Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Time Travelling Nazis in China and the British Museum

'Hundred Bird' coat - Front (As1998,01.175) © Trustees of the British Museum

I was recently in London on family business, but had the opportunity to drop into the British Museum and catch their current show ‘Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond’. I don’t intend to provide a review of the show – if you’re looking for reviews I can direct you [here | here | and here]. Instead, I want to note just one exhibit on display – the gorgeous ‘Hundred Bird’ Coat from Guiyang in China’s Guizhou province. Gina Corrigan, who purchased the piece in China and later sold it to the British Museum, notes that it was ‘Worn at the Guzang festival held by the Miao at irregular intervals to renew and reinforce spiritual links with their ancestors.’

The coat is thought to date to the period between 1950 and 1990 and is made of mostly undyed cotton, with unstitched sides and sleeves. These open edges have fabric lops and knots at intervals (I presume) to allow it to be secured to the wearer. The lower portion of the garment is decorated with thirteen vertical panels. The whole costume is heavily decorated all over, mostly in reds and blues. The front has a bird on each breast, while the back has a single large bird set at an angle within a diamond shape. The rest of the decorative elements include a variety of smaller birds, geometric patterns, insect motifs and swastikas.

'Hundred Bird' coat - Back (As1998,01.175) © Trustees of the British Museum
Regular readers of this blog (and anyone who has spent even a modicum of time in my presence) can probably already guess what drew my attention to this piece – the swastikas! Lots and lots of swastikas! By my count there are 20 on the front and 49 (whole or in part) on the back … No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of swastikas! Even though the display case was placed against a surface, so only the front was visible, that’s still sufficient swastikas to draw attention. And draw attention it did! I probably spent longer at this exhibit than any other, much of it observing my fellow visitors. From snippets of conversations overheard it was clear that many noticed and remarked upon the presence of this symbol. To my delight, it was clear that many of those who did comment were aware that swastikas can exist in non-Nazi contexts, unbesmirched by their hateful creed. I’m sure there’s an interesting article to be drawn out exploring the origins and meaning of the swastika symbol in Miao culture generally and their importance to the ‘Hundred Bird’ Coat style of garment. Or maybe not. The British Museum holds two other festival garments of this type [here  | here], neither of which features (as far as I can see) a single swastika motif.

Reproduction of back panel from the garment - swastika free!
Rather than any rumination on these wonderful costumes, I instead want to talk about the materials on offer in the gift shop. There you can find the exhibition catalogue (always worth a look) as well as replicas of the replica Hohlenstein Lion Man figure (probably not worth the offering price of £150, but if you’re thinking of getting me something I’d not refuse it!). In amongst all these replica wonders are a number of offerings based on the ‘Hundred Bird’ Coat. There’s a greeting card, a keyring, a mug, a tea towel, and a tote bag. More than enough to sate your newly-acquired ‘Hundred Bird’ Coat hunger. I do think they may have missed a trick in not going for a raincoat based on the design – it could have been a hit! Whatever you think of the memorabilia on offer, you’ll be instantly hit by the lack of swastikas. OK, you might not actually, but I was! In particular, the tea towel, the card and the tote bag are all clearly modelled on the bird on the back of the costume. That bird is set at approximately 45-degrees within a lozenge shape. On the original the border is clearly formed of a series of swastikas, executed in red, white, and blue. However, this is not carried through to the memorabilia, which is bordered with versions of a multi-coloured meandros or key pattern, interspersed with occasional cross-shapes, that only appear on the shoulders of the front of the garment. The vertical sides of both the tea towel and the tote bag are decorated with the recurring pattern. Although a key visual image on the original, the swastika is nowhere present on these keepsakes. It should go without saying that the swastikas used in this context are not in any way associated with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and do not represent its racist and genocidal doctrines.

No swastikas in this mug!
So why have the swastikas gone missing? I’ve written before about a similar case where modern reproductions of tapestries from the Oseberg Ship Burial display a whole host of original detail (even if erratically applied), but are missing all of the original swastikas. At the time I coined the term ‘Time Travelling Nazis’ to describe the process where the recent Nazi connotations taint all artefacts bearing the symbol, even if culturally and temporally removed from their usage. The effect metaphorically travels backwards through time and space, touching all other usages of the symbol where Nazi inspired or not. I suspect that exactly the same process is going on here – historical accuracy is lovely and all that, but few people will want to buy a rigorously exact reproduction if they are going to have to continuously explain the presence of swastikas. I would suggest that the swastikas – nice as they are – were quietly left out of the design. As in much of my previous writing on this topic, I feel the need to note that I’m not in any way advocating for the symbol to be ‘reclaimed’ and re-enter common usage. Instead, I would argue that we should be aware of how the Nazi usage of the swastika has claimed the symbol and the hold that it retains. As archaeologists (and the consumers of reproduction goods) we will have to continue to consider how we display and reproduce historical swastikas for some time to come.

Greeting card - heavy on bird, light on swastika!
In the aftermath of posting the piece about the Oseberg tapestries [https://goo.gl/bEYqFF] I was verbally attacked on social media by a gentleman who, by turns, seemed to think I was suggesting that the Nazis were actual time travellers and that I was suggesting that the Vikings were Nazis. You, sir, are a special kind of stupid!

The ‘Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond’ is at the British Museum until April 8th 2018 – get along and see it if you have the opportunity!

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