Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Do we place those who are "different" in a mental museum case?

[Updated August, 2017 Potlatches of Northwest Coast Tribes: A Peabody Online Exhibit, referenced here and in this article, is no longer viewable.)

One of the things we tend to forget, living in contemporary America, is that cultural analogues exist for most, if not all, of our institutions, in other parts of the world.  We seem almost genetically programmed to divide the world into “us” and “them” (it may well be that, epistemologically, the most salient conceptual observation we have intuitive access to is that of contrast or difference) and to see cultural disparity where none actually exists, or where the differences are no more than superficial.  We see this perhaps the clearest in our tendency to present ethnographic exhibits as art.

By highlighting the rituals and ceremonies and artifacts of other cultures by removing arbitrarily selected elements thereof and placing them in museum cases, we somehow (de-)elevate them to the status of curiosity pieces.  People in our society are taught from early on that museums are repositories of knowledge, wisdom, history; they are special mystical places where the young can go and be transported, educated, entertained by the ancient, the strange, the alien.  Similar to the fashion in which the modern tele-addict may give automatic credence to anything on an infomercial or talk show, or online news junkies automatically accept anything published by their echo chamber of choice, we would-be educated individuals typically do the same with museums; we are open, receptive.  The problem, then, is simply this:  when a culture’s artifacts are presented in a museum, regardless of the historical information that is given along with them, there is the automatic tendency to see them as Different.  Specifically because they are in a museum, we choose not to see the fact that what is being presented to us is a mirror of our own culture, with substitutions made for available technology, resources, and so on. We are in many ways the same, but our ability to place them in a museum creates an artificial separation that somehow makes us feel better about our way of life, enables us to sleep more easily at night, whatever.

So, which came first?  Was it our need to characterize the world as “us” and “them” what led us to start housing displays of other cultures’ lifestyles in museums, safely on the other side of red velvet rope-barrier fences, in climate-controlled halls with gift shops and cafeterias that serve watered-down coffee and seven-dollar grilled-cheese sandwiches?  Or was it such museums that acclimated us to seeing other cultures as so completely disparate from our own that we are no longer unable to see the similarities?  What possible justification, for example, is there for going into a museum and seeing, as an ethnographic exhibit, a plain wooden spoon?  An ordinary wooden spoon?  Is that something that is so radically outside of our culture’s experience that it warrants display?

The answer is yes.  And no.

There are two basic ways to present cultural realia in a museum context.  Firstly, they can be presented as artistic specimens.  Secondly, they can be presented as anthropological specimens.  And of course the two can be combined in varying shades of grey.  Presented as artistic specimens, the responsibility of the “curator” is to discuss their form, color, design, material, medium, texture, process.  Merging art and the anthropological realm, the curator can discuss the role of the artist in the community,  the history of the artistic tradition(s) displayed, the cultural significance of any symbolism and iconography and so on..  In a purely anthropological sense, the curator can discuss the purpose(s) of the objects in everyday life, and/or their role in ritual traditions, as well as the role of the production of the art object in the marketplace, both local and worldwide, if applicable.

In deciding how to present an exhibit, one needs to ask the question “To what degree can, or should, these elements be taken out of context?”  Is it feasible, is it even appropriate or accurate, to display them in a museum?  Or does the problematic nature of museum display more than offset any potential value?  Do we present the anthropology and not the art?  (All function and no form?)  Do we present the art, and not the anthropology?  (All form and no function?)  What magical alchemy is required to balance them?

The troubling online exhibit on “potlatches” presented by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum was a perfect example of what not to do.

Museums invite people in, ask them to look upon what they have the power, wealth and resources to present, have them partake in their activities, and bid them peruse the gift shop for a trinket to commemorate the experience.  Then the patrons can walk back out the front doors and return to their home gaming systems, smartphones and iPods, breathing a collective sigh of relief that they live in a country where there are ATMs, detergents with color-safe bleach, and pornographic websites.  And museums ask us patrons to pay for the privilege!  Which, to return briefly to the topic of the degree to which we open ourselves up with wonder and awe reflexively at anything that appears in a museum, brings up another issue:  we also tend to respond the same way to anything we have to pay for.  This hyper-openness and ultra-receptiveness sets us up for the kind of cultural programming that exhibits like the Peabody’s potlatch exhibit suffer us to endure.

The exhibit begins with an introductory page reading “What is a potlatch?”  The Peabody online curator describes the potlatch as a social event given by an individual or a family “to uphold their place in society” and to “highlight [their own] status by displaying wealth.”  He (I’m using the masculine because all three named professors that contributed to the exhibit were male) goes on to comment that in the gift-giving rituals of the Northwestern clans’ potlatches, the attendance at such events and the acceptance of the hosts’ gifts confers validity and tacit acceptance of the social status that they proclaim.  A potlatch is defined as a social gathering celebrating a significant event in the family, including “speeches, singing, feasting, dancing, and gift-giving.”  (All direct quotes came from the text of the website.) This is what you and I would call a “party,” a relatively common cultural phenomenon for us, to be sure, but throughout the cyber-exhibit, the curator fails utterly to draw any connections to the common experience of the modern museum-going mainstream American, creating the illusion that the rituals presented are somehow significantly different, a process I have referred to in other recent blog posts as exoticization.  In fact, that there is virtually no element of these “potlatches” that is in any way alien to our own experience.  In failing to draw these connections, to make these links, to show the common elements of world cultures instead of focusing on the superficial differences, this exhibit contributes to divisiveness and ethnocentrism.

The display is presented in sort of a slideshow format, an internet analogue to individual wall- or floor-mounted display cases.  A single photograph or small group of photographs provides the visual, and a paragraph or two of explanatory text replaces the index card of ethnographic data familiar to most museum-goers.  The exhibit is easy to “stroll” through; every attempt has been made to recreate the feel of walking through a museum, and I believe that they have succeeded – all triumphs and shortcomings intact.

The first sub-heading of the exhibit is entitled “foods and feasting.” It goes on to describe customs and traditions associated pre-20th century potlatches: how guests were seated, and the nature of the feast(s).  Among other things, it informs us that guests were often seated on the basis of status, a tradition not at all far removed from the concept of the “head-of-the-table” common to traditional American dining rooms, or that of the special table reserved for the members of the wedding party at a reception (the “head table”), or even the differentiated-price seating that is commonplace in all theaters, concert halls, sporting events, and political fund-raising and charity dinners – the closer you are to the action (i.e. the more prestige) the more you have to pay (i.e. the greater your socioeconomic class, or status).

Further, it offers us the revelation, “Foods served at potlatches varied seasonally.”  Duh.  In an agrarian society (remember, we’re still talking about pre-20th century, here) of course the food offerings will have varied seasonally.  You can’t even get strawberry pie at Baker’s Square twelve months a year in San Leandro, California... is this supposed to be a significant piece of cultural information?

The illustrations provided are of “traditional feasting artifacts.”  I should laugh myself sick; can you see some 23rd century anthropologist referring to a picnic as a “common American leisure-time familial celebratory feasting ritual” and paper plates and plastic flatware as “traditional feasting artifacts?”  This is a common practice, the phrasing of a concept in a more haughty or esoteric fashion to give it a more scholarly bent.  Lunch hour at school could be called a “diurnal communal feasting ritual” but it’s not, because there is no driving need to make school lunch seem like more than what it is.  However, with museum exhibits, this need abounds; hence, silly and inflated phrasings of things that would probably be better understood (and more honest) if they were presented into laypersons’ terms, unless there is a pressing need not to. (This would also render them more accessibly, and would demystify and de-exoticize, allowing for more appreciation and understanding, which is ostensibly the point all along.)

More to the point, the illustrations are photographs of some spoons and some dishes or serving trays.  The exhibit does differentiate, with the spoons display at least, between an item designed for daily use, and an item designed for feasting use.  The difference is quite clear:  the regular spoon is carved wood, whereas the celebratory utensils are horn and copper.  This suggests a relationship between the preciousness of the material and the importance of the event, although it could be a number of other factors:  perhaps it is the luster of the material?  Or the difficulty of the workmanship?  Or the scarcity of the material?  Or the superior smoother feel of metal or bone as compared to the roughness of wood?  We are left to draw our own conclusions to a very important issue.  Further still, no discussion is given to the form and style of the spoons; they are presented as functional objects, which, unfortunately is anticlimactic and uninteresting, the function of spoons being by-and-large blissfully uncomplicated.

The next section of the exhibit is entitled “gifting.” “Excessive gifting developed during the 19th century as a means of negotiating status within and between groups.”  First of all, what is implied by “excessive”?  It is never explained.  Secondly, how is this any different from the concept of a bridal dowry, a phenomenon common to many cultures?  How is this appreciably different than the common anxiety that we often feel, that we will be judged on the quality of our gifts, or that we do not want to be outdone by someone else’s gift. During courtship, do we not typically lavish our loved one with fine gifts?  Why does a man buy his fiancée a $5,000 engagement ring instead of a $1000 one when 99 and 44/100 out of 100 people do not even possess the specialized knowledge of gemology to differentiate quality-wise between the two identically-sized diamonds? It’s the same social force.  Why were these connections and explanations not provided, or even alluded to, by the Peabody?  Did they not think it valuable to highlight social constants and universals?

“Available resources determined the kinds of gifts distributed.” Is this earth-shattering wisdom? Is it the role of educational institutions to state the obvious?  Would anyone be so foolish as to say, “The car that I shall buy will depend on the money I have available to buy it?” (Credit and such notwithstanding, though if the curator’s comment were designed as a lead-in to a lament of the Northwestern clans’ lack of access to Visa and Mastercard it would be at least forgivable.)

This faux pas was partially redeemed by a brief but useful follow-up discussion on the effects of European contact on these traditions:  In particular I found it interesting that, over time, the nature of gifts shifted from items such as lambskins to include such things as sewing machines.  But in the rare cases (such as this) where the curator did provide some valuable historical contextual discussion, it was shallow, and brief.

The display ended with a brief encapsulation of contemporary potlatches, stating that they “continue to be important events in the cultural lives of native peoples on the Northwestern coast” and that “the patterns of gifting would be recognizable to the coastal tribes of earlier periods.”  Again, the over-inflated talk of simple matters.  Why the concerted effort to make anthropological inquiry so inaccessible to a normal person?  Why the calculated neglect and failure to link other cultures’ behavioral patterns with our own?

The answer:  To heighten the sensation of “us” and “them.” If “they” become too much like “us” then we can no longer justify putting “them” in a museum.  

You wouldn’t cage your cousin, would you?

In concluding its remarks on contemporary potlatches, the curator begins a paragraph with “‘Parties,’ as they are now sometimes called, commemorate a significant event...”   This is the pinnacle of ludicrousness. Has “party” become a new piece of inner-circle anthropological jargon?  Last I knew, it was a term in fairly wide use, and reasonably well-understood at that.  (For that matter, even the lexical similarity between “potlatch” and “potluck” is ignored; whether or not there is any true etymological significance is irrelevant - the fact that it is something that would naturally occur to the average person viewing this exhibit makes it automatically worthy of mention and clarification.)

I believe I know what the curator meant to say, that being that the Northwestern peoples have begun to adopt the word “party” to refer to what they formerly referred to as “potlatches,” a statement that, phrased properly, goes a long way toward illustrating an effect of the dominant-culture paradigm on language, culture, and tradition.  But the Peabody failed to do this.

It states in hushed awe (well, it’s a silent exhibit, but if there were aurally discernible awe, I’m quite sure it would be hushed.  After all, it is a museum…) how the planning for these “parties” – and of course, “parties” must be in quotes! – could last weeks, and reach costs of over $10,000.  Which is all well and good, except nowhere is there any discussion of what sort of planning used to go into the potlatches of the 18th and 19th centuries, and nowhere is there an analysis of the relative value of $10,000 to an elite clansman now, compared to a sewing machine to an elite clansman 50 years ago, compared to a couple of lambskins to an elite clansman 150 years ago.  Without that context, the figure of $10,000 for a party is relatively meaningless.  Have you priced weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, funerals, proms, or honeymoons lately?

Regretfully, what we as modern American life-long learners would expect from this distinguished institution falls far short of what we need.  This extra-contextual means of presenting cultures diminishes their value in multiple ways:  the arbitrariness of the means used to select the artifacts used as visual cues, the enhancement of the subconscious “them” versus “us” mentality, the emphasis on dichotomy presented luridly under the guise of “exoticism” without being balanced by a bit of world-context grounding, the relegation of the most mundane objects of a culture’s daily life to curio status... we are collectively Ariel, The Little Mermaid, oohing and aahing at forks and tobacco pipes.

In the 1982 animated feature The Last Unicorn, the screenplay of which was written by the author of the excellent novel of the same name upon which the film is based, Peter S. Beagle, there is a potent scene where Mommy Fortuna, an illusionist witch, has captured a real unicorn for display to her carnival-goers.  Mommy Fortuna’s magic has no true transformative power; she can only create illusions for willing and gullible viewers.  But the world is in a sad state of affairs, and because man no longer believes in unicorns, that they even exist or ever have existed, most people cannot see them, perceiving them instead as simple white mares.  In recognition of her audience’s deficiencies, Mommy Fortuna casts a spell to put an illusory horn on the unicorn’s head, one that the common folk can see.  Mommy Fortuna’s assistant, a hedge wizard named Schmendrick, a man of faith and good heart who recognizes the poor trapped creature for what she really is as soon as he sees her, and understands that her place is not in a museum, consoles her in her cage as he schemes to rescue her (transcription is mine):

SCHMENDRICK:  (hurriedly but calmly, looking over his shoulder to not get caught) Tell me what you see here, don’t be afraid... look at Your fellow Legends and tell me what You see…

UNICORN:  (amusement, turning to anger)  What [she] calls a Manticore looks to me nothing more than a shabby, toothless lion... and she has them believing that that poor old ape with the twisted foot is a Satyr!  Illusions, deceptions, mirages!  (with a hint of superiority)  Your Mommy Fortuna cannot truly change things!

SCHMENDRICK:  (with great sorrow) That’s true, she can only disguise, and only then for those eager to believe whatever comes easiest .... No, she can’t turn cream into butter, but she can make a lion look like a Manticore for eyes that want to see a Manticore, just as she put a false horn on a real Unicorn to make them see the Unicorn.  (profound reverence now)  I know You.  If I were blind, I would know what You are.
The question is, then, how blind are we?

I wonder, when we are dealing with students from different populations, different backgrounds, different races, religions, cultures and traditions, how often do we inadvertently cross the line between respecting the individual, and condescendingly exoticizing the individual? 

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