Month: August 2018

I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See

I’m From Singapore & I Saw Crazy Rich Asians: What I Saw Was What I Did Not See

By Girish Daswani

I am from Singapore. I grew up in an apartment close to Chinatown in the 1970s and remember wandering through the streets and shopping centres, as I killed my boredom of being an only child, reading books on Buddhism and searching for the best lanterns during the Chinese lantern festival. When my father left (I was about 8 or 9) and my mother could not afford to pay the rent anymore, we moved to the East: Siglap Road, Frankel Avenue and finally Marine Parade. My mother started her childcare centre in the different bungalows she rented, the children played below and we shared a room upstairs until the business grew and a room was made available for me (I was 14 by that time!). When we moved into our own two-bedroom apartment in Marine Parade, I was thrilled to have a home again – without the morning cries of children leaving their parents as they headed to work or the invading groups of naughtiness that interrupted my sleep when an extra room was needed for teaching. Even if it meant I had to share the HDB (Housing Development Board = public housing, commonly referred to as Singapore’s “Heartlands”, and where most Singaporeans live) flat with my mother’s brother, who was usually in a bad mood, or a room with my mother, I sensed a new freedom: I was then in junior college and about to head off for military service (Kranji did not have an MRT station at the time), and I was later to assume a coveted spot at the local University. I studied Sociology, was part of a local band, my “Malay”, “Chinese”, “Indian” and “Eurasian” friends became my extended family, and we spoke about the world outside Singapore through music and politics.

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Aerial view of Marine Parade’s HDB flats

The world was my oyster – or that was how it felt. I started travelling, backpacked through Europe, volunteered for an NGO in Bangladesh, lived in Ghana with my father’s forgotten family, did my higher education in London and finally found myself in Toronto with a job as a university professor.

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The author and his son in one of Singapore’s “Heartlands”

So, what has this to do with me having watched Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) last week? Well, having seen the very entertaining, much acclaimed, and Hollywood blockbuster film set in Singapore, I felt like everything I knew about Singapore was stolen, taken away from me. I’m being too dramatic, maybe? Maybe, but that’s how I felt. Some say that the movie (and the author of the book the movie is based on) depicts a side to Singapore that was previously hidden to many, including myself; that it draws the curtain that usually hides the obscene amounts of wealth, “old money” and patronage that have always been part of Singaporean society. And they may be right. Others are happy to see Singapore featured and photoshoped into an Asian-American Hollywood film that brings the tiny island-state into the international spotlight with a more joyful twist than the controversies of the recent Trump-Kim-Jong-un Summit (let’s not even discuss how some think that summit was a “good” thing). And they have every right to their happiness. The Singapore Tourist Board must have also been salivating on the free marketing advertisements that portrayed Singapore’s mouth-watering local food, its synthesis of colonial, Peranakan and modern architecture, its post-modern infrastructure, and the futuristic hotel (and prophecy of the end-times depicted by the Noah’s Ark) that is the Marina Bay Sand – an Ark built on reclaimed land. Salivate all you want, I say.

What I saw was different. What I saw was what I did not see. And this is important. It is important because, just as CRA claims to be a success for “Asian-Americans” (let’s just cut to the chase and say “Chinese-Americans”) representation in Hollywood (and that is indeed something important), it was a failure in being an ally to the indigenous people and other minorities of the country the movie is set in. These groups have been under-/not represented in the country’s own post-colonial public image; their concerns are generally not heard or seen as lacking credibility because of the country’s nationalistic ideologies of meritocracy and multiculturalism. The only Malay (the indigenous person of Singapore) in the movie was…. wait, were there any Malays in the movie? The “Indians” were represented by the colonial figures of the Sikh soldier or bodyguard, scary bearded brown men with turbans. It is them who guarded the property of the crazy rich Chinese family, and the short scene in which they appear is meant to trigger laughter among the audience. As for Tamils, they are only seen as usherers at the wedding. Filipinos and Indonesians (the “new Singaporeans”) are stereotypically cast as the docile domestic helper more commonly called “maids.” Even CRA’s representation of “Chinese” people seemed confused. Elements of Hakka, Peranakan, Teochew, Hokkien, and Mandarin-speaking cultures are indiscriminately blended together in ways that are unrecognizable to the Chinese Singaporean.

The very fact that I’m using “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian” (let’s not forget “Eurasian”) is not random: These are the four official “Races” of Singapore. “Race” is a thing in Singapore, part of our post-colonial baggage that helps the government structure and divide Singaporeans according to “origin” types, and comes with the usual racial stereotypes. It is so central to the bureaucracy that it is printed on our identity cards.

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Poster for Singapore’s “Racial Harmony Day”

The metaphor and bureaucratic use of racial “types” can also be linked to Singapore’s fascination for “nature” (or how “race” is sometimes linked to “nature” and natural selection) and its attempts to control it (Joanne Leow). This fascination justifies a series of politics, from control over marriage and purity (see Teo You Yenn’s Neoliberal Morality in Singapore), to control of public housing (allocation of homes and mixing of races), to control over language (each race has its own “mother tongue”). How does it relate to the movie? Well, because CRA makes it seem like Singaporeans don’t really mix or intermingle beyond hierarchical, practical purposes (like the Sikh guards, the Tamil usherer opening your door, or the Filipino maids hiding their Chinese boss’s Jimmy Choo shoes and fancy jewellery in drawers). Maybe crazy rich people mix less with others – some anthropologists might agree with that. But as a middle class Singaporean who has also mingled with wealthier locals, I would say that the mixity is a lot more prevalent and complicated than the segregation-like social landscape the movie portrays.

I grew up speaking standardized (British) English in school, with Malay as my second language, and I used Singlish amongst my friends and other locals, a way of speaking English interspersed with words in Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew. My friends were from various socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds: Say Chong was my friend in Primary 3; with him, I watched the latest kungfu movies from Hong Kong (myself, Say Chong and others used to pretend “fight” using the martial arts moves we learnt in movies). Timothy was one of my closest friends from primary 3 to 6; he introduced me to the wonders of climbing down monsoon drains and protected me from potential bullies. Others became like brothers and adopted sisters (we played football in the void decks, participated in plays and school debates and made music together). Together, we shared a tapestry of experiences: we lived in Singapore and were attracted to each through common interests, schools, neighbourhoods and the need to connect with a person or group outside our respective family unit. I never limited them to their “race”. We spoke a common language: the language of being from a place, in a place. As such, we shared the experiences and frustrations of its rites of passage, including the Primary School Leaving Examinations (through which you were placed into “Normal, “Express” or “Gifted” streams), ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels, and military service (for males only).

I experienced racism for the first time in the army. My platoon mates mainly spoke Hokkien and Mandarin to each other, and I did not speak enough. Some did not like me and only referred to me as “Keling Kia”, never by my name. The expression “Keling Kia” comes from the colonial era. Then, South Indian labourers of Tamil or Telugu decent were called “Keling” (in Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew) and “Kia” was often used in Teochew to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups.

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Indian coolies, Singapore, c.1900

The first Chinese girl I went out with was a friend of my cousin’s. My cousin was not pleased. To be fair, I never told her I was pursuing her friend romantically. But when the girl’s parents found out about us (they saw us at a bus stop, close to her HDB block, holding hands), they were incensed. She broke up with me immediately after that. I heard from a reliable source that her parents forbid her from seeing me, compared me to other Indians – cause we apparently all abuse alcohol and our wives – and told her that if she wanted to continue seeing me, she could “roll in the mud” (I assumed at the time that this was not a New Age cleansing ritual) and leave home. She made the right choice, went to a different university than me and her parents had her brother introduce her to his Chinese friends from NTU – one of whom she later married. I’m not bitter. I was hurt at the time but I had my friends and I had my music to channel my frustrations (one result was “She Don’t Care Anymore”, Big O Singles Club No. 5). University seemed not to place limits on me and I blossomed into a graduate.

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The author (singing) with his fellow bandmates of The Trip in concert

Why, again, am I sharing this with you? How does it relate to CRA? Well, it is to counter-balance the movie’s picture of singularity (Singapore = rich and Chinese) and the absence of conviviality between the so-called different groups and to point to the many Singaporeans who live together and with each other, mainly in the HDB flats that the cinema screen scans over quickly (you see them in the background while the characters drive to their parties and exclusive destinations). It is to point to the prejudices that already exist politically and socially; prejudices that would not allow a non-Chinese become Prime Minister. As Singaporean historian Thum Ping-tjin put it:

[The] most competent and popular politician in Singapore is not allowed to be prime minister because he is the wrong race, he doesn’t meet the qualifications of an (mandarin) elite.

If I am sharing this with you, it is to alert you to the hidden secret that there is poverty in Singapore, even as its officials try to rationalize it, provide tips on how to better manage the rising cost of living and transfer the bulk of the responsibility to the economic choices people make (see Teo You Yenn 2018 and this).

Also, where are the Crazy Rich Singaporeans who are not Chinese? Are we all not “Asians”? Why could the movie director not have taken some creative and intellectual initiative, hired some Singaporean consultants who knew about the politics and the history of the place, put more Singaporeans into leading roles (we have great actors by the way, including Tan Kheng Hua, who I was thrilled to see play the female lead’s mother), and made some modifications to the script by making the main character’s best friend Indian, Malay or Peranakan (unless the idea was to only portray local characters who had gone to élite Chinese language schools; yes, that is a thing in Singapore)? And why was there a (most probably fake) quote from Napoléon Bonaparte at the beginning of the movie? Why had the director picked that Orientalist warning whereby China, the feminized “sleeping giant”, would one day awaken from its slumber as the movie’s epigram? Has “China” ever been sleeping? Is Singapore China? Are Singaporeans Chinese? Is Asia China?

To me, CRA came across as a movie about Chinese hegemony and neo-colonial domination more than about “Asians” anywhere. I found myself entertained by the movie but perplexed at the same time. It haunted me for a few days, and I ended up watching it a second time with my (Singaporean) niece. Why did Jon M. Chu’s team come to Singapore only to film clichés and Photoshop the country, relegating its true diversity into the far, very blurry background? I understand that this isn’t meant to be a movie about Singapore, but why try to break some stereotypes by perpetuating others? While Hollywood reproduces stereotypes all the time, and in this CRA is no different from other American Hollywood bluckbusters, the movie’s claim to be a “movement” (in the fashion of Black Panther – a comparative analysis of this requires another blog post) or a work that is about representing “diversity” and “Asians” is misleading. For the movie’s lack of attempt to provide a true diversity of representations as unproblematic is problematic to me.

In response to my frustrations with the lack of representation in the movie, a Chinese-American told me on Twitter: “I’m not sure why you as a Singaporean are inflating your sense of importance. It’s based in Singapore not a film about Singapore. This is a clear distinction.” He was quite right. This was not a film about Singapore, but a Hollywood-American movie based on a book whose author is, yes, a Singaporean, but one who left the country at age 11 and has since been living in the US. It is also a movie that, although set mostly in Singapore, includes a substantial amount of shots filmed in Malaysia and reworked through CGI (including the Young family house). CRA‘s Singapore, thus, is a highly Orientalized, imagined “Asian” fantasy. It is not my country.

Yet some of the film’s scenes do, paradoxically, tell you a lot about the country and its ties to diversity, colonialism and imperialism. While Nick Young’s best friend’s wedding takes place in CHIJMES, whose hall we see turned into a tropical forest, the after-wedding party is held in Singapore’s majestic “Gardens by the Bay”. In line with its fame as an international “Garden City” known for its beautiful Botanical Gardens and bountifully green public spaces, Singapore’s famous tourist attraction is also a symbol of the unseen labour that goes into maintaining racialized divisions and naturalizing the status quo. These divisions and hierarchies are, unsurprisingly, maintained in CRA. Designed by a British company, Gardens by the Bay consists of two climatic zones (Mediterranean and Tropical mountain range) that hold around a thousand species of plants, flanked by “Supertrees” (the purple tree-structures you see in the movie, about which someone watching the movie close to me exclaimed, “Just like the movie Avatar!”) and “themed gardens” that include four “Heritage Gardens” called “Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Colonial”. University of Saskatchewan scholar Joanne Leow has shown how these correspond to “racialized, codified spaces that classify the main ethnic groups and their related botany in Singapore as scholarly Chinese, artistic Indians, rural Malays, and enterprising colonials”. So just scratch a little below the surface and you will find a history of peoples, managed and organized through colonialism, simplified into types and re-created as living and breathing stereotypes.

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Aerial view of the Gardens by the Bay

Singapore, thus, includes many peoples not seen or experienced in CRA. While I have problems with how Race (and Nature) is manufactured and imagined in the country, I have more problems with how Singapore’s neo-colonial complexity is purposefully left out of the movie. One might then respond that CRA is about Family, that it is a rom-com focusing on how love triumphs over traditions and class differences. But what of the intimacies between “Chinese Singaporeans” (a modern invention, by the way) and other racialized Singaporeans? In her book The Intimacies of Four Continents (2016:16) Lisa Lowe writes:

it is the pronounced asymmetry of the colonial divisions of humanity that… privileges particular subjects and societies as rational, civilized, and human, and treat others as laboring, replaceable, or disposable contexts that constitute that humanity.

I could also respond, where were brown and black bodies – are other Singaporean / Asian bodies replaceable, disposable or treated as less than Singaporean / Asian? By her use of the term “intimacies” Lowe (2016:18-20) is suggesting that we instead focus on the close connections and relations between colonized people; slaves, peoples of indigenous descent and colonized labourers (for example, slavery in the Caribbean and Chinese and Indian free-labour “coolie” systems). These alliances and social ties of affinity created between different colonized people are important to consider because they actually existed (even as they might have been resisted), but (as complicated as they are) were often eclipsed by the dominant Anglo-American narrative.

How to understand that we are all intimately connected, even if in a complicated way that is not always straightforward? A last story from my years in Singapore might help. I remember spending long nights in Cuff Road, just off Serangoon Road, Singapore’s Little India. I would sit in my adopted uncle’s office, a converted shop-house, one of many that lined the street he had grown up on and continued to call his home.

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Shop houses, Little India, Singapore

My uncle (Māma, lit. “mother’s brother” in Tamil) was a well-known astrologer in Singapore and I got to know him soon after my father left my mother. He loved talking about politics and history. As I grew older, these conversations – involving groups of people, usually his close friends – went on late into the night and sometimes well into the morning. I would watch his paan-stained lips, red from the juice of the beetel leaf and areca nuts, articulate connections between India and Singapore and how their histories converged. Māma was talented at revealing the connections and convergences between the stars, the past, the present and the future, and what these alignments said about the present and what they signified personally and politically for everyone in the room. He was a gifted astrologer, but also an exceptional connector of worlds and people.

Rather than connecting us, CRA reinforces a narrative of division (“races”, classes, “civilizations”), while simultaneously erasing or occluding the other intimate connections and convergences that exist – and which I’ve experienced and tried to write about in this post. It reinforces an American identity-politics that bears the burdens of imperialisms (old and new). It may be a win for Asian-American “representation” – we need to acknowledge that many Asian-Americans of East Asian decent, and beyond, are rightfully-so, personally elevated and emotionally affected by this movie – but it is a loss for the larger battle of truly addressing (mis-) representation and considering the concerns of other minorities who are also part of the story. Until we recognize that and come together in new and unexpected ways, to expose the simple and simplistic mainstream narrative, we will only reproduce division, racial difference and exclusivity – something that I thought CRA was trying to challenge. I am secretly grateful for having watched CRA. Having spent half my life away, I thought that I had left Singapore behind me. But having watched the film, I realized that Singapore is very much still inside me. CRA doesn’t do justice to what life in Singapore is for most Singaporeans, me included.

References

Chua, Beng-Huat. 2002. Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society. Taylor and Francis.

Leow, Joanne. Unpublished. “New Asian Tropicalities: Reading Nature in the City in a Garden.”

Lowe, Lisa. 2016. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press.

Teo, You Yenn. 2011. Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society. Routledge.

Teo, You Yenn. 2018. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Ethos Books.

Purushotam, Nirmala. 1998. Negotiating Language, Constructing Race: Disciplining Difference in Singapore. Mouton de Gruyter.

 

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How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

by Katherine Blouin

Over the summer, a Ph.D. student told me that she and her fellow graduate students in Classics here at the UofT would very much appreciate to get some tips on how they can better diversify and “decolonize” (and I use this term mindfully, being aware that it is not a metaphor) their teaching in a way that is all at once more reflective of the complexities of the ancient world, mindful of Classics’ and ancient history’s complicated and ongoing ties to imperialism, and engaging to our often (and in Toronto, incredibly) diverse student body. Since we’re all either in the midst of or about to start writing our Fall syllabi, I thought the time was ripe to put together a list of the 10 main cues I’ve been following these past years. In my experience, these can be applied in a variety of ways to both undergraduate and graduate courses at all levels. That being said, this is by no means meant to be a set list, and I am certainly aware that MUCH remains to be done, so please see this list as a start.  And should you have other tips to share, please do!

1. Diversify the voices featured in your syllabus

Are all the readings assigned in your syllabus written by white male scholars? From the anglo-saxon scholarly tradition? Who are senior? If the answer is yes, consider making your reading list more representative of the world around you (or, if you look around and only see white man, of the world beyond your bubble). Likewise, foster a critical approach to texts considered to be authoritative in the field. Some may say: That’s a great idea in theory, but the fact is, some fields are more “white”, “male”, and “Anglo-Saxons” than others. My answer to that would be: Really? Please try again. And for real, this time.

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2. Don’t fetishize narcissistic military leaders

I teach intro to Roman history and culture every year so I know this too well: It’s very hard when we teach a survey course to stray away from the chronological and geopolitical narrative path. Still, it’s not an excuse to spend the whole term focusing exclusively on a bunch of rich, in great part corrupt, and narcissistic ancient men who fought between each other, led civil wars, and committed genocides (yes, Julius Caesar, you did just that, and I’m looking at all of you too, politicians of the Late Republic!). First, let’s face it, it gets depressing, and heavy, after a while. Second, there is WAY more to the ancient world than that, and I’m sure you too hope that those students who study science and are about to take their first and only course of ancient history as an elective will end the term thinking the same.

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So what I’ve been trying to do is to balance the mostly political narrative of my lectures with “case study” segments that feature “voices” or topics pertaining to other aspects of the ancient world. For instance, last year, I spent a bit more time discussing three foundational stories of early Rome that revolve around rape/abduction of female bodies and how they were interpreted by modern art: The rape of Rhea Silvia; the “rape” of the Sabines; the rape of Lucretia.

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Image from the 1962 movie The Rape of the Sabines

Given the climate of the time (#MeToo), I found that it was both necessary and powerful to critically and mindfully (for we must also be aware that some of the most graphic and violent material we teach can me traumatic or painful for (some) students & adjust our teaching methods accordingly) discuss these myths more than I had in the past. Given the students’ responses both in and outside of class, it seems like it was a good idea pedagogically-speaking.

3. Don’t be a “Classical” literature monomaniac = diversify your pool of primary evidence

The ancient world was a multilingual (and multiscript) one. Unlike today, most people in Antiquity were illiterate. Just like today though, loads of them spoke more than one language, and they produced, read, or listened to all sorts of texts. Literary texts are thus only a small portion of what remains from Antiquity. Making a point to feature that diversity and complexity, be it in translation in the case of texts, does better justice to what the past was truly about than enclosing oneself in the old-school Greek and Latin lit. canon. Likewise, if teaching languages and literary material, be mindful of how representative of the full diversity of authors/genres/topics/periods your (or your department’s) curriculum is. Everyone loves their “Classics”, but there is fun to be had beyond the obvious as well (who doesn’t like to translate or discuss a sallacious monk story once in a while?). Be like Lonely Planet in the old days: Go off the beaten track.

4. Give voices – and due credits – to the “other”, the “conquered”, the “barbarians”, and the “enemies”

Ask yourself: Who do I present as the “Other” in my syllabus? Why? How? Can this be a problem for some students and colleagues? Similarly, who am I not teaching about? I’m still flabergasted by the fact that most of the new graduate students I’ve taught over the years have never been taught anything about the Persian Empire/world beyond the Helleno- (that is, essentially Atheno-) centric narrative. Likewise, I’ve taught groups of graduate students who had never been shown a Fayyum portrait, or who had no idea at all that the Carthaginians had a literature of their own (which is now, sadly, mostly lost; Google “Mago” just for fun).

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Fayyum portrait, now at the ROM

It’s not the students’ fault, but that of the too-often myopic nature of many “Classics” programs. It’s a fact that our literary evidence on the Phoenicians, Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, etc. is one-sided. But this is no legitimate reason to completely ignore all the other material that does come from outside of the traditional Greek and Latin canon. Likewise, if you teach a survey course on the “ancient world” and dedicate 2/3 of the term to the “Greco-Roman world” and the rest to everything spanning from Mesopotamia to early Islam, you might want to either balance your syllabus better or change the title and scope of your course altogether.

 5. Feature cases of cultural interactions and connectivity

“Greek”, “Roman”, “Greco-Roman”: From a cultural perspective, these words are often misnomers in that they don’t do justice to the fundamentally interconnected, diverse, and fluctuating socio-cultural fabric of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Peoples, goods, ideas have been moving since human beings exist and, accordingly, the “Greco-Roman” world owes a great, great deal to the peoples and cultures it interacted with over the course of its history. Ancient relationships to/constructs of “race”, “ethnicity”, and “identity” did exist, but in ways that ought to be defined and contextualized in the context of the time (Rebecca Futo Kennedy has put together a great list of pedagogical resources on those topics). This might seem like simple, obvious facts to many of us scholars, but given current attempts at reframing the “Classical” world as the root of white supremacy, there is still much education work to be done on that front.

Bonus tip: Try Anything that has to do with the Indian Ocean/Silk Route trade. It’s a guaranteed success.

6. Address the relationship between Classics/Ancient history & imperialism

Making students aware of the history of our disciplines and of their links to imperialism and (settler) colonialism can only benefit their critical investment in it, and their wider positionings in the world. Depending on the topic of the course and on its level/format, such discussions can take the shape of anything from a short segment to an entire class to a semester-long course.

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Arthur Evans (left) and two members of his team in Knossos

7. Don’t normalize words like “barbarians”, “pagans”, “civilization“, “the West”, “the East”, “Fall” or “decline“. If you do use them, make a point to explain to students where they come from and what’s their ‘baggage’

Because, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau, it’s 2018.

8. Don’t assume that students all come to a topic with similar sets of general knowledge and from the same entry point

For instance, don’t teach as if everyone in the classroom comes from a Judaeo-Christian background and is fully aware of the connections and differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cause I know from experience that they don’t. But it would be really handy if, thanks to you, they finally do. Likewise, don’t assume polytheism is less sophisticated or “evolved”. Or completely different from monotheism. Cause it’s not. At all. However, the Virgin breastfeeding Jesus IS a Christian version of Isis breastfeeding Horus. And that is some essential info to carry with oneself through life or to casually flash out at a cocktail party.

9. Love, and use, pop culture, reception, and the news

Don’t be a culture snob. Instead, use pop culture as a conversation opener in the classroom. Thus, whether you think Beyoncé is a narcissist is beyond the point: The way she and Jay-Z have recently been resorting to Pharaonic imagery and Greek sculptures at Coachella, in the Apeshit video, and on social media powerfully highlights how ancient and modern history are embedded.

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Image from The Carters’ Apeshit video, with the Vénus de Milo in the brackground

And, as such, it is certainly worth a 10-min discussion at the start or at the end of class, whereby some historical records can also be set straight. Likewise, that vintage Pepsi ad set in a Roman coliseum that came out when most of your students’ entered JK is still a winner (yes, I’m an Associate Professor in Classics and a fan of Beyoncé all at once).

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So are the news with their endless stream of Antiquity-related information: That petition for the Alexandrian “mummy juice” to be transformed into a beverage? Classroom gold.

10. Love public-facing scholarship too

I’m thinking podcasts, blog posts, magazine articles, Eidolon, and documentaries/videos. These offer accessible, timely complements to textbooks and traditional scholarly publications, and they often happen to be written/ feature a more diversified pool of scholars. Don’t deny yourself and your students this two-for-one pleasure.

Have fun!

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Exhibiting Antiquity beyond the clichés: An ancient historian’s dos and don’ts

Exhibiting Antiquity beyond the clichés: An ancient historian’s dos and don’ts

By Katherine Blouin

As an ancient historian and, therefore, a kind of Antiquity nerd, I love to hang out in museums. Now as time goes by, I am increasingly self-aware of how I visit museum exhibitions. As it turns out, my visitor’s gaze is expanding. While the young me was in awe of the objects themselves, and prone to ingest whatever explanation panels there were with full trust in their “expert” nature – which I for instance did for 9-hours in a row the first time I visited the Louvre’s Egyptian collection in 1998; I mean how much more of an ancient Egypt-obsessed can you get? – the “mid-career” scholar I now am cannot help but feel like museum visits are work, and, as such, opportunities for critical reflections. More: Since I’ve become particularly interested in the relationship between imperialism and museums as institution of knowledge (re)production, I now find myself very much drawn to how exhibitions can shape visitors’ understanding of the past, and of its relationship to the present. This summer, I’ve had the chance to visit a few museums in Egypt, Greece, and Canada. I’ve found myself both exhilarated by some initiatives, and disappointed, if not annoyed by missed opportunities.

Since I couldn’t keep bottling up these thoughts any longer, I’ve made a little list of my main dos and don’ts, with examples from 4 museums: Athens’ Museum of Cycladic Art, Acropolis Museum, and Byzantine and Christian Museum, as well as Montréal’s Musée Pointe-à-Callière’s special exhibition Reines d’Égypte/Queens of Egypt (organized in collaboration with Turin’s Museo Egizio).

DO

1. Address questions of provenance – including archaeological context and, when this applies, the implications of illegal excavations. This is a great way to make the general audience more aware of the ethical and political dimension of archaeology, the Antiquities market, and museums.

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Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

2. Comment on the coloring of ancient human representations. In this particular day and age, to make such basic facts of ancient iconography known beyond academia is more crucial than ever. This is all more so the case that the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world had a profoundly different understanding of what skin colours meant (for instance, skin colour was commonly a gender marker in ancient Egyptian art, and thus had nothing to do with “race”), let alone of “ethnicity” (itself anachronistic a word). The Acropolis Museum has been doing great work on the colours of ancient statues, and this has led to several museographical displays in their main gallery (panels, replicas, online resources and even an online colouring game). It is forbidden to take pictures in the galleries, so I didn’t take any, but you are welcome to browse through their website. The topic is also addressed in the Museum of Cycladic Art.

Were figurines paintedPanel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

3. Acknowledge what we don’t know (for sure). I find it crucial to point out to my students how history and archaeology are fundamentally work-in-progress disciplines, and I think museums can also play a big role in making the general public aware of the importance of evidence-based (absence of) knowledge.

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Enigma of Keros

Panels from the Museum of Cycladic Art

4. Use digital technologies in a way that allows visitors to contextualize and visualize the “social life” of the artefacts they see. Displays of this type prove very efficient when it comes to highlighting the historical significance of ancient objects. I really enjoyed the animated projections and videos featured the Reines d’Égypte exhibit. These were conceived by Montréal’s Ubisoft, which is behind the video game series Assassin’s Creeds (itself a great example of how ancient history and archaeology can constructively enhance contemporary entertainment, and vice versa):

“A collaboration with Pointe-à-Callière Museum for this unique exhibition was natural for us. Like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Queens of Egypt proposes a highly immersive experience in the heart of Ancient Egypt. With the research data already collected for the game, we knew we had the content to accentuate the immersive experience of the visit. I think this partnership clearly demonstrates the many possibilities the medium of video games has to offer when applied to other spheres than entertainment,” declared M. Jean Guesdon, Creative Director of the Assassin’s Creed brand at Ubisoft Montréal. ” (from the exhibit’s website)

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Video shot conceived by Ubisoft for Reines d’Égypte (source: Musée Pointe-à-Callière)

Likewise, the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s temporary exhibition “Byzantium and the others in the first millennium: An Empire of stability in a turbulent era” featured compelling 3D video projections dedicated to the “past life” of a selection of artefacts (a short news clip available on the exhibition page shows these displays better).

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3D projection window from Athens’ Byzantine and Christian Museum

5. Acknowledge and discuss the relationships between colonialism, the acquisition of museum collections, and modern, “western” art.

Cycladic art and modernism

Panel from the Museum of Cycladic Art

6. Include a segment on reception. In other words, give visitors an opportunity to learn more about how the ancient world inspired modern art and politics. I wish I had seen inspiring displays/panels of this type seen this summer, but alas, it hasn’t been the case yet. However, should anyone at Pointe-à-Callière wish to add on be it only a tiny section on Egyptian queens in today’s pop culture, please drop me a line: I’ve got *many* ideas, including Katy Perry’s Black Horse, Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s  All the Stars and, of course, Beychella and Queen Bey + Jay Z’s recent, pharaonizing pics live from Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung!

7. Have a fun, funky gift shop, with nice, affordable replicas of ancient jewels, good-quality books, and some kitsch stuff. For, let’s face it, who doesn’t love a kitsch Rosetta stone memento in the office or a funky Moschophoros magnet on the fridge?

DON’T

1. Miss the opportunity to make the public aware of what “unknown provenance” means by not saying anything about what such a label often means. This is all the more problematic when – as is the case with the Reines d’Égypte exhibition currently on in Montréal – most of the exhibited objects are of undocumented provenance.

 

2. Show archival pictures of excavations without addressing the particular geopolitical context in which these excavations took place nor the types of labor they showcase. Here too, Reines d’Égypte disappointed me a great deal. Towards the end of the exhibition, one finds 3 large archival pictures. While they could (and I dare say, should) have provided an opportunity to briefly contextualize the Italian excavations from which most of the artefacts came from and highlight the nature of labour relationships on Egyptian (and most other) digs at the time, including child labor, these important features of the history of the Museo Egizio’s collection are completely ignored. The result is, sadly, an Orientalist photographic display where Egyptian workers appear as “exotic”, anonymous bodies to be either put to work (by Schiaparelli, the Italian excavator in charge of the pictured fieldwork) or gazed at (by the visitors).

 

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Large size archival pictures (incl. 2 captions and 1 detail from a larger picture) exhibited toward the end of Reines d’Égypte

3. Systematically call early digs “excavations” when led by European or North American scholars and “looting/illegal digging” when performed by locals. This dichotomic conception of archeology is not only reductive and racist; it also completely ignores the deeply connected, and complicated, relationships between local and foreign interests, scholars/experts, as well as consumers and dealers of Antiquities (just watch the pictures above again and notice who is seen doing the physical work of digging, and for whom).

 

4. Exhibit/Discuss the finding of human bodies without addressing the ethical questions that increasingly stem from these practices and the methodological challenges faced by scholars who excavate/study this type of remains. These questions do pertain to a variety of important and interesting issues, from local beliefs regarding the afterlife of deceased bodies/individuals to dilemmas on their study, exhibition and ownership, to claims for repatriation. These are  highly debated topics among a growing number of scholars and local (notably aboriginal) communities. For this very reason, and also out of respect for the ancient individuals displayed and the communities they (are believed to) come from, museums have, in my view, an ethical duty of respect and self-awareness.

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Archival picture from Reines d’Égypte: “Prince Khaemwaset’s tomb upon its discovery”. Neither the caption nor the surrounding exhibit of mummy cases from that cache address the ethical questions posed in #4

5. Be cheap on the info panels. If I, as an ancient historian, feel lost looking at a whole lineup of artefacts and works of art that only come with super brief captions and no context, can non-specialists possibly feel?

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6. Confine exhibitions to a lineup of clichés for the sake of appealling to the “general public”. While I perfectly understand that museums need to fund themselves and thus attract visitors, I also believe the “general public” appreciates/benefits from being brought beyond of the usual, highly problematic “eternal Egypt” or “Greece craddle of democracy” tropes. So please please please, let’s all stop reproducing the age-old stereotypes regarding the erotic, mysterious, violent Orient or the civilized, democratic, sophisticated Greco-Roman world, let’s all stop focusing (quasi)-exclusively on the rich and famous, let’s stop saturating the soundscape with new age or Lawrence-of-Arabia-style music.

IN SUM

Don’t underestimate your audience.

Be bold. Be honest. Be humble. Be up-to-date. Be fun. Be relevant.

Let me now end this post with Charles Bigeast‘s ancient Greece-inspired gif entitled “Caryatide”. Cause, why not?