Curating Coconuts

Monty Python and the Holy Grail begins by insisting on the impossibility of coconuts in medieval England, and we all love the scene. But this comic insistence that coconut cups could never have existed in medieval English and European homes extends to their curation in museums today, and museums are one of the only ways most people will ever engage medieval scholarship. Museums struggle to categorize coconut cups, and the almost total absence of scholarly research on medieval trade goods like coconuts adds to the challenge facing museums.

In these conditions, museums make do with traditional truisms that are really myths. Echoing Monty Python, many exhibits highlight the strangeness of the coconuts. The Art Institute of Chicago calls them “curios” suitable for curiosity cabinets, as does the Walters Museum. The Met emphasizes the weirdness of coconuts in Europe, even during the global colonial period when European ships sailed all over the world. The stories museums tend to tell about European coconuts simply reinforce the most people’s perspectives, as today coconut cups do seem like strange curios. Retelling the same old myths does not educate anyone. Instead these stories continue to present the medieval past as though Europe was detached from the rest of the world. Researchers must see past Python’s jokes and begin to investigate material culture. Curators must use this research to demonstrate that non-European objects and people existed in medieval Europe. To put it simply, all museum-goers are part of medieval history, and our exhibits can and should reflect that fact.

The scholarly sort of activism involved in highlighting the presence of non-European objects and people in medieval Europe sits squarely within the mission of museums. The blog People of Color in European Art History focuses on the depiction of premodern people of color in European painting and book illumination. The blog fills a gap. As the author says, “the focus of this blog is to showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color. All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues.” Even NPR has noted that “the perspective of racial identity is an afterthought…in major museum curations.”

People of Color in European Art History is not a museum or a history book, and it is not alone in demonstrating popular enthusiasm for the cultural complexity of the Middle Ages. The Philadelphia Renaissance Faire’s insistence on a plausible (if fictionalized) diverse historical narrative is another example of this. There is great interest among both scholars and the general public in learning more about the diversity of the premodern world. Medieval European coconuts offer an excellent opportunity to highlight the interactions of Europe with the rest of the world centuries before the “Age of Discovery.”

Perhaps coconut history proves that medieval people were better than we are today at imagining ways to communicate across languages, religions, and countries (Ganim and Legassie, Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages, 3). But perhaps that is our fault as researchers and curators. Museums are wracked by budget cuts, without the staffing or space to expand exhibitions, or the time even to update current signage. University researchers are likewise trapped in endless work. But as the stakes get higher and higher, surely we hang together or we hang separately. In collaboration, then, we must find ways to articulate the European Middle Ages’ delight in its connections with the wider world.
Coconuts may be part of the answer.

By Kathleen Kennedy, contributor of The Medieval Globe

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