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.

Advertisements

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

Check out Jeremiah Jenne’s discussion of the Penn Museum Silk Road exhibit at his blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio.

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.