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The reviews I have been posting for the last few months, centering on Pacific history, come out of my exam reading for a field in Pacific History. However, it was not actually strictly a field in Pacific History, but rather incorporated a component of consideration of how to incorporate the Pacific – so frequently overlooked – into World History. Or, simply, to do a Pacific field in order to not only have it (a) inform my Japanese & Okinawan studies, and (b) allow me to hopefully be able to teach Pacific History courses in future, but also (c) to have a deeper knowledge of the Pacific to incorporate into my World History courses.

So, getting to the point, here is a response essay I wrote some time ago, with some just very preliminary thoughts on how to approach thinking about, and organizing, a World History course. I’ve TAed for a Global Survey of Art History, and for World History 1000-1700 CE, as well as for Western Civ 1000-1700 & 1700-present, alongside numerous East Asia-centered courses, but I have yet to teach World History myself in any form. So, I imagine that if/when I get to TA for the first third or the last third of World History (Prehistory to 1000, or 1700-present), I’ll have more thoughts… But, for now:

The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in Queens NY, erected for the 1964 World’s Fair.

What is “world history?” What is the intention, goal, or aim of a “world history” course?

Is it (1) to convey some kind of narrative of the history of human societies that encapsulates in some fashion all human societies in history, whether in general or on average? Whether by way of a linear sense of progress, or a less straightforward approach, this could be a narrative of the development of kinship groups into clans or villages, then into chiefdoms, with some societies later becoming kingdoms, empires, republics of one sort or another, also addressing the matter of the modern “nation-state.” Is the goal of world history to cover some broad-ranging all-encompassing narrative such as that?

Or is it (2) to discuss more specific historical themes which emerge in specific periods, such as nationalism, Orientalism & racism, colonialism & imperialism, and modernity, with the particular aim of combating old stereotypes, Eurocentric worldviews, and the like, in order to produce more racially/culturally sensitive, critically-thinking, and globally-minded citizens?

Or, is world history about (3) providing a glimpse into a number of different cultures, so as to both inform students about the peoples, places, and cultures of the world they live in and inspire them to perhaps develop a deeper interest and to seek further knowledge?

The first type of class might be the best of the three for providing some historical background and context for courses in social sciences which might focus overmuch on more recent and contemporary events and political/economic/societal structures. The second might be the best of the three for preparing students for History and other courses which require critical thinking and which engage in difficult or complex socio-political issues, such as race and historiographical issues; such a course would, ideally, also help prepare students to be good global citizens more broadly, less racist, less US- and Euro-centric, and more nuanced and critical in their thinking about political, cultural, and social issues both domestically and internationally, and in interactions in their own lives. Finally, the third type of course, I can imagine, might best prepare students for knowing which upper-division courses they wish to take in History (or Art History, Music, Theatre, Politics, Economics, or a number of other disciplines), and might inspire them to travel, to take up interest in particular art forms or historical topics, perhaps even to pursue a job or career related to a particular culture (e.g. cultural or arts organizations, diplomacy, etc.).

A portion of a timeline of Korean-American history, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. An important history all too overlooked, and not actually representative of the kind of core canon I’m talking about here. But, visually, I think it’s evocative of the idea of a timeline of canonical events to memorize.

A fourth approach, once standard but now widely rejected, involves teaching a particular canon of names, dates, events – in short, facts – with the chief outcome of instilling in students a basic, common, shared knowledge of key referents, allowing them to understand, or “get,” references made in popular culture, the news, and the like. There is, admittedly, some appeal to this approach, insofar as there is a certain fear or disappointment that our students should be going out into the world with no idea (or, only a distorted, pop media informed idea) of who Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror were, or what is meant by “Elizabethan.” The impact of this is very clear already, as we look back at older sources – pop media, literature, news – and see them making reference to things that we ourselves aren’t very clear on. And what historical referents we do share today are so watered down into stereotypes that few can really be expected to know anything proper about the history of that subject. To take just one example, let us hope that the average person on the street (or the average student on our campus) has at least some vague sense of that Henry VIII had a lot of wives, and that he killed several/many of them (hilarious!). But do they know anything at all more than that? Is Henry VIII a historical figure, or a caricature? In any case, this fourth approach is lambasted by nearly all of the historians in Ross E. Dunn’s The New World History, and rightfully so. Such a canon, as it already stands, is terribly Eurocentric, and even if some more global canon were to be conceived, by what criteria are we to choose? And unless there is consensus in the choosing, it won’t serve the purpose of being a commonly shared knowledge. And, in any case, a course that focuses too overmuch on simply trying to cover everything certainly cannot cover everything – it’s impossible – and so would just become unwieldy, fractured, and confusing.

A model of a Dutch East India Company vessel at the National Museum of Japanese History. Are narratives of travel, trade, and so forth the most necessarily central themes of world history?

So, of the previous three, which should we be aiming for? Is there a way to balance these effectively? Most of the essays in The New World History seem to be focusing on the first two, and especially on political and economic narratives of cultural & economic interactions, the growth of trade routes & economic interconnectedness, leading eventually into colonialism & imperialism, and from there into other issues. Yet, is this the only narrative we can or should be telling?

A chapter on cultural history in Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History seems at first to offer a way towards a different approach, one which might more strongly forefront questions about the role of cultural practices (visual, material, and expressive/performative culture) and aspects of reflective culture (religion, ideology) in different (macro)cultures. Moving beyond the stylistic & formal obsessions of art history, and the disciplinary/departmental divides of art history, ethnomusicology, and theatre & dance, Manning suggests a cultural history approach which might focus on “what sustains traditions over time, and what brings about major innovations,” the role or meaning of arts and traditions in human societies, the different forms cultural practices or cultural production takes in different cultures, as well as how they developed and changed over time due to both internal forces and intercultural interactions. Manning stops short, however, of providing a clear way forward, by way of either examples of how a “world cultural history” course, or even a single lecture, might be conceptualized or organized, instead providing as he does throughout much of the book a dense, thorough, and at times extremely useful and interesting account of the historiography of cultural history as a set of approaches.

The Great Hall at Christchurch College, Oxford. What is the place of tradition in history? How do tradition and history lead to different parts of the world being what they are today?

Art historians, of course, wrestle with similar issues in their attempts to conceive and construct a more global/world approach to art history. As essays in James Elkins’ Is Art History Global? suggest, Eurocentrism presents even more of a difficulty for art historians than for historians. Not only is the master narrative of a Western-centered art history (from classical forms to their re-emergence in the Renaissance, the advent of perspective, the rise of realism, moving to abstraction in “modern” art, and so on) very powerful, but the very concept of “art,” at least as conceived by “art historians” in the Western tradition, is very much a Western invention. Even societies such as those of the Chinese literati, who have a written tradition of art criticism going back to the 5th or 6th century CE, did not conceive of “art” or “the arts” in the same way that Europeans did, and had to adopt new terms in the 19th century to refer to these new concepts adopted from the West (meishu 美術 and yishu 藝術, meaning roughly “fine arts” and “performing arts,” respectively, from the Japanese bijutsu and geijutsu, who engaged with these issues of modernity more directly first, and coined the terms first).

Many scholars of museum studies and of the art history of non-Western cultures have suggested frameworks for approaching the cultural products or practices of non-Western cultures not through the lens of Western aesthetic concerns (incl. form, symmetry, proportion, lines, taking the object in isolation as aesthetic object) but through a focus on its meaning within its native cultural context. However, while Elkins himself suggests the need for a “consistently non-Eurocentric art history” which instead of merely infusing Western art history with native concepts and categories, would instead abandon reliance on Western interpretive methods, Ladislav Kesner’s essay “Is a Truly Global Art History Possible?” reveals that many scholars (including Kesner himself) remain (perhaps problematically) attached to Eurocentric approaches and attitudes. Even as he suggests that art historians must consider objects within specific cultural context, asking “Why does it look the way it does? What did it mean to the people who made and used it? Why was it special or valuable for them?,” he also asserts that “only Western art history – unlike the Chinese antiquarian tradition or other culturally specific discourses on art and images – has been in a position to continually develop and be enriched by contact with other cultures and non-European art.” This of course ignores both China’s long history of intercultural interactions and the failure of Western art history theory to adequately adapt or change away from its own Eurocentrism. Further, while Kesner’s critique of culturally specific frameworks (e.g. categorizing a wide variety of things under the single umbrella of “Chinese art,” and then analyzing them using distinctively Chinese terms and concepts) as being “essentializing” may contain some merit, and is worth further thought, he then returns to assertions of the universal applicability of Western/European critical theory, psychology, sociology and the like, based on the notion that all people are people, and that therefore the understandings provided by these disciplines should apply universally – thus repeating, or reinforcing, the Eurocentrism fundamental to the issue.

The relevance of these art historical discourses for the cultural historian attempting to conceive of approaches to “world history” (within the History discipline/department) is not entirely clear. But, it has nevertheless given me much to think about. While I certainly have some ideas for which aspects or elements of the histories of particular non-Western cultures I might use to illustrate particular concepts within a world history class, and how their use can contribute to presenting a more powerfully non-Eurocentric or even anti-Eurocentric vision of the histories of the peoples of the world, much about the structure of such a course, the main themes or narratives, remain unclear.

All photos my own.

After some various travels & other events this summer which inspired a number of blog posts on other subjects, it is now time to return to my post-exam book reviews. This, as it happens, is the last of those on Pacific history, though ironically(?) the first I actually wrote, at the beginning of reading for my Pacific history field.

Today, I’m discussing Matt Matsuda’s book Pacific Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2012). In Pacific Worlds, Matt Matsuda seeks to tell a different history of the peoples and places of the Pacific Ocean from that which might normally be told, focusing not on the individual cultures or polities in a narrative fashion, addressing each dynasty separately, as historical surveys in the standard academic tradition might, but instead focusing attention upon the interactions between these many peoples and places. This is an approach seen, too, in Walter MacDougall’s book on the history of the North Pacific, Let the Sea Make a Noise, which I read many years ago, and should probably re-read, but which also treats the subject of “Pacific history” less as the histories of a grouping of specific cultures and more as that of a purely geographical region within which a variety of events and interactions took place. As this was the first book I read for my Pacific Islands field, I’m coming at it relatively fresh in this review, and you won’t find any reflection upon the books I read later (but blogged about earlier), or incorporation of what I learned from them.

Matsuda explains, or justifies, this approach by citing Fijian scholar Epeli Hau’ofa, who advocates “envision[ing] the Pacific … not [as] a vast, empty expanse, nor a series of isolated worlds flung into a faraway ocean, but rather [as] a crowded world of transits, intersections, and transformed cultures.” Further, Matsuda notes that “the Pacific,” as a unitary entity, and as a bordered, defined region, is a European invention, suggesting in his introduction that Pacific Worlds will instead relate Pacific history from the islanders’ perspectives, counteracting the Eurocentric viewpoint already/previously prevalent in scholarship. Indeed, Matsuda does share with the reader quite a number of local indigenous legends that suggest historical origins or developments, and treats them as such, not dismissing them as mere myth or superstition. To give just one example, he writes of the Saudeleur Dynasty of Nan Madol that “their influence extended out from the ‘other side of yesterday,’ likely the tenth century, when traditional tales say that two powerful holy men, Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa, had come from the west bearing sacred works and ceremonies.” He then goes on to summarize further traditional stories which relate the Saudeleur’s forced exile of a local god of Pohnpei, the god’s marriage to a human woman on another island, and the ensuing battle between their demigod son, seeking to regain his ancestors’ lands, and the armies of the Saudeleur, a story which may well contain within it elements of genuine past events. Not only does Matsuda include stories such as these, but he does so without making explicit arguments as to their validity as sources of historical knowledge, instead simply presenting these stories alongside other forms of evidence as if their validity, and their equality with archaeological and European textual sources, goes without saying. This, perhaps, is an even more powerful and more effective tactic than arguing for their validity explicitly.

However, he does not, as we might expect, reverse the perspective to present a more thoroughly indigenous history of the region, a history which might draw more exclusively upon oral histories and other traditional, indigenous modes of knowledge. Rather, Matsuda is more balanced in his approach, countering Eurocentrism not with a native-centrism, but with a narrative we might describe as relatively un-centered, drawing upon multiple perspectives and types of sources, and modeling a mode of history writing that suggests a vision of the peoples of the world, and their cultures, as all equal in their difference, and equally significant. Matsuda’s history gives no more priority to English or French stories, or perspectives, than to Tongan or Fijian ones, and does not boldly or starkly elevate or denigrate either Europeans or natives. In contrast to the more standard narratives of the nobility of European exploration & discovery, and of the wonders of European technology, with which we might be familiar, Matsuda emphasizes the ways in which the Europeans were often woefully unprepared for their Pacific voyages (e.g. three months at sea without enough food; stuck in the doldrums; missing numerous landfalls), had considerable flaws or failings in their understandings, and were “late to the party,” so to speak, “discovering” lands, peoples, and routes already well-plied not only by the islanders, but in many cases by Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian sailors as well. He also counters over-simplified narratives of European/indigenous binaries by describing how Polynesian people in Melanesia were no more resistant to disease, often no more culturally or linguistically capable than Europeans, and held similar prejudices against the dark-skinned Melanesian islanders. The result is a more nuanced understanding of “Pacific Islander” identity, agency, and victimhood, and a more balanced and inclusive vision of world history.

Matsuda’s account is a translocal history, which shows how phenomena such as the spread of Christianity, shifts in the sandalwood trade, and beachcomber1 involvement in local politics played out across the region. Anecdotal examples provide a rough, general sense of similarity and difference. Christian missionaries landed throughout the region, reaching some island groups earlier and some later, building missions in some places and not in other places; on some islands, for this or that reason, islander missionaries known as “local agents” were more successful than Europeans, while in other places the reverse was true. However, this translocal approach does a considerable disservice, one might argue, to the distinctive cultures of the Pacific, and their individual histories, not to mention a disservice to the reader seeking something of a thorough survey of each specific culture. Matsuda paints in broad strokes, describing small island societies based on kinship groups and more complex hierarchical societies of some Polynesian archipelagos, providing little explanation of what he means by “kinship groups,” “clan,” “tribe,” or “aristocratic hierarchy.” He also provides only the most minimal explanation (and sometimes none at all) of native terms like ali’i, marae, and iwi, leaving the reader in the dark as to the political structures of the Hawaiian kingdom and cultural or religious attitudes towards their nobility; the architectural style and cultural meaning of Maori and Tahitian sacred spaces; and the internal organization or inter-relationships between Maori tribes or clans.
That said, while Pacific Worlds lacks for providing an impression of cultural color, and falls short of a proper history of any one of the cultures of the Pacific, it does serve as an informative and not-too-Eurocentric survey of major political, economic, and social developments in the region, and the ways in which these developments affected the people of each island group differently. Its argument for approaching this and other regions of the world with an eye to interactions, rather than separate, isolated histories, is also of great importance.

Matsuda’s rejection of the artificial (European-constructed) boundaries of the Pacific also means the incorporation of considerable attention paid to events and developments in maritime Southeast Asia, including the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, and so forth. While the argument for the artificiality of boundaries is valuable, and the histories of this region genuinely interesting, however, it still distracts even further from devoting further attention to deeper or more detailed descriptions of the Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian societies so overlooked in World and other history books.

—–
(1) “Beachcomber” refers to people of European descent who stayed in the islands, not necessarily “gone native,” in the sense of adopting native customs or joining native society, but most often disconnecting themselves from Europe, and seeking to create a new life for themselves in the islands, whether in an entrepreneurial fashion, or otherwise. Some beachcombers became quite influential in local events, society, and/or politics, while others lived quiet lives alongside or removed from the locals.

The Japan galleries at the British Museum, looking back towards the entrance, and the Kudara Kannon, just barely visible here above the cases.

I visited the British Museum again, recently, for the first time in about eight years. The Japanese gallery hasn’t changed much. But, that’s fine. It’s still a really great exhibit – better, in fact, I would argue (*gasp?*) than the vast majority of rotations the Met has done in recent years.

Here’s the main argument of this post: In the midst of all this controversy over museums and Orientalism, I think the MFA and the Met could really learn something from the British Museum. Yes, yes, the British Museum is the very model of the imperial(ist) colonial museum, Hoovering up the great treasures of the world and so on and so forth. There’s certainly much to be said about that, and plenty of scholars and others have written lots of very valid criticism on that point. But, the museum’s problematic nature in that respect is, for the most part, tangential to what I would like to focus on for the purposes of this blog post, namely that unlike the Met, the MFA, and so many of the other greatest museums in the US, the British Museum is not an “art” museum, but rather a museum of the world’s cultures.

The British Museum’s Japan galleries, in particular, more so even I think than many of the other non-Western galleries, are organized in such a fashion as to tell the history of Japan, through art, rather than limiting itself to the far more narrow narrative of the history of art, in Japan. It begins with the Jomon period, and goes straight up through the present day, touching upon religion, politics, foreign relations, theatre, modernity, propaganda art & Empire, Hiroshima, pop & urban culture, rural culture, and manga. It shows Japan not as a fantasy world of aesthetics, art, and culture, but as a real place, with a complex and sometimes unpleasant political history, religious developments, and so forth, which interacted with the outside world in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes in unequal or adversarial fashion. It shows a Japan that does not culminate in the greatness of the artistic flowering of the Edo period, but one that does that and also continues to develop over time, both before and after that, struggling with various developments, and changing continually over time.

A handpainted handscroll from the Edo period, depicting the lively activity of the Chinese quarter at Nagasaki. Truly stunning in person, in its vibrant colors and meticulous details, it simultaneously speaks to a broader historical/cultural topic.

And the exhibit does all of this while including some truly gorgeous artworks, some real masterpieces that people will come to see, and others that might really draw people in, and inspire in them a greater or deeper interest in Japan. Artworks that are beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of appreciation, even as they also relate to particular political developments. In short, the British Museum exhibit does everything the Met might do, but in a way that is so much broader – and in roughly the same amount of gallery space – covering a great many facets of Japanese history, and not just aesthetics, style, and so forth. The exhibit also includes a much wider range of pieces, thus showing a deeper, more complex vision of Japan, rather than one dominated only by ink landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and literary references. When was the last time the Met showed Japanese paintings or prints of scenes in Korea and Taiwan, or in Ryukyu or the West? Admittedly, the last several rotations of prints at the Met have focused on Yokohama-e and Meiji prints, showing Japan’s modernization in the 1850s-1890s, but, if I recall correctly, the labels are quite minimal, and little effort is made to really describe the broader political and cultural context of modernization efforts.

Looking a bit sparse from this angle, I admit, but, nevertheless, here is one of the British Museum’s many thematic sections, addressing not some artistic trend, but a broader wider cultural historical theme – modernity and urbanization – with beautiful artworks.

And, this historical approach touches upon numerous themes that could be developed out into an entire exhibit, and which I’m glad to see at least touched upon. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco did an entire show on Korean royal ceremonies and parades, which was much more about the performance of the events, and the historical, biographical, cultural, political context, than strictly about appreciating beautiful objects for their beauty. The Asia Society in New York, some years ago, did a show of Maoist propaganda paintings which was, yes, about appreciating their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic relationship to Soviet socialist realism, and so forth, but was also very much about the politics. And yet I have a very hard time imagining the Met, in particular, ever, ever, doing a show extensively about artists’ responses to Hiroshima; or how Japanese artists engaged with and depicted the Empire (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria); or about Tokugawa relations with Korea, Ryukyu, Holland, and the Ainu… New York’s Japan Society did a great show of Japanese Art Deco, which also showed at the Seattle Art Museum, and was also an art show, but sort of leaned in the direction of talking about flapper fashions, urban culture, cafés, jazz, and all of that in 1920s Tokyo.

As I continue to write this, I feel that maybe I’m being too harsh on the Met, in particular. After all, they have a different mission, and that mission – more closely associated to the idea of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts” – is a fine one. Connoisseurship, aesthetic appreciation, including teaching museum visitors that the things produced by non-Western cultures are still beautiful and worthy of appreciation, are all valiant goals.

Gallery labels for a wooden sculpture of an Edo period townsman, showing how the museum discusses the object itself, and art historical concerns, on one panel, and provides broader historical context and meaning on the other. It can be done!

But, I think a lot of the tensions and problems with our major museums, and accusations of Orientalism, as we have seen in recent months especially both with the Chinese fashion show at the Met and the kimono debacle at the MFA, is that the museums, as “art” museums, seem far too intent upon this particular approach of focusing on art appreciation, and too unwilling to turn their attentions to cultural understanding. The MFA Education program was clearly more interested in engaging visitors in appreciation or celebration of Monet than in anything directly having to do with Japan, or the complex lessons of Orientalism, and the Met curators went so far as to explicitly state that they “propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” a statement which, within the realms of scholarship, I think has its merits – exploring other sides of things, and so forth, as I explored in my previous blog post. But, still, this should come amidst a history and reputation for producing shows that explicitly tackle Orientalism, head-on. If one does shows about the Asian-American experience, about Chinese history, and about Orientalism, then you can then go ahead and do a show like this, exploring other sides of the issue. But if you haven’t explored the first sides yet…

Whatever else the British Museum may be, it is a museum of fostering cultural understanding, global oneness (in at least certain respects), an appreciation and celebration of the great diversity of cultures on our planet. I’m not sure you can find a hint of Orientalism within the British Museum’s exhibits, precisely because the central focus is not on aesthetic appreciation of [exotic] styles, motifs, sensibilities. In many ways, it reminds me of exhibits at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History, and other history museums in Japan – that is to say, the British Museum is doing it just like the Japanese would, which is perhaps a strong indication that you’re not being Eurocentric or Orientalist about it. Despite being “art” museums, right there in the name, and in their mission statements, I think the MFA, Metropolitan, LACMA, Freer/Sackler, and so forth, would do well to consider a shift.

That whole kimono thing last month really kind of exhausted me. Dominated my attention, and my time, and so I certainly wasn’t going to go see the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass explicitly in order to seek out potentially problematic shit to talk about. No, I went to see the exhibit because visiting the Met is what I always do when I’m in New York. And I found the Met’s biggest blockbuster show of the year, a show of (mostly) European fashion inspired by China. It’s a beautiful, impressive, extensive show, and has received much critical acclaim, as well as criticism from at least some Internet commenters, attacking the Met on accusations of perpetrating and perpetuating Orientalism. And, as I walked through the exhibit, hoo boy, there sure were moments where I agreed wholeheartedly with the critiques. What the hell were the curators thinking? But then there were also times where the curators explained themselves, in gallery labels, and did a rather good job of it, I thought.

I took pages and pages of notes while in the exhibit, and went back and forth on this quite a few times. But, let’s see if we can break it down. What is China: Through the Looking Glass? What did the museum do right, where did they go wrong, and what could they have done better?

Fashions by the Chinese designer Guo Pei (right), the House of Chanel (French), and other French designers, inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The show spans numerous galleries on three levels, and as a visitor one is able to start wherever one chooses – several different places serve as effective entrances or introductions to the show.

I’m not sure how the exhibit was coordinated, whether some curators controlled some parts, and other curators other parts. In some places, I felt the gallery labels defended their conceptual approach, their creative choices, quite well. The labels in the main hallway on the second floor (seen below) were excellent. But, in other places, they did not do such a great job of it; the labels in the basement did not show sufficiently nuanced, informed, attitudes, in my opinion, and were pretty problematic as a result.

To begin, one thing the curators did right was to acknowledge Said – thank god. And I feel they showed thorough understanding and appreciation of the problems of Orientalism.1 Curators aren’t idiots, and they aren’t bigots. They know what they’re doing; most have PhDs, and are well read in cross-cultural Theory and so forth. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, that especially at a top-ranking place like the Met, they should be regarded as proper experts and professionals. It’s just a question of the choices made based on that knowledge and expertise – whether they choose to push certain boundaries, or not.

Interestingly, the curators seem to have chosen in this exhibit to push boundaries by not pushing boundaries at all – by going back to old defenses of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, revived, perhaps, as new ones. I honestly can’t be sure whether this is a step forward, or back. In the Washington Post, curator Andrew Bolton is quoted as saying

‘What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism… When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had. … China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,’ … The country itself has added to the ‘misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas.’

Similarly, on the gallery labels at the entrance to the basement portion of the exhibit, the curators clearly demonstrate their familiarity with Said’s theory, and their intention to move past it, or simply to explore a different side of things:

The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.

While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of ‘subordinated otherness’ outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … It presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.

Qing Dynasty Imperal robes, and European fashions inspired by them.

“Mirroring” was indeed a major theme throughout the exhibit, as mirrors were used to reflect scenes from “The Last Emperor” onto the clothes. This certainly ties the two together, conceptually, showing how these works of European fashion were inspired by Qing China – or, to be more accurate, were inspired by European imaginings of Qing China. While “The Last Emperor” looks amazing in terms of its production quality and so forth, and so far as I know (I haven’t actually seen the film) it may be quite historically accurate, but, still, it’s a European film. I wonder what the curators’ intentions were in choosing this over a Chinese film. In any case, this was a very clever and effective way of tying the two together, to show the influence, and to cast a red & yellow Imperial tint over the whole exhibit, which might be seen as Orientalizing, or as merely helping to set the mood & tone, however one wishes to take it. The mirrors also served a practical purpose, allowing visitors to see all sides of each garment on display.

As Connie Wang writes in probably the best review of the exhibit I have yet seen, “The Met’s New Exhibit is About Orientalism, Not China.” I think Wang picks up on much the same ambivalence, or confusion, that I do, but obviously from a different perspective, and writes about it in a far more concise, eloquent, and insightful manner than my ramblings. She writes that the exhibit is “thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough,” and begins in her essay seemingly to describe the Orientalist appropriations of these fashion designers as so distanced from politics, and from any real understanding of the culture, as to be hilariously incorrect, and thus perhaps, kind of, sort of, harmless. She quotes one of the gallery labels as saying that “Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.” And, she shares an Instagram post in which she, and the exhibit itself, poke fun at Dior for appropriating a work of calligraphy about a stomachache, simply because it looked pretty. (Though, actually, many of the most acclaimed works of Chinese calligraphy, acclaimed even among ancient Chinese scholars within the historical Chinese tradition, are letters about the most mundane things, even unpleasant things like stomachaches.) Yet, Wang then goes on to speak eloquently and compellingly about the celebration of Orientalism in this exhibit.

the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. … At face value, it doesn’t seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (emphasis added)

(Though, of course, Westerners are not the only ones guilty of papering over the horrors of Mao’s regime, lionizing and commercializing what should be condemned – the Chinese do a fine job of it themselves.)

The show overall relies heavily on spectacle. Videos, music, helping to create an immersive environment. I’m not sure if I like this or not. It’s certainly engaging, but does it go over the top? Does it reinforce the Orientalism, or simply celebrate Chinese culture and history? Does it veer into the tacky, pandering to audiences and turning the whole thing into something more resembling commercial entertainment than a removed, distanced, scholarly museum show? Now that I’ve learned that Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai was among the lead exhibit designers, I am less surprised that films were used in this way, and that the whole show had this immersive and spectacular quality. Though, I am a little unsure as to what to think about Wong’s participation. On the one hand, the fact that this is being done, and agreed to, by a Chinese person, and not only white people really does mean something. If anyone should feel sensitively about how his country and his culture is being represented, it’s someone like Wong Kar Wai. Even if there are those who are offended, as they have a right to be, it’s Wong they’re pointing their fingers at, not a staff of clueless, Orientalist, whiteys. But, does Wong’s participation excuse it all? As we’ve seen with the kimono incident, Asians often tend to be a lot less concerned about Orientalism than Asian-Americans, for a variety of reasons, and often commit or construct things Asian-Americans might rail against as Orientalist – something that indeed seems to be going on here. I wonder if the fact that real Chinese people – award-winning expert filmmaker, expert in visual experiences and audience, Wong Kar Wai among them – were so involved in making the exhibit changes anyone’s feeling that the Museum is being Orientalist… Still, I suppose it’s more about the final product than about who was involved in doing it, and if the final product perpetuates stereotypes, then I guess it doesn’t matter who’s the organizer.

As I made my way through the show, the more I thought about this spectacle aspect – the mood music; the film projections; the yellow, red, and blue lighting in different sections – and then, especially when I saw a clip being played from the 1945 Ziegfield Follies without commentary, I really began to think that these elements – the “spectacle” aspect of the show as a whole – reenact and exemplify the Orientalism, rather than distancing us from it. At times, in certain sections of the exhibit, I could really imagine myself having timeslipped, the show being no different from what I can imagine the Met doing decades ago (and that’s a problem).

Robe for the 18th c. Qianlong Emperor, and a 2011 fashion design by Chinese designer Laurence Xu.

Some of the labels were quite on point. But others were conspicuously absent. I appreciate that the curators may have seen the movie clips (“The Last Emperor,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the Ziegfeld Follies) as mere set-dressing and not as art objects on display, but, in terms of the viewer experience they were absolutely part of the show. And in terms of their contributions to Orientalist discourses (both within this show, and in general), I think all three could absolutely have merited their own gallery labels, explaining not just the title, year and director (which is pretty much all we got), but also something about their contributions to the exoticization of the East, and perpetuation of mistaken ideas. I think this same show can be done – these China-inspired fashion pieces can be shown, and without it being entirely a show about vilifying the designers as horribly racist Orientalists. But, the context of the critique of Orientalism has to be there, as it was for the Art Deco Hawaii show, which placed artists like Eugene Savage within their cultural and political (and commercial) context. You know what would have been really radical? Removing these fashion designers from the myth of being pure creative genius, and addressing more explicitly their place within a commercial fashion world, driven by the need to innovate, to interest, to surprise, to shock, and, going beyond that, what a thing it would have been if the Museum itself dared to be a little self-reflexive, looking at its own tendency towards blockbuster spectacular exhibits, such as this very one, and what the museum does in order to attract audiences.

I think the exhibit should have spoken more extensively and explicitly about how cultural “borrowing” or “inspiration” – or appropriation, if we want to call it what it is – perpetuates exoticization, stereotypes, and considerable mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and that this is seriously harmful in real ways. The fact is, I understand how and why it seems harmless and innocent to continue to play in fantasy constructions of imagined versions of Oriental cultures, and I do understand the temptation or desire to focus on a direction of celebrating creativity. But, the construction and perpetuation of fantasy notions of the Orient are harmful and damaging in ways that have very real impacts. Asian-Americans continue to be seen as the perpetual foreigner, and they continue to be associated with particular stereotyped notions about their culture, rather than being seen as full and complex people, who are much more than their Asianness, and whose Asianness is in any case far more complex than whatever particular stereotypical cultural markers. As Said explains, to maintain a fantasy of the Orient means (a) that you’re blinding yourself to a truer understanding of the real and actual Orient, and (b) that you’re leaving it to the Orientalists to describe and define the Orient, ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who actually live it, and know best. Chanel, Givenchy, and so forth shouldn’t be our touchpoints for understanding what China is really like. China should be our source for understanding China.

They do acknowledge this in several places – in the introductory labels both in the basement (quoted above) and on the second floor, where they talk about Said and Orientalism, and also in the discussion of Yves St Laurent’s “Opium” line, which is described as controversial even at the time for its “trivialization of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and the objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement,” and yet which is still being sold today.

Those second floor labels state unabashedly (apologies for the blurry image):

Here is perhaps the most scholarly, most intelligent, discussion of the issue in the exhibit. And yet, I still don’t know what to think about it. Is this a step forward, or a step back? The curators advocate not simply taking Saidian criticisms and living by them, but rather continuing to question, and to explore other sides of things. In this sense, it certainly seems a step forward. But, then, is the language they’re using, and the arguments, all that different from simply defending, perpetuating, reviving, even celebrating precisely that which Said was criticizing? One has to be so careful about word choice and phrasing when discussing these sorts of issues, in order to navigate the inevitable criticisms, in order to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you are well familiar with the anti-Orientalist critique, and that you are deftly, informedly, and not ignorantly, proposing a new or different interpretation. I imagine that the curators did intend, did aim, to be as careful as could be in the wording. Whether they succeeded, though, and whether it is possible to ever succeed, whether it is possible to ever avoid any/all possible critique, are separate questions however. There must be some way to talk about these fashion trends, and to exhibit these beautiful pieces, without either devoting the whole exhibit to their demonization, yet also without sweeping Orientalist concerns under the rug in the name of celebrating cultural exchange and creativity. But if there is some totally different way of doing it, a different direction to take other than just walking a very tight line, I don’t know what it is.

The inclusion of Chinese artists, such as Guo Pei, was a smart choice, demonstrating that (a) Chinese artists made use of many of the very same motifs and styles, so it’s not as if the Western designers are doing it wrong, misrepresenting China, or mis-using Chinese cultural elements inappropriately, and (b) Chinese artists also borrow from other cultures – such is the post-modern world that we live in. This nuances the conversation in an important and much-needed way.

But, I think it still needed to have gone further. We need to talk about Chinese reactions to these European fashions. How did Chinese people, Chinese scholars, Chinese fashion designers, react to these Orientalist designs, and what do they think of them today? The topic could be even further nuanced by bringing in fashion designs by Chinese designers who appropriate aesthetic elements from China’s ethnic minorities, or from other cultures entirely. No one owns the culture entirely by themselves – to be the one whose permission is needed – and no one in the world, Western or non-Western, white or non-white, is innocent of appropriation. We need to talk too about how Western designers worked with Chinese designers, studied China, lived there, did it respectfully or at least tried to. I personally know nothing about St. Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, how much any of these people really spent time in China. For all I (we) know, maybe they did. If there is vindication to be had, it would be found in discussing the extent to which these designers “did their homework,” so to speak, and the extent to which they have the support of Chinese artists and fashion designers.

Left: Pieces from Craig Green’s 2015 Ensemble.

I think we do need to question and investigate, and not just assume, the experience and background of the artists. Craig Green (one of the artists featured in the exhibit) could be of Chinese descent, for all you know. All it says on the gallery labels is “British.” Or, even if he’s white, he could have been born and raised in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taiwan. I’ve met people purely of European descent who are native speakers of Mandarin, and I’m met people who could certainly pass for “white,” based on appearance, but who are in fact both by upbringing and by ancestry, part Chinese, part Indian, or part Okinawan or Japanese. You don’t know. Or, even if Mr. Green were from a rather mainstream white Western background, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have worked closely with traditional clothiers in China, who gave him their “permission” to share this art out in the world, and to adapt it in this way. Cultural permission is central to many people’s definition of cultural appropriation; how do we know these artists don’t have permission?

Evening Gown, 2007, by Guo Pei, Chinese fashion designer who agreed to be in this show, who borrows extensively from both Western & Chinese inspirations and motifs, and who likely works with, at least to some extent, European fashion designers and does not (so far as I know) openly oppose or denounce them as Orientalists.

BY WAY OF CONCLUSION

In the end, does this show do a good job of walking that line, critiquing Said’s argument, and yet without outright celebrating Orientalist appropriation? Or does it do a horrible job? You would think it would be clear which is the case. And yet, in the end, I remain uncertain.

As I’ve already said, there were definitely portions of this exhibit where I felt I had fallen back in time, where I felt I was seeing a show just as the Met would have done it decades ago, celebrating Yves St. Laurent for example with the only critique being a few lines on one gallery label on one wall. I think the curators, at times anyway, really did fail to distance themselves sufficiently. It’s one thing to show Orientalist creations by fashion designers, but it’s quite another to contribute to the Orientalism, to add to it. Dragon headdresses and the like, for example, added onto the mannequins were clearly intended to look haute couture and “fit in” in that respect, but these were blatantly Orientalist as well. Really, what the museum perhaps should have done is toned down the spectacle considerably, and then, even if not excoriating the designers in the gallery labels, at least then the Orientalism would be limited to the objects on display – objects not created by the museum – and would not be repeated, or extended, into the exhibit design itself.

The focus on China as fantasy is further destabilizing. One feels inclined to rail against the perpetuation of these fantasies. After all, at the core of Said’s argument is the allegation that our idea of the Orient, the vision of the Orient which is allowed to perpetuate within the popular consciousness, is one constructed by Westerners, denying Orientals (to use his own term) the power to define their own culture, their own history, their own existence. And yet, which is better, to juxtapose these fashions with fantasy, or with reality? In one gallery, garments are displayed alongside projections of kung fu films – these are not misrepresenting Chinese reality, because they were never meant to represent reality, but were consciously and intentionally drawing upon fantasy. In another gallery, dresses are juxtaposed with historical artifacts, which seem to have inspired their aesthetic design, though devoid of actual cultural/ historical context. And, in the basement, we have “The Last Emperor.” Whether that is fantasy or reality I guess depends on the designers’ intentions.

What I think is missing from all of these conversations – whether about the kimono thing at the MFA, or on dozens of other topics – is nuance and complexity. As I said in my post about the kimono, not all appropriation is the same. Is it better to be inspired by the fantasy of kung fu movies, rather than by actual history & culture, or worse? I don’t know, but they’re certainly different, right? They’re not all simply of a type, to be lumped together, right? People want it to be very starkly one way or another. If it’s racist, then it’s wholly racist, and in order to be not, it must be perfectly spotless, as according to a very standard set of criteria. But, nothing in the real world is in fact that simple. Is there any way to talk about the positive aspects of the beauty and creativity of these works, at all? Is there a way to get the audience to understand that we – as art historians, as curators, as a whole, as a field or discipline – genuinely truly do denounce the negative aspects of Orientalism, stereotyping, and appropriation, while still acknowledging the creativity, aesthetic beauty, and positive elements of cross-cultural exchange involved?

If showing these works is so horrifically offensive, then I wonder what it was, for example, about the Asia Society’s show of Maoist propaganda art that made it so innocuous, that no one thought it was celebrating or promoting Communism, or excusing or condoning the horrible offenses of the Maoist regime, by virtue of showing these paintings and praising their aesthetics, skill, and so forth? It is possible, after all, is it not, for a museum to reject, to stand opposed to, or at least to not wholly support, the positions of the artists it shows? Whether the Met did this sufficiently I leave an open question, I suppose, but it has to be possible for a museum to engage with a phenomenon, to discuss it, and to show some appreciation for the beauty and creativity involved, while there still being some implicit understanding that “the views expressed [by the artists] are not necessarily those of the institution,” right? After all, problematic though the Orientalist / appropriationist aspects of this may be, these garments are still artworks. They are still beautiful, inspired, inspirational, expertly crafted, and they are still representative of particular cultural and artistic trends that genuinely exist – and they deserve to be shown in a museum, just as much as Maoist propaganda paintings, shunga prints, or any number of other kinds of works of visual and material culture do.

Art Deco Hawaii did a rather good job of this, I think, showing many beautiful objects and celebrating their beauty, while at the same time being very explicit in the gallery labels as to how all of this constructed and perpetuated fantasies explicitly for the benefit of the tourism industry, papering over the loss and tragedy experienced by the Hawaiian people, and eliding any accurate or earnest documentation of actual Hawaiian culture or history. Perhaps that is what was needed here – a more explicit, forefront, discussion of the problematic intentions and impacts of these fashions.

But, then, that wasn’t the curators’ intention… They explicitly expressed their desire to escape from having to always see Orientalism that same one way. And, as scholars, we should be questioning and pushing the boundaries, and encouraging the broader public to do the same – not giving in to the popular attitudes of the day. In one part of the exhibit, they talk about Manchu robes, and their design features, being taken out of context, and European designers explicitly breaking Chinese cultural rules… Should a museum have to be judgey, and expound on why this is problematic? Are museums supposed to be judgey? Or are they supposed to simply present things with a certain disinterested distance? Do museums judge Japanese art for its (occasional) sexual explicitness? Do we display Melanesian or African art just so we can talk about how horrible the culture was that created it? Certainly not. So, why should we do the same for our own culture, to do an Orientalism show just to tear it apart, tear it down? I think the point of scholarship, and museum exhibits, more so, is to highlight and examine from a certain scholarly distance, to acknowledge the complex and diverse phenomena of our world, and to attempt to understand them. Not necessarily to be judgey – or at least not in certain ways, or to certain extents. I think maybe the curators here expected or intended that distance, and didn’t execute it properly, giving the impression (mistaken or otherwise) that they agreed with all of the designers’ cultural decisions when, in fact, hopefully, presumably, they do not.

I’m still on the fence about all of this, despite having studied Orientalism, and East Asian history and culture fairly extensively. But, maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we should all have some humility. Question our own assumptions. Consider the possibility of potentially seeing it a different way. Is this all about appropriation? Maybe very much so. But maybe not. Has the museum dealt with this subject in a way that would please everyone? No, of course not. That would be impossible. Have they demonstrated considerable cultural sensitivity, education, awareness in the relevant politics and problematics, and so forth? Maybe. Maybe not. Are these European fashion designers culturally ignorant, insensitive, appropriators? Maybe. Have they spent extensive time in China, more extensive perhaps than their critics, actually working with and learning from Chinese fashion designers? I don’t know. And neither do you. Would it make a difference if they had? Maybe it should.

Maybe, in this broader debate of Orientalism in museums, and in our society as a whole, let’s not rush to condemn – nor to vindicate or excuse – quite so quickly. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a real discussion that’s not a shouting match. And through that discussion, let us all, on all sides of the debate, maybe learn something from one another.

“China: Through the Looking Glass” is still open for a couple more weeks, until Sept 7, at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.

All photos my own.

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(1) We should note that Edward Said spoke almost exclusively about what we call the Near East and the Middle East, and about British and French attitudes as expressed largely in literature. Said was in no way a China or Japan expert, and makes very little mention of East Asia in his book. So, while the core central argument of his book is extremely valuable, and this is where it all stems from, please just note that wherever I refer to “Said,” really I’m referring to the far more well-informed, and well-written, critiques that have emerged out of East Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and so forth, drawing upon his ideas.

On my recent trip to New York, I picked up two more Pacific Art books. I have yet to have the chance to read them through, cover-to-cover, so this post is not part of my series of response essays on books read for my exams, but rather, a book review post like those I have done more typically, previously, sharing general impressions based on a thorough skim.

The first, Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles, was a particularly exciting find. A 1980 exhibit catalog from Bishop Museum Press, I found it at the Strand, one of New York’s greatest bookstores. This is not an exhibit I had ever heard of before, and it was a very different exhibit from just about any other Pacific art exhibition I have ever heard of.

In Pacific art books, courses, and exhibits, including in Pacific Art in Detail, the second book I’ll be discussing in this post, the focus is typically on objects of traditional use: fish hooks, baskets, tapa/kapa cloth, oars/paddles, religious icons, ritual garments, and so forth. And that’s fine. That’s great. These objects are beautiful, fascinating, and the cultural beliefs & practices to which they are related are of great value and interest and importance. From a historian’s or anthropologist’s point of view, they constitute the material culture of that society, and are valuable tools for examining, investigating, understanding, and envisioning that society, and from the art historian’s point of view, too, these constitute the artistic production of that society, products of that society’s aesthetic sense or interests, and are valuable tools for encouraging appreciation of those aesthetics, appreciation of that society, appreciation of the great diversity of our world, and that everyone makes art worthy of appreciation.

But, Hawaiʻi has a history, too, of a cohesive, complex, and in many ways “modern”/Westernized polity, as many other places in the Pacific do as well. Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was an exhibition of that history. It did not only include koa wooden bowls, feather cloaks, wooden idols, and other objects of “traditional” culture, such as we would expect to typically see in any Pacific art exhibit; rather, it included numerous paintings and photos of the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi, of Honolulu and other parts of Hawaiʻi itself, and of haole and other influential figures in Hawaiian history from Captain Cook all the way up through the overthrow, as well as “modern” or “Western” objects1 related to the kingdom, such as the scepter, sword, and ring used at Kalākaua’s coronation, the royal throne of Kamehameha III, examples of the Order of Kalākaua and Order of Kamehameha, the gown worn by Liliʻuokalani for her coronation, and the suit worn by Curtis ʻIaukea at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, along with traditional items directly associated with the royals, such as a feather lei worn by Princess Kaʻiulani. Unlike the fishhooks and so forth which are wonderfully evocative of a culture, but which alone convey to a Western museumgoer, or reader, little sense of a historical narrative, these objects convey to that Western observer a clear sense of a line of kings and queens with a real history, developing over time through different personalities, different times, different events and influences and obstacles.2 The exhibit contained at least one formal portrait of every monarch of the united Hawaiian Kingdom, from Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) to Queen Liliʻuokalani (r. 1891-1893), and through these portraits, a variety of objects directly associated with the monarchs, and other paintings, photos, and objects, the exhibit suggested, if not actually narrating directly, the complex and real history of the kingdom, as it confronted Westernization, dynastic change, pressure from imperialist powers, and eventually, overthrow.

King Kamehameha III (r. 1825-1854), and his sister Nāhiʻenaʻena, ages 12 and 10 respectively, in 1825 works by Robert Dampier, which were included in the exhibition in 1980. I was fortunate to see these on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art, last year, where I believe they are now on regular or permanent display. As the HMA gallery labels note, both the king and his sister normally wore Western clothing for both formal and everyday occasions, and dressed in this fashion merely for the portrait.

I do not know what gallery text accompanied the exhibit, as it was mounted, at the time, but the catalog entries include short sections which run through themes pertaining to the history of Hawaiʻi, from earliest mythical origins, through the reigns of the various kings and queens, including themes such as “symbols of sovereignty,” hula, pre-contact Hawaiian religion, and the arrival & influence of missionaries. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to present an apolitical account of this history, and in order to say quite where this book lies, what sort of narrative it is presenting, I would have to read it more closely, and really analyze what is and is not being said. But upon a brief skim I think it’s fair to say that while these brief sections do not level any boldfaced criticism of the US, or of the other imperialist powers, nor of the haole influence within the islands, neither is the book particularly laudatory or celebratory of haole/US influence either, presenting what it presents in a fairly matter-of-fact manner. As such, this is not a powerfully progressive book, like Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui or Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom, but neither is it a regressive text, presenting the Hawaiians as backwards, or the US takeover as a great and wonderful thing. As for the history, it is at least a good source for the most basic outlines of the history of the kingdom – names & dates & events, from Captain Cook, through each of the kings and queens, to Liliʻuokalani.

The one lengthy essay in the catalog, entitled “The Persistence of Tradition,” and written by Adrienne Kaeppler, builds upon this basic framework in a very valuable way. Having not read it through word for word, I cannot say precisely how good this essay is, or whether it is wholly unproblematic, but, I can say that it contains a number of important ideas that I think may have been radical (in a good way) for the museumgoer, or catalog reader, of 35 years ago. Kaeppler writes positively of the value and validity of oral tradition, and negatively of how Western media has, for the most part, ever since Captain Cook all the way up through the present, “largely built upon the original erroneous conceptions, and have done little to dispel the myths” (53). Perhaps more pleasantly surprising for a book of this age, and also of great importance, is her foregrounding the idea that

traditional Hawaiian world views, philosophies, arts, and crafts still flourish in Hawaiʻi in spite of the overlay of 19th and 20th century European and American value systems, a competitive money economy, and an introduced Christian God. Even before the recent resurgence of Hawaiian tradition, there were many visible elements of Hawaiian culture that had never died. The persistence of tradition is a more appropriate vision of Hawaiʻi … Hawaiian values have not fossilized; they are living forces for inspiration and creation that form a continuous link between the Hawaiʻi of today and of yesterday. (53-54, emphasis added)

Perhaps it should not be surprising that we should see such ideas in 1980, as the Hawaiian Renaissance was well underway already since sometime in the 1970s, nor should it be surprising that the Bishop Museum – the museum founded in the name of Hawaiian royal Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and housing the collection of the Kamehameha Dynasty, including the largest collection of Hawaiian artifacts of any institution in the world – should be saying these rather progressive, pro-indigenous, anti-Eurocentric, things, even a full 35 years ago, and taking the bother to include the ʻokina where appropriate throughout. But, still, given that issues of how to appropriately and respectfully represent indigenous cultures in museums remains very much an ongoing debated issue today, something museums are still very much struggling to do properly, it was for me really something to see these kinds of attitudes and approaches represented in this fashion in a 35-year-old book. In particular, the attitude, or conventional wisdom, that indigenous peoples or at least their distinctive culture, have all but died out, and belong only to the past, remains quite strong today in the United States, if not elsewhere in the world, and it is only in the last few years, or maybe the last decade or two at most, that many museums in the country have begun to more actively include contemporary Native American works alongside the traditional ones, in their galleries, in order to more directly and actively confront this myth, and to assert instead the “persistence of tradition.” To give some examples, the National Museum of the American Indian only first opened its doors in 2004, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, though I do not recall how they represented Native American art/history/culture previously, it is in the new American Wing, which only just opened in 2010 or 2011, that contemporary Native American artworks are placed front and center amidst older objects. Even the Bishop Museum itself, though I don’t know precisely how things were represented in the past, only very recently did an overhaul of its permanent galleries, re-opening Hawaiian Hall in 2009, and Pacific Hall in 2013, with a renewed focus on Native, rather than Western/anthropological, perspectives. In any case, Kaeppler’s essay goes on to discuss at some length Hawaiian origin myths, beliefs about mana and kapu (taboos), and so forth, hopefully informing the 1980 visitor about Hawaiian traditional values and their vitality still today, and perhaps even inspiring that visitor, or reader, to rethink their attitudes, as to the validity and appeal of these non-Western perspectives. I certainly think this essay, along with the rest of the catalog, will be of value and usefulness to me, as I continue my education in Hawaiian & Pacific historical matters.

Replica of the 1886 Convention on Immigration signed between Meiji Japan and the Hawaiian Kingdom, with photograph of Hawaiʻi’s Permanent Minister in Japan, Robert Walker Irwin, and his Japanese wife Iki. On display at Bishop Museum, 2011.

But, to return to what really impressed and amazed me about this catalog, is that such an exhibit could be held, was held, traveling to museums in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I said at the beginning of this post, every other Pacific art exhibit I have seen on the US mainland, or for example at the British Museum in London, has focused on utilitarian and ritual objects of traditional culture, and only very rarely do I recall seeing such an exhibit that extended beyond the permanent galleries, into being a special exhibition. For a place like the Metropolitan or the MFA to devote such space, money, efforts, and so forth to a show of Pacific art is, at least in my experience, all but unheard of. And for them to do so with an exhibit that brings forth the greatest “national”/royal treasures of the Hawaiian Kingdom, to tell a story not about a culture in vague “traditional” “past” times, but rather a story about a complex and modern kingdom, with a chronology of monarchs with specific names, appearances (portraits), and so forth, who possess a real narrative of the rise and fall, trials and tribulations, of their kingdom just like any other Western or non-Western country, is truly something I never suspected ever took place. Not at this level. Not on this scale. Half the objects in this exhibition I have not even seen at the Bishop Museum or ʻIolani Palace themselves, in Hawaiʻi, let alone ever dreaming of seeing them at a mainland museum. My point, simply is this: if mainland museums won’t even show enough interest to devote time, money, effort, to bringing over an incredible show of Hawaiian Art Deco, how can we hope to ever see such an exhibit as this? Or, a different way around, I am honestly floored by the idea that this exhibit ever took place. Can it, will it, ever take place again? Why do we not have more exhibits like this one? The American people could really benefit to learn more about this history, and given the general appeal of Hawaiʻi, and the flashiness of thrones, royal scepters, and monarchy in general, I think this really could be a rather successful blockbuster exhibit. I don’t think it would fall flat. Tonga or Samoa, Fiji or Guam, sadly, might be just a little too distant to attract the crowds; but Hawaiʻi, for better or for worse, is a part of our country, and very much a part of our popular consciousness – I think people would be interested to see such an exhibit as this. Plus, if the immense popularity of the Met’s Alexander McQueen and “China Through the Looking Glass” shows are any indication, fashion has some serious popular attraction – so, an exhibit such as this, including Liliʻuokalani’s coronation gown and ʻIaukea’s formal Victorian-style official suit, should fall at least partially within that market, right?

Well, at least we have the catalog, which is available used on Amazon, as well as elsewhere on the Internet, for rather reasonable prices.

….

The second book I’d like to touch upon today is Pacific Art in Detail, one of a series on artistic traditions from different parts of the world, put out by the British Museum in 2011. The book, aimed at a fairly general museumgoing / arts-interested audience, incorporates on a fundamental level many wonderful progressive ideas about approaching Pacific art, including some of those I have already mentioned above: e.g. that post-Contact objects including Western influences and/or imported materials can still be authentically “traditional,” that these traditions do survive, and that contemporary art is also very much a part of the bounds of “Pacific art” – that there is a such thing as contemporary Pacific art, and that it addresses important themes of identity and politics in interesting, powerful, and artistically high-quality, post-modern ways. I suppose no one is going to be reading this book who is not already inclined towards interest in Pacific art, in non-Western cultures, and in non-Western perspectives, but, still, for any reader, from the beginner with a passing interest to someone like myself, the book helps instill in the reader a broad-ranging and fundamentally progressive (read: post-colonial, anti-Eurocentric) perspective on a variety of matters important to understanding and appreciating Pacific Island cultures and history.

I suppose there are two things which I most appreciate and enjoy about this book. One is the essays and thematic content, as touched upon in the previous paragraph, and the excellent quotes which can be pulled out from them. The second is the treatment of the British Museum’s collection. Just as Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles serves as an excellent source for at least a portion of the Bishop Museum’s collection – a source for knowing about portraits of the monarchs, royal costumes & objects, photos, and a variety of other objects that exist in that collection – this is a good source for some of the chief treasures of the British Museum’s collection. And, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite not having any dedicated Pacific gallery, the British Museum does have many of these objects on display, in thematic galleries on the Enlightenment, “Collecting the World,” and “Living and Dying.”

A hei tiki given to Captain Cook by a Maori chief in 1769. Carved of jade (nephrite), it is meant to absorb the mana of those who wear it, and continue to accumulate mana down through the ages, becoming ever a more and more powerful object. Given by Cook to King George III, and thence to the British Museum, and having become one of the canonical objects of Pacific art history due to its inclusion in British Museum displays and publications, I would say it has certainly acquired considerable power of a sort, albeit if not exactly within the Polynesian context.

Whereas the Bishop Museum’s collection is largely that of the Kamehameha Dynasty itself (or, more cynically, as appropriated by Charles Reed Bishop, top banker in Hawaiʻi in the 1890s, on par with Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan in his fat-cat-ness), and whereas the collections of most American museums, such as the Metropolitan, come largely from individual collectors and donors, the British Museum’s collection of Pacific artifacts comes largely from nationally-sponsored voyages of exploration, and from the imperial/colonial project. While this introduces considerable controversy, and very rightfully so, for obvious reasons, at the same time, it means that the Museum does possess a great many objects of great historical significance, which a place like the Metropolitan does not. Thus, we are able, at the Museum and in Pacific Art in Detail, to look not just at various general fishhooks but at, for example, a particular set of shark-fishing fishhooks made for the exclusive use of high chiefs – the only ones permitted to fish to catch sharks – and possibly given as gifts directly to Captain Cook himself, or his crew. Not only are these objects directly associated with some truly famous, prominent, significant historical events (the voyages of Captain Cook and his “discovery” of Hawaiʻi), but they are also significant and powerful within a Native Hawaiian context, as they are imbued with the mana of these chiefs.

Left: A wedding dress designed by New Zealand-based Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk, in 2014, incorporating traditional designs and material – siapo (barkcloth, known as tapa or kapa in other regions) – into a rather postmodern garment.

Pacific Art in Detail talks about a wonderful range of “traditional” objects from across the Pacific, but also extends into discussing contemporary art. We are told that one of nine Pacific Islanders lives elsewhere in the world, and yet “Oceanic artists can feel more closely defined – whether they would like to be or not – by their cultural background” (16).

Personally, this has long been a particularly fascinating aspect or element of contemporary art. I have no doubt that there are artists of Pacific Islander ancestry who are producing works having little or no relation to that heritage, and many of them may be great artworks in their own ways. But, what really intrigues me, and which this book delves into as well, is the various ways in which contemporary artists draw upon their own heritage and traditions, and wrestle with their identity & that of their people more broadly, and with colonial & post-colonial politics. As Anne D’Alleva is quoted as writing, “the past is as multi-faceted and open to interpretation as the present, and tradition is not fixed but contested” (17). And, further, not only are people today drawing upon the traditions of the past, but also expressing, practicing, and influencing the traditions of the present – present traditions which are real and ongoing. All cultural identities draw upon a past for their foundations, their histories and identities, but cultural identities also exist in the present, and the people of today are no less Polynesian, no less Pacific Islander, for living today, rather than in the past. And, the artworks they produce, similarly, are no less authentic, no less genuine, for having been made in the 21st century rather than the 18th.

Pacific Art in Detail links past and present beautifully, and introduces readers to the power, meaning, and aesthetics of Pacific art, in order to help readers know how to appreciate Pacific art – not only for its style, design and aesthetic qualities, but also for its cultural and historical meaning, for its association with great people and events, or with spirits, deities, or cultures. It also serves as a great introduction to the highlights of the British Museum’s Pacific collections.

All photos are my own.

—–
1) Of course, we shouldn’t really draw such stark categories between “traditional” and “modern” or “Western,” since, as Stacy Kamehiro reminds us, a great many things about the Hawaiian Kingdom incorporated Hawaiian traditional symbols and practices on a fundamental level, into a distinctively Hawaiian modernity – just as Meiji Japan (1868-1912) was no less Japanese for being modern, as well.

2) Objects such as fishhooks and feather cloaks can very much be the vehicles for history and memory within indigenous traditions. The malo ura of the Tahitian high chiefs serves as a great examples of this, as it was passed down from one chief to another, maintained in a sacred storehouse, and worn for various special occasions, incorporating the mana of those great people and great events within it. Pacific Art in Detail also talks about a variety of other objects which were used in various ways, if not to “record” history as we might understand it in the West, then at least to serve as mnemonic aids, for a chief or priest to recite the genealogies using the carved bumps in a rod, for example, to help him remember the generations. While this approach to history and memory may seem rather foreign to us at first, in truth, it is not so foreign, is it? After all, we Westerners, too, can look at a fishhook given as a gift to Captain Cook, and feel it is a greater object, somehow, imbued with the significance of that association and that event. Even if we do not think of it as containing “mana,” it is certainly much more than just a piece of ivory – it is a very specific piece of ivory, that passed through Cook’s hands, that was given to him in conjunction with a very prominent historical event, and that very same fishhook is now sitting in a glass case before you, as symbol of that event, and because of that object, you are thinking about that event again. So, I just want to be clear that I do not mean to ignore or disparage indigenous ways of knowing; and, indeed, an exhibition truly dedicated to indigenous ways of knowing could be fascinating. But, for the Western museum visitor, or Western catalog reader, I think there is something very valuable in showing too – just as Kalākaua himself wished to show the world back in the 1870s-80s – that Hawaiʻi had a vibrant, complex, and meaningful history as can be understood in a Western mode, too, in order to recognize and respect Hawaiʻi as a kingdom, and as one quite similar to Western countries in a lot of ways.

Right. So, Thursday, after finishing up at the Library, I was, strangely, still awake, having taken an overnight flight from Newark on which I didn’t get much sleep. In other words, I had a full night’s sleep in a proper bed Tuesday night, was up all day Wednesday as normal, barely slept on the flight (which was only about 6 1/2 hours anyway, not long enough for a proper full night’s sleep), and then stayed up all day Thursday. Yet, strangely, I wasn’t feeling it too badly. I visited the new shop at Platform 9 3/4, like you do, and otherwise just poked around the general King’s Cross / St. Pancras area. Didn’t go very far. Took tons of photos of the two stations, both of which have been seriously redone since last I was here. And then, finally, eventually, I came back to the dorm to crash, and attempt to sleep a normal night’s sleep, to reset my clock. Honestly, I don’t really remember if I succeeded. I think I slept a few hours, and then maybe got up from like 2-5am, and then went back to sleep… but, in any case, I made it through the full day the next day, Friday, without any trouble.

Over the course of these days, I’ve had so many thoughts about being back in London, how it’s weird but not weird, how I wish I were staying longer – a lot longer… I should have been taking these thoughts down as I had them. But, of course, I had these thoughts as I was walking around and experiencing the city, not as I was relaxing in front of my computer. So, that made it a little tough. Also, all of my nights here have ended up being either quite busy, or just that I’ve been too tired to sit down and write like I’m writing now.

Even though I’m only here for five days or so, and even though it’s been eight years and who knows when I’ll be back again, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to run around and see all the things; somehow, I couldn’t help but to feel like I will be back, relatively soon, hopefully maybe even for a rather longer time, and so I just saw whatever I saw, met up with friends, and took it relatively easy. (And, actually, not even that easy – these all turned out to be long and tiring days, even without running all over on the Tube or doing particularly touristy things.)

The Waterstone’s near Russell Square, where I waited in line at midnight to buy the last Harry Potter book as it was released.

I find myself really tempted to want to live here again, for a real length of time. I have no idea if that will ever come to pass – it all depends on what job prospects appear, and so forth – and I also have little idea as to the nitty gritty of apartment hunting, taxes, politics, who knows what. Certainly, when I was here the previous time, I was dealing with the very particular political environment of the SOAS campus; the horrendously inept SOAS administration; culture shock and relative inexperience on my own part as to travel, life on my own, and so forth; and a very limited budget. I had a lot of cultural clash sort of interactions, sometimes over very minor things, such as ordering a Pimm’s & lemonade without knowing that’s a summer drink, or never knowing whether to pay at the table or on the way out, or just how to properly plan for trying to get the cheapest train tickets (sometimes I paid eight quid going, and thirty for the return trip, for the same pair of destinations, the same distance). If I were to live here again, who knows what kind of things might come up, with the banks, or policies at work, or just little cultural things that despite being little can be really quite frustrating or embarrassing. I remember at one point being just so frustrated with London that I absolutely had to get away, and spent a wonderful weekend in Dublin with my flatmate Jess. … But, London is truly one of the great cities of the world, and I want so badly to just live it. Not the crap bodegas (or whatever they call them here), and the crap student dorms I’m staying in again this weekend, but a decent flat, and local friends to meet up with for drinks, to explore cute shops and neat restaurants, to maybe even get involved somehow in the local arts scene (e.g. if I meet an artist or musician or thespian who invites me along to shows), and, to have a base in London from which to explore more of the UK, Ireland, and Europe. Who knows if it’ll ever happen, or what dark sides might emerge. But, when it does come time for me to apply to postdocs and tenure-track jobs and so forth, most historians it seems end up in small liberal arts colleges somewhere in America for a year or two or three before they nab their tenure track position – I don’t know how reasonable I’m being, but am I crazy for thinking that I would absolutely take a year-long adjunct position in London, or Dublin, or Dusseldorf, or a postdoc in Norwich, over teaching at some middle-of-nowhere place in the US?

A typical central London street, filled with beautiful historical buildings and lined with cute shops, cafés, and restaurants.

It’s great to be back in a proper city again. Santa Barbara, and especially Goleta, just really doesn’t do it for me. London is the kind of city I feel I would love to live in – there’s so much going on. Museums, arts, theatre, and beyond that, just vibrant life. Always new restaurants to check out, events, whatever. And they’re not of petty local relevance – this is London. I can go back to New York, or Tokyo, or Santa Barbara, and years from now talk to others who’ve been to London about how I remember this or that neighborhood, or this or that restaurant, or event. London also has such amazing architecture, and history, which makes for a vibrant, vital, atmosphere. I just love the atmosphere here. You feel like you’re walking around in a seriously major city both of the present and of the past. You can just imagine its history, how it developed, how a given building might have seen such changes over time. And, the buildings just have such style, such character. Plus, the fashion! Yeah, a great many of the young people are wearing horrific fashions, and many of the older people are wearing the most mindnumbingly mainstream stuff. But, some others really look quite great in their unique hip fashions, or in their classically sleek tie & waistcoat. This is something I was thinking about in New York the last couple weeks, too. New York has a deep and classy history, too. Pass by a ritzy hotel, look at the staff in their fine ties and jackets and hats, and you can imagine a New York of yesteryear… this is something Santa Barbara, with its t-shirts and shorts, doesn’t have. Or, it does, it does have its own history of course, but of a very different flavor from the classic London / New England / New York sort of flavor I grew up with (in a sense), and love so much.

Right: The campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.

London is also very international, and in particular in a sort of cultured, globally-minded, and directly inter-connected sort of way. My friend Min was kind enough to invite me along to her friend Ian’s flat for a get-together, and I met people from Germany, South Africa, Iran, California, Australia, and a few different parts of the UK, and all of them had a certain well-traveled, cultured sort of way about them, and in particular about their viewpoints on interacting with one another, and on their place in this diverse, multi-national world. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s all about which circles you move in, and I’m sure you could find those circles in New York just as easily, and I certainly did feel I had such circles in Tokyo, and in Honolulu, though not really in Santa Barbara – and I am equally sure that there are plenty, plenty, of people in England who are not like this. But, still, even so.

I wonder if I’m being taken in by the British accent, which to an American ear makes everyone seem classier, and more cultured. I dunno.

But, anyway, Friday involved meeting up with Min for brunch at a wonderful café called The Riding House Café (I thought it was Riding Horse – she had to correct me), followed by meeting up with my old friend Ana, and Hugh, and walking around some of the central parts of London. It was really great to just walk and experience Oxford Circus, and Tottenham Court Road, and so forth, over again. I think all in all, the last few days, that’s been, strangely, one of the most enjoyable parts. I guess I take after my dad that way, as he also really enjoys just walking around and getting a feel of a city. Ana and Hugh introduced me to a Diner right near Forbidden Planet, where we had boozy milkshakes (yum!), and then we popped into Orc’s Nest briefly to ogle some strategy games that are expensive enough in the States, and all the more unaffordable when priced in pounds. On that note, while I have spent a lot more than I was expecting to in the last few days (officially authorized Ravenclaw neckties will set you back), a lot of things are quite a lot cheaper than I remembered, or expected. My memory of eight years ago is, admittedly, quite fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure I recall paying something like £4.50 for a latte at Starbucks, £7 for a sandwich, and so forth – typical prices, but in pounds instead of dollars, meaning they were effectively double the price. Now, by contrast, not only is the exchange rate much more reasonable ($1.62 instead of $2.00+ per pound), but I went to Pret, which I remember as being quite expensive, and found sandwiches for as little as £1.90 or £2.35 or something like that. Rather reasonable prices.

Anyway, my time with Ana and Hugh was all too short, as I had to get back to Min’s, to join up with her and her friends, as mentioned above, for Ian’s little house party. We basically just sat around and chatted, and had a very nice time. Reminded me of being back at East-West Center, talking to people from all different countries, all engaged in culture or politics or at the very least just well-traveled… And while I don’t know just how regularly they might have these kinds of get-togethers – it could have been a rather special thing – I definitely got the sense, the feeling, of joining in on real, regular, London life. A guy could get used to this. Thanks, really, so much to Min for inviting me, and to her friends for welcoming me, making this truly a very different experience from that of the tourist, who might only interact with his own friends (Min, and Ana) alone, or with other tourists, backpackers, whatever, or with no one at all.

Saturday, I spent on my own. I returned to the British Library early in the morning, and finished up things there, then spent the whole rest of the day at the British Museum, making my way through all of the East Asian and Pacific-related galleries, and taking tons of photos. I saw more or less nothing of any other part of the museum – it’s just far too large to do in a single day. I have another post in the works as to my thoughts on the museum, but in essence, I love that the British Museum is a museum of the world’s cultures, and not a museum of “art.” It doesn’t focus itself overmuch on aesthetic appreciation, on masterpieces and beauty, but instead on teaching people about the other cultures of the world. As the Museum says on its website:

It was also grounded in the Enlightenment idea that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement. The Museum was to be a place where this kind of humane cross-cultural investigation could happen. It still is. …

… This is engagement … [with] the cultures and territories that they represent, the stories that can be told through them, the diversity of truths that they can unlock and their meaning in the world today.

This is what is sorely missing, I think, from the core mission, the core attitude and approach, of too many of the greatest museums in the US. And it is this absence, I think, this difference in mission and attitude, which leads our museums all too often into dangerous territory, in terms of essentializing, romanticizing, and Orientalizing cultures, and ignoring political complexities and difficult subjects. But, I’ll talk about that in another post.

On my way to visit the Angel [of] Islington.

After the British Museum, I wandered over to the Angel area, just to the other side of the areas I used to most frequently frequent, and poked around there for a bit. I had been planning to just find some dinner and then head back and make it an early night, but as happens all too often with me, I get terribly indecisive about where to eat, and end up wandering further and further in search of a place that really appeals to me, that looks not too fancy and not too expensive, that looks like a place where someone could eat alone without it being too awkward, but which is also upscale enough to not be just a basic sandwich shop or pizzeria or whatever – I want to enjoy myself and experience what the city has to offer, but I need to do it in a place where I won’t feel awkward sitting by myself.

Inevitably, I ended up back at some of the places I remember, including a small Japanese art gallery where they assure me that all the woodblock prints are authentic and genuine, but they also sell them for amazingly reasonable prices. Tons of prints for only £20 or £30, and then even the expensive ones, the lavishly gorgeous full-color Hasui’s, are only £800 or so. I’m no expert on the market, but I’d imagine that something by Hasui, though it’s not so old (1920s-30s), is still by a hugely famous artist, and so it’s gotta go for upwards of a thousand at least, right? No? … Boy, if I felt I had the money to spend, and I really really don’t (in part because I bought that Ravenclaw tie), I would want to buy up so many of these prints… It really makes me wonder just how many other stores of just loads of old Japanese prints are still out there in the world, out on the market. To be honest, I’m glad they’re still accessible for a young, independent guy like me to be able to have some, and that they’re not all locked up in museums, but on the flipside that also means that scholarship as a whole, academia, is not aware of the full range of what’s out there. Who knows how many unknown pieces, or variations, might exist, that could impact the scholarship? Of course, museums also frequently re-discover things in their own collections, so just because it’s in a museum doesn’t mean the academe knows about it, either.

In the end, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I ended up at a burrito place, and then just made my way back, quite a bit later than planned. This happens to me in most cities.

Right: The interior of Daunt Books, on Marylebone High Street.

Sunday, I met up with Min again for lunch, this time on Marylebone High Street, which was quite close to her flat but which feels a little like entering a little world unto itself, like the High Street of a provincial city or something. Lots of quaint cute shops… we went to Daunt Books, a nice local independent bookstore where a large portion of the books are arranged by which country or region they’re about. I guess, in a sense, maybe this isn’t too radical an organizing scheme, but, still, it’s neat to see all the Japan travel books, novels, and non-fiction all in one place, an excellent source for someone looking to travel, and take a Murakami Haruki novel with them to help set the tone, as well as a great source for someone like me, who’s more culturally/geographically oriented, rather than topic or discipline oriented – I’d rather have all the Japan books in one place, rather than have to go look separately at History, Art, Theatre, Asian Studies, etc.

We had lunch at a Fromagerie, precisely the kind of thing that just feels so London to me. If it were in New York, it would be pretentious or hipstery, or something, an emulation of European modes and not really, truly, a New York thing, and if it were in Goleta or Isla Vista, ha, who am I kidding, such a thing would never exist out there. We had a choice of British & Irish, Italian, or French cheese samplers, all of them comparatively ‘local’, insofar as we’re in England, right near Europe – it may be “imported,” but it’s not nearly as distant a separation in terms of cultural spheres or whatever as importing it into the US. While Britain may not necessarily be “Europe” according to various particular notions or definitions, there’s still a certain genuineness, authenticity, to doing this in London, over having it in the States. And, it may just be my US-centric perspective, but even having a cheese shop like this in Tokyo, if it existed, would be a product of a particular Japanese Anglophilia, and perhaps with associations of Japan’s long history of connections with the UK, to my mind… more so than in New York, or LA, where it just feels like hipstery emulation or aspiration.

In most cities, when this happens it’s unusual. It happens only when the river’s particularly high, e.g. after a storm, and it’s considered at least an inconvenience, if not a true problem. Here in Putney, though, it’s apparently par for the course.

Next, went down to Putney, a very different part of the city, where Ana and Hugh had just completed their sailing adventures for the day, and I got to join them and their Sailing Club for a little informal barbeque. Again, the sort of thing you only get to do by having friends in the city, or by living there yourself, and not something you’d get to see/do as a tourist. As it worked out, I didn’t really get to talk to that many of the other folks – not nearly as intensively as at Ian’s get-together. But, still, trekking out to the South Bank, walking past all these different rowing and sailing clubs, along dirt paths and sidewalks sometimes just right open to the river to come splashing in, it was a very different side of London life.

Monday, I went back to the British Museum, where I had the privilege of getting a hands-on look at a pair of handscroll paintings of relevance to my research. Turns out they’re fully visible online. Oops. Who knew? But, it was still really great to see them in person, to get a sense of the size, to see the textures and the fine details up close, and to get to talk to one of the curators about them – I really learned a lot from his insights. Once that was done with, I headed over to King’s Cross Station, Platform Nine and Zero-Quarters, for the train to Cambridge.

In this and the next post, I deviate a bit, I suppose, from my more typical history/arts/culture focus and (hopefully, maybe) vaguely academic approach, to write like a personal travel blog. Here, I’m talking about my experiences with the British Library, and about my research, so I guess there’s that. But the next post is really about hanging out with friends in London, and a bit about how I feel about visiting the city and wishing I were here for longer…

8/2/15

It’s been interesting being back in London. I lived here for a year while I did a Master’s, just a couple of years before starting this blog. And now, eight years later, I’m back for the first time since then, just for a few days before heading up to Cambridge for a workshop program thing. With only four days in the city, and especially since it’s been eight years, and who knows when I’ll be back here again, one would think perhaps I should be running around, seeing the sights, really taking in the city. Well, I haven’t been doing that, but I haven’t been sitting around in my room either. Coming up on the end of my fourth day in the city, I wonder if I should have gone out and seen more – there are so many parts of the city that I completely have not seen on this trip, and which I likely won’t see again for god knows how many years. But, at the same time, I’ve had a relatively productive time at the British Library, did a very successful run of the British Museum, and spent a lot of time with a few good friends, poking around a few areas of the city, going to a couple of quite nice little cafés and restaurants and so forth, and perhaps most importantly & most enjoyably, just hanging out with locals, like a slightly more regular visitor, or someone here to visit friends, might do – i.e. unlike the tourists.

Thursday, I arrived early in the morning, and after checking in to my lodgings, made my way straight to the British Library, because I’m a dork. Within a few hours, ran into a colleague from my university back home, because she’s a diligent, responsible, and classy sort who does her studying at a place like the British Library.

The main lobby of the British Library.

Turns out the one thing I wanted to see at the BL isn’t properly catalogued into the system, so, you can still request it if you know the right call number (shelfmark, they call it here), but you can’t find it by any variation of the title or topic tags or the like. Fortunately, with the very kind help of the librarians, I did end up finding it in a printed catalog, and even more fortunately still discovered a companion piece, which I had not known about. On the downside, for reasons they refused to disclose, the Library wouldn’t allow me to take my own photos of these works. Most other works, yes, but not these. Because. The only option was to pay something like £80-90 to order images from the library. Assholes. I’ve taken my own photos at numerous other institutions, including at the British Museum, just down the road, not to mention the National Archives of Japan, and other such major institutions, and it was free. Seriously. Upwards of $125 just to get photos of something; the kinds of things I could do with $125 otherwise, the numbers are just really unbalanced. Digital photos of sixty pages of a book I could have photographed for free if only they would have allowed me to do so, versus buying five whole academic books (or 1-3, if they’re more expensive). I asked to make sure there was no way around it, no other possibility, but, anyway, so, that happened.

I appreciate from the institution’s point of view, (1) you want to conserve the objects, so you want to avoid people shoving a 200-year-old volume onto a scanner or photocopier, and so forth, and (2) if you are going to have the staff, rather than the visitors, take the photos, they have to get paid – for the staff, for the time & effort, for the equipment. And, maybe, the latter part really does add up to being just about this much money. But, I suspect that a large part of it is also that a lot of people have ample research budgets, and the archives, libraries, and museums can simply get away with this. It’s for a very similar reason that journal publishers get away with charging sky-high prices for institutional subscriptions to online databases like JSTOR. Still, the point remains, why wasn’t I allowed to take the photos myself? If I’m trusted enough to handle the book, shouldn’t I also be trusted enough to photograph it, with a tiny handheld digital camera? It’s shit like this that makes me wish I had Google Glass or a spy camera or something.

These are gorgeous books, and loaded with both images, and complex classical Chinese text. I really need the images. I can’t just take notes. Maybe if I were here for a few months, I could work with them closely, in person, and get everything out of them I might need, without taking photos home with me. But, even then, I would have to go into it with a truly full knowledge of all the questions I might potentially have, which these documents might potentially answer. As it is, I only know certain questions, and don’t know what else might come up, later in my research, for which these materials might be good. So, I paid the goddamned money. What choice did I have?

Illustration of a shawm, suona, or sonai, from Ryûkyûjin gakki kanpuku zu, in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. Image from TNM Digital Archives.

Of course, I have no photos to show you, since it takes 2-3 weeks to process my request. Hence the above image from a completely different work; but, it gives a sense of what sort of thing I was looking at. The one book I knew about is a manuscript (handwritten, handpainted) album of records and images of Ryukyuan music and dance performances in Edo in 1796. As soon as I looked at it I realized it’s probably a handscroll that’s been re-formatted to become an album; each page consisted of multiple pieces of paper, with a vertical seam, just like that you would see in a handscroll, where papers are attached end-on-end to form a single long piece, which can then be rolled up. If it were originally designed as a book, the seams would all be on either the outer edge, or the inner spine, of the book, and not in the middle of each page. Anyway, they contain lists of all the dances & musical pieces that were performed, including lyrics and the names of the performers, as well as simple paintings depicting the dances, and the musical performances. The second book I discovered in the catalogs, is cataloged at just one number earlier in the tally, and bears nearly identical binding, interior marks (e.g. pencil writing that it was transferred from Printed Books on such-and-such a date), and so forth. Both, by the way, came to the British Library as part of the Siebold Collection. Siebold, in case you are unaware, is a pretty major figure. So that’s kind of neat. I suspect, though I have no real evidence, that this second volume may have originally been a second scroll, belonging to the same set as the other volume. This one contains, mostly, monochrome ink diagrams of the Ryukyuan embassy members’ clothing, musical instruments, and other accoutrements, from hairpins to banners. I found some exciting stuff in here, like sketches of the “mandarin squares” or chest badges worn by the Ryukyuan ambassadors, indicating their (honorary, or equivalent) rank or placement in a Ming Chinese hierarchy of officials, something I had been worrying about. While the book doesn’t, unfortunately, give any explanation of why the banners carried by the embassy bore the particular designs or symbols that they did, it does give precise dimensions for every object, and just seeing the images is a great help towards understanding what different things are. Many of the objects carried or used by the missions have multiple names, so this helps clarify that, and some are just unclear, without looking at the pictures – for example, the most typical Ryukyuan string instrument is called a sanshin, based on the Chinese sanxian, meaning “three strings” (三線). The missions are described as also carrying instruments known as “two-strings” (二線), “four strings” (四線), and “long strings” (長線). What do these other instruments look like? According to this illustrated book, the “two strings” is not in fact simply a two-stringed plucked version of the three-stringed sanxian, but rather is a bowed instrument, like a fiddle, more closely resembling the erhu or the kûchô.

Two erhu (二胡) and a Chinese sanxian (三絃) on display at Ryukyumura, in Okinawa.

I guess I can’t really just end on that note. So, let’s go a little farther. Well, let me sort of talk about the Library in general. I don’t actually know, don’t actually have a proper sense, of just how prestigious the British Library is. I mean, I can certainly guess, on an intellectual level. Their collections certainly contain tons of the greatest treasures in the country, and thus in the world, including numerous examples of the oldest this, and the only extant that; they of course also have extensive collections relating to many of the greatest British individuals and institutions, from the East India Company and Captain Cook, to Shakespeare and Thomas More, I am sure. And, it is most certainly a very clean, sleek, upscale-looking institution. Yet, somehow, perhaps because they are so open to the public, I don’t really feel like I’m so privileged to be there, or anything like that – a feeling I do get when visiting various other institutions. Perhaps the very modern feel of the place contributes to that, too; I’m curious to see how things feel at Cambridge – maybe just being in among a much older-looking place will make it feel that much more elite and exclusive. That said, the British Library has very few public stacks; the building is taken up mostly by numerous Reading Rooms, where you have to have a Reader Card to access (which means an application including your credentials as a researcher, and reasons for wanting to access these collections), and where you have to request items to be delivered to you from storage. So, it’s that sort of place. But, like I said, very clean, modern, well-lit, with public exhibits, free wi-fi, a nice café & restaurant… feels more like a museum than an exclusive research library, and even then, getting to go behind the scenes and look at objects in a museum collection still feels like a more exclusive privilege, a really special experience, than looking at things at the British Library… but, given how many libraries & archives have given me a really hard time getting in to look at objects, I’m certainly not complaining.

I’ll summarize the rest of my London adventures in another post. Cheers for now.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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