Displaying Indigenous People’s “Heirlooms” in Museums? Lessons from the Heirloom Exhibition of Pingtung Indigenous Peoples Museum

Written by Drangadrang Kaljuvucing.

Image credit: 排灣巷弄一隅 by Christ Peng/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Indigenous Heirlooms, Museum, and People Living on Slopes

“The Family Heirlooms of Slop-Dwelling Peoples” exhibition was the fruit of a competition to discover Indigenous heirlooms that still exist in Indigenous communities. It was the Pingtung Indigenous Peoples Museum (PIM) partnering with four other Indigenous museums in Pingtung County, including Wutai Pavilion, Sandimen Pavilion, Laiyi Pavilion, and Shizi Pavilion, to conduct exhibition collection, field surveys, and promotion as part of a project with the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan. The thirteen heirlooms for the exhibition, which included clothing, accessories, paintings, weaves, wood carvings, clay pots, and other living implements, originated from seven Indigenous towns in Pingtung County, except for Chunri Township. While the exhibited pieces were grouped into three categories: “Living Etiquette,” “Decorating Life,” and “Cultural Heritage,” the exhibition highlighted the diversity and uniqueness of the heirlooms revealed by their owners through interview processes.

The PIM was opened in 2001 and is affiliated with the Indigenous Peoples’ Office of the Pingtung County Government. It is a museum dedicated to the entire Pingtung County Indigenous peoples. In its early stages, PIM mainly focused on holding Indigenous woodcarving competitions in Pingtung County and incorporating the winning pieces into the museum’s collections, establishing its foothold in promoting Indigenous crafts and art-related industries. However, the building was severely damaged during the Morakot typhoon disaster in 2009. Due to the limited space in the warehouse, they began to rethink how to develop a new strategy for the museum. Subsequently, it continued to promote Indigenous crafts and art-related industries. Furthermore, it created a series of courses titled “Learning Indigenous Movements” to foster learning exchanges between Indigenous and non-indigenous individuals. 

In recent years, “Kacalisian,” which refers to slope-dwelling peoples, has been promoted as a central idea by the Indigenous People’s Office of Pingtung County. On the one hand, it might be a significant starting point for showcasing the geographic features, living environment, and relevant traditional architecture. But on the other hand, “Kacalisian” refers to Indigenous peoples, specifically the Paiwan and Rukai groups, within a specific contemporary context and is used to promote music festivals, art seasons, and other related activities. This clarifies the direction of PIM, which focuses on the Paiwan and Rukai ethnic groups throughout the entire Pingtung County.

Reintroducing the Notion of Heirlooms to the Museum 

The curator, Nagal Kalidoai, expressed that her previous trip to New Zealand inspired the idea of this exhibition. The New Zealand exhibition asked youngsters to bring what they consider family heirlooms to the museum for display, subverting the past concept of the family heirloom from the museum’s perspective. Nagal Kalidoai hopes to reintroduce this concept to the museum she serves. Despite facing many challenges due to the oversight of the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre and adherence to museum and cultural heritage standards, she persevered. Local Indigenous museums are frequently shaped by an emphasis on cultural artefacts stemming from the concept of cultural heritage. This leads to widespread surveys of these artefacts. However, the collection and curation processes can become complex as curators’ personal emotions and sense of legacy may influence their decisions.

From the standpoint of museums or cultural heritage, the age of an item is a crucial factor in determining its worth. However, one of the exhibited artefacts contradicts this perception since it is considered a Paiwan heirloom despite its relative newness. The artefact is a clay pot that reveals a conflict between two families. According to Paiwan tradition, the Paiwan people continue to marry persons from the same family within the fifth generation to maintain the relationships between the two families. Yet, a man refused to adhere to this tradition due to a health concern. As a consequence, his family compensated the family with this clay pot. The meaning of clay pot in Paiwan society is nasi (life), so even if life and relationship cannot be continued through marriage, life (clay pot) is still placed in the woman’s family, which also represents the continuation of the man’s family’s life in the woman’s family, conveying the connotation of an heirloom. In this case, the clay pot was likely produced in a non-Indigenous factory between the 1990s and 2000s, but it has now become a treasured heirloom for the Paiwan family.

According to the curator, heirlooms are distinct from cultural relics, and old objects are not necessarily heirlooms. The key would be the memories and messages surrounding the artefacts people want to pass on. Therefore, in this exhibition, there is even non-typical Paiwan clothing from several indigenous TV series, funerary objects, items purchased, etc. A Rukai artisan also carved his aspirations for his four children, such as eagles and warriors, as well as his ideal relationship between men and women, into the ornamentations of four crutches, which he subsequently handed to them.

Overall, the meanings of these thirteen artefacts representing family heirlooms are very diverse, and their ages range from the last decade to hundreds of years. Through these heirlooms, the exhibition highlights the internal difference between the Paiwan people and the Rukai people and ensures that every Indigenous township can be seen with the shared spirit of slope-dwelling peoples. In addition, looking at the towns and townships where the objects come from, it can be noticed that if a museum wants to obtain objects from the community to exhibit in the museum, it needs to have a longer-term relationship or start from its own kinship.

Rethinking Heirlooms 

In the Paiwan language, heirlooms can be understood differently: “sauzayan” or “pinasasevalivalitan.” The former refers to property and specific items that hold perspectives on the culture and social system of the group, especially the Paiwan group. For instance, although some artefacts continue to be passed on within the family, only the eldest heir knows the item’s existence and holds its ownership. At the same time, the younger siblings are unconscious of its presence due to the features of Paiwan’s hierarchical culture. An example is the funerary objects exhibited in the exhibition, which were re-excavated due to the renovation of the cemetery. After the excavation, the objects were distributed to the brothers and sisters. However, the person assigned this object became ill, so he thought the object should be returned to the eldest one, and his health improved after returning it. This example brought out the issue of whether living people should use funeral objects or not and the relationship between the family separation system in Paiwan society. The latter means inheritance, which is more like describing a situation. Items are passed down from the previous generation to the next generation, so their meaning is biased toward the family. 

The exhibition did not purposely translate the idea of family heirlooms into Indigenous languages. However, collecting these items enables the owners, their regions, and the ethnic groups they represent to share the meaning of family heirlooms within their cultural context. This, in turn, broadens the public’s understanding of heirlooms.As many studies observed, even if museums set exhibition themes, the final presentation may be different (or not as expected), so it is necessary to return to the network of exhibitions to discuss the relationship between different people and objects rather than discussion of essentialism. 

Andrew Moutu believes that viewing collections as a way of being can overturn the concept of classification prior to a collection based on Western epistemology, so collections created through exhibitions/collections may have ontological implications. In other words, the diversity of heirlooms in this exhibition can also be further understood as an attempt to explore the “Slop-Dwelling Peoples” ontology, which must also consider the internal differences between Paiwan and Rukai peoples, as well as museum and cultural heritage.

Drangadrang Kaljuvucing (Pan, Hsien-Yang) is a Paiwan person from Cilasoaq(豬朥束). He is also a PhD candidate at the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures, National Dong Hwa University. His research interests include topics with Indigenous Peoples’ museums and ethnic relations, particularly on the Heng Chun peninsula.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Museums in Taiwan: Intertwining the Past and the Present.

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