Making archaeology popular.

First run in 1951, “What in the World?” was the Penn Museum‘s Peabody Award-winning popular weekly half hour television program on CBS in which a panel of experts would guess information related to four or five unidentified objects. This program was aired for 14 years and was wildly popular. The show began with an appropriately smoke/fog filled screen, mysterious music, and a haunting voice questioning, “What in the world..?”

Indeed, that is what I thought as well, when I first stumbled upon this show earlier this year.

The screen clears as we see silhouettes of three men sitting in chairs backlit and another male sitting on the right at a desk appears as the commentator tells us a bit about the show, and introduces us to Froelich Rainey, the director of the Penn Museum and host of the television show. From there Rainey takes over, introducing the show and the panel of experts. As each object is introduced to the television public, it is engulfed with smoke and mysterious music — othered beyond itself. We (the watching and listening public) are told what it is, where it is from and what its function might be. After we are told, the panel of experts must prove their mettle, and we watch three ‘expert’ men hovering around an artifact, ‘guessing’ provenance, date, and function.

I cannot tell what irks me more, the fact that my alma mater is what has created this orientalist archaeological public or that I did not know about it up until now.

The museum received letters for years talking about how much people loved this show. Froelich Rainey was very serious about bringing archaeology to the public – and his public loved him for it. This television show was not his only such endeavor; he also started Expedition Magazine in the Fall of 1958, and it continues to produce quality work for an educated but not necessarily academic public. With Rainey as Director, the Penn Museum oriented its programming towards public education, which unfortunately also meant the continued othering of contemporary populations (such as Native American groups). There was, during this time (and arguably in every time), a very clear sense of who a museum going public was and for whom this education was being constructed.

One year after the CBS/Penn Museum television show aired, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) modeled a similar game show between 1952-1959 entitled, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. This show was hosted by archaeologist Glyn Daniel – and in the episode linked to the title here, the panel of experts included Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Professor Sean P. O Riordain, and V. Gordon Childe. The show itself conducts itself in a very similar fashion, except that it was slightly more proper. The panel of experts on the BBC do not hover over objects, but rather, pass them among themselves. Reading about the history of the programing, I learned two things that really rattled me. Firstly, that V.Gordon Childe committed suicide and secondly, that Sir Mortimer Wheeler was voted TV personality of the year in 1954.

I am an archaeologist who works in South Asia with a focus on decolonization: my relationship with Sir Mortimer Wheeler is decidedly problematic. Most of the stories that I have heard about him from India and Pakistan have made him out to be a strict disciplinarian, a military dictator in the field. In Ancient Pakistan (1948) he writes about how lazy and somewhat stupid the local workmen are and how one must stay on top of them to get them to do any work in the field.

I watched in some combination of horror, amazement and astonishment at how Sir Mortimer Wheeler made the audience laugh with funny comments and seemed to be a great, jovial, somewhat mischievous colleague. As part of this new (for me) visual public, I began to enjoy him and thought him charming and witty. As a part of this public, I too overlooked a history I actually knew and was willing to grant him ‘a product of his time’ pass. Reading his figure in a contemporary moment, I was seduced by the production of a cult of personality that such a visual moving culture has the ability to conjure.

All of these men in these shows, all of whom I have read countless times, critically engaged with their ideas and demonstrated how they, being the products of their time, actually constructed Western centric, racist and sexist views of the past. Many of us in archaeology have been spending our time understanding our own epistemic underpinnings to re orient the way in which we might look to the past. It turns out, we archaeologists are not the only ones interested in doing this. Contemporary artists interested in issues related to postcolonialism/decolonization, social justice and social practice are as well.

One of my favorite artists, Pablo Helguera, did a project entitled, What in the World? (2010) as part of Philagrafika 2010. This project was inspired by the 1950s television series and the history of the Penn Museum. Through the use of objects he uncovers stories related to the people who discovered them, the politics around such discoveries and the ways in which these stories enrich our relationships and entanglements with these archaeological things. Perhaps my favorite is episode 2 (of 6) in which we learned about the relationship between a knife named “Ghost of Courageous Adventurer,” and Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit national (southeastern Alaskan).  There is much about his coming to terms with modernity in museum practice, and the conflicting reality of being and performing Native in Philadelphia, at the Penn Museum, and his then resultant relationship with his native community back in Alaska. Most poignant are the final scenes and thoughts over his death and legacy.

When V. Gordon Childe retired from the Institute of Archaeology, London University in 1956, he returned to Australia. According to Bruce Trigger (1980), Childe was unconvinced and somewhat disillusioned in his ability to develop new Marxist analysis of prehistoric pottery. He fell 300 meters to his death from Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, on the morning of 19th October, 1957.

I assign Childe’s article, The Urban Revolution (1950) in all my urban studies classes. I know the text inside and out. And yet, I never knew about his suicide.  RIP.


[Click on highlighted text for links]

Uzma Z. Rizvi

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah.

8 thoughts on “Making archaeology popular.

  1. Uzma, I really enjoyed this. You might like to read Childe’s farewell note. Glynn published it in an editorial in Antiquity at the beginning of 1980.

  2. I wonder. Speaking personally and perhaps in a way typical of my generation (pre-Boomer, how ancient is that), the adventure, the exotic, the othering were the heart of anthropology’s appeal, the sensory pole at the antipode from the big ideas that made the field intellectually interesting. Remove them and what is left?

  3. Thanks for the post, Uzma. Your post, alongside John McCreery’s comment, put this post in conversation with Theodoros’ post on the EASA conference in Tallin, as well as Kerry Hawk Lessard’s comments on my Michael Brown post, which was already a response to yet another one of your posts. I find this recursive intertextuality provocative, especially in relation to answering, orthogonally, John McCreery’s question about what is left to attract people to anthropology.

    Some of us did not come to anthropology because of colonial fascinations with alterity and ‘the exotic’. We were attracted to anthropology because of its potential for antiracist projects–but a potential which exists only when one is honest about the ways in which fieldwork is very much situated in a matrix of unequal–and unjust–power relations (as your post makes illuminates) and not simply about ‘transcendence’ in a race/power-evacuated sense. A fascination with ‘the exotic’ is neither politically neutral nor antiracist, after all. And for me such admissions are reminiscent of Sara Ahmed’s critique of Whiteness and anthropology, wherein she identifies anthropology’s long history of being a journey through a non-White other in order to reach a White self (i.e. transcendence).

    I appreciate your post not excluding Native people in the way Kerry Hawk Lessard discussed in her “On Being Fed-Up” comment. It reminds me of the antiracism anthropology can be directed toward, if practitioners so choose.

  4. “…the fact that my alma mater is what has created this orientalist archaeological public…”

    I’m not sure we can credit the Penn Museum with creating the Orientalist style of archaeological presentation, given that What in the World aired about a century after the initial Egyptology fever swept Europe, and decades after The Mummy played to packed houses throughout the world. Perpetuated, perhaps, but they are hardly unique in that regard.

    Museums still employ the “mysterious past” trope to hook crowds, and while they might then do their best to disassemble that trope in the exhibits themselves, it remains archaeology’s calling card for the general public.

    As for Sir Mortimer Wheeler, I don’t think calling him a “product of his time” constitutes a cop-out. It simply acknowledges that he, like all social scientists, was capable of doing service to his discipline and society while at the same time failing to examine the prejudices that undermined and contradicted his own positive contributions. A cautionary tale for all of us, I think.

  5. Serendipitously, I had a chance last week to visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. What I saw there was a conscious and, in my view, largely successful attempt to address the sorts of issues raised here. Entering the great hall, visitors are confronted with the overwhelming presence of Northwest Coast First Nations totem poles,  and massive ceremonial vessels used in potlatch. Exotic, mysterious other? Absolutely. But then we notice a dramatic difference from conventional ethnographic exhibits. These works are treated like the fine art they are. The guides and placards identify particular artists and describe in detail the works’ provenance – where they came from and how they were acquired, usually on loan or donated by specific First Nations and First Nation individuals. The addition of this information — a flat contradiction of the usual anthropological habit of maintaining informant anonymity and treating the art as the product of anonymous “folk”–to details of historical context, contact with European colonialism, decimation by newly imported diseases, and relegation to marginal, minority status brings the artists into a history shared with visitors whose ancestors may have been on the other side of the story. (I say “may have been” because many visitors are now from Asia and not at all “the white man” who plays the evil protagonist in most tellings of this history.)

    Leaving the great hall, we entered a gallery dedicated to works by young aboriginal artists, participants in a museum-run program that offers them the opportunity to reflect on and express their native cultures in new ways using new as well as old media. Some of the art is shocking; other works are sentimental. The remix of traditional and contemporary elements, traditional drum sounds in combination with hip-hop styles, for example, demonstrates the continuing presence and vitality of the artists’ native cultures in contemporary urban society. 

    Leaving this gallery, we found ourselves in an exhibition of Afro-Cuban art, addressing  the recurring themes of culture contact, race, gender, slavery, and warfare in a different cultural contex. Reading the placards and realizing that Cuba was one of the last places on earth from which slavery was abolished recalled the description of one massive figure from the main hall, in which a supersized representation of a First Native chieftain looks down on two slaves who kneel at his feet, once again disrupting and complicating white man-black slave stereotypes. 

    All in all, these exhibits seemed to me a masterful demonstration of anthropological insight in which the exotic and shared humanity are literally artfully fused. 

  6. I live with my girlfriend, who is from Delhi, in England, where we have access to BBC iPlayer, the BBC’s on-demand service. Several of Mortimer Wheeler’s shows have been added to the archive and I think we’d both agree that they’re great fun. Wheeler has a public school/army officer’s accent, a tweed jacket, and a luxuriant moustache, and he even smokes a pipe on camera. It’s a televisual distillation of antiquated colonial views and voices, and it’s amazing to watch. It’s bizarre to read of just how influential he was in the archaeology of South Asia after watching his caricature on the beeb. When I was reading Roberta Tomber’s Indo-Roman Trade earlier this year (an excellent book, by the way), I read out passages to my disbelieving partner to prove that this tweed-wearing sitcom colonel was actually an important archaeologist.

    Exotic things are undeniably appealling and exoticism is definitely one of the main reasons for interest in archaeology. There’s no avoiding that – not really. But I think interested people realise over time that there’s no a lot of interest to be found in exotic impressions and impressionistic accounts of other peoples’ lives, and they begin to focus on what life is really like in other parts of the world and at other times, and on where our ideas and products ultimately come from – the real meat of prehistory. The exoticism is always going to be the hook, and archaeology popularisers should take advantage of it to talk about what’s actually important.

    If they don’t do that, then a lot of the public seem to turn to Ancient Aliens and blend all the exotic stuff together with fakery and racist lies about extraterrestrial visitors.

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