Or, A Mini-Museum Review, In Three Parts
Or, I came, I marveled, I exited through the gift shop
I. The current Met Exhibit on early modern textile trading is FANTASTIC. If you’ve got the means and the opportunity, I heartily recommend getting out to “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800.” And do it quickly! It closes January 5th. (And if you can’t get there, at least go to the website and look at some of this stuff). It’s a fascinating display of objects that are astounding enough on their own, but the way Amelia Peck and her colleagues have put them together really does something new. Put briefly, they’ve selected choice conversations in fabric to showcase early modern globalization through one of its driving forces, textile production and consumption.
II. But! There are quibbles. First the bigger picture: they’ve got a slideshow at the beginning that depicts trade routes – but only those transoceanic links frequented by Europeans. Now, the centuries-long development of deep-water European maritime trading was a crucial event, but those ventures never operated in a vacuum, even on the water. The Indian ocean was not a blank but for Portuguese ships; it had thriving networks of dhows connecting Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist worlds. Similarly, China’s traders had fleets of junks making connections to Southeast Asia and Japan that facilitated all kinds of exhange, even of European design ideas. However, the opening presentation leaves one to suppose that all transcultural transmission was the result of traveling Europeans, and announces the show’s narrative to be a simplistic story of East-West interaction (one where Europeans appear to have more agency, in many cases, than non-Europeans).
Luckily this is an interpretation that the items on display emphatically undermine, in myriad ways. So this is not a case of a deep misunderstanding on the part of the curators, but rather a matter of failing, in the introductory instance, to effectively communicate the more complex reality. Still, a more accurate set of maps would have gone a long way to setting things up.
Second, a more personally-interested beef: one of the last wall texts in the exhibit (pictured above) was so full of Nopes (and half-Nopes) about North America and Asian trade that I nearly quibbled myself out of the room. So don’t buy what this sign is selling you: the smuggling trade in Asian goods was extensive, and colonial Americans did indeed have access to “the real thing”; American “engagement with the Asian trade” had its booms and busts, but nonetheless continued throughout the nineteenth-century, not just for a short time; in the specific case of Indian cottons, geopolitics and simple political economy tamped down their consumption well before cotton agriculture or textile production got going in the U.S.; and so on, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Long story short, this wall text channels narratives and just-so stories that come from (way) older scholarship –– or, more generously, takes its cues from the history of fashion or artistic styles alone, and not the wider history.
III. But man, the works on display! Are amazing. Beautiful, incredibly well-preserved, and just gorgeous examples of wonderful art – I really can’t say that enough. The Met’s curators have very ably, and very intelligently, put these items into dialogue, and have thereby made a convincing argument about the need to see world trade, art, and the lived experience of globalization as all operating within the same frame.
I very much hope they do many more such exhibits in the future.
Image 1: “Sarasa with Small Rosettes,” 18th century, India, Cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.57
Image 2: The vexing wall text. Courtesy(?) of the author.