My dear fans and followers, a gift from me to you for the new year: I’ve put my PhD dissertation, Tattooed Transculturites: Western Expatriates Among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500-1900, available online for viewing.
At this point, some of it is based on outdated research, but I still stand by 98% of this. I hope to get a popular-reader-friendly version of this published some day, but in the meantime, those of you who would like to geek out on academic jargon and some in-depth archival research can enjoy! Prepare for a looooooong read–it’s a 513 page document.
As you know, one of my big missions with tattoo history is to debunk myths that have arisen from assumptions, bad scholarship, and storytelling. I am always saddened when I continue to read about the Cook myth when, as this dissertation’s first half demonstrates, there is ample evidence for European tattooing (including being tattooed by non-European indigenous peoples) prior to the late 18th century. Since I wrote this, I’ve discovered several more important examples to add into the roster of tattooed transculturites, so a published version of this text will be even richer when that happens.
Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any corrections or additional information that I might want to incorporate upon a revision for book publication.
And note the cover-page authorship is under my old married last name…ah History, a testament to how you preserve the good along with the bad!
Part 1: A Long Overdue Tattoo-Exhibit Critique
I so very much wanted to be able to write a positive review of the Field Museum of Chicago’s version of the tattoo exhibition that was put together by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. I wish I could write something like: “As a scientific institution with a long history of supporting scholarship, the Field Museum diligently corrected the content mistakes of the original Tatoueurs, Tatoués show.” But instead I have to write: “The Field Museum’s new tattoo exhibition, while beautiful on the surface, is as fatally flawed as the previous two iterations of a show that should never have been allowed to travel to world-class institutions.”
I’ll frontload a quick tl;dr abstract of my criticisms:
- There are numerous content errors throughout the exhibition, particularly in the way “Western” tattooing is contextualized.
- The notion of “Tattooing in the West” as separated out from “global” or “non-Western” indigenous tattooing is a dated and unnecessarily dichotomous concept that smacks of colonialism and a hierarchical approach to studying culture.
- Many of the images in the show—images presented as artifacts, not as supplementary material—are reproductions rather than originals, when originals would have been easy enough to borrow. That many of these reproductions were sourced from photography clearing houses seems scandalous from a museum-academic standpoint; this is the same material that anyone with internet access can find with a few keywords.
- The show privileges design aesthetics over substance to provide “experience” rather than any substantive education.
- Poor curatorial choices resulted in some artifacts that are only tangentially related to tattooing (with no good explanation as to why they were included) and other artifacts that pale in comparison to superior examples readily available to borrow from multiple public and/or private collections.
- Women’s tattoo history is barely present in this exhibition; where it exists, it’s often treated voyeuristically. (Hat tip to my colleague Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray who noticed this when we were visiting the Toronto version of the show together.)
I’m not quite sure how tattooing “made its way to Europe” on the skin of sailors and adventurers when it had been present in Europe since circa 3300 BCE–long before people sailed or adventured, just one of several errors in this introductory panel to the “West” section.
This morning while multitasking parenting and a group project meeting at my house, my daughter asked if she could watch the Disney movie, Pocahontas. I wavered, not wanting to cave in to screen-as-babysitter so early in the day, but then I remembered that Pocahontas is tattooed. “Hey Eleanor,” I queried, “do you remember that Pocahontas has a tattoo?” Eleanor gave me one of those “duh, mom” looks and proceeded to tell me all about Pocahontas’s tattoo: “She has a tattoo on her arm, and it’s red, and it looks like fire.” (Proud mom moment…she’s just 4…a good interpretation of an abstract image!) Now Disney’s rendition of Pocahontas and her story is fraught with problems (the story of “Pocahontas” in general is fraught with problems), but one thing they did sort of get right was the tattoo (although her tattooing is not as extensive as what Pocahontas probably had).
Disney will probably get mad at me for using these images here, but here’s how they envisioned her tattooing:
(A cover from one of the DVD issues.)
(A still from the film)
After my meeting was over, I watched the last bit of the film with my daughter, and since we were already sitting in front of my computer, I offered to show her some historical images that the Disney animators used as reference for designing Pocahontas’s tattoo. Which got me thinking about sharing them with you. Continue reading