Posts Tagged ‘smithsonian tours’

Reflections Homeward Bound: Final Dispatch from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 8th, 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 the final post in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

The Smithsonian Journeys Extraordinary Cultures trip has itself been extraordinary.

Huli men performing a Sing Sing. Photo: Richard Kurin

Huli wigmen of Papua New Guinea. Photo: Richard Kurin

We have seen wonders of the world and met equally wonderful people around the globe.
I, my fellow Smithsonian scholars, and our colleagues in other nations have given some three dozen lectures and presentations. We’ve witnessed scores of cultural performances and demonstrations of artistry, and heard word and song in two dozen languages. We have dined with royalty, been hosted by ministers and heads of national museums, and experienced monumental and living cultural treasures.

We’ve learned more than a few things.

For one, we have had a glimpse of the tremendous cultural diversity that exists on this planet. At the beginning of the last century, anthropologists estimate there were about 6,000 languages spoken. Now there are 600. If language serves as some measure of our cultural diversity, that diversity is being reduced. We, as a species are probably diminished as a result. That diversity has evolutionary potential and consequences, and besides, it makes the world a lot less boring. Preserving human diversity is in our interest.

Second, we’ve learned that diversity exists both in tangible form—as monuments, and buildings, ruins and landscapes, but also in intangible form as “living cultural heritage. It is the latter that gives culture its vitality and ongoing organic, creative energy. Living culture provides meaning to living people and is often a source of their identity and sense of self-worth. Indeed, culture provides, in large part, the civic identity for nations—lack or loss or denigration of culture can mean the dissolution of nation-states. Culture is also important economically—providing the basis for handicraft, food, fashion, music, entertainment and tourist industries. Loss of culture equals loss of income. Even monuments of the past have significance for their living populations—which is why countries sometimes fight over them and why business interests often compete to exploit them.

In our travels, we’ve perhaps gained some insight into an important theoretical debate. One position, held by Thomas Friedman argues that the world is becoming flatter and that everyone is becoming more similar, sharing the same global culture. The other, associated with the late Samuel Huntingtonargues that we are facing the clash of civilizations—where differences between cultures can only be resolved by conflict. I think we found a third view—that the earth is culturally lumpy, not flat, and that while globalization encourages homogeneity, there is abundant localization to make life interesting. While there are long lived entrenched cultural traditions all over the planet, there are numerous ways in which people share cultures, accommodate and synthesize traditions, invent new ones, and see their own traverse the world. The global is localized—our Bhutanese archers use their traditional bamboo bows, but also Olympic ones made in the U.S.—albeit to hit homemade targets. But the local also goes global. Indian performance traditions presented by Rajeev Sethi and scores of artists are now seen in new forms through movies like “Slumdog Millionaire.”

How then to deal with that diversity and these cultural processes. Awareness of, appreciation for and understanding of diverse cultures is important. We don’t have to believe the same things as folks in the highlands of New Guinea, or sing the same song as the Bedouins of Petra, or have the same religion as the Dogon of Mali. But understanding, appreciating, and respecting that diversity is important. If we don’t, we misapprehend others at our peril. And that can have horrible consequences.

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Morocco – Confluence of Cultures: Dispatch 17 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Tuesday, April 7th, 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 seventeenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Carved doorway at Bahia Palace. Photo: Richard Kurin

Carved doorway at Bahia Palace. Photo: Richard Kurin

Morocco is one of those amazing places where the interplay and blending of cultures produces vibrant artistic, religious, and civic traditions. In Marrakech, Berber, Roman, Arab, Jewish, Moorish-Andalusian, and French peoples and traditions have met. The result is stunning.

Historical battles and conflicts produced major dynasties and rulers, and over time, a society quite tolerant of diversity. Berber culture permeates the citythe high snow-covered Atlas Mountains hearkening to their homeland visible on the city’s horizon. Berber jewelry, leather work, swords, knives in the old city souq (market) and a variety of Berber tea sellers, artisans, and performers in the city’s center attest to that influence.

Arabs brought Islam to the Maghrib—the horizon of the setting sun, or the west, as Morocco is known. The city’s medinah (old quarter), its mosques, minarets, and schools all signal this heritage. Though largely a Muslim society, Morocco welcomed Jews with the start of the Inquisition and their expulsion—along with Muslims—from Spain in 1492. Marrakech hosted a thriving Sephardic community—now evident in the old mellah (Jewish quarter), where Judaic motifs can be found in the architecture and varied artifacts of religious life are found in the shops. But Morocco wouldn’t be complete without it Roman ruins, mosaics, tile work, Andalusian gardens, decorative styles, and especially musicians, as well as its French language and cooking stylesthere exists quite a mix.

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Desert Crossroads: Dispatch 16 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Monday, April 6th, 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 sixteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

A canoe on the Niger River. Photo: Richard Kurin

A canoe on the Niger River. Photo: Richard Kurin

Our flight from Aqaba, Jordan to Mopti in Mali features several lectures by Smithsonian anthropologist Mary Jo Arnoldi who has joined us for our African stops. Mary Jo has lived and done field work in Mali for decades and her knowledge of and insight into this varied and long-lived society is most impressive. She prepares us well for the days ahead.

Mopti is at the confluence of the Niger and Bani Rivers. The former flows through Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Guinea making its way to the Atlantic coast. It is the lifeblood for people along its course—at once a source of water for drinking, for washing, for irrigating fields, but also a highway for transport and communication. We walk gangplanks into several low riding covered motorized canoes for a “folk” cruise that makes this abundantly clear. As the rickety boats putt-putt along, tall lanky pole men of the Boso tribe help give us an extra push. Life unfolds. Children swimming. Women washing clothes. Men washing trucks and cars—almost as if they were elephants bathing. Vendors hawking goods along the shore. We pass small harbors where families board water buses, and markets where Bambara merchants pile boxes, sacks, and bags onto canoes for shipment up and down stream. Pipes and canals take the river to villages along the way so that Mande farmers can water their crops and Fulani herders care for their cattle. This is Africa alive.

Mopti is the gateway to Dogon country. While the large majority of Malian ethnic groups are Muslim, the Dogon are not. Some 600,000 in number their homeland is the Bandiagara escarpment—a world heritage site. The Dogon are farmers, but also skilled in ancient knowledge and particularly famed for their astronomical knowledge. Their rituals are rich in spiritual beliefs and a group enacts the dama, a performance of a masked dancing traditionally done for funerals but now done on other occasions. The rite helps both the spirit of the deceased and the community left behind make the transition between life and death. Though somewhat transformed from its original context, the intriguing masking and adornment and the energetic—frenetic but skilled movements of the dancers capture our every attention.

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Petra – City in Stone, Culture in Motion: Dispatch 15 from Extraordinary Cultures

Saturday, April 4th, 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 fifteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Petra

The famous Treasury at Petra is most likely the tomb of a Nabatean king. Photo: Richard Kurin

The famous Treasury at Petra is most likely the tomb of a Nabatean king. Photo: Richard Kurin

The so-called “Treasury” of Petra—seen in many movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is more likely a tomb and memorial to a king. Indeed, Petra as a whole, extending 20 square miles is a vast ritual complex of cave tombs, memorials and monuments, monasteries and churches that grew over hundreds of years in the southern Jordanian desert. The scale is impressive, and the terrain foreboding and harsh, as sandstone of every color, striation, and pattern forms canyons, rift valleys, mountains, hills, and natural outcroppings worthy of awe and reverence. Indeed, the name given to the place—“Petra”—means “stone” in Greek.

Managing this site couldn’t be easy. A ceramic tile irrigation system carried water down the main siq or canyon. Cisterns held rainwater. Well-engineered streets and paths cross the site. Caves, with pillars, columns, statues and ornamentation were carved out of the soft sandstone. Earthquakes were not infrequent, and building techniques had to account for their impacts.

Mosaic from the Byzantine church at Petra. Photo: Richard Kurin

Mosaic from the Byzantine church at Petra. Photo: Richard Kurin

Almost unimaginably, wheat and grapes for wine were grown in this arid soil. This city of the dead was also a trading center for caravans moving between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea. It was built and occupied by the ancient Nabeteans, and later subject to Roman and Byzantine influence—apparent in the architecture and in mosaics. Some 30,000 people may have lived in Petra at its peak. We are still learning more about the city and its development and decline as a result of ongoing excavations and projects, including a long-term one run by Brown University’s Martha Joukowsky and reported in Smithsonian magazine in June 2007.

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Building a Mall by the Taj Mahal?: Dispatch 14 from Extraordinary Cultures

Thursday, April 2nd, 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 fourteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part II

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A few years ago there was another threat to the Taj Mahal, a proposal to build a shopping mall and amusement park along the banks of the river, running from the Taj to another world heritage site, the Red Fort. The whole area would be commercialized with stores, rides, food concessions, even roller coasters. The proposal was backed by powerful politicians and “developers”—though one wonders what that term means in this context.

Such was the subject of the most extraordinary performance on our around the world tour produced by Rajeev Sethi especially for our group.

Rajeev is a world class designer. I first worked with him in the 1980s on the Festival of India. He created and designed Aditi—a marvelous living exhibition celebrating the traditional Indian life cycle at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He designed the Mela or Indian fair, for the 1985 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and then worked with the Smithsonian, Yo-Yo Ma, and Aga Khan’s organization on the Silk Road for the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Along the way he’s designed pavilions for world’s fairs, museum exhibitions, hotels, movie sets, numerous programs in support of traditional artisans, and government policies.

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Rajeev’s production, held at our hotel amidst giant billboards, stage sets, hanging screens and curtains was called Taj Mall—Agra Bazaar Revisited. This was a truly astounding participatory experience. We walked into a multi-phonic bazaar pulsing with 170 performers singing, dancing, playing music, doing magic, acrobatics, and puppetry, juggling, doing impersonations and other Indian street art—not to mention courtesans wooing admirers or wandering mystics wooing adherents. We were visually overloaded with the sights of weavers, kite makers, pigeon flyers, embroiderers, stone workers, gem setters, talisman makers, street doctors, perfume sellers, wrestlers, bone setters, box photographers, bangle makers, shoe makers, faux vegetable vendors, and numerous others. It was as if all of India’s traditional arts, from every community, from every quarter of the country had gathered in the space of a tennis court and in concentrated, distilled form, presented the best of their work. Hindu village women danced with oil lamps afire and Muslim devotional singers extolled a sufi saint; even a Catholic girls’ choir sang—in both Hindi and English.

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