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.

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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:

Now I remember why I dislike academic conferences so much:
1. I don’t like having papers read to me (does anyone?).
2. I don’t like having one image projected on a screen and never changed for the 15 minutes when someone is reading to me.
3. I don’t like time hogs who use up discussion time: there is never time for discussion
4. I don’t like constant references to failed technology or unfamiliarity with projectors, computers, presentation software, or DVDs.
5. I don’t like that most presenters have no clue how to construct a text slide: your squinting audience is not proof that they are intensely interested. The fact is they can’t see what you wrote in your 12 point type.
6. I don’t like …, well, you get the idea.

The academic conference is a time-honored ritual that needs a facelift. Who could possibly think it is interesting to have someone read a paper to you? At least tell me about your research, like you were giving a lecture in one of your classes. I don’t need the citations and requisite references to this philosopher and that theoretician. TELL ME what you do and why it is important. Put the paper online so I can read it if you have convinced me.

For god’s sake learn to make visual presentations and how to run them. There are tons of websites that tell you how to do this and if you just use the simple rule that a picture really really helps get your idea across, you will awaken true gratitude in your audience. Don’t know what button to push to advance your images? You are not ready to face an audience.

The fact is, I am spoiled. I have been going to digital media conferences (SIGGRAPH, for example) and popular media conferences (Comic-Con, for example) for several years and there, performance is everything. You convince people of your ideas by demonstrating them, verbally and visually. You talk and joke and lighten up. They have billions of dollars at stake and they can do that. Why can’t we?

So here is my strategy for a much improved AAA meeting:
1. Have 3 sessions a day. That’s it. Sessions everyone comes to. Make them big, raucous exchanges. Have the presenters give examples of the most current ideas and most interesting trends in the field. Then open it up to discussion. A big, raucous, out-of-control discussion (with a great moderator to keep it semi-confined). Comic-Con style, people get in line at the microphone and are projected on the screen when they are asking a question. Nothing anonymous about it. As at Comic-Con, you would not be allowed to ask the presenters for an autograph or if you could have their baby.

2. Have the presenters in those three session do dynamic visual presentations designed to get people thinking. If they don’t know how to do this, I’ll show them. These should be prepared weeks ahead of time and refined by presentation date, not done on the airplane ride to the conference.

3. Provide a virtual conference online where those adored papers are posted and where everyone at their own time and place can read and comment on them. Have at least one session a day comment on the most interesting posted papers.

4. Have a big-name lecturer who gets people going and thinking. I remember the year Stephen J. Gould was there. The place was all abuzz after that.

5. Have Michael Herzfeld from Harvard be the Master of Ceremonies. I have never heard a more gracious, interesting, or smart discussant (he was the discussant in session 2-176 on Friday). And he has a great voice. I just hope he likes to sign autographs. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~anthro/social_faculty_pages/social_pages_herzfeld.html

6. Have Tom Boellstorff provide everyone with a metaphor so their presentations are more meaningful. He gave a talk on cloud computing (sounds dull, huh?) that was delightful and structured by a cloud metaphor and it all made sense. http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/boellstorff.php

7. Have Ruth Behar direct a photographer and/or videographer to record the whole thing and then post it online so we can all comment on it. Ruth showed her work with Cuban Jews (cool topic, eh?) and accompanied her talk with the most amazing photographs (taken by another photographer under her direction) and personal reminiscences. Ruth could direct it all and make it both beautiful and meaningful. Ruth Behar: http://www.ruthbehar.com/

8. Have a digital “film festival” in which everyone who wants can try to show their research in a one minute digital video. The model can be a video Faye Ginsburg showed by a man with ADD. It was brilliant and really immersed the viewer into his world. See Scott Logon’s work at: http://www.ligon-art.com/scottvideo.html (why aren’t we making videos like this????). Faye Ginsburg: http://as.nyu.edu/object/fayeginsburg.html

9. If there are still going to be thousands of papers, use an idea from SIGGRAPH (a very competitive, high-end, very technical digital technology conference): run a “Fast-Forward” session the first day. In this session, everyone has 30-60 seconds in which to present their main idea and get people to come hear their presentation. It is fascinating, funny, informative, exciting, and sometimes weird and it helps make conference planning easy. You also get to present your ideas to a huge audience even if they don’t come to your session. See it at: http://www.siggraph.org/s2009/performances_special_events/fast_forward/index.php

10. I could go on but other ideas, like getting the Family Guy  cast to read all the papers, just might not be practical but would be a lot more interesting and thought provoking. But now I remember why I don’t like the AAA meetings. Thanks for the memories…

As the AAA heads to Philadelphia to discuss the End and End(s) of Anthropology, it will find itself face-to-face with a readymade case study.
The story of “What Really Happened at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology” started in November 2008 when the research scientists of the museum were informed that their positions were being terminated as of May 2009. The 18 or so researchers (the number is uncertain because of odd job categories) were told that this was a cost-saving move to protect the future of the museum. Soon after the announcement, the administration of the museum began defending its decision, explaining that the researchers had originally been hired on grant money (which was not the case; most were never on grant money) and now that the grants were over the museum could no longer afford to keep them on.
Some mild protests were lodged in the press and an online petition campaign aimed specifically at saving the archaeologists and lab scientists who were supposedly under the knife garnered several thousand signatures. The administration of the museum had to explain in several press interviews that it had every intention of “saving” (their term) the researchers who did worthwhile work. Internally, several curators and administrators announced that they would make every effort to “save” the people in their own sections (geographic areas).
In the end, all but three of the researchers were “saved” and are still working in the museum, most at similar or the very same jobs they had before the economic crisis that was supposed to be solved by their departure. The only cost saving came from the three researchers who were not offered a continuation of their employment. All these researchers were women, all were over 50, but perhaps most significantly, all were cultural anthropologists. In fact, they were the only full-time cultural anthropologists in the museum. As Agatha Christie would say: And Then There Were None.
Coincidence? To understand what really happened, we need to step back to the first months of the new administration of the museum (see note below•). Quite often when the new director mentioned the name of the museum, he called it the Museum of Archaeology. Now, granted, the museum’s full name is a mouthful but everyone had gotten used to taking the necessary extra gulp of air needed to say the whole thing. After a few months of this shortened version of the name, several of the cultural anthropologists took to saying out loud, “and Anthropology,” when this happened at staff meetings.
At the same staff meetings, this archaeology-only agenda for the museum started becoming more specific with direct and unambiguous statements about the need for the museum to pull away from the influence of anthropology. The long history of association between the museum and the Department of Anthropology at Penn was being presented as a problem that was about to be solved. Also about to be solved was the entire field of anthropological archaeology which, it was stated in several contexts, was misguided and needed to be entirely revamped. It was the plan of the current director to lead this charge to remake American archaeology in the image of British archaeology.
A few weeks before they were formally told that their jobs were being eliminated, the researchers met with a representative of the museum administration to discuss why they had not received information about their research money. Again, this person said “The Museum of Archaeology” several times and I finally asked directly, “Why do you and the director say the name of the museum that way, without saying ‘anthropology’?” His answer confirmed for me that the naming was deliberate and was in support of the goal of eliminating anthropology at the museum. His answer was that the director felt that the term “archaeology” covers both archaeology and anthropology, just like it does in the British model. If I am not mistaken (and I have taught the history of anthropology), the exact opposite is true: archaeology in most of Britain does not include socio-cultural anthropology at all.
The end of anthropology at the museum has come and gone. Some of the curators at the museum are anthropological archaeologists but no full-time socio-cultural anthropologists remain either as researchers or in other capacities. The museum has a series of lectures and programs that are almost exclusively focused on archaeological sites and its newest venture is a degree at both the undergraduate and graduate level in “world archaeology.”
The greatest loss, in my mind, is the larger perspective that cultural anthropology always introduces. The collections of the museum are ethnographic as well as archaeological and both types of material benefit from the attempts made by cultural anthropologists to connect material culture with living people. Whether it is using the depth of time provided by archaeological artifacts to demonstrate some continuity with contemporary behavior, or it is using more recent ethnographic materials to draw people to their past, cultural anthropology has the tools, the perspective, and the history of doing this. But this is no longer the case at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Dr. Louise Krasniewicz
Penn Department of Anthropology
•Full disclosure: my husband was the previous director of the museum and was replaced by the current director. He is an archaeologist and I have been an archaeologist in the past so there is no denigration archaeology intended in what follows.

As the AAA heads to Philadelphia to discuss the End and End(s) of Anthropology, it will find itself face-to-face with a ready-made case study.

This story of “What Really Happened at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology” started in November 2008 when the research scientists of the museum were informed that their positions were being terminated as of May 2009. The 18 or so researchers (the number is uncertain because of odd job categories) were told that this was a cost-saving move to protect the future of the museum. Soon after the announcement, the administration of the museum began defending its decision, explaining that the researchers had originally been hired on grant money (which was not the case; most were never on grant money) and now that the grants were over the museum could no longer afford to keep them on.

Some mild protests were lodged in the press and an online petition campaign aimed specifically at saving the archaeologists and lab scientists who were supposedly under the knife garnered several thousand signatures. The administration of the museum had to explain in several press interviews that it had every intention of “saving” (their term) the researchers who did worthwhile work. Internally, several curators and administrators announced that they would make every effort to “save” the people in their own sections (geographic areas).

In the end, all but three of the researchers were “saved” and are still working in the museum, most at similar or the very same jobs they had before the economic crisis that was supposed to be solved by their departure. The only cost saving came from the three researchers who were not offered a continuation of their employment. All these researchers were women, all were over 50, but perhaps most significantly, all were cultural anthropologists. In fact, they were the only full-time cultural anthropologists in the museum. As Agatha Christie would say: And Then There Were None.

Coincidence? To understand what really happened, we need to step back to the first months of the new administration of the museum (see note below•). Quite often when the new director mentioned the name of the museum, he called it the Museum of Archaeology. Now, granted, the museum’s full name is a mouthful but everyone had gotten used to taking the necessary extra gulp of air needed to say the whole thing. After a few months of this shortened version of the name, several of the cultural anthropologists took to saying out loud, “and Anthropology,” when this happened at staff meetings.

At the same staff meetings, this archaeology-only agenda for the museum started becoming more specific with direct and unambiguous statements about the need for the museum to pull away from the influence of anthropology. The long history of association between the museum and the Department of Anthropology at Penn was being presented as a problem that was about to be solved. Also about to be solved was the entire field of anthropological archaeology which, it was stated in several contexts, was misguided and needed to be entirely revamped. It was the plan of the current director to lead this charge to remake American archaeology in the image of British archaeology.

A few weeks before they were formally told that their jobs were being eliminated, the researchers met with a representative of the museum administration to discuss why they had not received information about their research money. Again, this person said “The Museum of Archaeology” several times and I finally asked directly, “Why do you and the director say the name of the museum that way, without saying ‘anthropology’?” His answer confirmed for me that the naming was deliberate and was in support of the goal of eliminating anthropology at the museum. His answer was that the director felt that the term “archaeology” covers both archaeology and anthropology, just like it does in the British model. If I am not mistaken (and I have taught the history of anthropology), the exact opposite is true: archaeology in most of Britain does not include socio-cultural anthropology at all.

The end of anthropology at the museum has come and gone. Some of the curators at the museum are anthropological archaeologists but no full-time socio-cultural anthropologists remain either as researchers or in other capacities. The museum has a series of lectures and programs that are almost exclusively focused on archaeological sites and its newest venture is a degree at both the undergraduate and graduate level in “world archaeology.”

The greatest loss, in my mind, is the larger perspective that cultural anthropology always introduces. The collections of the museum are ethnographic as well as archaeological and both types of material benefit from the attempts made by cultural anthropologists to connect material culture with living people. Whether it is using the depth of time provided by archaeological artifacts to demonstrate some continuity with contemporary behavior, or it is using more recent ethnographic materials to draw people to their past, cultural anthropology has the tools, the perspective, and the history of doing this. But this is no longer the case at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Dr. Louise Krasniewicz

Penn Department of Anthropology

•Full disclosure: my husband was the previous director of the museum and was replaced by the current director. He is an archaeologist and I have been an archaeologist in the past so there is no denigration of archaeology intended in what follows.