Coal region native created a 'museum of humanity'
When I was a child, a favorite family excursion was a visit to the Reading Museum and its surrounding park where my sisters and I liked to feed the ducks, throwing stale bread from the foot bridges into pretty shaded streams. We also wandered in the museum, in those days an old-fashioned kind of place, with yellowed walls and dimly lit displays.
Upstairs there was an art gallery where I saw my first painting by the French painter Corot, a bank of willows dipping their branches into the Seine, a small painting but powerful enough to awaken in me an early fascination with all things French.
Downstairs, behind glass, in display cases that filled the center of the gallery sat or stood American Indians, as we called them in those days, life-sized mannequins in native dress surrounded by the artifacts that were the tools of their daily life. Along the walls there were displays of arrowheads, beads, pottery, coins - too many objects, all too small, to hold the interest of a child like me.
The museum was never crowded and this gallery was a quiet place, where the mannequins, frozen in time, indifferent to the faces pressed close to the glass, mournfully tended fires or raised an arrow in the direction of an invisible prey.
I haven't visited the Reading Museum in years and I do not know if those Indian mannequins still haunt the ground floor gallery, silent reminders of a way of life destroyed. Enclosed in glass, unreachable, untouchable, they are reminders of a time when such exhibits were a kind of Noah's ark, keeping alive the last vestiges of a disappearing civilization in the face of America's "manifest destiny" to go West.
One man responsible for such exhibits was George Catlin, Wilkes-Barre native, painter of native American life, explorer, ethnographer, entrepreneur and showman, originator of the type of display I saw at the Reading Museum as a child.
Born in 1796, raised in what was still the wilderness of the Wyoming Valley, where, in 1778, a bloody battle took place between the Oneidas and American soldiers, Catlin was raised on tales about the Indians that had once inhabited his family's land. An avid hunter even as a child, he roamed fields and woods with his single-barrel shotgun, shooting at small game, hoping to one day bring down his first deer.
On one such outing, aiming at the coveted deer, before he even had time to fire, the boy heard a shot and saw the deer fall to the ground. From the brush emerged an Indian who tied its feet together and threw it on his back, smiling at young Catlin before he disappeared among the trees.
The man, an Oneida who was camping near the Catlin farm, had walked all the way from Lake Cayuga in New York state to visit the ground where his ancestors had fallen in battle. After smoking a peace pipe with George's father, he shared his venison with the family, congratulating young Catlin on his hunting skills.
Was it that incident, recorded by Catlin in his memoirs, that planted the seed, that gave him the fever to go West, to live among the Indians, especially the Iowas and the Ojibwas, to record in vivid detail every aspect of their way of life? Destined by family tradition to be a lawyer, a gentleman farmer, a pillar of the community, responsible for the welfare of the growing city of Wilkes-Barre, he gave it all up to study painting. Then, rather than paint the popular society portraits of his day, he devoted palette and brush to the feathers and war paint of the great warriors of the American plains.
When he was 32, Catlin began defining the project that would become his "Indian Gallery," a testimony to the native Americans among whom he lived while recording their lives. At that time, the idea of collecting Indian artifacts was not new. In fact, the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs had an extensive collection and even invited Indians to Washington, D.C., to perform native dances and display their skills.
Yet, the West remained a land of conquest and when Andrew Jackson entered the White House in 1829, collecting took a backseat to an upsurge in warfare. And for Catlin, it became all the more urgent, through painting and collecting, to keep American Indian culture alive.
A year later, he headed West, where he painted, collected and befriended his subjects. After five journeys, with a substantial body of work in tow, he returned East, joined by some of his Indian friends, hoping to solicit public interest in his living and artistic testimony, but the interest was just not there. At a time of aggressive westward expansion, Indians were the enemy and few Americans wanted to pay to see Catlin's museum.
But on the other side of the Atlantic - in London and Paris - Catlin found many who did. In 1841, speaking before the Royal Institution in London, he proclaimed his desire to create a "museum of humanity," devoted to all human races and animal species in decline. At Egyptian Hall, an immense exhibition space, he displayed his paintings and collections, while live Indians formed "frozen theatrical groups," holding the same pose for hours.
Loading his collections, living and inanimate, on a boat, sailing on to Paris, he took that city by storm, attracting the artistic and intellectual elite, impatient to rub elbows with the "savages," hoping to catch a glimmer of the purity of primitive life.
Between 1839 and 1850, Catlin successfully traveled Europe with his "museum of humanity," but then he went bust. The public was growing tired of "museums," a catch-all term that, in those days, could refer to anything from a circus sideshow to the serious collections of the British Museum or the Louvre. Tired of the exotic, people were hungry for the new, for all and any signs of progress that they could take in at world's fairs such as the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London's Crystal Palace.
Catlin died penniless in 1872, sketching Indian life from memory, devoted to his Indian Gallery to the end. In 1879, his collections were saved from destruction by the Smithsonian Institute. Not until 2002 in Washington, D.C., was there an exhibit worthy of Catlin's work and of his mission to preserve the last vestiges of the cultures of the native American peoples he loved.
(Honicker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)