I am going to give a detailed account of why I think Bill Nye, the science guy, failed in his attempt to debate creationist Ken Ham at the bizarro-world Creation Museum last month in Kentucky. But before I get to that, I will post this pre-cursor: an essay I wrote about a similar debt that took place when the Dover school system here in Pennsylvania attempted to add creationism to the science curriculum. My point here and in the next analysis is that anthropology provided a way to make sense of these sort of debates in a way that either a scientific or a religious approach do not.

 

Egyptian Spit, “Intelligent Design,” and Other Tales of the Origin of the World

The belief system called “intelligent design” (ID) that is being debated for inclusion in the Dover school curriculum is certainly not scientific, and there is no benefit in redefining science just to fit in this one, narrowly focused, newly-minted origin story. But it is disconcerting to hear opponents of religious origin stories like intelligent design state that there is no place in a school curriculum for a discussion of beliefs about the beginning of our worlds.

There is some benefit, as anthropologists around the world have often noted, in examining and comparing different systems of religious principles in order to understand why people believe certain things and how they act on those beliefs. The place, then, for the discussion of religious origin stories and their related cultural agendas is certainly in a classroom, a classroom of anthropology.

But a warning: an anthropological approach would place ID and creationism into some pretty fascinating and quite provocative company, and ID supporters will find that their simple tales may not hold up to such cross-cultural competition. For example, the Australian Aborigine creation time, roughly translated as “The Dreaming,” conveys the work of spirits who designated features of the landscape that are still lived in by today’s original people of Australia. In the Southwest United States, there is a breathtaking description of emergence from an underground lake by the first Pueblo people and their subsequent spread across the harsh but magnificent landscape.

The ancient Maya left an account called the Popol Vuh which tells the story of gods who simply thought the world into being and then, wanting to be admired, populated it with flawed humans made out of maize. Native Hawaiians can describe the creation of the natural world from a gourd that was split in half and the creation of people from red earth. Over time the ancient Egyptians had several ideas about creation, some involving mucus, spit, and other bodily fluids, one involving a goose that lays an egg, and all designed to be integrated with the contemporaneous political situation. Creation gods have been male or female or sometimes both at once; they have been sneaky shape-shifters, bizarre jokesters, good teachers, bold thieves, dangerous animals, and aspects of the sky, the water or the land. They have been both kind and really, really nasty.

What would quickly become evident in a cross-cultural comparison of intelligent design with other origin stories is that they all have similar mythological elements and characters: the divine beings who dramatically create the natural world, tricksters who try to deny or thwart that creation, humans who leave on journeys that separate them from the divine or from nature, and human beings who have forgotten how to trust each other. They also have similar functions: to make sense of today’s problems and issues by using origin stories that are supposed to explain why things are they way they are.

All the world’s belief systems are rich in myths and rituals and symbols that prove the creativity of the human mind and the vibrancy of human social life. It would be a shame if intelligent design supporters and opponents alike, by trying to limit religious ideas about creation to one spare tale, kept us all from seeing this bigger picture of the world’s religious beliefs painted on a huge and diverse canvas. Science is another canvas altogether, and it would be a disservice to both religion and science if they had to live by each other’s rules

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There is nothing more interesting today than reading the dissenting views of the Supreme Court justices on the case of United States v. Windsor which negated a section of the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). Antonin Scalia wrote a vitriolic dissent that had amazing language blasting his fellow justices. In his concurrence, Justice Alito, joined by Clarence Thomas, tried to give us an anthropology lesson, stating that (p. 14),

While modern cultural changes have weakened the link between marriage and procreation in the popular mind, there is no doubt that, throughout human history and across many cultures, marriage has been viewed as an exclusively opposite-sex institution and as one inextricably linked to procreation and biological kinship.

Sorry guys, but that is not even close to the truth and if you are using that in any way to bolster your case, you lose. I’ll make it easy for you: you don’t have to even read an anthropology text, just look it up in Wikipedia which actually gets the range of pre-Christian marriage types somewhat correct.

Here’s the point: all you need is just a few examples of how the Western form of marriage—one formed by “romantic love” between people of opposite sexes— is not the norm across time or cultures. Different cultures have always had a different take on how to form unions between individuals, groups, humans and spirits, the living and the dead. You have to love the description of men in India who marry a plant!

“Marriage,” however you define it, is not a universal institution. Never has been. Christianity has tried, in its worldwide efforts, to make marriage uniform and in its own image, but humans do not in any sense “naturally” form the bonds of monogamous opposite-sex relations that Christianity requires.

Every first year anthropology student learns about different types of marriage and kinship. Polygamy (one man marries several women, common until recently among Mormons and still common in some parts of the world); polyandry (one woman marries several men); monogamy (one sexual partner for the duration of the marriage), serial monogamy (one sexual partner at a time), and open marriage (agreement of partners in a marriage to have additional sexual partners). It goes on and on, so how is it possible that a Supreme Court justice (or two or three) does not know this?

I wanted to scream in 2011 when the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, claimed that teaching students anthropology was a bad use of resources. “We don’t need them here,” he stated. He wanted to redirect funds to learning in science and technology. That would give us lots of technologists and scientists that end up believing things like the Supreme Court justices: bogus information on how human act and believe and understand their worlds. That does not make for good technology that can be useful to these very same human beings.

All these guys could use a lesson in anthropology. As an article in Mother Jones explains, Scott and other politicians who are calling for the same gutting of a liberal arts education have a clear reason for it:

That, in the end, is perhaps why Scott’s really out to kill anthropology and the liberal arts: As opposed to conservative-friendly disciplines like economics and business management, liberal arts produce more culturally aware and progressive citizens, inclined to challenge ossified social conventions and injustices. Eliminate cultural and social sciences from public colleges, and you’ll ultimately produce fewer community organizers, poets, and critics; you’ll probably churn out more Rotarians, Junior Leaguers, and Republican donors.

Or, you’ll churn out more ossified Supreme Court justices who never learned the first lesson of anthropology: that every culture approaches its task of how to organize the world in a different way and from these cultures we can learn a lot about how we, ourselves, could act.

P.S

From Mother Jones:

bubblechartrevise

One sure-fire way to test the legitimacy of the 2012 predictions stuff you might be reading is to look at the language the author uses to describe these folks who supposedly predicted the end of the world on Dec 21, 2012. The scholarly world refer to the ancient and contemporary people of Mesoamerica who, starting around 4,000 years ago, created a magnificent and complex civilization that continues to this day. The proper term for these people, at least in scholarly language, is “Maya” (the contemporary Maya have other terms for who they are, but that is another part of the story). The word is not “Mayan.” If your newspaper or magazine article or blog or tweet says, “Mayan” that person has not done their homework. Even Wikipedia gets the “Maya” and “Mayan” distinction correct (having been corrected many times by knowledgable editors over the years). It’s Maya, both singular and plural; the term Mayan refers to the languages spoken by these people and may also refer to scholars who study them, the Mayanists. By the way, if linguistics isn’t your thing, use this other test: if they talk about the Lost Continent of Atlantis or ancient astronauts and extraterrestrials, run for the hills!

Every bogus prediction uses the term Mayan. It is like some uncontrollable tic, which is kind of nice because it is like a red flag going up for you, dear reader. But there is another problem that is beginning to surface, which is that acknowledging the existence of real Maya people doesn’t matter. Recently I had a discussion with some fellow members of my 3D modeling community at the DAZ 3D site (here is the link but you may have to be a member of the community to see it: Calendar Stone discussion). The question was whether the model offered for sale, called Mayan 2012, should have been based on an Aztec calendar stone instead of something specifically Maya.

Although I had no dispute with the quality of the model (and actually purchased it), and the description of it by the designer is appropriately vague, it is another example of mashing up all things south of the border and remote in time. That this is not a Maya image he is using, but an Aztec one, is what I pointed out. The reaction and conversation should tell us, anthropologists, just how we have failed to help educate the world about the wonders of diverse cultures. The discussants basically dismissed the need to distinguish the Maya and the Aztec, arguing they are the same or that ethnicity or cultural identity or historical accuracy is not important.

People are used to make labels on everything and everything is based on theories . Yesterday they called them Aztecs today they are Mexican and tomorrow God know what else ..

 

I always understood that he Aztec calendar was based on the Mayan Calendar anyway.Who cares? I bought it and I love it.I’m sure anyone who needed a genuine Mayan calendar would know straight away what this was because it’s far more famous visually than a Mayan calendar.

And it is often used as a symbol for the Mayan Calendar.

 

 

Ethnicity really does not matter.

 

This next one especially disturbs me because she was an anthropology major!

Don’t worry about mixing up Aztec and Maya. It happens all the time and we are all fair game to human error. I’m a former history/anthropology major and this little mix up didn’t upset me in the least. You got the right general area and era so I give you props for that. Smile

Check out the work of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center for a sense of why acknowledging heritage and identity is an important act. I will be starting a pop culture blog on heritage to tie this in to examples like this one here.

I am using my entry into the 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show to explore the use of miniature settings to tell a story. This is an increasingly popular form of art as can be seen in the show last year in New York, at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD). Called “Otherworldly: Optical Delusion and Small Realities”, it explored the use of scale models to create alternative worlds. I am also working on a virtual, online museum exhibit that explores these same themes in different cultures and across time, looking at ancient miniatures and those in non-Western cultures. Miniatures have always been used to explore other worlds writ small and they occur in so many different forms and sizes.

My entry in the Philadelphia Flower Show is described in another blog: Philadelphia Flower Show Miniature Settings. See how one of these settings is created as I document the steps.

A miniature gourd pot for my Hawaiian setting

 

This year (2011-2012) the University of Pennsylvania has chosen the theme of “Games” for a series of on-campus activities and explorations. The best thing I have seem associated with this theme year is the development of a Quidditch team at Penn; the worst thing is the small display on games at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

The Penn Museum should have been the perfect venue for an exhibit on games. It has an extensive collection of games from different cultures around the world and across time. The gaming collection was not accidental but the deliberate development of the first director of the museum, Stewart Culin (1892-1899). Culin thought that studying games was important because other scholars and many collectors were certain games were only interesting because they were “primitive pastimes” that proved that “savage” cultures we inferior to more evolved Western ones. Culin thought, instead, that the study of games was essential for studying any culture because it connected everyday life with mythology and worldmaking, two activities that define cultures. Through a study of games, Culin thought he could figure out the “worldview” of a culture, its general perspectives on how the world worked, the mythic concepts that guided its thinking, and the categories it used to organize the world and keep chaos away. He published a renowned book, Games of the North American Indian, that is still highly regarded today, nearly 100 years after its publication. The connections between games, gambling, divination, worldview, and mythology constitute Culin’s greatest contribution to anthropology.

To carry out these research concerns, Culin collected gaming materials for the new museum at the University of Pennsylvania. Many of these artifacts came from world’s fairs and international expositions, many of which included ethnographic displays of material from other cultures that showed connections between other human traditions and ours. Other artifacts came into the collection through archaeological excavations by Penn scholars and Culin’s own fieldwork. I have written about the significance of Culin’s work and gaming in a publication of the Penn Museum and will use some of that publication to explain the problems with the Penn Museum exhibit. A PDF of the entire article can be downloaded here:  Veni, Vidi, Vici: Taking a Chance on Chance

The hundreds of objects in the Penn Museum gaming collection could have given a fine sense of the significance of play in human societies. Instead, the museum has presented a small, two-case display that distorts the significance of games and play, and provides simplistic and inaccurate comments about games. Both cases contain text that fails to reflect the rich ideas of gaming theory, and they promote one simplistic purpose of gaming: to win. If there is anything games are not about, it is simply winning, or simply producing one winner who beats out the competition. This “winning is all” mentality would never be presented as the definition of play, gaming, competition, or games by anyone who had spent the least bit of time study the literature on the subject from the past 100 years. That it dominates the Penn Museum exhibit suggests either a hasty exhibit design or one controlled by an uninformed designer.

First the exhibit cases: there are two, one labeled “Games of Chance,” and the other labeled, “Games of Skill.” Each case contains a single, small window that contains several artifacts. Over the window is an explanatory text; below the window is a quote and artifact identifications. “Games of Chance” contains playing cards, ancient dice, Tarot cards, and a Hopi game board. The “Games of Skill” contains different kinds of balls.

Each case contains a large print quote from authors whose connection to gaming is not at all clear. Nevertheless, the selection of these quotes is illuminating of the faulty process by which these exhibits were designed. The first case, Games of Chance, has a quote from the 30th U.S. President John Calvin Coolidge: “Those who trust to chance must abide by the results of chance.” It’s hard to think of a less meaningful definition of chance or a less meaningful source for such a definition. Calvin Coolidge? Conservative, small-government, Silent Cal Coolidge? I’m guessing good ole John Calvin Coolidge never had fun at games in his whole life so why pick him to say something about games of chance? He didn’t believe in chance and stated that explicitly in his 1925 Inaugural Address; he believed in business and history and an unchanging human nature. I was not able to find a context or source for the quote used in this exhibit but the second half of it seems to be, “They have no legitimate complaint against anyone but themselves.” It is a damning statement for those who believe in chance. Coolidge and his conservative cronies believed that Americans had to take care of themselves and those who left their fate to chance (or worse, thought the government should help them) were foolish and deserved to suffer. Coolidge, by the way, was known for his inactivity  and for running a government that did nothing, on purpose. When learning that he had died, writer Dorothy Parker reportedly said, “How could they tell?”

Calvin Coolidge:

Not the best source, obviously, for a statement on chance. I would have chosen Gerda Reith’s brilliant book, The Age of Chance: Gambling and Western Culture, as a source of the definition of chance which, she points out, has changed through the millenia. Today, chance is associated, Reith says, with uncertainty, insecurity, randomness, risk, unpredictability. Chance doesn’t require a quoted definition as much as an understanding of its shifting and pervasive influences. Gaming, especially gambling (playing at games of chance while risking something tangible), is an engagement with chance. As Reitch says, gambling involves deliberately and knowingly stepping up to chance and seeing how far we can push it, “challenging destiny to reveal its intentions” because, even if we cannot change destiny, its intentions are weakened under our knowing attacks. She concludes that “gambling offers a microcosm of the uncertainty of the outside world” and this means that games are about more than a few artifacts that show what we play with. They are about how we try to make the world secure, she emphasizes, not how we try to win or become rich. Games, says French social theorist Roger Caillois, in his book Man, Play and Games, let us experience a world in which there are conditions of “pure equality” that we are denied in everyday life. The rules of chance and merit (his word for skill) are “clear and indisputable” in play whereas in real life they are always in dispute.

The second case in the Penn Museum exhibit describes Games of Skill and the quote highlighted in it is from author John Ruskin: Skill is the unified force of experience, intellect and passion in their operation.  As far as I can tell, Ruskin had nothing to do with gaming: it is as if someone did a search for the word “skill” and found a quote that fit the space, even if it was not entirely significant. The quote is so difficult to untangle that it certainly is not the best way to define what is meant in this case by skill. I don’t know much about Ruskin but a simple wiki search (which anyone inserting this quote could have checked) suggests that he was not enamored of displays of skill but felt instead that an artist’s work should communicate their worldview, their moral outlook. To him, art (one of the subjects he wrote about) should not just be a demonstration of skill. Not the best person to be quoting for a definition of skill.

Reith points out that the distinction between games of skill and those of chance is artificial when it comes to gambling. Although there are elements of skill to playing poker for example, there are also elements of chance. This blending of these the seemingly different modes of play was acknowledged by the refusal of American federal authorities to sanction online poker because the element of chance was, for them, too integral to the game. Calloiss talks about skill, as described above, as something you bring to a game, not something that is inherent in the outcome of the game. Skill, or merit, is tested against chance and each player has the same opportunity to display and test their proposed superiority. The “prowess” one brings to a game can be wiped out, Callois reminds us, by the effects of chance which negates the influence of “work, patience, experience, and qualifications.” That blending, or even battle, between skill and chance, is what makes games so fascinating, not whether a game has only one or the other. They are always implicated in our understanding of the outcome of a game.

So the quotes, such a prominent element of the design of the cases, are irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. And the basic premise of the two cases, that you can divide skill and chance, is overly simplistic and unfortunate.

Back to the first case which presents the concept that one of the two forms of  gaming is games of chance. Nowhere is there a definition of games or play or chance (and the connections between them). There are many possible definitions of play from many perspectives: economic, social, biological, psychological, physiological, cognitive, therapy, ritual, educational, neuroscience, mathematical, political, etc. Any of these could have informed an exhibit but since none of them was used here, I will suggest the one I prefer. I see play as an essential part of the flow of everyday human life, not a set of activities completely different from everything else we do, especially work. Play is stepping temporarily away from the everyday and entering into a set of activities that comment on, test, prod, challenge, redefine, confirm, and/or rehearse the real and the mundane. Play, says Roger Caillois, is “an occasion of pure waste” that takes place in an alternative universe that is voluntarily entered and abandoned at will. It is both restrictive, with clear and precise rules, and free, offering pleasure even though its outcome is uncertain or dangerous or expensive.

Where does that pleasure come from? For anthropologist Victor Turner, that pleasure is inherent in the state of liminality, the experience of in-betweeness. Entering a liminal or in-between world (as we do in play) lets us experience a world of rules turned upside-down, logic  challenged, cause-effect reversed, masquerade and imposture valued, chance run rampant, values redefined, and prohibitions laughed at. We play because we have to, because in order to understand how to evaluate and question the arbitrary nature of rules in the “real” world we need to experience its illogical alternative. The people who don’t play, who aren’t playful, are by definition uncreative, narrow-minded, blind to alternative visions, and stuck in the mundane.

Fate, chance, risk, luck, and destiny are all ways of thinking about and categorizing the world into those things you can do and control, and those things that seem beyond human control, beyond all rational, logical, magical, or religious explanations. Humans use the rules of specialized play to find out how chance works, what happens when they tempt fate, and how far they can push the laws of logic, cause-effect, statistics, and probability. James Smith and Vicki Abt, in their article “Gambling as Play,” suggest that in gambling, like in much game play, “There is a balance of skill—which makes the victory honorable and worthy of admiration— and luck—which makes victory possible for the less skillful.” It is interesting to them that most adult gaming involves chance and they suggest that, “Perhaps adults have less confidence in their ability to control their destinies and are therefore more willing to accept the unearned prizes bestowed by chance.”  If this is the case, gambling is less about the exchange of money and simple fun and more about the production of meaning and sense in a world of chance and risk.

Games are organized and cooperative play, and games can take all sorts of forms: that is what makes them so fascinating and what makes the appearance of gaming throughout human history so relevant. Greeks in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE played a drunken gambling game called kottabos during which they tossed wine dregs at an elaborate target, winning sweet treats, kisses, eggs, or a look at their future.

Kottabos players from a wall mural at Paestum, Italy (photo by Louise Krasniewicz)

As long as 5,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians, in the afterlife, played a board game called senet, which re-enacts the nightly voyage of the sun god and the soul of the deceased through the Underworld, resulting in a judgment before the gods and an elevation for the winner to divine status. The stakes in this symbolic passage through the stages of the afterlife was nothing less that the player’s soul! A recreational version of the game was likely played by the living.

A senet board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY (photo by Louise Krasniewicz)

Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary, reported that the Aztec wagered on a violent ballgame and also played a pachisi-like board game generally called patolli.

Aztec playing patolli as both a game and a spiritual activity, Codex Magliabecchiano

Games in mythology are often about order and chaos. Stewart Culin felt that the games were born out of the human desire to understand, categorize, and control our world. He saw evidence of this in the existence of gaming and gambler gods in tribal origin myths. For example, the Navajo tell of a Great Gambler god who, like his counterpart in other cultures, is a powerful supernatural being that shakes up the world and needs to be put back into his place. In these tales a good gambler-hero must defeat the god and restore order and justice. Similarly, in the ancient Maya Popol Vuh, the hero twins defeat the Lords of the Underworld in several bizarre games that include a ball game played with heads. Likewise, one of the great national epics of India, the Mahabharata, contains a dramatic account of a dice game that changes the fate of the entire world.

The second case in this exhibit insists that the most significant aspect of games is competition and the drive to win. It states, “Games are competitions that have a common goal: to win.” That is such a narrow view of play and games: it seems to favor organized, and maybe even professional and intercollegiate sports, as its prototype. I emphasize the cooperative rather than competitive nature of play because the idea that most play must result in a winner defeats the purpose of play and games. Winning is often incidental, important in some aspects of games but not in others and not the main reason to play. Maybe the truism, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” should come into play here, so to speak. How you play the game says much more about you as a player in the world of games than all the wins in the world. If the recent scandal at Penn State involving its winning football team should teach us anything, it is exactly that. No championship in the world, no trophy or honor for most wins or fancy sports facilities or millionaire coaches is worth more than the honor of playing—and living— with fairness and dignity and respect and caring for others. Competition and winning, as defined in this museum case, are misleading and damaging to our sense of play.

I just attended the Quidditch World Cup in New York, a gathering of 100 teams devoted to playing the centuries-old fantasy and real magical game revealed in the Harry Potter books. That there is competition in the games is not denied: everyone wanted to see the defeat of the 5 year champions, Middlebury College. But more importantly, this gathering and the games were about defining who you are, and who your community of shared values is. It is about making meanings, and making life more meaningful than is possible in cutthroat competition and the quantification of all aspects of life. It is playful, in all the wonderful and community-strengthening aspects of play. The sport, in which fantasy becomes reality for a brief time,  is played on over 300 college campuses and high schools, and in 12 countries.  It includes males and females on all teams and people of different sizes and abilities.

In the opening ceremonies, the International Quidditch Association commissioner, Alex Benepe, gave a speech that conveyed the origins of the sport on the Middlebury campus in 2005. Benepe told of overhearing at Middlebury two dudes making fun of the nascent Quidditch team and that only strengthened his determination to support the development of Quidditch. It was important, he stated to wild enthusiasm from the thousands of players and spectators in attendance, to, in his blunt words, “show those douche bags” just how cool and fun and valuable Quiddith was. He also encouraged players to play a “beautiful” game and to, of course, clean up after themselves.

The 2011 Quidditch World Cup (photos by Louise Krasniewicz)

The Penn Museum exhibit could have taken a lesson from the magical Quidditch players on just what constitutes a game and why games are so important. That the museum presented an overly simplistic and inaccurate exhibit on the meaning and value of games makes it a poor contribution to The Year of Games at Penn.

Steve Jobs is dead and it kills me to have to say that. He has contributed more innovation to our  society than most of us who have been left to live on. He has many lessons to teach us (see his speech at Stanford University for examples) but here is one that hit me as I was walking through the Penn Museum right after news of his death.

Jobs was famous for not using focus groups and consumer testing to try out his spectacular new products before they hit the market. I have been at several of his keynote presentations at MacWorld in San Francisco and Boston in the 1990s and the thousands of us who entered the auditorium to hear him (after waiting in line for hours) always left wanting the new gizmo or service he had just introduced. We were some of the cutting edge computer people then so we weren’t naive about what we had been shown. But no one had asked our opinion before the iPod, iPhone, or iPad were introduced. Instead they were designed and created by innovators, design geniuses, and people with a visionary mode of thought. Jobs exemplified this type of leadership.

An article after his death in Forbes magazine explained it this way:

 To create the future, you can’t do it through focus groups – There is a school of thought in management theory that … you’ve got to listen to your customer.  Steve Jobs was one of the first businessmen to say that was a waste of time.  The customers today don’t always know what they want, especially if it’s something they’ve never seen, heard, or touched before.  When it became clear that Apple would come out with a tablet, many were skeptical.  When people heard the name (iPad), it was a joke in the Twitter-sphere for a day.  But when people held one, and used it, it became a ‘must have.’  They didn’t know how they’d previously lived without one.  It became the fastest growing Apple product in its history.  Jobs (and the Apple team) trusted himself more than others.  Picasso and great artists have done that for centuries.  Jobs was the first in business.

There is a new exhibit in the Penn Museum that is soliciting ideas from the general public about how and why the museum should display its African collection. This is apparently a favorite approach of funding agencies these days, funding processes that ask visitors what they want and then giving it to them. Imagine doing that with, for example, the upcoming Penn Museum exhibit on the ancient Maya and 2012 predictions of the end of the world: It could have ended up looking like a display at a bad New Age convention (rest assured,  it won’t).

Now the Penn Museum exhibit, Imagine Africa, has some fine notions and impressive community leaders behind it, and there is no faulting it for trying to involve outsiders in the planning of an important exhibit. But you have to wonder if the museum would be willing to do the same thing with, say, the collection from the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Let’s bring in some Greeks and Romans and ask them what they think of their stuff displayed all lined up in pretty cases. Or if it would be willing to let Israelis and Palastinians come in and scribble up stuff about how to display their conflicting groups. Should an entire museum be designed this was or is there something special about Africa that requires this approach?

Within the museum there is not a visionary, like Steve Jobs, who can come up with a way of seeing this amazing collection of cultural artifacts in a fascinating, innovative, shockingly brilliant, or awe-inspiring way. Good exhibits don’t come from comments written on white boards or from survey questions on a computers. They come from visionaries, as Jobs has said, who connect the dots in ways no one else can see. As Jobs stated it,

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Designers, then, of a new African exhibit need to be thinkers: they have to really “get” the material, not just make it look nice. They have to know it, figure out how it works. As nice as it is to get comments on the displays of clothing and toys and body decoration, it takes living with these objects for more than a few minutes to “get” them. As Jobs described it, ” It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

The thinking Jobs is talking about is described in the “Think Different” ad campaigns that Apple used to honor and align itself with the world’s creative thinkers. The text of the ads, both as videos and in print, stated,

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

As Jobs concluded, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” A broader understanding of human experiences, the kind that anthropologists develop through their cross-cultural perspective, could help develop a new African exhibit but the museum has not invested in a full-time African curator, a curious oversight considering the data being gathered by the exhibit needs to be analyzed by someone with the broader experience that includes actually being able to make those creative connections that come from years of fieldwork and research in Africa. Just tabulating the “metrics” and spitting out marketing plans would be an insult to the  inspiring thoughts Steve Jobs has put into our world and to the millions of Africans who made and used these objects.

Steve Jobs: gone, just when we need him the most.

A friend just sent me a link to an amazing LEGO site and it reminded me of the silly attempt by some anonymous staffer at the Penn Museum to ridicule my interest in LEGOs. The link was to a full world creation of Middle Earth from the Lord of the Rings movies and books. Now I must confess that I know more about Lord of the Rings from the superb WMS slot machine created recently with that theme than I do from the books and movies but I can appreciate the effort to recreate an entire world with LEGOs or any other medium (my theory of film is very much related to this concept). The work was collaborative, international, showed the value of community, expressed an entire comprehensive culture, was expertly done, cared about its audience, excited viewers, showed care and creativity, was both individual and communal, was family friendly and great for adults too, and just makes you smile with wonder. When was the last time you saw anything at a traditional museum that did the same for you?

Photo by Leda Kat

An overview of the 2011 Brickworld collaborative project