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:

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.