Heritage Theater

Outside the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus there is a terrifying figure of a woman, about two stories tall and painted bright red, with collapsed breasts that end in grinning faces. A sign tells me it's Dzunk'wa, a figure from Northwest Coast tribal mythology, and this figure is thought to be a ridicule pole, meant to shame a laggard into paying a debt.

Under her glaring maw seems a dangerous place to speculate that totem poles didn't figure in tribal art until 18th-century white anthropologists appeared on the scene, or even that a museum like the Burke is filled with artifacts taken unwillingly from tribes. The term for this last activity is, of course, looting, and that's why I'm sitting outside the Burke on a quiet Sunday morning with a couple of street-theater activists.

We're waiting for three more activists, who are inside wearing shirts that say "looter," and scarves wrapped around their heads and faces. They are, as I understand it, trying to get themselves escorted out of the museum, in order to demonstrate what our administration failed to do for the now-disappeared artifacts of the Iraqi National Museum, and to highlight the hypocrisy of our protectionist mandate, which seemed to end the moment our tanks rolled into Baghdad.

One of the fellows outside with me is dressed CIA agent-style in a black suit and has a suitcase full of cuneiform tablets (actually, cookies he baked that morning) that he is trying to "sell" to passersby. There aren't any takers, although a few people titter nervously; the cookies have the full attention of a small boy sitting a few feet away.

We wait for what seems like ages. We wonder, what do you have to do to get arrested around here? Finally we see the looters through the museum's glass doors. The university police are very, very politely asking them to leave; one of the looters asks if the officers would like to escort them, and one says, "Oh, that's not necessary." The looters seem a bit disappointed, as am I.

All in all, I considered it to be a rather elegant piece of theater, even if security proved hard to engage, and even if the actors/activists tended to take up too many political tangents (freedom of speech, the war's cost) instead of staying on one topic. When I leave the looters near the university gates, they're debating whether or not to go down to the Seattle Art Museum and try again.