Tag Archives: Museums

Infrastructure as Iron Cage

Weber’s metaphor of the iron cage is one of the most famous in all of sociology. It’s certainly stuck with me: I keep a bookmark in my copy of The Protestant Ethic (Talcott Parsons’ translation) at page 181 so I can always turn to the Iron Cage when I need it. Cos, like, you never know when you need to comment on the relationship between capitalism and the pervasiveness of rationalism.

Let’s pop in for a refresher.

It’s 1905 and Weber’s project is to undermine materialistic explanations for economic change by arguing that Protestant asceticism (self-restraint and the denial of pleasures) and the notion of having a calling (showing devotion to God by attending to worldly matters rather than seeking transcendence) laid the foundations for “modern rational capitalism.”

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresitible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. To-day the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.

Not ten years after The Protestant Ethic was published, Gregor Samsa awoke to find his soft flesh transformed into the hard carapace of a beetle (see Peter Baehr’s “The Iron Cage and the Shell as Hard as Steel”). Why does rationality behave so irrationally? It is strange when capitalism, which in the contemporary scene so values flexibility and mobility, invents constraints for itself that inhibit the very qualities it thrives on. It can also be more than a little bit funny, if you don’t mind gallows humor.
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Mixed Exhibits: The best of both worlds?

Post by Laia Pujol-Tost:

Archaeology is mostly about materiality. Its epistemological foundation is based on the relationship between humans and the material culture. Some of this objects, will later be displayed in museums to convey interpretations of the past. Yet, as Yannis Hamilakis and other authors have argued, Archaeology is a modern “science”. As such, it is mostly about the eye, and little about the body. On site, it mostly records and analyses visual, spatial, geometrical features. At the museum, this has meant a universal rule of not touching, and objects are isolated in showcases, for the sake of… mutual protection.

Then came Information and Communication Technologies (before they were called Digital Media), which under the promise of increased accessibility, interaction and engagement, reduced archaeological heritage even more to image and visualization: it had been digitalized; that is, de-materialized and even “de-musealized”. A series of evaluations conducted in museums since the 90s evidenced a conflict between the exhibition and the new media. The main reason being, as Christian Heath and Dirk vom Lehn pointed out, that exhibitions and computers belonged to different communication paradigms.


Around that time, several studies conducted in different European museums led me to the conclusion that the best way to integrate digital technologies was to stop just placing computers in exhibitions, and instead re-design the interfaces purposefully for such environments. Yet, what happened was the advent of mobile devices.

Meanwhile, some researchers working in the highly interdisciplinary field of Human-Computer Interaction started advocating for more natural ways to interact with computers. As a result, a new field called Tangible or Embodied Interaction arose around the 1990s. In this context, the concept of “Tangible User Interface” was developed. In TUIs, the interface is not anymore a PC but an (everyday) object. This takes advantage of the human capacity to manipulate objects, and allows a better integration with the context of use. Since the 2000s, labs used occasionally the cultural field as test bed; until 2013, when the first EU-funded project specifically devoted to tangible interactive experiences in Cultural Heritage settings was set up.

Now 3D printing has become the hype. As it happened with computers in the previous century, this technology is not new: it has been used in the engineering field for rapid-prototyping since the 1980s. But only recently it has become accessible to markets. Its applications are manifold: engineering, clothing, food, housing, health… But more than that, its implications regarding traditional product design, production and distribution chains are so enormous, that some people already talk about additive manufacturing being the next industrial revolution. The Cultural Heritage field has not been indifferent to this development. For example, the Smithsonian has started the X3D project, aimed at digitalizing and allowing the 3D printing of its collections. In the academic domain, some sessions at the EAA conference dealt with the implications of 3D printed replicas for Archaeology. Finally, the first mixed exhibits have appeared in European museums the last years, used either as mediators, smart replicas, top tables for shared exploration and gaming, or as full-body interactive environments.


I am so excited about it! Does this mean that we may finally close the circle and, after such a long history of “voyeurism”, fully acknowledge materiality and tangibility in the cultural heritage field? It is interesting to note that, as it happened before with interaction or storytelling, we needed the pressure of the digital revolution to (re)discover or finally accept elements that already existed in the museums field. Still, I believe there is a big potential in this area, more than with digital media, and this is exactly what I am starting to investigate now. On the one hand, the specific advantages of smart replicas or tangible exhibits for Cultural Heritage settings. I have adapted Eva Hornecker’s overview of Tangible Interaction to list the following features:

  1. Appreciation of the materiality of the real object.
  2. Direct manipulation instead of just visualization.
  3. Performative action instead of passive gaze.
  4. Natural interaction without added symbolism.
  5. Natural integration in the exhibition environment.
  6. Non-fragmented visibility.
  7. Suitability for exploration in group.
  8. Personalization (especially suitable for children).

On the other hand, I am concerned about the strategies and threats for their adoption in museums. The experience shows that, as costs decrease, the availability and penetration of technologies increase. Still, the problem is designing and maintaining high-tech exhibits. Most museums tend to outsource digital media projects; but this has more often than not proven to be a bittersweet experience in terms of budget, sustainability, end-product, workflow, etc. Institutions are currently implementing different solutions. For example, EU-funded projects emphasize the creation of do-it-yourself authoring tools. Also, the big museums in the USA and Europe give strong support to the creation of their own digital media departments, so that such experiences can be fully developed in-house.

Yet, as we witness again a concern similar to supposed threat posed by the virtual to the brick-and-mortar museum, we first need to complete the unfinished debate around the concept of authenticity in cultural heritage. In my opinion, the problem to be solved is not with smart replicas (which, following Bernard Deloche’s taxonomy, only act as analogical or analytical substitutes), but with the role of originals in the age of information, commodification, and globalization. However, this is a discussion for another time and place.

(Part of this month’s Analog/Digital series, thanks to Savage Minds for hosting!)

This Indigenous School Teacher Requested the Return of an Ancestral Pillar—What Happened Next Will Astound You…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW4I70ntEKE&w=480&h=360]

In the first of what I hope to be several reviews of ethnographic and documentary films, I want to write about Hu Tai-li’s excellent film Returning Souls. This film will be of interest to anyone teaching about museum anthropology, repatriation, and indigenous rights. Filmed over eight years, the story it covers goes back forty years to a typhoon in 1958 which destroyed an indigenous ancestral house in the Amis village of Tafalong, about forty minutes south of where I live in Taiwan.

While Amis are generally egalitarian, the owners of this house, the Kakita’an family, had a special place in the village, and their house “is the only recorded structure with carved pillars” among the Amis (from the study guide – PDF). While aristocratic families and carved pillars are common among the Paiwan, they are not otherwise known among the Amis.

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Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

The fourth in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first three posts are herehere, and here.

In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.

This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” —  is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment.  For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet.  (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)

In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments.  In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to.  The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012.   Continue reading

2012, the movie we love to hate

The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first post is here.

Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic.  I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking.  One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art. Continue reading

The Anthropologist in the Museum: The Museum as Community

BHoF Ribbon Cutting

In my last post, I defined a museum as “a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects.” I then spent quite a bit of time dealing with the implications and ramifications of the word “objects”. But there’s another important part of that definition, one which opens up a significantly different view of what a museum is, and that’s the part about a museum being a “social institution”.

Objects can be displayed in a lot of contexts. I have a bunch of artworks by local Las Vegas artists displayed throughout my home — but that doesn’t make my home a museum of Las Vegas art. Lots of people put together collections of images on Pinterest that communicate knowledge about themselves or topics that interest them, but Pinterest isn’t a museum either.

What makes a museum a museum is that it’s social, and that it’s an institution. As a social phenomenon, a museum is a point of connection for a community of visitors, researchers, curators and other staff, and even subjects. And as an institution, that connection, that web of social relationships, is a structured one.  Continue reading

The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is a Museum?

The Burlesque Hall of Fame

Believe it or not, there is no readily accepted definition of a museum. The American Alliance of Museums officially throws up its hands, stating in its handbook National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums that the term “museum” describes “an organization that people can identify intuitively but that cannot be neatly packaged in a definition,” and continuing on to describe a “big tent” approach, saying that “If an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent.”

In other words, we many not be able to define what a museum is, but we know one when we see it.

Sure, there are other definitions of museums, legalistic jargon-laden definitions that serve to define museums in relation to tax codes, property law, fair use protections, and so on, but basically its a reflexive signifier. Museums are museums.

For me, a museum is a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects. Other things go on in museums — stories are told, texts are offered up, performances are… um, performed, and so on, but unless somewhere in the institution objects are being displayed to communicate knowledge, it’s not a museum. It’s a library, a theater, a performance art space, or something else, but not a museum.

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The Anthropologist in the Museum: What Is Burlesque?

Photo of Burlesque Hall of Fame by Mimi Hyland

As Kerim noted a few weeks back, I am currently the director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a museum located in Las Vegas committed to preserving the history and legacy of burlesque as an artform and cultural phenomenon. If you had asked me a few years ago what direction I expected my career to develop in, I’d have never said “Museum Director.” Sure, I’d taken some museum studies courses in grad school and have worked in a couple of museums, but I always thought I’d help out with an exhibition here and there and that would be the extent of my involvement in museums.

Well, life, as they say, happens, and here I am today, responsible not just for an exhibition here and there but for a budget, a nation-wide volunteer network, a collection of 4,000+ artifacts, and a whole slew of legal, professional, and ethical concerns I’d barely even imagined 5 years ago. Since a) anthropology as we know it today grew out of museum practice, and b) the perspective of a museum worker has rarely been seen on Savage Minds, I thought I’d write up a few posts detailing some of the things that occupy my thoughts and time. I won’t be aiming for any grand theoretical statements here, just some musings on what constitutes life in the museum for this particular anthropologist.

And since it’s the question I deal with most, I thought I’d start with a discussion of what burlesque even is in the first place. Defining the field of study, so to speak. Easier said than done, I suppose — burlesque as an art form grades into and branches off from a lot of other theatrical traditions, and has been in a state of near-constant change for at least the last century-and-a-half.

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Oh the places you’ll go…

Way back in 2001, when blogging was a new thing, and I was crawling around the web to figure out if there were any other anthropologists using this new medium, one man stood out. Oneman actually, or as he is known around here: Dustin. Dustin hasn’t been blogging much lately, but I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his latest career move. When people ask about graduate school in anthropology I usually tell them that while you might not get an academic job, anthropologists usually find interesting work outside of academia.

Well, I’m happy to announce that Dustin has just been appointed the Executive Director of The Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, NV. It may seem a bit of a jump from editing a volume on Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War to running a museum of burlesque, but in between he’s been working at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum.

Dustin has written some of our most popular posts on issues of gender and body image. Since he still seems to pop up for about one post a year here on Savage Minds, maybe one day he’ll find the time to write about the anthropology of the burlesque…

Congrats Dustin!

Les Maîtres du Désordre vs. Les Maîtres Fous

Quai Branly Museum

Ever since it opened in 2006, I’ve wanted to visit the Musée du quai Branly (MQB) in Paris, which “contains the collections of the now-closed Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l’Homme.” With a permanent collection of over 267,000 objects and nearly 3,500 of those on display at any given time, it is one of the most important anthropology museums in the world. The building itself is also an impressive piece of architecture by Jean Nouvel—nicely setting off the collection. So I was happy to be able to finally visit the MQB this past Thursday. It was an awe-inspiring experience and I’m just sorry I didn’t have a week to spend at the museum, since it is truly too much to absorb in a single day. The permanent collection is divided up in to Asia, Oceania, Africa and The Americas. My recommendation would be to only try to visit one section per visit (and Oceania is so huge that it could easily accommodate two visits if you listen to the excellent audio tour).

I want to focus on one of their current special exhibitions: Les Maîtres du Désordre which was the highlight of our visit. Les Maîtres du Désordre reminds me of an MOMA exhibit I visited as a teenager: Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. That exhibit looked at the impact of the very African and Pacific works now housed in the MQB upon the development of modern art. Both are large, ambitious exhibits which seek to draw comparisons across numerous cultures. Both also seek to find affinities between modern art and “primitive” art. So it is worth looking at what James Clifford wrote about the MOMA exhibit before looking at the one at the MQB.

In his essay “Histories of the Tribal and the Modern” Clifford criticized the MOMA show on several grounds: the comparative method used is flawed (they could just as easily have found “primitive” art works which did not resemble Picasso paintings as ones which did), the works they chose are decontextualized and removed from their cultural and historical context, they chose works which are unproblematically “pure” in that they are free of European or other obviously modern influences, and the African and Pacific works are seen primarily in terms of their importance for “our” cultural development from which “they” are excluded. (On the problematic aesthetization of traditional “art” also see Wyatt MacGaffey’s essay “‘Magic, or as we usually say ‘Art’.”)

To what extent is Les Maîtres du Désordre guilty of the same sins as the Primitivism exhibit at MOMA?

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