How, when and why ‘primitive art’ was added to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: USC professor Nancy Lutkehaus explores the cultural, social and political significance of the decision

USC News, Susan Bell
August 24, 2015

Walking into the dramatic first-floor gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, visitors are confronted with the towering bis poles collected by Michael Rockefeller on his final expedition to New Guinea. Rockefeller disappeared on that trip in 1961 at the age of 23, reported drowned at sea under mysterious circumstances that have led to speculation that he may have been eaten by cannibals.

The intricately carved poles are on display in the wing of the Met that bears his name. The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing houses a collection of non-Western art obtained by Rockefeller’s father, New York governor, multimillionaire and subsequent Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

The history of the Met’s pioneering 1969 decision to incorporate “primitive art” into its fine art collection is the subject of an upcoming book by Nancy Lutkehaus, professor of anthropology and political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Titled The Met Goes Primitive: Postwar America, Cultural Politics, and the Creation of the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lutkehaus’ project argues that this decision illuminates the relationship between art and post-World War II, postcolonial politics, 20th-century American cosmopolitanism and a changing ideology of a more racially diverse national identity.

“When an encyclopedic museum like the Met finally decides to incorporate non-Western art, it is making a statement saying this art is as important as Greek statues and the Impressionists,” Lutkehaus said. “It’s broadening its canon in terms of what is considered to be art, and that has a cultural impact in terms of a statement about a broader recognition, a more multicultural, more racially and ethnically diverse national identity.”

The Met’s decision to display these artifacts as fine art was a controversial one, she said.

“It was also a major economic decision because the trustees had to commit to a new wing and funds for curators to continue to collect.

“The Met didn’t agree to acquire this material until 1969, which was quite late given that Picasso and artists in Europe had been fascinated with non-Western art for years. My project talks about what that shift meant and why it happened at this particular period of time.”

Lutkehaus links this shift to changing politics after World War II, GIs returning from the Pacific, the beginning of the civil rights movement, and various events in Harlem and other parts of the United States.

She is using the papers of Nelson Rockefeller and other key individuals, museum archives and interviews to analyze the social, political and cultural context in which the Met’s board of trustees made its decision.

More here.