Museums, Colonial Legacies, and Contemporary Art, Part 1: Introduction

October 12, 2020

By Saga Beus

While provenance—the documentation of an object’s journey from maker to collector or collection through acquisition, sale, exchange, or donation—is crucially important in the museum world in establishing legitimate ownership and ethical collection practices, it can also tell us a lot about cultural exchange, colonialism, and the history of museums themselves. By way of introduction, I begin with a case study: In 1824 the HMS Blonde set sail from England to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, carrying home the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamāmalu, who had both contracted measles while visiting King George IV. Following the ship’s arrival in Hawai‘i in 1825, after exchanging gifts, crew members visited the Heiau of Hale o Keawe, a sacred burial site on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Many of the objects they collected during this visit have made their way into museums all over the world—though it remains unclear which objects were taken from Hale o Keawe and which were sold to the crew as trinkets.[1] Among them was an Akua Kaai (Stick God) acquired by midshipman John Knowles. The Akua Kaai subsequently made its way to the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum in England, then to dealer and collector John J. Klejman, and finally to Nelson A. Rockefeller, who lent it to his Museum of Primitive Art, which was later absorbed into the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.[2]

Artist unknown, Akua Ka‘ai, 18th to early 19th century. Wood, 12 1/8 × 1 11/16 × 1 1/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979

The Akua Kaai’s journey is typical of many non-Western artifacts now in Western museums: from source community to collection of souvenirs or anthropological artifacts to ethnographic museum to art museum. For the most part, the Western anthropological and art worlds where these objects now reside obscure their individual histories in favor of analyses of their forms and functions. My master’s thesis, “ARTifact: The Persistence of Primitivism in Encyclopedic Museums” examines collection histories in the context of both Western art history and current efforts to expand diversity and inclusivity.[3] This three-part blog series presents selected key points from my thesis, focusing in particular on modern and contemporary art, and linking the discussion to my graduate internship at the Grey Art Gallery. Part 2 will examine the historical division of “modern” and “traditional” material culture into art and anthropology museums respectively. Part 3 will discuss new conceptions of modernism as well as the power of contemporary indigenous art in illuminating previously obscured histories and breaking down cultural hierarchies in major museums.


[1] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “‘L’Aigle’ and HMS ‘Blonde:’ The Use of History in the Study of Ethnography,” The Hawaiian Journal of History 12 (1978): 28–44.

[2] “Stick God (Akua Ka‘ai).” Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[3] Saga Beus, “ARTifact: The Persistence of Primitivism in Encyclopedic Museums,” Master’s thesis (New York University, 2020).


Part 2 | Part 3

Saga Beus is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2020.