Posts Tagged ‘richard kurin’

Transported by Angkor: Dispatch 11 from Extraordinary Cultures

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

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 eleventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Buddha faces grace Angkor Thom. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Cambodia

Siem Riep, Cambodia has grown exponentially with hotels, restaurants and markets to host some two million people a year who visit Angkor, one of the iconic World Heritage Sites and wonders of the world. On the positive side, the scale and quality of Angkor has attracted worldwide support for its preservation. UNESCO, the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and others run one or another project to restore and conserve this special place. More challenging are the tourists themselves who touch the ruins and trod upon them—learning of Cambodia’s heritage to be sure, but also jeopardizing the site’s future survival.

People usually think of Angkor Wat as the whole of the ancient city, but actually, the wat or particular temple complex built in the 12th century is one part of a much larger series of cities. Indeed, the term “Angkor” is thought to be linguistically derived from the Sanskrit term negara, or city. This ancient urban site and capital for the Khmer, or Cambodian, people, grew and declined from the 9th to the 16th centuries, comprised an area equivalent to that of Los Angeles, and hosted about a million people.

This was far larger than any city or capital in Europe or Asia for its time. This was possible because of hydraulics—the management of the city’s water. Ancient Cambodians figured out how to move the water from surrounding rivers through rice paddy fields and the city itself. Reservoirs, canals, moats, and pools provided for irrigation, drinking water, plumbing, and sewage. Considering the size of the place and the huge annual rainfall, this was no easy task—especially with building materials of wood and stone.

But managing water was more than a matter of public works. It was part of a constructed sacred geography for the forms of Hinduism and Buddhism prevalent during the period. The temples and other precincts of Angkor were laid out in elaborate, symbolic ways. They formed mandalas, or sacred representations of existence. Visiting temples, climbing stone staircases, moving along colonnades, and circumambulating towers were all parts of spiritual journeys.

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Meeting the Huli: Dispatch 10 from Extraordinary Cultures

Friday, March 27th, 2009

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 tenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Papua New Guinea

Huli women practicing traditional weaving methods. Photo: Richard Kurin

Huli women practicing traditional weaving methods. Photo: Richard Kurin

Our group arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and split up in three to explore different parts of New Guinea—one to the Sepik River, one to an area near Mt. Hagen, and one to the Tari Valley in the Southern Highlands. I went with the latter given that a colleague, Steve Feld had done a wonderful series of ethnomusicological recordings in the Bosavi region of the Southern Highlands over the past three decades and published a wonderful set on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

We arrived after a 90 minute flight on a Dash-8. There was no terminal, only a landing strip. A colorfully attired group of hundreds welcomed us—it was market day. We made our way down and up the adjacent hillside to the Ambua Lodge—named after the yellow ochre used as face paint by the Huli. We were treated to a visit to a nearby village; we watched, learned and listened as women wove fibers into carriers, men fired arrows at banana tree stumps, and demonstrated fire-making techniques.

The next day Huli from different clans demonstrated mumu cooking—placing raw corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs into a backing pit covered with heated rocks. The Huli men—called “wig men” conducted a workshop on the growing, care and use of wigs—a shamanistic practice, and finally held a sing-sing greeting dance. We learned about the role of the clan in the inheritance of garden plots, domestic life, gender relations, and the use of pigs as a specialized form of money—30 pigs being the typical price of a bride. One of the lodge staff, herself a Huli woman told movingly about her own life as a girl and her divorce. Another guide spoke about men’s warfare and weaponry.

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Australia and Aborigines: Dispatch 9 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

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 ninth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Australia

Kangaroo with joey in her pouch. There are an estimated 60 million kangaroos in Australia—where they are often regarded as vermin. Photo: Richard Kurin

Kangaroo with joey in her pouch. There are an estimated 60 million kangaroos in Australia—where they are often regarded as vermin. Photo: Richard Kurin

Australia’s northeast coast is a tropical rainforest, part of the state of Queensland, and home to a number of Aboriginal peoples and those of the Torres Straits. The Smithsonian has had a strong fellowship program with Queensland and a recent history of scholarly and professional exchange. The head of the Woodford Folk Festival was a fellow at the Smithsonian, I’ve collaborated with the museum studies program at the University of Queensland, and a number of tropical biologists have gone back and forth between the Great Barrier Reef and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in an effort to understand the formation, vitality and challenges to coral reefs.

Our group meets Malcolm Turner, the director of operations for the Great Barrier Reef, who explains the ecology and conservation issues for the largest living thing on the planet. He tells the group that cyclones, fresh water run-off, and most importantly, global warming, are threatening the reef, as it heads out for a day of snorkeling, diving, and just enjoyment of this natural treasure.

Aborigines Harold Taley and Shaun Creek give our travelers a brief introduction to Aboriginal use of the natural flora. Harold has our group marvel at the soapy cleanser made from leaves; he demonstrates nut-cracking, and the use of various medicinal herbs and vines. Our folks are very impressed with the obvious knowledge embedded in aboriginal ways. Shaun then shows us how he plays the didgeridoo—typically made from eucalyptus naturally hollowed out by termites. On this wind instrument he produces a sound that resonates deeply, seems so primordial, almost mystical.

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Maori Lifeways: Dispatch 8 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

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 eighth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: New Zealand

A Maori dancer in the typical warrior pose, with bulging eyes and oustretched tounge. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Maori dancer in the typical warrior pose, with bulging eyes and oustretched tongue. Photo: Richard Kurin

We arrived in Hamilton, New Zealand on the north island and had a stunning drive through the greener than green countryside of farms, cows, and sheep to Rotorua. Rotorua is a center of Maori culture and home of thermal springs that have drawn tourists since the late 1800s. The springs are fed by volcanic activity—New Zealand is on the Pacific “ring of fire” and this region is particularly susceptible to earthquakes and eruptions. Geysers shoot up and steam emerges from fissures in this crater lake town.

Our group is literally herded to supper by two sheep dogs and their handlers. Yelps, barks and whistles keep us moving along—there’s some “bah” “bahing” in recognition of our role. We dine in a building devoted to the 19th century baths—where people the world over came for “the cure.” Instead of being subjected to the somewhat bizarre sulfur water and electric shock therapy of the past, we are nonetheless electrified by the presentation of Te Taru White.

Taru is the former head of Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand and now leads the Maori Authority and the Te Puia Institute. He helped the Smithsonian develop its concept of the National Museum of the American Indian. He joined us on the National Mall in Washington in 2004 for the dramatic opening of that museum and was kind enough to host me in New Zealand when I did a lecture tour of the country. Taru and I move our heads together to touch our noses—the traditional Maori greeting, or hongi—which signifies the sharing of breath, or life.

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One Day in Tonga: Dispatch 7 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

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 seventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

 

Dateline: Tonga

Lakalaka dancers in Tonga. Photo: Richard Kurin

Lakalaka dancers in Tonga. Photo: Richard Kurin

Smithsonian curator Adrienne Kaeppler and Tongan official Albert Vaea introduced a Lakalaka program featuring a poetic and musical dance tradition designated a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage by UNESCO. The dancers did not disappoint—their voices soared, the dancers were graceful and our travelers most appreciative. We presented a Smithsonian publication on the Ocean to Albert and also Smithsonian books and recordings for the King and the Princess.

We were then off to a brief visit to the King’s palace, a modest but graceful Victorian style, and the royal burial grounds—also with Victorian style statues of departed leaders coupled with a Polynesian burial awning. The Tongan kingdom has lasted for centuries, and while never colonized, is nonetheless in the midst of democratization.

As we stood by the palace we spotted a mushroom-like cloud billowing up at the edge of the horizon. There had been an earthquake days before, and this looked like an eruption emerging from the sea, though given its white color, and cumulus shape, at least gave the appearance of something far-off and benign.

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