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:

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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

 

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.

In The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850), the scarlet letter “A” was a badge of shame. But not here, not in the wonderful world of anthropology. So, a word now from Scarlet A (anthropologist):

In a recent issue of the American Anthropologist (December 2010), John Comaroff has an essay about the purported “end of Anthropology.” Comaroff presented this topic in a lecture in the Penn Anthropology Department some months earlier (and in various places around the world in the past few years) and the essay (“The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline”) provides the same illuminating examples and arguments that his lecture did. Comaroff does not believe anthropology is ending and in fact points out how more than ever we need the insights anthropology offers to make sense of the strange things happenings around us.

I can’t do justice to his nuanced and detailed arguments and I can’t pretend to understand everything he references. But because I want to get these ideas about the value of anthropology involved in the current Penn Museum discussions, I will try to summarize some of the valuable points here.

Here is what anthropology offers each and everything it touches, looks at, considers, and contemplates, in what Comaroff calls five operations:

1. Operation One: A different take or a different point of view on how something works. This questioning of how things are done “normally,” how decisions are made, what the conventional wisdom is, why things have “always been done that way,” why certain things are acceptable and other things horrifying and taboo, who controls what gets said and why, who controls what decisions are made and why, all these things an anthropologist would question not in order to be simply contrary but to be critical in the academic sense of that term. This critical stance does not let secret decisions stay secret and hidden agendas stay masked; it does not let exercises of power go unquestioned and it does not take sides in order to drown out other voices. In the question of a museum exhibit, Scarlet A would ask why this exhibit and not some other, who has a stake in making this exhibit happen as planned, who made compromises and made deals and expects something in return for turning a blind eye to questionable practices or oddball decisions. Who is protecting whom, and why?

In Comaroff’s more elegant words:

“What is it that actually gives substance to the dominant discourses and conventional practices of that world, to its subject positions and its semiosis, its received categories and their unruly undersides, to the manner in which it is perceived and experienced, fabricated, and contested?”

2. Operation Two: How does the world we live in get produced and come to seem inevitable and natural? How does a process, like defining ethnicity, actually end up creating ethnic categories and the resulting human behavior: biases, segregation, wars, genocide. Scarlet A asks how does a process like creating a museum exhibit make selections and decisions that result in the production of knowledge that is anything but transparent and inevitable. Anthropologists don’t take these things as a given, they investigate how they came to be and in doing this point out that what seems inevitable could have ended up being any number of other things. This is an amazing action that anthropologists take because it pulls the rug out from under our smugness, our certainty, our sense of superiority, our sense of rightness and goodness. It is humbling and empowering all at the same time.

This time, in Comaroff’s more difficult words, which I hope I read correctly:

“The second operation involves being-and-becoming: it is the mapping of those processes by which social realities are realized, objects are objectified, materialities materialized, essences essentialized, by which abstractions—biography, community, culture, economy, ethnicity, gender, generation, identity, nationality, race, society—congeal synoptically from the innumerable acts, events, and significations that constitute them.”

3. Operation Three: Anthropologists often look for those moments or situations when there is a break in the facade or a rupture in the routine or a failure in an enterprise or a problem that suddenly gets revealed. These moments of rupture often, remarkably, lay bare all the structures and processes that have been keeping a well-oiled machine from revealing its squeaks and its rusty bits. These moments when things as they have been or things as they should be are suddenly cracked open are a brilliant source of illumination. They show what has been concealed in order for things to seem normal. And once the rupture occurs, it is hard to put all the junk back in its previous place (and we would also watch carefully the process by which that was attempted). Scarlet A takes notice of those moments when things fall apart and says, “Wow, how did that happen, why did that happen, and who is trying to make it go away?”

In Comaroff’s words:

“The third operation is the deployment of the contradiction, the counterintuitive, the paradox, the rupture as a source of methodological revelation.”

4. Operation Four: Situating what we are studying in multiple dimensions of time and of space. If we are studying something, we show how the particular occurrence we are looking at has analogies or parallels in other places and other times. This comparative layer to our work brings it back to some of the discipline’s basic concepts: that nothing humans do is done in isolation, it is done in patterned forms. The symbolic has economic and historical dimensions at the same time and in previous and future times; the religious is not divorced from the commercial or the political; a decision that seems local has connections to so many things and incidents that are global. Trying to tease these out of what seems to be just a local phenomenon or just a global situation is the power of an anthropological perspective and ignoring this perspective renders any analysis dangerously vapid. Scarlet A points out that museums, above many other institutions, are ripe settings for looking at these intersections.

In Comaroff’s words:

“…the fourth epistemic operation: the embedding of ethnography in the counterpoint of the here-and-there and the then-and-now—in a word, its spatiotemporalization”

5. Operation Five: We move back and forth between things and ideas, the abstract and the concrete, the theory and the practice. This continual movement not only provides a sort of self-correction to both data collection and its theorizing but it places the anthropologist in a responsible position: to not let one overwhelm the other, to not let observations run rampant over theory, to not let theory beat down observations. We care to reach not a balance but a never ending dialogue so that we don’t get stuck in the same “conventional wisdoms” that we so dearly love to unpack. Scarlet A promises to try to stay in motion but when faced with museum exhibits that are atheoretical, that only want to revel in the material for their beautiful materiality, she sometimes has to put her foot down and stomp a bit!

For Comaroff, this means:

“…the founding of the discipline on grounded theory, on an imaginative counterpoint between the inductive and the deductive, the concrete and the concept, ethnographic observation and critical ideation; also, in a different register, between the epic and the everyday, the meaningful and the material.”

Anthropology, Comaroff points out, has principles, and these principles not only makes it a unique contributor to any analysis but also make it a crucial component of any intelligent operation or presentation. To ignore anthropology is to laugh at these principles which give a humane insight into any kind of practice.

It also, not incidentally, would make any museum show that followed these principles much more interesting, less crass, more significant, more engaging, truly interactive (without unnecessary buttons), mesmerizing, fascinating, thoughtful, stunning, and yes, beautiful. And, to show that it would not cost two million dollars, I will design some such virtual museum exhibits in a future post called, “If I Were a Rich Man…”

But I am not a rich man, I am….Scarlet A.

I had no intention of continuing my musings on the Penn Museum’s absent mummies and artifacts in their “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit (see Don’t Demonize the Chinese: Happy New Year, Rabbit). This is not because I was being pressured by the director of the museum to stop blogging about this (in this blog that hardly anyone reads! What was he worried about?). He warned of consequences for me and my department but since I was already fired by this same director (see What’s in a Name?: The Real End of Anthropology) I can’t imagine what other consequences I would suffer. The pillory? Shaming? Wearing a big scarlet “A” (for Anthropologist!)? I reminded him of the rules of Academic Freedom (and I should have added good ‘ole American Free Speech) and it has rested since then.

I was willing to let all this go until the article in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer online. It was just too funny to pass up the opportunity to comment on the latest news.

The article reports that the museum, knowing for a while (at least two weeks) that it was going to have trouble getting actual artifacts for this exhibit, started manufacturing fake mummies, or “dummy mummies” as someone in the museum came to call them. It also included cutout photographs of the objects that could not be used. Now, since this show’s entire foundation is pretty objects, that is just the funniest development, these low-tech representations of real precious artifacts. I wonder if anyone in the museum sees the irony?

The director of exhibits was quoted as saying, “We had to do something. We had so much invested in this.” Ugh! Did she really say that? How crass that must sound to the paying public. How about, instead, “We had to do something. Our audience really deserves more than pretty objects. They deserve an intelligent conversation about culture and ideas and people and contact and time and travel and concepts of space and being.” But, alas, you will never hear that coming out of the current museum designers at the Penn Museum. They have too much invested in it.

The really funny part of the news article is that one visitor is quoted as saying, “If they hadn’t told me, I probably would have thought they were real”  and another supposedly asked, “”The mummies aren’t here?” Maybe the museum shouldn’t have told anyone and just duplicated all the objects secretly. Who would know or care? Well, actually, the museum itself would because it has entered the arena of potentially-blockbuster shows. In this arena, the goals is getting bodies in the door. With this comes boasting rights: I got more people than you, I got to show harder-to-get objects than you, I got more publicity than you, I sold more stuff in my shop.

In the museum world, there has been an interesting discussion on whether museums actually need to have and show all their objects in order to carry out their mission (see Steven Conn’s book). I would argue that any museum could make a very compelling exhibit with anything (even dummy mummies) as long as there were some Big Ideas behind the exhibit. These Big Ideas recur in all the important cultural conversations we have (in literature, history books, novels, music, art, movies, mythology, every format you can think of): what does it take to be human, what is valuable, what differences matter, who is us and who is other, who gets to decide all these things, and so on.

But that is not what was happening at the Penn Museum. This was not an effort to turn around and go in the right direction away from a failed exhibit. You have to remember that this show was advertised for its spectacular objects with descriptions of the beauty of the female mummy being most prominent: .”…with graceful eyelashes, long flaxen hair and serene expression, the ‘Beauty of Xiaohe’ seems to have just fallen to sleep.” Sheesh! When anthropology/archaeology museum exhibits are based on the beauty and uniqueness of their objects, then they are playing in that different arena: that of the art museum blockbuster. That is pedigree of this show (it was formed by the Bowers Museum in California which is known for its display of material culture from other cultures as if they were fine art) and it is not an accidental part of the problem here.

Everybody supposedly loves mummies: isn’t that how this show was marketed? It was so funny, then, that one of the parents at the show’s opening stated that he didn’t care that the mummies weren’t there because his daughter was afraid of mummies anyway. The daughter said, “They’re just scary.” Amen.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer article described above:

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.