Confluence, Context, and Community (Part I)

This past week I experienced one of those wonderful confluences of thought and experience that make me thankful for my tendency to snatch up whatever interesting opportunity that comes along, no matter how overcommitted I already may be. I spent Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon visiting my friend and colleague Barbara Ganley in Vermont, where I was joined by Barbara Sawhill and Laura Blankenship. BG just finished up 19 years teaching writing and literature at Middlebury College, but she’s starting a new endeavor: the Centers for Community Digital Expression, and she wanted to bounce some ideas off of us. I spent the weekend gorging myself on Vermont artisanal cheeses, excellent bread (one especially delicious loaf handmade and delivered by Bryan Alexander), and salad greens plucked from Barbara’s garden. In short: Good food, excellent company, and terrific conversation. These women inspire me.

On Sunday and Monday, I participated in a colloquium at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, where I teach a museum studies course. What I heard at the colloquium resonated all the more because of my trip to Vermont. This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on the confluence of these two events.

Over the course of the two days of the JFKU colloquium, we were treated to three excellent talks, but my favorite was given by Glenn Wharton of NYU and MoMA, who recounted his efforts to restore the painted statue of King Kamehameha (PDF) in North Kohala, Hawaii. You can read many of the details of the project in the report at that link, and I encourage you to do so, as it’s a model of community engagement. Wharton is white and an outsider to Hawaiian culture, but he earned the respect of the community by honoring their own processes instead of trying to impose his own.

Within his intriguing and sometimes humorous talk, Wharton’s comments about the special privilege of the conservator really struck a chord with me–and by privilege, I mean disciplinary privilege, judiciously applied. Wharton pointed out that few contemporary anthropologists would have the opportunity (or, I think, the unmitigated chutzpah) to walk into a community and engage them in discussions about ethnicity and skin color–a necessary conversation, as the community needed to decide what color to paint the statue’s skin. Nor could an anthropologist wander into a community, remove the eyes of a statue–which Wharton did as part of the conservation effort–and ask community members, “Hey, what do you think about that?”

As a Ph.D. in cultural studies, a disciple of material culture studies, and a fan of all things American studies, I’m fascinated by the various ways scholars of culture provoke–and more importantly, permissibly provoke–communities into talking about themselves. In the poorest of these cases, the community is left feeling impoverished for the experience and betrayed by the scholar. In the best of these situations, both outsider and community benefit–the scholar gets his or her data and paper or book, and the community has an opportunity to consider issues they might not have contemplated together prior to the outsider’s arrival.

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  1. […] post is the second in a series. Be sure to check out Part I for more […]

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