There’s a doozy of a story developing at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I want to get some of the background out about this story so that China, its government, its people, and/or its museums are not automatically painted as the demonic perpetrators of a cultural crime. If someone decides to dig past the surface of this story, there are all sorts of interesting anthropological insights here. I predict that the fact that two years ago the Penn Museum fired all of its cultural anthropologists and only has archaeologists, art historians, business school graduates, students, and bureaucrats on the staff has an awful lot to do with the mess they have gotten themselves into.

The Penn Museum announced in an emergency staff meeting today that the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit that they have been planning and spending mucho bucks on, has been busted. The show was supposed to bring several hundred thousand people into the suffering museum and at $24.50 a pop was supposed to save help the museum become, in the words of some museum financial person, fiscally responsible. It was to be, in the words of the Silk Road curator, the “rebirth of the museum.”

For reasons the museum refuses so far to reveal, the 3 mummies and dozens of artifacts that were to make up this exhibit are not being allowed to be exhibited in Philadelphia. They have already been exhibited in California and Texas. Curious, don’t you think, especially since the director’s office announced that the artifacts were, indeed, already in the museum and the Chinese couriers were being wined and dined as the exhibit was being readied. There is a good story there.

All the news stories so far have announced that the exhibit tickets already sold will be reimbursed and a page on the museum’s website said the same thing, until it was taken down after about an hour. But whether the show eventually goes on or does not, the damage is done and a portal into the new workings of this museum has been opened. No matter what, the Penn Museum now looks like it can’t do anything right.

When it decided to reorganize and eliminate some of its researchers (only the anthropologists) a few years ago, the museum took a turn towards commerce. It hired endless, expensive consultants and marketing companies, inhouse marketing and visitors’ staffs that now number several dozen people, and an exhibit company that designs its exhibits (previously exhibits came out of actual research, not marketing plans). Now, all of this money (several million dollars) did not, I guarantee you, come from the money saved by eliminating three middle-aged cultural anthropologists. Instead, apparently, the museum’s executive staff borrowed money from the University and perhaps even from some of its other internal funds in order to carry out its vision: a blockbuster show each year that would make lots of money for either the museum or the university or both.

When university museums succumb to the disease pushed by business school graduates and “academics” with dollar signs in their eyes, they should expect a disaster like the one that is unfolding. Stay tuned, but don’t blame the Chinese. It’s the Chinese New Year, the year of the rabbit. Maybe the museum’s non-anthropologists should have looked that up first before they went ahead with their cynical plans.

I spent a great deal of effort avoiding the pre-release hype surrounding Avatar. I didn’t go to the Comic-Con session about it or read any of the online buzz or previews or reviews or interviews. The reason I did this is because I wanted to give this movie a chance to win me over when I finally got to see it. I wanted it to work. I really did.

I have found the critiques of Avatar fascinating. As The New York Times described on its front page, people are reading all sorts of messages into the movie, from the most socially conservative to the most philosophically radical. This, I think, is the measure of a good movie (that is, a movie that is good to “think with”). This kind of flexibility is not a weakness but a gift, the kind good movies give us: the excuse to talk about things that need to be talked about.

As I describe to my students (in a course called “Anthropology and the Cinema”), the meaning of a movie does not reside in what is actually shown on the screen. The meaning of a movie is only created by our using it: thinking about it, talking about it, imitating it, critiquing it. Avatar isn’t about the White Man’s Burden (or white guilt or the Messiah complex, or whatever you want to call it), or about ecology, or about the evils of militarism and capitalism. We can certainly use it to talk about these things and even though much in Avatar is heavy-handed (“unobtanium,” anyone?), it is still good to think with.

How does it do this? One way is to use a familiar story. Many critics and viewers have expressed concern about the “stolen” story of Avatar. They note that this supposed original take on an alien encounter sounds awfully familiar, like Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pochohantas, or other movies that include oppressed Native Americans rescued by sympathetic white men. But there are no original stories that would resonate with the large audience Avatar has attracted and it is precisely because it is a “stolen” story, one that our culture tells over and over, that it has been popular.

The story is not just one of military vs science, or military vs natives, or commerce vs nature, or animism vs monotheism (that one is from the Vatican). It is actually all of these and more: it uses one of the most common and general themes of American narratives: what happens when we encounter something that is different. How will we act, what will we think and feel? Will we honor our core values or betray our deep fears? Will we be honest, kind, understanding? Will we be open or closed, mean or helpful? We constantly, daily, endlessly test this in our selves and our culture. The movies offer us endless scenarios for testing this out in a virtual universe that has different parameters (blue people instead of some other color, an alien planet instead of next door) and a lot less real-world repercussions for our testing.

The complaints about this movie being like Dances with Wolves, etc, are not wrong, but they are oh so narrow. This movie is also like Cameron’s own Titanic, The Abyss, the Terminator movies, Dark Angel (on TV), or Aliens. It is like Gran Turino and Atonement and The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire and District 9 and every alien movie ever made, not to mention most buddy movies and chick flicks, and Disney animations from Beauty and the Beast to Tarzan. They all ask the same thing: can you love someone who is different, can you work with someone who is different, can you ever understand someone who is different? I don’t know that we can even find a definitive answer to these and other questions; we are just, as humans, always endlessly looking.

So, is Avatar a good movie? You can apply your aesthetic criteria and get one answer and you can apply your political criteria and get another. But if you apply your anthropological criteria–is it good for thinking about what it means to be human–then Avatar succeeds but not, as Cameron claims, because it is unlike any other movie that has ever existed, but rather precisely because it is so like so many other movies that have gone before.

I am not going off to the annual American Anthropological Association meetings until Friday, and then only for a day. In fact, I have not been to the meetings in years. We are a two-anthropologist family (a dangerous enterprise) and it always seemed more important that my husband go and keep us his contacts since he had the tenured position and I simply floated from one temporary teaching job to the next. Now, don’t get all gender-pissed at me: I can uphold my feminist credential against any onslaught but the fact is, we under-employed anthropologists have to pick and choose how we spend our non-existent conference dollars and how we exercise our minor status. The meetings, quite simply, just make me feel bad when I see so many happily employed anthropologists in one place.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t miss the session at 10:15 that Faye Ginsburg is chairing tomorrow (Friday): EXPLORING THE “BOUNDARIES” OF EXPRESSIVE MEDIA IN ANTHROPOLOGY. This is what I do (I think), in my research and my classes and it will be worthwhile hearing how other people are doing this. The fact is, way too much anthropology for me has become one of two things: an attempt to quantify everything and emulate the hard sciences, or a noble but I think misdirected effort to cozy-up to social work. My research involves talking to people (easy to quantify: today I talked to 10 people) and listen as they tell me how they think their world works. But I don’t feel the need to step in and fix their world or help them see how they can change it. If that condemns me as more of an observer rather than a participant, so be it.

Take offense if you will, but I love applying “old-fashioned” anthropological concepts (worldview, “the Other,” mythology, symbolism, ritual, categorization…) to the most contemporary topics: participatory fan culture, Hollywood blockbusters, and weird everyday stuff like 2012. And this is where the bedwetting comes in. 2012 (the movie) is worthwhile if only as an excuse to really really wreck Los Angeles this time. I saw, with true awe, my old house uplifted on a chunk of expensive realestate and plunged into the sea. The stuff of mythology.

Besides the quiche fiasco I described in my previous blog, there is a framing story that deserves mention. John Cusack plays a divorced dad who picks up his kids for a camping trip. His ex-wife hands him a tote bag that contains “Pull-Ups” (big kid diapers) for his daughter who still wets her bed. This was done in whispers, a shameful thing.

Now what this kid goes through in the next two hours would make anyone wet their pants but she remains fairly calm, protected by a series of heavy-handed symbolic hats. It is not until the end that she announces that she does not need the “Pull-Ups” anymore, thanks dad. I swear, that is the line the movie ends on. Makes you wanna scream, “It’s a damned good thing, kid, because that factory is probably lava-encrusted by now.” Is this the best story we can come up with about what is important at the end/ends of the world (of anthropology?). Maybe it’s a good thing the diaper factory is gone. Maybe we will learn to “Depend” less on the things that make us ashamed to put on our symbolic hats and face the apocalypse.

I told my students at the beginning of this semester that they should email Claude Levi-Strauss. My suggestion was that they tell him that his theories on mythology were still among the most relevant we could use as we were studying American mainstream movies as a form of mythology. They didn’t take me up on the suggestion, but we are using aspects of structuralism as we explore this contemporary form of mythology. It really makes sense to students to search, for example, for the binary oppositions that seem to make up the tension or problems in the stories. Then, looking for the mediating factors in those binary oppositions helps explain the mythological impact of even the most mundane movie blockbuster. So, hats off and farewell to Claude Levi-Strauss who gave us important and useful tools for understanding all aspects of human life, even something as seemingly irrelevant as a Hollywood movie.