Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Reflections Homeward Bound: Final Dispatch from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

The Smithsonian Journeys Extraordinary Cultures trip has itself been extraordinary.

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.

That is why all sorts of cultural exchange, dialogues, and indeed travel, is a good thing. It is better to talk and learn about cultures and diverse ways of doing and thinking than just clobbering the other guy because he is different. We will hasten culturally creative processes if we support cultural interchange. As I told our group, achieving that kind of interchange is not easy. It involves learning other languages, engaging cultural others, and so on. It may be difficult—the root of the term travel is “travail”—it’s supposed to be hard. But the payoff can be great. And with all the effort of packing and repacking, moving around the world, accommodating to foods, viruses, altitudes and ways of being, our travelers in the end experienced a varied, heartfelt, and significant form of cultural interchange. We learned from a lot of folks—and also they learned from us.

Traveling 32,290 miles by air over the past 26 days has been made possible by a thoroughly professional staff. The crew of our Thomson jet took care of us for every mile, including 16 takeoffs and, fortunately, a like number of landings. The Starquest expedition staff was hard working, totally competent, diplomatic and unflappable, expertly handling all the complicated arrangements. Our staff physician was a specialist in travel medicine, caring, concerned, always on the case, and a good hiker and dancer to boot. Our Smithsonian Journeys team was fabulous and my fellow Smithsonian scholars were informative and delightful travel companions; our colleagues from around the world most helpful—really enhancing beyond measure the value of the trip.

Finally, we had a fine group of travelers, people who readily and eagerly engaged the cultures and places visited. This was a good-spirited group who weathered the slopes of Machu Picchu and the sands of Timbuktu, who traversed the mountains of Bhutanand the rivers of Mali with a fundamental appreciation of cultural creativity, a strong sense of discovery and exploration, and a healthy dose of optimism about the human race. It was a joy for me to be part of it—and it highlighted the purpose of the Smithsonian mission—the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”—in this case cultural knowledge, and why I absolutely delight in my job and the great institution I serve.

Until the next time . . .

Richard Kurin

This post is the eighteenth, and final, in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

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