The First Step: Dispatch 1 from Extraordinary Cultures

March 12th, 2009 by Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is first in a series. Click here for the rest of the series.

Dateline: Washington, DC

Travelers on the Smithsonian Journeys Extraordinary Cultures trip came to Washington today to begin their adventure. Appropriately, they gathered on the National Mall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian—a stunning museum dedicated to living cultural heritage.

When the Smithsonian was founded in 1846, the first secretary, Joseph Henry made the study of American Indians a priority of the institution. He thought they and their cultures would rapidly disappear, and as a scientist he wanted to document their languages, lifeways and customs for posterity. The Smithsonian did that, but over the 150 years also found that much of the culture has survived, albeit in new ways. When we opened the American Indian museum in 2004, some 25,000 native people processed down the National Mall—in the same space as crowds recently gathered for the inauguration of President Obama—and said “we are still here!”

Smithsonian scholars Jose Barriero and Ramiro Matos met the Smithsonian Journeys group and shared the treasures of the museum with them. People were impressed with the “wall of gold” illustrating the dream that drew conquistadors to the Americas. They also described research for a forthcoming exhibition at the museum, the Inca Road, a vital highway in the Andes that joined peoples and cultures in the pre-Colombian world.

Of course the museum can only show the tip of the cultural iceberg, so to speak. On Friday our group will be standing on the actual Inca Road at Machu Picchu. We will be joined by Dr. Matos who has spent a lifetime understanding Andean civilization, and it is a real treat for me to listen to an learn from a such a distinguished fellow anthropologist.

As we move around the world, we will be following other roads and routes—the Pacific currents that led Polynesians to Easter Island, the Storylines that lead Australian Aborigines through Dreamtime, the Spice Route and the Silk Road that connected Asia to Europe, the Gold route and the Ink road to Timbuktu. Our group is enthused, the adventures promise to be interesting, and everywhere we will find not only monuments to past civilizations, but also a wealth of living cultural heritage—the knowledge, skills, artistry and wisdom that makes human beings so interesting, and indeed, enables our survival on this planet.

Next stop—Lima, Peru

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