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Bookmarks DECONTEXTUALIZED CRAB; NIETZSCHE DREAMS OF DETROIT Museums, particularly ethnographic museums, have become battlegrounds. Who owns their contents, who should control what's shown, and how, are hody disputed issues. In 1988 the International Center ofthe Smithsonian Institution held a conference entitled "Poetics and Politics of Representation" to thrash it all out and the results have been published as Exhibiting Cultures, a 468-page collection edited by Ivan Karp and Stephen D. Lavine (Smithsonian Institution Press, $42.00 cloth, $15.95 paper). The contributions are strung together by five excellent section introductions by the editors. Besides the introductions, the very fact that contributors often respond to one another gives the anthology an unusual coherence. The answers differ, but these people are at least worried about the same questions. There are some historical excursions, for example by Curtis M. Hinsley on the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Kenneth Hudson suggests that museums incorporate smells in their exhibitions. Well, why not? There is a set of four articles on problems in the exhibit of Hispanic art in the United States. Michael Baxandall presents a clear and sensible outline of what might be called the logic of museum exhibition, the relationship between the object exhibited and its culturalbackground, the museum exhibition and its purposes, and finally viewers and their cultural preconceptions. Among his many instructive points is one against critics who have objected to juxtaposing African art and early European modernist art (MOMAs notorious Primitivism show): "An alternative to the culturally mixed exhibition is the exhibition that thematically addresses the relationship between another culture and our own. Thus one could argue that to exhibit the Kota mbulu-ngulu with the 1907 Picasso . . . is precisely not to appropriate it but to acknowledge and signal cultural difference—any reflective viewer knowing that the circumstances of the Kota craftsperson and Picasso are different. The effect of visual similarity is to accent difference." I am reminded by Baxandall's phrase "any reflective viewer" of the extent to Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 239-249 240Philosophy and Literature which those who denounced the Primitivam exhibition implicitly gave no credit to the average viewer of the show for having any knowledge or perception at all. Some of the contributions to Exhibiting Cultures mix good empirical data with ill-digested philosophy, most irritatingly Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, whose long article has some useful accounts of cultural festivals in America and elsewhere —for example, the differences that develop between an actual fair in Northern Indiaand the same eventreproduced in a partially staged and partially enacted version on the Mall in Washington. There's a lot of ize-ing going on, e.g., "by aestheticizing folklore ... we are in danger of depoliticizing what we present by valorizing an aesthetics of marginalization." Her theme, not easy to discern in a mass of quotation and this-but-then-thatizing, seems to be that there is something wrong with folk festivals, such as Ukrainian festivals in Saskatchewan, Dutch festivals in Indiana, or pluralistic parades in New York City. Most such civic or government sponsored events these days are multicultural in nature, offering a "unity in diversity," and in this, she says, they are not unlike the "pageants of democracy so popular during the first decades of this century." Though staged in an effort to counter the "brutal efforts of nativists" to suppress ethnic pluralism in favor of Anglo-Saxon predominance, these earlier festivals had a "neutralizing effect of rendering difference 'and conflict' inconsequential." Such festivals "tend to coopt the oppositional potential that is so essential to a festival. ... In the homeland exhibitions and festivals organized during the first half of this century, cooperation between immigrant groups and organizations promoting Americanization, however well intentioned, also involved cooptation." Exacdy what was "coopted," what's so deplorable about it, or why we should be unhappy about the neutralizing of conflict is never explained by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Should these immigrant groups have continued their traditional feuds in Boston or Baltimore? Should they have demanded schools for their children in their homeland languages, and picketed or firebombed the brutal, nativist "Anglo" city hall if they couldn't get their way? Would they— or we their grandchildren—have been better off had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 239-249
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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