The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology. An exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York and the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, Canada, curated by Aaron Glass with designs by Corrine Hunt.

On view at the Bard Graduate Center from February 14-July 7, 2019
On view at the U’mista Cultural Centre from July 20-October 26, 2019

In April of 1897, American anthropologist Franz Boas wrote a letter to a group of Kwagu’ł chiefs on Canada’s northwestern coast. He explained that “It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept. My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago.”

The book Boas referred to was The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, his monograph published that same year on the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw communities of British Columbia.[1] In the century since the book was published, Boas’s tome has become an influential template for the work of many anthropologists who followed him. Yet both the book’s production and its legacy are complex. An exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, organized in collaboration with the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia, aims to unpack this “story box” and examine both the writing of the monograph and the impact it had on anthropology. The exhibition argues that while Boas aimed to use The Social Organization to show that Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture—and all cultures, by extension—were dynamic and responsive to historical circumstances, the finished book obscured many of the key contextual facets of its production. One of the most crucial of these facets was the full role of George Hunt, the man Boas described as his “friend” to the Kwagu’ł chiefs. Scholars have often referred to Hunt as Boas’s “informant” or “culture broker.” Yet The Story Box demonstrates that Hunt’s extensive contributions to the monograph qualify him as Boas’s research partner and co-author.

View of The Story Box exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery

Unfolding across three rooms in the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, the exhibition is less akin to a single box and more to a series of nested boxes, each revealing a layer of the decades-long relationship between Boas and Hunt, the work of putting together The Social Organization, and the legacy of this monograph as it continues to live on into the twenty-first century. In the first room, visitors are greeted with an introductory timeline that lays out the chronology for the writing and publication of the book. This portion of the exhibition explains the unique role that The Social Organization occupied in anthropology in the early twentieth century. One of the first detailed portraits of an Indigenous North American society, it was based on ethnographic fieldwork rather than armchair theorizing.[2] It also reflected Boas’s belief in cultural relativism rather than evolutionary typologies. At the same time, it demonstrated Boas’s engagement with what would come to be known as the “salvage paradigm.”[3] Boas imagined that his monograph would be a “story box” to preserve the laws and customs of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw for future generations if they were swept away by assimilation—assimilation that was being actively mandated by the Canadian government at the time of Boas’s writing, but which he did not discuss in his text.

The first room of the exhibition also introduces visitors to Boas and Hunt as individuals. The son of a Tlingit noblewoman and an English Hudson’s Bay Company trader, Hunt established kinship ties to Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw society through marriage and through his son’s initiation into a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw dance society. The exhibition reveals the extent of the translation, observation, and collection work that Hunt undertook on the Northwest Coast on Boas’s behalf, work that was foundational to the 1897 monograph. Visitors can glance at portions of the two men’s extensive correspondence and several of the many objects Hunt collected for Boas, including masks and a large ceremonial copper. Beginning in 1920, Hunt also began systematically revising the text of The Social Organization with Boas’s approval; by the time of Hunt’s death in 1933, he had sent Boas more than 600 pages of corrections and emendations. Selections from this correspondence are on display, a testimony to Hunt’s role as Boas’s full collaborator.

The second room of the exhibition delves into Boas and Hunt’s work at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The exhibition argues that in addition to the extent of Hunt’s collaboration with Boas, The Social Organization obscured the fact that much of Boas’s fieldwork among the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw took place not in Canada, but at the Exposition, where a troupe of Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw individuals organized by Hunt were in residence. This gallery features some of the original song recordings that Boas and Hunt took of this troupe in Chicago and also provides a fascinating look into how Boas modified or concealed certain aspects in translating his notes and photographs into material for the monograph. For example, one display shows how four different photographs were “merged” into a composite drawing of a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw potlatch for the book, while another display shows how Boas based drawings for the book on photographs of himself demonstrating dance poses he had observed among his Indigenous research subjects.[4]

Most representatives of the Kwakwaka’wkw delegation at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. They stand before the painted façade of a Hope Island house in which Franz Boas first stayed in 1886 and from which the settee in this exhibition came. Left to right: Exu’las̱ [?], K’idiłam̱e’, John Drabble, Rachel Drabble, Iwanuxwdzi, Yekuk’walaga, Dukwayis, John Wanukw, Chicago Jim [?], George Hunt (in cap), G̱wayułalas, Xwani, Lucy Hunt, Tom Hemasi’lakw, David Hunt, Hixhaisagami. [Not pictured: Will Hunt, Malidi, T’łi’linuxw, Kostesalas (young son of Wanukw)]. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #93-1-10/100266.1.30.

The third room of the exhibition uses text, videos, and a touch screen to introduce viewers to the most recent permutation of Boas and Hunt’s monograph: the Boas 1897 Critical Edition project. The Critical Edition digitally reunites the original published text from 1897 with Boas and Hunt’s field notes, subsequent unpublished annotations and corrections, photographs, sound recordings, and links to related objects in various museum collections. Aaron Glass, curator of The Story Box, and multimedia artist Corrine Hunt, whose designs are featured in the exhibition and who is a great-granddaughter of George Hunt, are among the leaders of this ongoing project. The highlight of the final room is a striking transformation mask carved in 2018 by Corrine Hunt and David Knox, based on a mask owned by George Hunt’s first wife and featured in the original edition of The Social Organization. This mask makes a powerful closing statement on how some Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw individuals today, including Hunt’s descendants, are using material from the 1897 monograph to reactivate community knowledge and practices.

The Story Box is an ambitious exhibition that deftly manages to excavate many layers from a much-lauded, -discussed, and –imitated anthropological text for a broad audience. It convincingly argues for Hunt’s place as a co-author alongside Boas, and for the role of The Social Organization in helping to reactivate Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw traditions despite the problematic silences in the original monograph. In recent years, Hunt and Boas’s working relationship has been the focus of a number of scholarly examinations, from the laudatory (see Isaiah Lorado Wilner’s essay on the pair tellingly entitled “Friends in this World”) to critiques of both Boas and Hunt’s methodologies and theoretical underpinnings from Indigenous scholars (such as Audra Simpson’s chapter with the equally telling title “Why White People Love Franz Boas”).[5] The Story Box is a noteworthy contribution to this conversation that explores the possibilities for collaboration between anthropologists and Indigenous interlocutors, both in Boas and Hunt’s time and in the present day. It will be interesting to watch how the exhibition is received when it moves to the U’mista Cultural Centre on Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw territory in July, where it will be situated close to where Hunt and Boas compiled much of the material for their original “story box.”

[1] In his manuscript Boas referred to Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw peoples as “Kwakiutl,” which was itself a corruption of the name “Kwagu’ł,” a reference to the band that lived in the territory around Fort Rupert, British Columbia where Boas conducted some of his fieldwork.

[2] While the work of earlier “armchair” anthropologists such as E. B. Tylor was based on direct observations, these were typically the collected observations of others who were “in the field,” such as colonial soldiers, missionaries, merchants, and sailors, later assembled and studied by the anthropologist in a metropolitan setting. Boas’s monograph cemented the anthropologist’s own field observations as the essential source of anthropological knowledge, though as The Story Box argues, Boas himself obscured how much he relied on Hunt’s observations in addition to his own.

[3] For more discussion of salvage anthropology, see Jacob Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology,” in American Anthropologist vol. 72, no. 6 (December 1970): 1289–1299.

[4] Boas had engaged in similar photographic modeling in his earlier monograph, The Central Eskimo (1888).

[5] See Wilner,  “Friends in this World: The Relationship of George Hunt and Franz Boas,” in The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual-Theory, Ethnography, Activism, ed. Regna Darnell (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), p. 163-190. For Indigenous-authored critiques of Boas, see Simpson, “Why White People Love Franz Boas; or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession,” in Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas, ed. Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 166-181; and Margaret Bruchac, “My Sisters Will Not Speak: Boas, Hunt, and the Ethnographic Silencing of First Nations Women,” in Curator: The Museum Journal vol. 57, no. 2 (2014): 153-171.

Sarah M. Pickman: contributions / / History of Science and Medicine, Yale University