Archives for January 2009

Dangerous travelogues

I’ve become quite enchanted lately with the tweets of many of the museums and related institutions I follow on Twitter. I’m a sucker for a link to a picture or video of a baby animal, even if it is an amorphous little shark pup. That said, I’ve noted some carelessness lately in the way institutions tell stories about their animals. Check out this video, for example, from the Georgia Aquarium:

Issues of animal transportation, care, and trauma aside–and I do believe aquaria on par with the Georgia Aquarium adhere to best practices in this regard–moving this one animal has expended a tremendous amount of energy. The manta ray’s carbon footprint went from zero to who knows how large.

Zoos and aquaria have two primary narratives: “We bring the world’s animals to you” and “We bring the animals here to study and save them.” Yet as visitors to these institutions finally begin to catch on to the whole giant carbon footprint = climate change = harm to animals and their environments equation, zoos and aquaria are going to have to learn to either counter narratives of wasteful transportation (a dangerous travelogue) or limit their acquisitions to local and regional species. Although the Georgia Aquarium is a spectacular institution that features local species as well as animals from around the world, I must admit I’m more sympathetic to aquaria, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, that focus on the bodies of water on which they sit, even if they be (as in the case of Long Beach) especially large ones.

“But Leslie,” you say, “the Georgia Aquarium is being transparent in celebrating its ingenuity in bringing this ray to the public. Can’t you let them tell this one story?”

Sure, one story. But then there’s this:

Same kind of story, only with a less charismatic animal and not quite such spectacular technology. I’m sure if I searched I’d find plenty of other dangerous travelogues from zoos and aquaria.

For decades zoos have been tweaking the enclosures of the animals they have on display in the hopes, among other goals, of reducing stereotypies and other unhealthy behaviors. As zoos increasingly move elephants off display because zoo environments are antithetical to elephants’ good health, thoughtful people are going to wonder if whale sharks and beluga whales really do belong in relatively small tanks (as they already wonder about displaying dolphins), what kinds of energy go into supporting them, and in what ways we’re damaging not only the animals but the environment. (Kudos, by the way, to the Cal Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium for eschewing the “crystal clear” industry standard of aquarium water in favor of a more energy efficient system that uses less electricity and water because it requires less filtering.)

These dangerous travelogues remind me of a Sea World phenomenon Susan Davis highlights in her book Spectacular Nature:

[W]ith few exceptions complexity, local connections, and controversy are missing. Sea World’s environmental messages are little different from the flat morality play of the rest of corporate environmentalism in their emphasis on individual responsibility for cleaning up litter. (150)

I don’t mean to equate our nation’s best aquaria with Sea World, but there are parallels in that the aquaria are sending mixed messages when they roll out these dangerous travelogues–by which I mean narratives and actions that are dangerous for the environment and dangerous for public relations. And it’s not just travelogues about animals coming to the aquaria that are problematic–it’s also the stories these institutions (don’t) tell about the impact of human travel (daily or otherwise) on the earth.

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium and, I’m sure, at other aquaria, visitors can pick up wallet-sized cards that help them decide whether to buy, for example, wild or farm-raised salmon. I’ve seen elsewhere cautions that people need to cut up the plastic loops that hold together six packs of soda or beer. While these certainly are steps individuals can take, they do not challenge the complicity of larger entities–nations or corporations–in the threats human activities pose to ocean life.

This brings us, of course, to corporate sponsors. When the New England Aquarium receives donations from energy companies or the World Aquarium in St. Louis accepts donations from automobile, beverage, and pharmaceutical corporations whose industries may be polluting the earth and its waters, those relationships should be made transparent. What are aquarium visitors not hearing about pharmaceuticals in our waters and the ways they threaten freshwater and marine species?

Photo of Georgia Aquarium’s manta ray by Tim Lindenbaum, and used under a Creative Commons license.

It’s nice to provide visitors with cards about which fish to eat or not eat, or postcards they can mail directly from an institution asking their local representatives to vote for a bill to form, say, a marine preserve or to fund more marine research. But at the same time, aquaria need to be telling visitors that they can do more–much more–but that doing so requires collective rather than merely individual action. Aquaria and zoos and natural history museums must learn to better harness the thoughtfulness and excitement of the one percent of visitors about which Nina Simon wrote yesterday.

And putting videos on YouTube of manta rays being flown across the country? That’s not the way to engage that one percent; it raises their hackles rather than their enthusiasm.

Does the U.S. need a secretary for culture?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Late last month, formed National Endowment for the Humanities Chair William Ferris opined in the New York Times that the Obama administration needs a cabinet-level position “to provide more cohesive leadership” for several federal cultural institutions and programs, including “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution.” Pundits who are usually eager to weigh in on presidential cabinet possibilities have largely chosen not to comment on this suggestion–demonstrating exactly why we might need a secretary of culture, or as I prefer to think of it, a secretary for culture.

Why might we need a secretary for culture? In the past, federal arts and humanities projects have been wildly successful at both documentation and supporting the creation of some of America’s finest artistic works. And if pundits aren’t aware of, or don’t care about, that history, then they need to be knocked about the head by–you guessed it–a secretary for arts and culture.

Ferris lauds both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson for taking bold action in such tough times as these–Roosevelt for creating the Farm Security Administration, which supported struggling rural families during the Depression and spawned photography by such luminaries as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and Johnson for founding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Lisa Pruitt, a legal scholar interested in rural issues who writes at Legal Ruralism, wonders how interested in rural culture any Obama secretary for culture might be:

In part because of Ferris’s role in studying Southern culture and in part because of these opening paragraphs mentiong rurality, I thought his proposal might be particularly attuned to rural and/or Southern culture. I guess I am looking pretty hard for signs that someone is thinking about rural America as we prepare for the inauguration of a very cosmopolitan President and his incredibly urbane cabinet.

[. . .]

Ferris’s piece got me to thinking about the New Deal-era W.P.A. Writers’ Project, which employed writers to produce a set of travel guides called the American Guide Series. That’s a project about which I knew nothing until the New York Times series this year, “Going Down the Road.” You can read some of the installments in that series here, here, here, here and here.

What has struck me about these guides–or at least the New York Times coverage of them — is that they documented rural places. I don’t know if this was purposeful or not. Perhaps in the 1930s, rural places were viewed as those most needing documentation because little had then been written about them, whereas cities already attracted a lot of attention as bastions of culture, as inherently interesting places. If that was the case then, it is surely even more so now, when fewer and fewer Americans have meaningful and sustained contact with rural people and places and when rural folks seem to be popularly depicted as more marginal, culturally and otherwise, than ever before.

Sounding a similar note, Steven Rosen writes that Obama should revive the Federal Writers Project. (I would argue for a revival of the Federal Theatre Project as well, especially considering how poorly shows are doing on Broadway right now.) Rosen has some excellent ideas for specific writing projects the government might subsidize in the name of increasing both cultural literacy and historical memory.

Vivian Norris de Montaigu, writing at HuffPo, is similarly advocating for a secretary for culture, but she’s more interested in someone who can help us think about the culture we export rather than examining the gaps in cultural representation (for example of rural communities) in our federal institutions. She says, in short, that we need to set aside a business mindset when we think about art and culture:

Even those who like to think of art as simply business need to remember, that one must always invest in Research and Development, even if that part of the process is not profit-making. This means investing in our creative future, without thinking about the profit motive all the time. Maybe we can bring back the “public” approach to the Arts by actually creating a Ministry for Culture which will forever show the world that we are serious about how we express ourselves to the world.

Blixity points out that by not having a secretary for culture, we’re not keeping up with the (international) Joneses:

Call me biased, but pretty much all the most powerful nations in the world have one. There are Ministers or Secretaries of Culture in France, England, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Italy. And so on and so on.

It’s the 21st Century: America needs one.

Obama’s victorious campaign itself proves that images, words, beliefs, attitudes, narratives, and aspirations can bind us together, powerfully, as a nation (and tear us apart — as Dubya’s violent legacy proves).

Culture — the ideas, practices, and ideals people share — is a dynamic and critical apparatus of any nation-state. Mightier than steel, as Obama wisely put in his acceptance speech. More primal than religion, if I may add.

In these dark, fractious days, the strength of American Culture/s (or at least, the belief in it) just might be that magical something, that je ne sais quoi, that pulls us through to a new and better era.

I think a secretary for culture would be an excellent addition to the cabinet, but we need to remember that culture is more than high culture, more than what we see in national portrait galleries or what gets performed at Carnegie Hall. The Smithsonian has done an excellent job–to the tune of nearly 140 million pieces–of conserving the nature and culture of the U.S. and the world, and as Lisa Pruitt points out, NPR has done superlative work in covering vernacular life. Because culture is so vast, and because many kinds of cultural production have in the past been deemed unworthy of, say, NEH funding (unless it has to do with Jefferson–that agency has a real TJ fetish), it would be important to have an advisory council comprising representatives from many corners of the arts and culture.

Are you interested in having a secretary for arts and culture? You can sign an online petition asking Obama to create just such a position. The petition was inspired in part by Quincy Jones’s request, made at the BET awards, or a secretary of culture position in the Obama administration.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

Mega-Museums in Abu Dhabi — cultural imperialism in reverse?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

In museums, who gets to represent whose culture? It’s an old question that in the U.S. tends to play out most publicly when Native American patrimony and culture are displayed in museums. When such cultural controversies become global, often ownership comes into question–who really owns the Elgin Marbles, for example? The perniciousness and persistence of colonialism has dragged many of these conflicts into the 21st century. But what happens when the tables are turned, when a Middle Eastern country–specifically Abu Dhabi–wants to represent Western culture, and even make use of Western museums’ brand names in the process? And how should museums in the West advise colleagues in the East who are new to the museum field?

These and other questions are facing major museums–including the Smithsonian, which is advising the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage on a Bedouin museum; the Guggenheim, which in 2012 will open a 300,000-square-foot museum there that has alternately been described as a medieval cathedral and pharaonic”; and the Louvre, which has licensed its name–to the tune of $520 million–and its expertise and art (for an additional $747 million) to an art museum slated to open in the city in 2012.

(To see the designs of the new museums, as well as read artistic statements from their “starchitects,” check out this round-up from ArchNewsNow.)

About Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and its second largest city, with nearly 900,000 people residing in it. The Guardian provides some history and context for the United Arab Emirates cultural interests:

They were once little more than oil outposts in the desert, wealthy but remote, seven emirates bound together in a federation on the south-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. But the United Arab Emirates are fast reinventing themselves as a cultural and recreational hub, with tens of billions of dollars of investment transforming Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular. Abu Dhabi, whose petrodollars give it one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, is styling itself as the cultural alternative to Dubai’s more ritzy holiday and retail destination.

The emirates capital plans an “upscale cultural district” on Saadiyat, with the $400m Guggenheim museum part of a $27bn government-funded development that will include museums, a concert hall and art galleries alongside two golf courses, hotels and an “iconic 7-star property”. The Dubai plans include indoor ski slopes, an underwater hotel, a $4bn theme park, and the elite island development known as The World.

The billion-plus dollars that Abu Dhabi is paying France is part of a long-standing economic relationship with the Western European nation. As The New York Times reports, there may be a bit of quid pro quo underlying the French government’s willingness to cut a deal with Abu Dhabi.

For France the agreement signals a new willingness to exploit its culture for political and economic ends. In this case, it also represents something of a payback: the United Arab Emirates has ordered 40 Airbus 380 aircraft and has bought about $10.4 billion worth of armaments from France during the last decade.

Louvre Abu Dhabi
Much of the controversy has swirled around the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which will feature art from throughout history and all the world’s regions, including Islamic art. At the time the French government was negotiating with Abu Dhabi, 4,650 museum experts signed a petition protesting the deal, claiming that the Louvre was behaving more like a profit-maximizing corporation than as a protector of and educator about the world’s, and particularly France’s, art.

Others have criticized the petitioners. Maymanah Farhat, a specialist in modern and contemporary Arab art and the editor of ArteNews, says colonial turnabout is fair play. In a long and thoughtful article, she writes,

Much of the opposition to the proposed Abu Dhabi Lourve lament that the French public will be deprived of its heritage. Three out of eight of the departments that structure the Louvre collection contain art from the Middle East and North Africa and are categorized as such: “Near Eastern Antiquities,” “Egyptian Antiquities” and “Islamic Art.” If this latest transaction with Abu Dhabi does in fact indicate a move to exploit France’s patrimony, then it must be acknowledged that the “French culture” being disputed over is not purely French nor is it devoid of a ruthless colonial history. In theory then, according to French opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to exploit non-French peoples and cultures for economic gain, whereas everything French is somehow sacrosanct and must be guarded from the tentacles of globalization.

In an editorial in The American, Jonathan Bronitsky writes that critics of the Louvre deal are being impractical:

While the French intelligentsia may not admit it, the fact remains: museums are costly enterprises. The Louvre, the most frequently visited museum in the world, requires hundreds of millions of dollars a year to operate. Unlike American cultural institutions, which depend largely on private philanthropy, European museums have traditionally relied on public funding—in part because Europeans are unable to donate pretax dollars, as we can in the U.S., and so have weaker incentives for voluntary giving. With the spiraling costs of security, insurance, restoration, and other expenses, museums like the Louvre will need to find additional funding sources if they are to maintain their preeminence and fulfill their mission of preserving and perpetuating culture.

In response to Bronitsky, art historian Didier Ryker wrote that he goes to museums to see their best works, and is disappointed if those works have been rented out willy nilly, without regard to art historical contexts–which he felt was the case with the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He concludes,

Lastly, it is untrue to say the Louvre museum needs money. The Louvre is now, given French laws that allow tax deductions to companies which buy works of art for the museum, a very rich museum, which can sometimes even compete against the Getty (for example when it bought a sculpture by the Austrian artist Messerschmidt, outbidding the California museum). Museums and historical museums are the main reasons for tourists coming to France and they bring a lot of money to the country. In exchange, it seems fair the State should ensure these museums’ financial health without forcing them to rent themselves.

Censorship and human rights concerns
Resistance isn’t coming just from the West, however; critics in the Muslim world are joining the fray. Reports USA Today,

The Louvre must breach significant cultural barriers in its foray into the Muslim world, in which the representation of the human figure — even when clothed — can be a religious taboo.

One Arab reporter asked during a press conference Tuesday whether the museum would protect its visitors against “pornography.” A French journalist asked whether the museum had sufficient protection against “Islamic extremists” who might threaten the Louvre Abu Dhabi or its collection.

Museum officials did not address the issue of nudity in works. But art selection will be done by a committee including Abu Dhabi’s rulers, who understand the sensitivities in this city, one of the more liberal bastions in the conservative Gulf.

Many critics have expressed serious concerns about the museums’ lack of openness to ideas expressed through artwork from around the world. Artworld Salon, for example, reports that the Emirates will not allow entry to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi to people holding Israeli passports–which is especially ironic considering the Guggenheims are Jewish-American–and will censor gay content as well as nudity in the works. Culturegrrl asks, “Is it kosher to establish a museum named for a Jewish founder in a country that doesn’t recognize Israel?”

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi architect Frank Gehry notes the cultural challenges:

Abu Dhabi does throw up some very particular issues for the Guggenheim and the display of art. I don’t think we’ll be allowed to display nudes, and there are all sorts of concerns about the way women are allowed to be shown. But, I think this an interesting moment in doing something to bridge the cultures of the US and the Middle East with real dialogue; I’m learning here, which is great, and I think we can shape an original building that is as much Abu Dhabi as me.

In addition, human rights groups have raised concerns about the potential abuse of the migrant construction workers building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Scholars and museum professionals have also noted that the globalization of these museums raises issues that blend art, culture, politics, and economics. For a thoughtful accounting of the issues, check out Susan Ostling’s paper on the Guggenheim franchises in Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, Bilbao, and elsewhere. Of the museum in Abu Dhabi, Ostling writes of former Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens,

In an interview in 1998, Krens gives us some insight to his reading of the concept of ‘world culture’. Such a reading appears to undermine any concern for the importance of the local and regional national cultural identities. It thoroughly diminishes any possibility for an independent identity developing through the collections or exhibitions of the satellite museums. It reveals his voracious drive for uniformity through globalization. Krens says:

You have to take a look at all this talk of world culture. World culture has dissolved local culture because local cultures by a dialectical process of influence cancel out…Lets project well into the next century. Will such a thing as local cultures exist? You have to come to the conclusion that they will not. And this is not about me liking or not liking local culture and tradition. It is that the forces of culture are out there. I don’t believe our objective is to stand in the way of an eroding tradition…Will there be a culture on a local level? Probably not. Will it be recognizable in terms of traditional characteristics? Probably not either. There will be a world culture out there; there is already a world culture out there (cited in Suau 1999).

Training new museum professionals
Another concern of some critics is whether the museum staff in Abu Dhabi will have sufficient training to take care of priceless works of art. An additional issue is whether the new museums will adopt the various formal and informal ethical guidelines that govern museums around the world. Which tenets that Westerners see as central to museum ethics–for example, freedom of artistic expression–will guide the new museums, and which ones will be tossed aside in favor of local cultural mores and religious traditions?

Many institutions will provide mentoring and management advice to the new museum professionals, including the Guggenheim, the Louvre, New York University, and the Smithsonian, as well as leaders from other museum studies programs in the United States.

My take
First, I have to admit that I am very ambivalent about these projects because they are situated in the Muslim Middle East. Before you call me Islamophobic or racist, let me explain. As progressive as Abu Dhabi is relative to other countries in the region, the antisemitism of the region, as well as the continued repression of those women who desire greater autonomy, gives me pause. Should institutions that promote cultural openness be doing business with countries where all people are not created equal? (Yes, I know that such a stricture means countries in Western Europe could refuse to do business with U.S. cultural institutions as well!)

At the same time, the exhibition of any art–and especially art from regions outside the Middle East–is promising in that it may contribute to a broader cultural openness in Abu Dhabi and other parts of the Middle East. Additionally, I would like to see greater cultural exchange with the Middle East, along the lines of the travelling exhibition of Afghan art and artifacts, that might better educate Americans and other Westerners about the history and culture of the now-Muslim nations.

I want to see museums in the UAE and the broader Middle East showcase local art and artifacts rather than buy the esteem of Western tourists by borrowing or purchasing art from Western museums. Museums in Afghanistan, for example, should be able to showcase pre-Islamic Afghan art, despite Taliban prohibitions against artwork. Women’s artwork, Bedouin arts, and the cultural productions of other groups that have been marginalized in the Muslim, Arabic, and Persian worlds should be showcased, but the truth is that these people’s contributions are not valued.

As a scholar in cultural studies, criticizing local cultural or religious values makes me uneasy–I don’t want to impose my Western viewpoint on non-Western peoples, unless there are people being denied human or civil rights–but my opinion changes within the context of museums because they are learning institutions.

What are your thoughts on these issues?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.