Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cleopatra's Allure

Cleopatra, the Search for the Last Queen of Egypt,” which premiered at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in June, is probably the most widely hyped exhibition I’ve seen in a long time. Philly has adopted the exhibit as its own, promoting it on the Amtrak line to DC, and on every Philadelphia tourism website I’ve seen, even so far as to create a “Cleopatra VIP Hotel Package” available at 11 area hotels.

The Franklin Institute, known for its kid-friendly focus on scientific process and the history of innovation, seemed like an unlikely site to jump on the Egyptology bandwagon, but I was certainly intrigued and excited by the prospect of an immersive day of learning and entertainment, from a “Mummies” IMAX movie to lunch at “Cleo’s Portico,” to, of course, the exhibit itself. But could it possibly live up to all the hype?

Cleo is splashy, no question, but there’s genuine science, history and museological practice behind all the glamour. The 4-minute introductory video for the exhibition is reminiscent of a promo ad for a new HBO miniseries, but it clearly lays out the exhibition’s central question: who was Cleopatra, really, and how can we learn more?

Cleverly divided into sections based on key places in Cleopatra VII’s life and associated archeological expeditions by Dr. Zahi Hawass (searching for Cleo and Marc Antony’s Tomb) and Franck Goddio (the underwater archeologist excavating ancient Alexandria and its surrounding environs), the exhibit uses theatrical lighting and a first-person narrated audio tour detailing Cleo’s life in the best tradition of historical fiction. The exhibit is anchored by some truly amazing artifacts, including a piece of papyrus, signed by the queen herself with the emphatic phrase “make it happen.”

At the same time, the exhibit plays a lot with visitors’ notions of authenticity. Yes, identified artifacts are from the right time and place to be associated with Cleopatra, but were they truly encountered by her? For example, a stone statue of a Ptolomaic queen is identified as an artifact that could have represented Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s enigmatic nature seems to hold the whole exhibit together, maintaining the attraction of the mysterious unknown. Since all images of Cleo were ordered to be destroyed by Octavius and his Roman cohorts, Egyptologists are quick to claim that no one knows exactly what she looked like. Herself a Greek in the line of Ptolemy, who adopted Egyptian culture and espoused a hybrid religion, Cleopatra knew a thing or two about image control. She portrayed herself in the style of Isis in a statue or on a coin as a generic Roman queen. Over the years, she has been portrayed as an unrepentant temptress and, more recently, as a smart political leader, but always in a thoroughly gendered fashion, wielding uniquely female power.

The exhibit waxes so enthusiastic about Cleopatra’s lasting allure that I had to test it for myself. Do people really care that much about Cleopatra, or is this a product of Philadelphia’s, National Geographic’s and a couple of archaeologists’ wishful thinking? Despite its claims within the exhibit to the contrary, the exhibition website does not open many avenues of exploration into Cleo’s legacy. National Geographic’s Cleopatra home page provides mostly passive video links that continue to claim Cleo’s importance without a whole lot of contemporary backup. (Even the interactive Cleopatra game is behind a download and cost barrier...) So, I tried a different tactic. A google image search for Cleopatra yields 1,910,000 hits ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Halloween costumes to computer games. Perhaps most fascinating to me was a Daily News article detailing the controversy over Angelina Jolie’s selection to play Cleopatra in an upcoming Scott Rudin film. Paired with a detailed computer model of the ancient queen whom no historian would claim can be fully physically described, Jolie is criticized for being too white. I suppose that a place in the contemporary debate over race, power and image is quite enough to prove relevance.

So in the end, what role does this blockbuster traveling exhibition play in the public history endeavor to spread critical, engaged historical scholarship to a wider audience? Exhibits like this act as gateways, bringing people into institutions which likely have less splashy but no less provocative exhibition gems hidden away in their anterior wings (although the Franklin’s mainstay science exhibits never seem to be lacking for foot traffic). More importantly, exhibits like these offer opportunities for partnerships between far-flung universities, collecting institutions, consultant historians and exhibition designers who can work together with the promise of their product reaching diverse audiences, hungry for “something new” in their favorite museums. Collaboration is a public history buzz word for a reason. When more people work together, topics broaden (pop culture meets artifact connoissureship meets environmental history) and that ever-elusive relevance is achieved.

NOTE: The photo, taken by a member of my family, is of me in the “Cleopatra shop” in the Franklin Institute on 7/10/10.

~ Adina Langer

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Curated Boutique

As an avid reader of fashion magazines and blogs, I’ve noticed a curious trend over the past few years. Upscale boutiques are described as “curated,” selling “discerning” and “careful” collections of items. Are they just borrowing the language of museums or is something else at work when the worlds of retail and curation collide?

While I’d scribble a critical comment in the margins of any student paper that began this way, the Oxford English Dictionary defines curate (v) as both “to act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc.)” and “to look after and preserve.” This scanty definition raises two key issues. To “look after and preserve” suggests that there are certain objects that have been accorded value, either individually or, more likely, culturally, while the first half of the definition invokes a person whose job it is to preserve such objects (in a museum, for example), and also to arrange them, as in an exhibit. Such arranging suggests something further, which is that the arranged objects will have more meaning because of the process of exhibition and the knowledge of the curator.

Both of these aspects are clearly at work in a curated boutique, such as Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a store that sells the work, especially jewelry, clothing and home accessories, of a group of Philadelphia area artists. Its name, of course, is that of a famous essay by Walter Benjamin on the impact of mass production on the meaning of objects. Art in the Age is not coy about their retail philosophy:

“Rather than exist at a distance in the white cube of the gallery space, we weave our offerings into the collective surface of myriad personal contexts. In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital.”

Curation, in this instance, is a counterpoint to a retail environment defined by dollar stores and Targets, where items are produced and sold in huge quantities as cheaply as possible. Art in the Age displays its wares as if in a museum, with lighting, for example, to emphasize its unique qualities. They are usually accompanied by information about provenance: Where is it from? Who made it? What is it made of? Older techniques and materials, symbols of a bygone age of hand or small batch production, are highlighted. While the art gallery is the most obvious reference point, the history museum and archive, as storehouses of forgotten and potentially fascinating trifles, is playfully hinted at too. Indeed, any distance between the museum and the store is collapsed in a set of stationery with Civil War images from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

However, unlike the gallery or museum, the shopper is encouraged to touch, wear or imbibe (at least in the case of the liquors made by the store) the objects. Rather than hold the distanced but appreciative viewer as an ideal, the curated boutique creates a shopper who is knowledgeable but emotionally invested. The most important overlap between the curated boutique and the gallery or museum is in their role in the lives of the people who frequent them. Visiting a gallery or museum is a performance of cultural capital. Invested with the power to confer significance on objects, the museum becomes a space where knowledge about taste is transmitted. Similarly, the objects in the curated boutique require knowledge to “get.” The curator in each instance is the guide--or to use a term of Pierre Bourdieu’s, the “cultural intermediary”--whose touch inscribes an aura on the newly fetishized objects of the age of mechanical reproduction.

~ Mary Rizzo

(All photographs by Whitney Strub)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Eat, Shop, Learn

An effective model to present community history?

In El Paso, you can find delicious Mexican food on every major street, but Mercado Mayapan offers more than a tasty, affordable meal. Recently, while enjoying a plate of enchiladas Zacatecanas, I started thinking about Mercado Mayapan through the lens of this “Off the Wall” blog. Mercado Mayapan is an offshoot of La Mujer Obrera, an organization that provides vocational training and other services to Mexican immigrant women. Mercado Mayapan is self-described as a “social purpose business.” Aside from providing work experience and training, Mercado Mayapan seeks to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. The complex includes four sections: a market specializing in Mexican food staples like fresh tortillas and pan dulce (sweet bread); a commerce area with stalls selling artisanal, fair trade products from Latin America; a museum and cultural area; and a food court that serves traditional foods from Mexico. Mercado Mayapan also offers cultural programming each month that range from showcasing foods from different Mexican states to music and dancing. These dynamic activities make Mercado Mayapan an intriguing choice to address intersections in history, culture, and politics outside a traditional museum setting.

The mercado’s bright streamers, artwork, and soft folk music encourage visitors to spend time in the comfortable atmosphere. The mercado's open floor plan allows visitors to move easily through each section; ideally, somebody who goes for lunch can walk off their meal in the commerce area and museum—eat, shop, and learn under one roof. Most programming draws on Mexican culture, yet the Museo Mayachen focuses on history from a US-Mexico border perspective. The museo currently has two exhibits documenting the experiences of garment and migrant workers and Chicano activism in El Paso. The museo declares itself the “first community museum in El Paso.” That effort is visible in the large amount of photographs and objects donated by individuals. The photos and objects are placed prominently in the exhibits and are accompanied by short, bilingual text panels. The informative text panels provide a starting point for these topics that are underrepresented in El Paso history. However, there are no hands-on educational activities, options for visitors to leave their comments or personal experiences, or guidance in finding other sources to learn more about these topics. This absence makes the exhibits one dimensional rather than interactive and limits how much the public might take away from this experience.

For an organization with limited resources and an expansive vision, Mercado Mayapan is a notable achievement in empowering low-income women, relating history from a bottom-up perspective, and celebrating the border’s Mexican heritage. La Mujer Obrera has traditionally worked without assistance from other community organizations in El Paso for fear of their vision being co-opted. I wonder how much collaboration with local history organizations, museums, or universities might enhance the museo’s exhibits without straying from their commitment to community involvement. Without this kind of input, the museo may be unable to move past conventional exhibitry, leaving it lagging behind the commerce area, food court, and marketplace. So far, eating and shopping are the most interactive and compelling activities at Mercado Mayapan. The potential exists for learning, as embodied in Museo Mayachen, to become a fully developed aspect of the mercado as well.

~ Vanessa Macias

Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't touch that dial!

Public historians sometimes see our our academic counterparts as tradition-bound and reluctant to engage the general public or to embrace new technologies. So it's worth taking note of a terrific radio program hosted by three academic historians: BackStory - With the American History Guys. The show bills itself as a "public radio program that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today." Historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh "tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths." The shows are topical and typically include not only the hosts but guest historians with special expertise in the topic at hand, other guests with something to say about the topic, historic sound clips, and short interviews.

A recent episode, Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth, illustrates the approach. Guests include Pauline Maier, who draws on her book American Scripture to talk about the creation and changing meanings of the Declaration of Independence; a history of fireworks and the Fourth provided by James Heintze, author of The Fourth of July Encyclopedia; and David Blight narrating a reenactment of Frederick Douglass' famous address "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro." Other guests include public officials in charge of Fourth of July celebrations, fireworks vendors, and listeners calling in. Along the way the hosts discuss popular support for the American Revolution, the political uses of the holiday in the 19th century and in the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder,and how a secular holiday has acquired religious overtones in the 20th century. The program is a thorough and entertaining survey of the history of this iconic American holiday.

Other recent show topics include Scales of Justice: A History of Supreme Court Nomination, Climate Control: A History of Heating & Cooling, and Coming Home: A History of War Veterans.

As impressive as the show itself is the associated website. Each episode has a page that includes not only downloadable MP3 files but audio excerpts of show highlights, really extensive links to further readings, and a discussion board where listeners add their own perspectives on the topic. And of course you can subscribe to podcasts of the show via iTunes or through various RSS readers. The website is a wonderful resource for teachers--every episode could easily become a lesson plan with primary documents, short and accessible secondary readings, and audio.

Not every episode or every part of each episode works equally well. The jokey interchanges between the host sometimes feel forced, some guests are more scintillating than others, and speaking extemporaneously the hosts sometimes indulge in generalities or even get some minor point wrong. As an example of the latter, one of the hosts on the Fourth of July episode repeats the old myth that John Adams described Americans as divided over the revolution with a third in favor, a third against, and a third neutral. This is a myth that I frequently repeated myself until J. L. Bell set me right.

Quibbles aside, BackStory is a terrific public history project from three leading American historians, building on strong institutional support from the Virginia Institute for the Humanities, the University of Virginia; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the University of Richmond; the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and others. Backstory is model of what academic historians can do when they go public!

~ Larry Cebula