Community-Led, Community-Run: The Blathers’ Approach to Museum Curation

In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!

And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.

Blathers: “The cultural development of Wakame (my island in Animal Crossing) is a worthy endeavour indeed.”

In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.

The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.

Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).

What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).

As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.

At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…

References

Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.

Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.

Fischer, H. and Jansari, S. (2020) International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Podcast. British Museum. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/britishmuseum/august-23-podcast-ep-mixdown

Kreps, C. (2006) Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies (eds S. Macdonald). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 457-472.

Mutibwa, D.H., et al. (2020) Strokes of Serendipity: Community Co-Curation and Engagement with Digital Heritage. Convergence 26(1). pp. 157-177.

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.

When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.

But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.

And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?

What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?

It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.

And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.

When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.

So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.

Does this Artefact “Spark Joy”? Marie Kondo as an Archaeological Framework

First, a confession: a few years ago, I did read Marie Kondo’s book and attempted to use the KonMari method to wrangle my large collection of “stuff” that I had managed to cultivate after only a year of living in the UK. Turns out, I am secretly a hoarder and everything sparks joy, so it didn’t really work for me.

With Marie Kondo’s new television show out and causing lots of discourse, it got me thinking about…what else? Archaeology! For those who don’t know, Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering and tidying (also referred to as the KonMari method) is based off of the idea that you should keep items that “spark joy”; by employing this particular mindset, clients are able to minimise their belongings to smaller collections that are more consistent with what they visualise as part of their everyday lives (Kondo 2014).

A drawer of shirts neatly folded according to the KonMari method.
A drawer full of shirts that have been neatly folded according to the KonMari method (Image Credit: Netflix)

But what about archaeological objects? Do we ever think about if they once “sparked joy”?

One thing that always bugged me about archaeology, particularly as an undergraduate student just learning the basics, was how much emphasis was placed on utilisation within interpretation – the main questions are usually “how was this used?” or “how did this make survival easier?” What about, “how did people in the past see this object?” or “did they like this object? Like, a lot?”

Of course, that’s not to say that archaeologists haven’t been discussing this very topic. Or, at the very least, they have been discussing around it. For example, as we move towards post-processualism in archaeology, we find that discussions of material culture turn towards examining the symbolic aspects that need to be interpreted from the artefacts, rather than observed (Hodder 1989).

However, could we possibly develop a Marie Kondo Framework in archaeological interpretation? Kondo’s methodology is based heavily on philosophical and aesthetic theories – is there any way we can carry this over into archaeology? Arguably, there must have been some artefacts that were deemed important and valuable not because it was a tool or  made of rare material; instead, these were valuable due to sentimentality, or aesthetics, or hell, maybe they were just a bunch of lucky stones for all I know.

Well, it’s complicated – particularly because philosophy gets involved. In a lot of ways, this question is similar to asking what “worth” means in an object. Is it about the materials used to make it? Or the personal worth, which can be dictated by emotions and experiential context? Is there even a solid definition of “impersonal worth” that can be used as a basis, reflecting the universal concept of what the value of an object is (Matthes 2015)? Yeah, my brain hurts too.

There is also the issue of ethics, in that questions of the personal in archaeology can easily lead to bias. Perhaps to you, this statue may look like it has symbolic significance. Maybe it was a deity that looked over the residents of this house, or perhaps a good luck charm that kept bad omens away? It’s easy to assign grand visions of high spiritual value and sentimentality to an artefact…that could easily just have been something an ancient person’s child made and was kept around like a drawing on a fridge. Ultimately that’s the big issue with artefacts and interpretation – as you delve deeper into the more philosophical and abstract, you end up with countless other questions regarding the “essence” of an artefact that undoubtedly cannot be answered (Shanks 1998).

However, I’d argue there are some approaches that can come close to getting a better idea of what the personal value of an artefact was. There are small indicators, of course – for example, you could argue artefacts that are worn and mended made reflect excessive amount of use and the desire to keep said artefact even after breaking. There are also some methodological approaches to examining possible concepts of value, such as utilising ethnographic studies and extrapolating results from this (Tehrani and Riede 2008).

We will never truly understand how people in the past felt about certain things, particularly prior to written record. But we occasionally get hints here and there, and that’s exciting! I think perhaps a Marie Kondo Framework is less about discovering what people in the past found joy in, and about remembering that people in the past did feel joy. And many other things! And although we may not be able to calculate that using lab analysis or statistics, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the people whose lives we are recovering through excavation are still people.

References

Hodder, I. (1989) The Meanings of Things: Material Culture and Symbolic Expression. HarperCollins Academic.

Kondo, Marie. (2014) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever. Vermilion.

Matthes, E.H. (2015) Impersonal Value, Universal Value, and the Scope of Cultural Heritage. Ethics 125(4). pp. 999-1027.

Shanks, M. (1998) The Life of an Artifact in an Interpretive Archaeology. Fennoscandia archaeologica XV. pp. 15-30.

Tehrani, J. and Riede, F. (2008) Towards an Archaeology of Pedagogy: Learning, Teaching, and the Generation of Material Culture Traditions. World Archaeology 40(3). pp. 316-331.

Terror and Tradition Over Time: A Look at the Material Culture Of Halloween

Some of my current Halloween decorations – surprisingly low-key compared to previous years!

Oddly enough, I didn’t really expect to run into that many significant cultural differences when I first moved from the United States to the United Kingdom. So I was actually a bit surprised when Halloween first came around. I expected there to be streets covered in decorations, but was surprised to see only a few pumpkins and paper bats placed here and there. Turns out that Halloween isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it is in the US; back where I grew up, I was used to seeing houses on my block completely transform into haunted places complete with loud, scary noises and bloody, horrifying animatronic monsters! I never considered the differences in the material culture and presentation of the holiday across cultures.

With that in mind, I figured a brief look into the history of Halloween material culture  may be an interesting blog post to celebrate the holiday this year! Fair Warning: Some of these decorations may be pretty spooky.

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A traditional turnip jack-o-lantern from the Museum of Country Life in Ireland (Photo Credit: Rannpháirtí Anaithnid)

 

Most academics seem to agree that our modern celebration of Halloween stems from a pagan tradition, although there tends to be some debate over which one. Many point to Samhain, a Celtic festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season, the preparation for the upcoming winter, and the warding off of spirits by using large bonfires. Others, however, point to Pomona, which was allegedly a festival celebrated in the name of the Roman goddess of fruit and seeds, also named Pomona (Rogers 2002). Unfortunately, we have little textual or archaeological evidence to support either of these theories besides the similarities in timing with modern day Halloween – in fact, we have no evidence of the Pomona Festival ever occurring and no evidence to suggest how widespread Samhain may have been (Moss 2013).

Regardless of the actual origin point of the holiday, we can see that the introduction of All Saints Day to the 1st of November (possibly as a means of “Christianizing” Samhain) in the 8th Century eventually led to the standardization of many traditions that are still associated with Halloween. This includes perhaps the earliest form of “trick-or-treating”, where the poor would go from house to house and given soul cakes (pastries or breads made to honour the Dead) in exchange for praying for the dead of the household. Dressing up in costumes, or masquerading, also appears to have become a custom associated with All Saints Day, although it was for honouring the Christian Saints rather than terrifying the local neighbours (Bannatyne 1998). And, of course, there is that terrifying tradition that appears to have been originated in Ireland of “jack-o-lanterns” – these were faces carved into root vegetables like turnips…thankfully, the tradition turned to pumpkins once it was brought over to North America, which is good because have you seen how horrifying those turnip lanterns are?

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A tin Halloween parade stick from the early 1900’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

Halloween and its traditions were introduced to the United States via the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the mid 1800’s. However, up until the early 1900’s Halloween was mostly an adult-oriented holiday, celebrated by dinner parties. This led to the popularity of home decorations, which were often promoted by booklets and catalogues such as Dennison’s Bogie Book (Mitchell 2017).

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A Halloween Die-Cut Sign from the 1930’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

By the 1920’s, Halloween was becoming more standardized in practice and in design into the holiday that we recognize today. Most decorations on offer for purchase were in the form of “die-cuts” – basically paper decorations – as these were easily disposable. You probably still see die-cuts used to this day – think of the sort of cute, paper Halloween decorations that were hung up around school. In the 1930’s, trick-or-treating was practised more widely around the United States, prompting the popularity of decorations that were more cute than creepy. From then onward, Halloween was more of a children’s holiday (Eddy 2016).

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A small selection from the 2017 TransWorld Halloween and Attractions Show (Photo Credit: Chelsea T., Haunts.com)

Today, Halloween has become entwined with modern consumerist culture – in fact, Americans spent approximately 9.1 billion dollars on Halloween decorations and costunes (Mitchell 2017). And that’s not surprising given today’s emphasis on consumerism, which has tied itself to concepts of nostalgia and pop culture that now seem to propel many modern day traditions for Halloween – from dressing up as your favourite 90’s television character to hosting a marathon of “classic” horror films. Trends in consumption and aesthetics have also added to the holiday’s general popularity – by 2010, Halloween has become the most popular non-Christian holiday in the United States (Moss 2013).

With these changes in popularity and material trends, there has also been a significant shift in the main demographic for Halloween – although still enjoyed by children and young people, there has been a rise in popularity for adult Halloween costumes and adult-oriented celebrations, like Halloween parties organized at clubs, bars, and pubs (Belk 1990).

This trend can also be seen in the movement towards associating Halloween with the truly terrifying and gory. Due to advances in technology, computer animation, and prosthetics, modern day horror media has never been more elaborate and realistic in their grim and grisly details. This has also been carried over to amateur Halloween decorations, with homemade haunted houses and terrifying attractions taking the place of trick-or-treat spots (for some of the most spectacular looking Halloween decorations and costumes, check out the TransWorld Halloween Showcase).

So, what can we see from this brief history of Halloween trends and patterns in material culture? Well, its hard to say – especially as the origins of the holiday are still widely debated. However, we could argue that Halloween has consistently been a holiday of invoking what is otherwise taboo – whether that’s communicating with spirits and saints, demanding treats and sweets from strangers and neighbours alike, playing pranks, or even just dressing a bit differently than what’s considered “normal”! Like most other popular holidays, Halloween has become entwined with consumerism and rooted to pop culture by a variety of tropes and customs. And yet, we could also say that it remains a holiday truly rooted in tradition – from the carving of Jack-o-Lanterns to trick-or-treating, these traditions have been carried over from one continent to another and have lasted hundreds of years…I think its safe to say that they don’t seem like they’ll be going away any time soon.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

References

Bannatyne, L. (1998) Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company.

Belk, R.W. (1990) Halloween: An Evolving American Consumption Ritual. Advances in Consumer Research. pp. 508-517.

Eddy, C. (2016) The History of Modern Halloween, as Seen Through its Decorations. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-history-of-modern-halloween-as-seen-through-its-de-1788207372

Ledenbach, M.B. (2018) Halloween Collector. www.halloweencollector.com

Mitchell, N. (2017) Halloween Decorating Hasn’t Been Around as Long as You Think. Apartment Therapy. https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-rather-modern-history-of-halloween-decorations-249863

Moss, C. (2013) Halloween: Witches, Old Rites, and Modern Fun. BBC: Religion & Ethics. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24623370

Rogers, N. (2002) Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.