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]