From April 4 to August 3, 2013, the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (BGC) presents Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935. This Focus Gallery exhibition is curated by Erin L. Hasinoff, 2010–12 BGC-AMNH postdoctoral fellow in museum anthropology, in collaboration with BGC graduate students.
In January 1935, the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition set out from Rangoon to explore the upper reaches of the “mighty Chindwin River” on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The three-month expedition gathered the museum’s founding biological and anthropological collections from an under researched area to the east of Burma’s border with Assam and to the south of Tibet. Confluences explores the complex social life of this extraordinary enterprise through an assortment of objects that were both carried to the field and collected en route.
Expeditions have long been the subject of natural history and anthropology exhibitions. Most have emphasized the biographies and activities of organizers, sponsors, and field scientists, but Confluences is unusual because it focuses on the working methods of the expedition rather than on the biographies of the explorers. At the heart of Confluences is the idea that expeditions were cosmopolitan adventures that relied on the adroitness and cooperation of numerous local indigenous agents, as well as professionals, in order to make scientific discoveries.
The expedition was financed by Arthur S. Vernay, an established New York City–based dealer in English antiques, an intrepid field associate in the AMNH’s Department of Mammalogy, and a museum trustee. He assembled a diverse party of natural scientists and shikari (big-game hunters). Henry C. Raven, a comparative anatomist at the museum, joined as the lead scientist, principal filmmaker, and photographer. The caravan was a confluence of Yunnanese muleteers, Burmese guides, and Goan skinners, who, along with British party members, were assembled from throughout the Raj. The exploratory journey brought the caravan in touch with various residents of northern Burma—Burmese, Kachin, Shan, and Naga peoples—who provisioned the enterprise and procured specimens for the museum.
The Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition made news not primarily for its collections and its scientific findings, but for what newspapers sensationalized as the most significant episode of the journey: the first contact with the “head-hunting” Nagas of Burma. At the time, such exoticizing accounts of contact were an important justification for expeditions, attracting nation-wide publicity and the support of museum patrons.
Structured as an itinerary, the exhibition reveals working relations among participants of every kind, whose encounters shaped the collections that were to enter the museum. It comprises a compelling selection of the expedition’s ethnological objects and specimens, documentation, photographs, and film footage, drawn together from across various departments of the AMNH and exhibited for the first time. The exhibition includes alternative, contemporary readings of the three-day sojourn among the Nagas as it was depicted in photographs and on film. A “sound collage” by Dr. Sentienla Toy Threadgill, a New York–based Ao Naga ethnomusicologist, made up of interviews and music, accompanies a brief segment of the silent 110-minute expedition film, The Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935. Dr. Threadgill’s piece brings the expedition to the present, moving the film beyond its archival life to address some of the sonic sensibilities and cultural interactions of the Burma–India borderland. Overall, Confluences sets in motion a dialogue about the fieldwork of the various participants who were active in producing a natural history of northern Burma, and, by extension, the world.
Erin L. Hasinoff, the exhibition curator, wrote the extensively illustrated catalogue that accompanies Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935. The book is divided into two parts: in the first half, using primary sources from the AMNH and elsewhere, the author provides a sketch of the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition. She discusses the planning of the expedition and the activities of its participants in relation to AMNH expeditionary history and to the natural history of northern Burma. Because this Focus Gallery exhibition is the outcome of graduate seminars offered at the BGC, the second section highlights student contributions, and the teaching potential of archived expedition materials and collections.
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