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.