Happy Birthday Claude Levi-Strauss

I don’t know how I missed this, but last Friday legendary anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss turned 100. The International Herald Tribune has an interesting article on Levi-Strauss that is worth a read.

I found this statement to be quite interesting:

In 1996, when asked his opinion of the project, Lévi-Strauss wrote to Chirac: “It takes into account the evolution of the world since the Musée de l’Homme was created. An ethnographic museum can no longer, as at that time, offer an authentic vision of life in these societies so different from ours. With perhaps a few exceptions that will not last, these societies are progressively integrated into world politics and economy.
“When I see the objects that I collected in the field between 1935 and 1938 again – and it’s also true of others – I know that their relevance has become either documentary, and also, or mostly, aesthetic. [bold mine – afarensis] Under the first aspect, they suggest the laboratory and the study hall, under the second, the big museum of the arts and civilizations that the Museums of France wish for.”

Especially the part in bold. One wonders at how the excitement and thrill Levi-Strauss experienced back in 1935 is transformed in light of the change in relevance of the artifacts he collected. Clearly, what they meant to Levi-Strauss in 1935 or 1938 is quite different than what they mean to him now. I think it is also an interesting comment on the meaning and relevance of anthropological museums in general. The lack of relevance and slide from cultural meaning to aesthetic appreciation Levi-Strauss mentions is certainly a challenge to anthropological museums. In 70 years the items have gone from vibrant representations of other cultures to mere historical curiosities – curiosities that are perhaps admired for their beauty but none the less curiosities – and one has to wonder what that means for the knowledge that was extracted from those artifacts. Are the theories created by the study of those artifacts and the picture of other cultures that were built by them, now historical curiosities? Or can they still say something interesting and important about humans?

2 Responses

  1. For an alternative view of the MQB (the museum that Chirac created they’re referencing) I’d recommend Sally Price’s book “Paris Primitive.”

  2. Insert genes / Jeans joke here.

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