Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Relativism, Multiculturalism, and Myth: New Stories about Modern Museums

What if witty cultural commentators reviewed museums the way they do music and restaurants? If Anthony Lane turned his cutting tongue from movies to museums? If Stephen Colbert "reported" on museums at times other than during the TV writer's strike?

We're not used to being analyzed label by label, artifact by artifact, the way plays, meals, and other cultural items are. It's painful. And instructive. And revelatory. And painful.

Political satirist PJ O'Rourke has written a maddeningly fascinating article on the Field Museum's new exhibition on Ancient Americas in the conservative publication The Weekly Standard. It's a long, funny piece with a disturbing conclusion, namely, that we have washed out, dumbed down, and stripped the dignity from classic exhibitions by embracing multiculturalism and avoiding presenting anything potentially offensive. O'Rourke wants us to return to the old. Instead, I see his words as part of the challenge museums face adapting to a new world with a distributed sense of authority.

O'Rourke takes the most umbrage at the curatorial stance that ancient Americans were "just like us." As he puts it,
At the Field Museum, the bygone aboriginal inhabitants of our hemisphere are shown to be regular folks, the same as you and me, although usually more naked and always more noble. Ancient Americans have attained the honored, illustrious status of chumps and fall guys. Never mind that they were here for 12,000 or 13,000 years before the rest of us showed up with our pistols and pox, so most of their getting shafted was, perforce, a do-it-yourself thing.
He points out that human sacrifice is given an "everybody's doing it" soft touch whereas the invasion of Western colonialists is depicted in its own "pity parlor:"
You enter a hushed and funereal room with tombstone lettering on black walls.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

In 1492, the first European explorers arrived in the Americas, triggering a
devastating loss of life almost inconceivable to us today.

Mao Zedong, please go to the white courtesy phone.

The article is full of these funny, frustrating vignettes that cast the exhibition content as overly politically correct, lacking in information above the 4th grade level, poorly organized, poorly inspired.

More than anything, O'Rourke laments the dissolution of the mythic role of the museum in our cultural landscape. He waxes poetic on the time he spent at the Field Museum as a child visiting with his grandmother, awed and overwhelmed by the savage dioramas, unwrapped mummies, and general aura of mystery and knowledge. This is pure sentimentality, and to me, a weak argument. The myth O'Rourke prefers, that of museum as reverential temple, is no less problematic than that of the multicultural happy family. The same can be said about his preference for presentation of content on the Ancient Americas. Here's his concluding argument:
The ancient Americans weren't regular folks. They lived strange, spectacular lives on strange, spectacular continents untrod by man and more remote for them than Mars--or the world of museum curation--is for us. The ancient Americans were tough as hell. They did their share of nasty stuff. But even the Aztec don't deserve to be patronized, demeaned, and insulted by what is--or is supposed to be, or once was--one of the white man's great institutions of learning.
This is just another myth, one more palatable to O'Rourke than the "they were just like us" myth. On the Field Museum website about the rationale for this exhibition redesign, staff comment directly on the changing focus of research anthropologists, stating:
The notion of “cultural progression”—meaning that the most “successful” cultures are those that are the most “socially complex”—has proven to be untrue. Today, scientists understand that people change cultural practices to respond to changing conditions. Change is complicated and not necessarily in a straight line towards “progress.”

Research has shown that there is no best or model culture; all cultures have advantages and disadvantages and these can only be assessed in the appropriate social and environmental context. All cultures are equally valid to the individuals living in them. And all people question their culture’s rules or norms at times. This new understanding dramatically affects our interpretation of cultural development across the ancient Americas.
Additionally, the Field site points out that many of O'Rourke's favorite displays, which he characterizes as "curled and yellowing but unchanged: respectful, factual, precise" are laden with inaccuracies and stereotypes.

You could stop here and cast off O'Rourke. Times have changed. He's out of touch (and often off-putting). But that's not the whole story.

Because the Field Museum is trying to do something new, they have to work hard to overcome O'Rourke's (and everyone else's) preconceived notions. It seems that the Field doesn't do a great job clearly or consistently conveying this new anthropological world order. It's harder to understand an exhibition organized by "challenges" than one arranged by geography or time. The Western colonialists who are portrayed as invaders inflicting suffering via disease and religious conversion do not appear to be portrayed as "equally valid" to the cultures of the native peoples. And O'Rourke's frustration with the use of language like "anthropologists don't fully know" in label text is understandable. From O'Rourke's vantage point, the museum has increased its finger-wagging while decreasing its knowledge. As he puts it:
At the portal of the "Ancient Americas" exhibit is the first of many, many wall inscriptions telling you what you should be thinking, if you happen to do any of that.

The Ancient Americas is a story of diversity and change--not progress.

Were this a criticism of pre-Columbian societies, you'd be in for an interesting experience. It isn't. You aren't.

The above lines tell me that (from O'Rourke's angle) the museum has retained an authoritarian posture while dropping the authoritative content. How annoying! Are we authorities or aren't we?

We're still working out how to distribute authority, to share it, to acknowledge situations where we don't have it. It's hard to tell this new cultural story without being cast by conservatives as relativist, wishy-washy know-nothings. It's equally hard to please those on the opposite side of the spectrum; O'Rourke's article
reminded me of the cultural wrenching at NMAI, and Jacki Rand's thoughtful indictment of that institution as ceding too little authority to native voices. It also recalled the Creation Museum, and its ability to tell a compelling (authoritative) story, appealing to some, abhorrent to others.

O'Rourke is wrong. We don't have to go backwards to go forwards. Instead, we need to relearn how to tell stories skillfully in this new context of flexible, distributed authority. O'Rourke's article is one of many challenges that motivates me to seek out new models for compelling, powerful experiences in a new authority order. Otherwise, we find ourselves castigated, learning (and cringing) from people who remember simpler, more exotic tales--and think we have nothing better to offer.

3 comments, add yours!:

vigil said...

Hmm. The position you adopt seems pretty relativistic to me. In fact, it seems precisely relativistic to me.

Jennifer Rae Atkins said...

Nina, I had much the same reaction you did to the P.J. O'Rourke piece. I'm a little hesitant to draw any conclusions without seeing the exhibit myself, but I couldn't help but think, based only on what he said, that despite his sometimes infuriatingly reactionary style, he made some good points. I've had his essay on my mind, too, and am also inspired to work harder to find exhibition models that don't patronize, dumb down, gloss over—or preach from on high, either.

I certainly don't have the answer, but I do appreciate O'Rourke's take on the issue.

Madeline Nusser said...

I'm a Chicago-based museum-critic, and I've seen this exhibition and written about it. And O'Rourke needs to do his research. When he maintains—or, sartorially insinuates—curator Jonathan Haas is overly PC, he's simply incorrect. Do your research, Mr. O'Rourke. Haas isn't afraid to point fingers at warmongers, no matter what ethnicity or time-period. Furthermore, O'Rourke and Weekly Standard failed to fact-check the article: The "grand" entrance is indeed in use, the brontosaurus wasn't "pushed to the back," it's in O'Hare airport. And in its spot is Sue, a real (not to mention, famous) skeleton (unlike the fake brontosaurus cast). Furthermore, Haas isn't patronizing anyone, he's merely looking at exhibitions in a slightly different way—a way O'Rourke might not have noticed without the March 5 New York Times. (To read about Haas's theories, check out my article "Remains to be seen" on timeoutchicago.com.) I don't mind a little controversy, but this "Ancient Americas" backlash is sad, and uninformed. Erg, I think I'm going to go write about it.