was no time to look after them as they were considered to be using up resources that could be utilised for others. In this sense they were very much not liked looking through extracts of medieval poetry and the vernacular literature as the query our romanticised views of the past.

Emily: Interesting to say that as looking back at the witchcraft trials, the elderly women were very much mistrusted over the “elderly” aspect?

Yes, partly but the witch trials are rather complicated with gender again and how these elderly women were mostly in their forties. However what is interesting is looking at the carved cadavers and how they show how people did die in their seventies and not in their forties as we would like to think far back in the past. When referring to unusual visual stimuli it does provide us with a different perception of the past regarding the elderly and how death was presented. Going back to the question looking at how the elderly were mistrusted they were in the sense that through birthing many babies they acquired much practical wisdom. In this sense the church and some men did not really like that and how the everyday vernacular power of these women seemingly threatened them.

Sam: Would you say that would apply to anything out of the norm?

As the power of the church grew and how the power of the monarchy grew when the church decline there were elements to control the population, perhaps some women who had some sort of local influence perhaps came off badly. However it is important to mention that the church did not rule everything as not everyone went to church, otherwise they would not have brought in laws to enforce people to go to church, nonetheless their prominence was compelling. In terms of other minorities it is very difficult to determine what happened at that time; particularly those who were disabled unless they perhaps had an accident in the environment. At birth there were cases in history where midwives would have smothered babies that showed signs of a disability even as late as the 1920s as again the whole idea of draining resources crops up. It is interesting how recently in terms of history that this practice went on for. Through the use of personal family narratives there is evidence to suggest that this did go on. If you were from a poor family and you could no support a child, the child had to be tangible in order to help provide for the family, if there were not then everyone in the family would suffer. So in some ways you can see how the perception of women having control over life and death, before the baby had a chance to draw their first breath. This in effect was true in some ways. It should be made clear though that these actions were most likely carried out due to kindness at the time, rather than simply deciding that they should not live. Life was harsh looking at the lives of Native Americans, particularly the Sioux tribes before they had horses they lived in the mountains and came on to the plains in the summer. If winter was harsh they practices infanticide in order to keep their breeding pairs alive if they did not have the luxury to provide food and resources for children under the age of five. Furthermore it was not unheard for these practices to take place in Holocaust camps by Jewish women, simply because they did not want their babies to suffer the same fate as themselves. This sort of thing happened in many instances and cultures where survival was important, it was the elderly and the under-fives that had to go sadly as that seemed to be the most viable option to contend with. Clearly romanticising the past is simply not the case as some people seem to think true.

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