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Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, curator of Menil Arctic Realities exhibit, is dead at 89

News_Edmund Carpenter_July 2011
Edmund Carpenter explored the ties between cultural anthropology, visual media, and tribal art for more than 50 years. He wrote many books, including "Two Essays: Chief & Greed"
News_The Whole World was Watching_001_Dan Budnik_Dr. King_March on Washington_1963
Edmund Carpenter and his wife, Adelaide de Menil donated photographs that documented the civil rights struggle to the Menil Collection for an exhibition on display through Sept. 25. © 2010 Hester + Hardaway Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of Adelaide de Menil Carpenter and Edmund Carpenter
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A mask from the exhibition, "Upside Down: Arctic Realities," curated by Edmund Carpenter, at the Menil Collection through July 17. Photo by Fred Gageneau Courtesy of © Rock Foundation, New York

Anthropologist Edmund Snow Carpenter, who gained worldwide attention as a specialist in tribal art and visual media, died at his home on Long Island, N.Y., Saturday, after a long illness. Carpenter, the husband of Adelaide de Menil, was 89.

Known by most friends as Ted, Carpenter organized the current exhibition, Upside Down: Arctic Realities, at the Menil Collection. He drew upon his work tracing ancient Bering Sea cultures and the living rituals of their descendants to create the show, which includes objects ranging from tiny ivory amulets to shaman dance masks. Carpenter commissioned sound and light artist Doug Wheeler to create an environment evoking an Arctic landscape for the show, which remains on view through July 17.

In a review, CultureMap contributor Joseph Campana found the exhibit captivating. He writes:

The utterly unique space of the exhibit is equally the product of the Arctic Circle and the mind of the visionary Edmund Carpenter. You can experience Carpenter’s vision more directly in the extraordinary exhibition catalogue to which he contributed several essays, and if you hit your local library for a copy of his out-of-print masterpiece Eskimo Realities."

 "Carpenter was probably the first professional anthropologist in the world to host a national television program and one of the first scholars to focus attention on the revolutionary impact of film and photography on traditional tribal peoples." 

Carpenter and his wife also contributed images for another exhibition, The Whole World Was Watching: Civil Rights-Era Photographs from Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil, currently on display at the Menil through Sept. 25. The striking exhibition contains 36 photographs documenting the civil rights struggles in 1960s America, featuring Martin Luther King at the March on Washington and demonstrations in Alabama. The photos were chosen from 230 images donated by Carpenter and de Menil.

Twice divorced, Carpenter met de Menil in the 1960s and they remained together until his death. Among other projects, Carpenter and de Menil did extensive documentation on the impact of modern media on Stone Age Papua peoples in New Guinea.

Carpenter and de Menil were to be honored later this month in East Hampton, N.Y. for their donation of a half-dozen 18th and 19th century buildings to create the town hall complex.

According to a 2001/02 article in Visual Anthropology Review, Carpenter explored the ties between cultural anthropology, visual media, and tribal art for more than 50 years. The extensive article notes:

Carpenter was probably the first professional anthropologist in the world to host a national television program and one of the first scholars to focus attention on the revolutionary impact of film and photography on traditional tribal peoples. In 1948, he teamed up with Marshall McLuhan for a lifetime collaboration, breaking new ground in cross-cultural understanding of modern media. He also headed the first anthropology department in which filmmaking formed a central component of the curriculum."

Funeral arrangements are pending. 

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