Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).



Since completing a doctorate in anthropology on textiles produced by the Batak of North Sumatra (Niessen 1985), I have been supported by various post-doctoral scholarships (1) to produce an inventory of these same textiles. I am pleased to have this rare opportunity to tell you, a learned society of textile scholars, how I have gone about this task, my motives, goals, and methodology. I particularly would welcome feedback from you on what I see to be the theoretical underpinnings and implications of the project.

The inception of this project dates from a day in 1980 when I visited one of the best Batak textile collections in the world, housed in the State Ethnological Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands. I had just returned from the Batak region of North Sumatra, and was visiting this museum to obtain in formation that could help me locate, in a cultural-historical framework, the hand-woven cloths I had seen in Batak markets. I experienced dismay upon discovering the confusion in the museum documentation and quickly realized that my own field documentation, accumulated during only a few months in the field, could already significantly enhance the museum documentation. These discoveries became the inspiration for the inventory. In short, I had discovered a tangle of fabrics and information and decided to sort it out. In 1985 this germ was developed into a full-blown research project entitled "The Indigenous Classification of Batak Textiles".

While the study of material culture has passed out of fashion in anthropology, and museums are no longer in the forefront of developments in the discipline (Sturtevant 1969), this is not a permanent situation (see e.g. Clifford 1988). The textile classification project I will be discussing here has been constructed to bridge the gap between what has become the more practical work of museums and the more theoretical work of anthropology. It is my contention that museums may better fill a) their pedagogical responsibilities if they deal with, for the edification of the general public, Issues that are at the forefront of the anthropological discipline, and b) their research responsibilities if they manage collections in a way conducive to research. In this paper, I discuss how classification research of the kind I have undertaken can benefit museums by exposing cherished myths about history and taste, and how, if adopted as part of standard museum practice, it could promote the study of material culture.