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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Interesting article at The New York Times on the rise of the ethnic museum and how they may have a tendency to stretch or twist honesty to fit a certain narrative: To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display. Two examples:

...The President's House site is where the nation's executive mansion stood from 1790 to 1800. And a display there could have provided some unusual insight into the American past, because not only did George Washington, as he shaped the institution of the presidency, sleep there, so did nine of his slaves. On Independence Mall in Philadelphia, which is devoted to ideas of American liberty, it would have made sense for this site to explore the conjunction of these two incompatible ideas -- slavery and liberty -- particularly as both were knit into the nation's founding.

Instead, during eight years of controversy, protests and confrontations, the project (costing nearly $12 million) was turned into something else. Black advocacy groups pressed the National Park Service and the city to create an exhibition that focused on enslavement...

...Even in the context of 18th-century slavery, though, this house (long demolished) must have been unusual: its internal structure may have teetered with the nation's own paradoxes, resisting easy characterization. There is no conclusive evidence, for example, that it held "slave quarters." In a city with more free blacks than slaves, the house sheltered more indentured and paid servants than slaves; accounts suggest that sleeping quarters may have mixed both race and status. John Adams, who also lived in this mansion, didn't even own slaves.

Moreover, the scanty historical background presented in the exhibition's annotated illustrations is almost mischievously diminishing. During the 10 years in which Philadelphia was the national capital and Washington and Adams were shaping the new country there, what we see of the "upstairs" world is this: unrest (riots opposing Adams's policy regarding France), protest (against the Jay Treaty), fear (a yellow-fever epidemic) and hypocrisy (Washington is shown with a disdainful look as he awards a medal to a proud Seneca Indian leader). And the architecture of the site makes it seem as though we are standing in an open-air ruin.

The result: an important desire to reveal what was once hidden ends up pulling down nearly everything else, leaving a landscape as starkly unreal as the one in which Washington could never tell a lie. It is not really a reinterpretation of history; it overturns the idea of history, making it subservient to the claims of contemporary identity politics...

Second:

...This approach is even more sweeping in the exhibition about Muslim science, "1001 Inventions," at the Hall of Science. It claims to show how a millennium-long Golden Age of Islamic science lasting into the 17th century anticipated the great inventions and discoveries of the Western world.

And indeed, before the 13th century, there was an extraordinary confluence of genius and innovation, particularly around Baghdad. But almost everything here is exaggerated. The actual period of invention is less than half of that suggested. Many achievements, said to match or anticipate ones that followed in the West, are best seen as important predecessors. Some assertions, based on slim evidence, are almost literally imaginary. And accusations and implications of neglect of Muslim enterprise ignore extensive citations in Renaissance manuscripts and later Western histories.

The exhibition also pays minimal attention to the very element that made Baghdad so important before its destruction in 1258: the cosmopolitan impact of interacting cultures. Influences are casually mentioned when they should be sharing center stage. Persian pre-Islamic breakthroughs, the confluence of innovations from China and India, the heritage of Christian scholarship from Syria, the importance of Byzantine Christianity with its links to ancient Rome, and the scholarly preoccupations of the region's Jewish communities -- these are scarcely noticed, minimized or ignored. The main point made about one of the few non-Muslim figures mentioned -- Musa ibn Maymun (better known as the 12th-century Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides) -- is that his work demonstrated the influence of "Muslim colleagues" and drew on "Muslim philosophy."...

The rest.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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