Deflecting Guilt: Using the ‘Next Generation’ as a Shield

While I was extremely disturbed by the visitor responses to “The Couple in a Cage” described in Coco Fusco’s article, I would like to focus on  Fusco’s analysis of children’s reactions to the exhibit. Last week in our class discussion on memorials, I believe Rica brought up the constant refrain of ‘educating future generations’ connected to the purpose of memorializing and questioned if it is the current generation’s way of deflecting guilt.  As if the current generation is claiming that they themselves do not need the memorial for commemorating atrocities, but rather it should function as an educational tool for future generations.

Interestingly, and relevant to this discussion about future generations, were children’s responses to “The Couple in the Cage”.  Fusco writes, “[f]or all the concern expressed about shocking children, we found that their reactions have been the most humane” and “[b]oys and girls often asked their parents excellent questions about us, prompting ethical discussions about racism and treatment of indigenous peoples” (16).  In this respect, children were able to honestly approach their feelings of discomfort and confusion and question the exhibit, rather than their adult counterparts who either ignored their feelings of discomfort or behaved as colonizers.

These two different conversations about the next generation, prompt me to question how and why do adults build up mechanisms of defense in dealing with uncomfortable situations and guilt. How does utilizing the excuse of ‘educating the next generation’ and concern over “shocking children” shield and ironically infantilize adults/the current generation? What can public historians do to counteract this shield and force adults to face and deal with uncomfortable feelings?

A (Failed) Performance of Live Reading Fusco’s “The Other History of Intercultural Performance”

I wanted to try something new this week – live tweeting myself working through the assigned readings. I had a plan to Storify these tweets, but

  • a) 50 tweets is a lot for a Twitter thread and
  • b) even for Storify, it would be a lot of work.

Here’s the draft of what I had written, though:

Tweet Charac. Count
Trying something new for #AMST2560: bear with me y’all. 55
This week, in talking about “Empathy & Other”, we watched Paula Heredia’s “The Couple in the Cage.” 121
I found myself taking lots of notes on Fusco’s article “The Other History of Intercultural Performance.” 127
& seeing as I like livetweeting lectures……why don’t I try livetweeting my notes? So here goes. 95
“While the experiences of many of those who were exhibited is the stuff of legend, it is the accounts by observers and impresarios… 131
…that comprise the historical and literary record of this practice in the West.” 81
There’s an emphasis on historical and literary here…what other records might bring forth diverse accounts? Are there any? 121
The language of “legend” is interesting, too – adding to the exoticness being applied to those exhibited. 106
I rarely read behind-the-scenes review of exhibits, but it’s cool to see Fusco acknowledge the intent & realities of the project. 130
And these realities of fiction and misinformation, literalism and public interest, seem more relevant now than in 1994. 119
“the Bush administration had drawn clear parallels between the ‘discovery’ of the New World and his New World Order.” – I just wrote ? Here. 140
A little research brought me here, explaining her calling Columbus a “smokescreen” 104
“Out of this context arose our decision to take a symbolic vow of silence….” – I wonder what the performance would’ve been like w/o this? 137
Speaking English, of course, wouldn’t have made sense. But how would language have altered the performance? 107
“Our cage became the metaphor for our condition… 48
linking the racism implicit in ethnographic paradigms of discovery with the exocticizing rhetoric of  ‘world beat’ multiculturalism.” 133
I circled the details of the performance – the ‘traditional tasks’ incorporating both old and modern concepts, the ‘ethnic’ dance to rap… 137
…the ‘Amerindian stories’, the guards on hand….the leashes made me EXTREMELY uncomfortable though. 99
Immediately after reading the list of performance environments: “THIS is going to be a point of contention.” 108
What were the conversations were like behind the scenes? Esp. places like the @NMNH or @FieldMuseum? 101
How does performance art fit in natural history museums? Esp. recognizing the history of such events in similar spaces? 120
I mean, I think of intercultural performances as events for state fairs and expositions – but there’s something unsettling… 123
about this in a museum. Even if it is satire. 46
“The contemporary tourist industries…still perpetrate the illusion of authenticity to cater to the Western fascination with otherness.” 135
^this reminded me of seeing shows like The Lion King on Broadway, or iLembe at the National Arts Festival. 129
In the case of shows, the focus is cultures over exotic individuals…but seeing these shows & paying to see them… 112
…makes me think about how exoticness persists. The type of display has evolved, but is the West masking the intentions of performance? 136
“These shows were where most whites ‘discovered’ the non-Western sector of humanity.” Where do we learn about that now? 119
“The original ethnographic exhibitions often presented people in a simulation of their natural habitat.” 105
^Does Fusco explain why they chose not to do so? I think the cage is more powerful in display if people were taking it as satire. 129
But, as we know, they weren’t… 30
“…even though the idea that America is a colonial system is met with resistiance-since it contradicts the dominant ideology’s presentation… 139
…of our system as a democracy-the audience reactions indicate that colonialist roles have been internalized quite differently.” !!!!! 135
Fusco goes on to discuss how exhibiting humans has continued – through decapitated limbs, gentials, etc. 105
What does removal of the whole body do for these presentations? How does it remove and obscure the “other”? 107
“The desire to look upon predictable forms of Otherness from a safe distance persists.” I’m reminded of Jennicam. 135
Or reality TV. Or YouTube commenters in general. These aren’t racial/ethnic categories of Otherness… 100
…but they are people that we choose to “other.” People we choose to remove ourselves from. People we ogle and do not imagine complexly. 137
“We underestimated public faith in museums as bastions of truth and institutional investement in that role.” !!!!!!!!!!!!!! 123
We had a great conversation about this at #heritage17 w/ Morgan Grefe & Ruth Taylor. 106
Fusco then goes on to discuss the different experiences w/ gen. public from art museums to natural history museums, q’s I mentioned earlier. 140
pg. 157 is just covered in scribbles and notes toward the beginning in the end. 80
But “We found that [children’s] reactions have been the most humane” reminded me of this video: 117
Fusco goes on to discuss different audience reactions – POC, white spectators, art aficionados, museum professionals. 117
“No American ever asked about the legitimacy of the map…of the taxonomic information of the signs…” would this change in a smartphone era? 138
(I doubt it, but one would wonder. I, for one, would almost immediately Google it. Or I hope I would.) 102
Fusco then discusses the reactions of Latinos, Native Americans, and Spaniards. She also mentions the gender stereotypes. 122
I’m curious why she chooses to end her article on the frank dicussion of sex – 78
 –  its relationship to exoticness, being catcalled, projection of fantasies onto her body. 92
“Those are also the times when, even though I know I can get out of the cage, I can never quite escape.” 104
(Also did anyone take the time to read through the Encyclopedia Britannica entry? Makes you think about museum exhibition panels.) 130
I’m still fascinated by this performance – its otherness, its satirization, but mostly the reactions. 102
In what ways is this limited to performance art? How do we see elements of what Fusco satirizes in exhibitions, displays? 121
Other questions: what role does performance art have in public humanities? Is it a different one than public art? 114
What stakes does the performer have in its presentation? What about the venue? What if that venue is a museum? 110
Do we need to expect “better” of our patrons? Do we need to challenge ourselves further? To do what, in these cases? 116

Representations of the Future

The big news today in the art world seems to be “Defiant Girl.”

People look at a statue of a girl facing the Wall St. Bull in the financial district of New York, March 7, 2017.

“Defiant Girl” is a statue by Kristen Visbal of a young girl facing down “Charging Bull,” the iconic sculpture associated with Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. The placement of the statue was facilitated by State Street Global Advisors (yes, they actually spell “advisers” with an “o”). According to the company, which manages almost 2.5 trillion dollars in assets, “Defiant Girl” is a rallying cry for the placement of more women on the boards of financial institutions.

An except from a statement by CEO Ron O’Hanley: “Today, we are calling on companies to take concrete steps to increase gender diversity on their boards, and have issued clear guidance to help them begin to take action.”

The firm negotiated with the City of New York beforehand to ensure that “Defiant Girl” will remain in place for at least a month, and hopes that it will remain in perpetuity (in class today, I will be taking bets at 1:3 that it does).

This story struck a chord, at least in my mind, with a couple of the readings for class today.

First, it reminds me of the Marian Anderson concert performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, as both events seek to influence the political and social meaning of an iconic image. Anderson’s concert tipped the scales slightly towards Lincoln primarily as emancipator as opposed to Lincoln primarily as preserver of Union. “Defiant Girl,” on the other hand confronts directly (quite literally) Wall Street’s reputation and legacy as a place dominated by masculinity and testosterone. In a sort of sculptural aikido, it deftly turns “Charging Bull” against itself. It is worth noting here that “Charging Bull” was sculpted by an Italian, Arturo Di Modica, and appeared on Wall Street in 1989, during an era characterized in popular consciousness by hyper-masculine and sub-moral  characters such as Gordon Gecko and Jordan Belfort.

With regards to Doss’ “Memorial Mania,” I see “Defiant Girl” as belonging to the category of public art rather than memorial or monument. In her first chapter, Doss argues that public art and memorials are “practically synonymous”, but doesn’t elaborate much. Later, she contends that the distinctions between monuments and memorials are “tenuous” but proceeds to articulate at length the differences between the two. I would like to suggest one distinction between public art and memorials: while they both are reflective of subjectivity and play to identity politics (as Doss articulates), public art has the potential to look forward, urge change and acknowledge agency, while memorials by definition look backward and remember loss.

I was instantly taken by the straight forward meaning of “Defiant Girl” (achieved, in large part, through the currently out-of-vogue mode of representationality) and I think it has much potential as a piece of art. This potential is due in no small part to its aptness in the current political climate.

Some lingering questions for me:

Is State Street Global Advisors being hypocritical? According to their website, they have 23 men in senior leadership positions and only five women (also, as far as I can tell, all of their senior leadership team, save one, is white).

Considering this organization’s vast financial resources (the amount of assets they manage is roughly on par with GDP of India), what else are they doing? Are they doing enough?

Does the choice to depict a representation of women as a child a child in a skirt play off of existing gender stereotypes or play into them? Would an adult woman in a suit be more appropriate?

Appropriation of Memory

This week’s readings focus on the role of politics in commemorating the past. Emily and Catriona also raised the question of tourism in politicization and commercialization of history. What connects all this week’s readings is the idea that history, or sites of memory to be specific, can be constructed or “used” for political or even commercial gains. Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe visited the memorial sites at Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor with an effort to face and commemorate the past, but more importantly to enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance because of the threat of “an increasingly aggressive China.” Sites of memory, especially those dark sites of death, violence, and atrocity, are supposed to commemorate the past loss first, and then teach and then other purposes of remembering, such as for political goals. These appropriation of historical sites and national memories for pragmatic purposes are problematic and controversial, just as Lincoln’s connection to racial justice. The biggest irony lies in the African American school girl’s answer to the question “who freed the slaves” –“Martin Luther King”—just in front of Lincoln’s statue. And the irony also lies in African American’s rejection of Lincoln in the late 1960s, an icon they themselves have constructed tactically for racial justice but abandoned for its uselessness later. I wonder, what are historians, curators and other professionals supposed to do in these appropriation of memories and sites of memories, especially when the use of national memory for political goals seemed positive and progressive?

Today is International Women’s Day. Protests, activism and strikes across the globe are going on right now for the ongoing fight for equality. Since we have talked about the sites of memory in the past few weeks and the Martin Luther King’s Day, I believe the discussion of “Dates of Memory” would also be interesting in light of political goals and tourism.

Statues, Historic Preservation, & Climate Change

Doss’ discussion of statue mania seems to be linked to the larger historic preservation of the early twentieth century. Both movements were spurred by  middle and upper class anxieties about national unity because of “the rapid advance of modernism, immigration, and mass culture” (Doss 27). Historic preservation laws are aimed at saving (or recreating) certain places of American life, much as statues and memorials are meant to venerate certain people. Both create a landscape of memory for the public and each of us to interact with – or not.

Since “concepts of nationalism and national identity are cultural constructions,” and each generation has a new view on how the previous generation saved the cultural landscape, what do we do with statues, structures, and memorials that are mostly forgotten (Doss 53)? As cultural workers, do we have a responsibility to repurpose these places into the current mood of experience-based places of memory?

Alternatively, how do we save places of continued meaning from current preservation challenges? With this, I am thinking particularly of how climate change will impact historic structures, statues, and memorials. Without any action, many landscapes of memory will be lost, but saving everything would be costly and would alter the historic integrity of the structures. For my job focused on cultural heritage and climate change, my colleague and I investigated this topic here. From our research, we found that US preservation law has not quite caught up to


climate change impacts, but that states and communties are beginning to take action. This has the benefit of allowing more localized groups to make decisions on which places of memory are important to them, but also means that many communties have not formed a reaction.

Home in Galveston, TX being elevated after relocation due to rising sea levels.

Image Source

Living Memorials? Re-Enactments and Memorial Mania

“Memorial Mania” is particularly relevant in this moment in American history. As college campuses and cities across the country examine the weight of names and images of people connected to slavery and white supremacy, debates of history and memorialization are particularly relevant. Both Doss and Sandage show that history, memory, and memorials are political touchstones. I’m particularly interested in where re-enactment fits into modern memorials. Doss addresses living memorials as libraries, museums, and other physical spaces devoted to public welfare but where do individuals, acting out a moment in time, fit in?
The last mass lynching in America occurred at Moore’s Ford, near Athens, Georgia, on July 25, 1946 when two African-American couples were lynched on a dirt road in rural Georgia. Like many other lynchings in the South, the killers never paid for their horrendous crimes. This moment in Georgia history was largely silenced. However, in the 1990’s a biracial committee formed, perhaps out of shame and “shared understandings of civic morality”, to acknowledge this moment in history. One of the outcomes was a re-enactment that’s become an annual tradition in Monroe, Georgia. In the South re-enactments are most often used to commemorate the Confederacy and the Civil War. Choosing to re-enact a lynching flips that common trope on its head. Instead of celebrating the “Lost Cause”, it memorializes a painful moment, and becomes a teaching tool. Using costumes and actors, and drawing a crowd, it acknowledges the history of lynchings as spectacles and events that people chose to witness. The re-enactment of the events at Moore’s Ford is a loud and sombering thing to witness. It evokes different emotions than a physical monument. Being a witness forces you to think about the events at Moore’s Ford differently than looking at a historical marker. This type of memorial is acting in the name of education and makes me think about how other re-enactments and costumed interpretation can memorialize moments. What if Civil War re-enactments were about more than simply living out the “Lost Cause” mentality in the modern era? Instead, it was about the realities of slavery and the 19th century South? How can and do living people memorialize an event in public spaces? How are memorials more than simply a space?

Monuments and Mourning

In Memorial Mania, Doss states that “temporary memorials create a public place for individuals and communities united in grief and often anger” (pg 68), a statement which definitely rings true as I think about the time I happened upon the temporary memorials to the victims of the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015. Parisiens and visitors alike traveled to the makeshift memorials, contributing flowers and paying respects and it seemed like the temporary memorials gave memorials mourners a way “do something” in a time of helplessness or fear.  Visiting the memorial brought up many of the feelings I remember experiencing as a teenaged New Yorker in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks—fear, anger, profound sorrow and sadness for the victims and their families.

My friend Kevin’s photos of the temporary memorial at the Marianne monument

Interestingly, one of the larger temporary memorials was created at the base of a large, bronze,  graffitied  statue of “Marianne”, “a feminized symbol of revolution and liberty”, (pg 20) surrounded by allegorical statues representing liberty, equality, and fraternity.  It made a fitting location for a memorial, not only because of its proximity to the Bataclan theater, where the largest attack took place, but also because Marianne, as Doss explains, was created in determination to “unite the French body politic around a consensual national mythology.” (pg 20) Large terror attacks such as the ones that took place in Paris in November 2015 are viewed as an attack on the nation, much in the way that the 9/11 attacks are seen as “an assault on American innocence” (pg 120).

The statue of Marianne (accompanied by Liberte, Equalite, and Fraternite), in the Place de la Republique in Paris

As I looked at the flowers and stuffed animals at the foot of this representation of French nationalism, an allegory which doesn’t come close to representing the true diversity of Paris and of France, and I thought about the calls for unity and national pride I wondered— does this “E Pluribus Unum” mentality that pervades the mourning of national tragedies create space for groups whose marginalization may have laid the groundwork for the tragedy itself?

Photos taken by teammate Kevin in Paris. The Eiffel Tower, itself a symbol of Paris and of France, was illuminated with the colors of the French flag for one week after the attacks.

Politics of Memory Activism in Liminal Spaces

The idea of commemorating the past through a static public display or object is something that made complete sense as a child and makes less sense as I get older, perhaps precisely because my knowledge of politics and political agendas has matured (or shall I say, I’ve become cynical). If it’s already difficult to create an appropriate monument, it is impossible to create a monument that stands the test of time. Which, I guess the point of a monument is not to last forever, per se, but to last as long as it’s needed to remind people of an event. I guess also that monuments do not exist to make sense, but to emotionally appeal to a memory of an event or history. Anyway, this is how I usually (perhaps reductively) think of monuments: as physical objects. However, reading about how “protesters mobilized mainstream symbols to further alternative ends, to constitute (not just reflect) shared beliefs, and to open spaces for social change” (Sandage 138) specifically with regard to the Lincoln Memorial opened up my mind to the idea of monuments as sites of potential social change by virtue of being liminal spaces.

In “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963,” Scott A. Sandage defines a liminal space as being “a realm of ambiguity-and therefore of possibility-where public rituals and appeals to sacred symbols possess an unusual potency to effect both social change and group unity.” (143) Sandage goes on to describe the liminality of the Lincoln Memorial, writing, “Conceived and dedicated as holy ground, the Lincoln Memorial became…racially contested ground. By chance or design, the shrine straddled boundaries: between North and South, between black and white, and between official and vernacular memory.” (143) It’s important to remember, however, that people, not spaces, are the agents of any social change. Sandage writes, “By invoking and reinterpreting a national icon, black protesters explored the ambiguities and possibilities of American society in the mid-twentieth century. Their protests at the Lincoln Memorial were repeated, standardized rituals that evolved from experience and ultimately constituted a formidable politics of memory.” (143) Liminal spaces may indeed provide a unique space for political action, but ultimately it’s the political savvy of the activists themselves that generates change.

Works Cited

Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963.” The Journal of American History, vol. 80, no. 1, 1993, pp. 135–167.,

What is the difference between a museum and a memorial?

One question that occurred to me while reading Adam Gopnik’s review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (officially titled in that order), was about how we differentiate between a museum and a memorial. In particular, I was struck Gopnik’s claim that “if there is an absolute case for a [9/11] memorial, the case for a museum is more unsettled.” What does a memorial do that a museum does not, and vice versa? While initially the differences should be obvious, the more I thought on this question, the more similarities I noticed between the two.

Both museums and memorials ostensibly deal in subjects from the past, even though the people and phenomena they reference may still exist in the present. For example a memorial to a civil rights leader might carry relevance to the civil rights movement today, and museum exhibits can reference contemporary themes. This past year for example, the Museum of the Moving Image held their exhibit: How Cats Took Over the Internet. Architectural memorials, such as the Lincoln Memorial show how memorials as well as museums can exist as physical spaces, rather than simply an object. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and associated Three Servicemen Memorial and Vietnam’s Woman Memorial, show that memorials do not necessarily consist of a singular object, nor are they necessarily static. They also both rely on visual methods of communication as at least part of their project, although text is often included—for example in the form of plaques or exhibit labels. Both can be used in educational efforts and encompass varying levels of abstraction. They can also represent anonymity—whether in the form of objects of murky provenance or memorials for unknown soldiers.

So why, for example, is the Tenement Museum a museum and not a memorial to the millions of immigrants that worked, struggled, failed, triumphed, and made New York their home? Or any historic house museum that as perfectly as possible preserves the home of someone significant and deceased?

Above all, I think it is the element of the quotidian that differentiates these places. Not only in the themes they represent, but in how they are treated. Although every-day, personal objects were left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the meaning of those objects and their placement there held a gravitas that a pair of 19th-century shoes presented at the Museum of the City of London would not. This is not to say that museums are unimportant but rather that they can be spaces for exploration of the unexceptional. While the subjects of memorials are occasionally forgotten, their creation was meant to confirm and symbolize the elevation of the subject, whether for the purpose of celebration, or grieving, or inspiration. While there are museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Victoria & Albert, or historic house museums in Newport that can relate to unique and important people and themes, memorials are made solely for the momentous, and the subjects must be deemed worthy of memorialization. This is why the Museum of the City New York, in its major exhibition on the history of the city, does of course have items related to momentous people (for example, Robert Moses’ badge) but also has simple objects related to very everyday life, like water buckets, cigar molds, snuffboxes, bath towels, and candy tins. Perhaps though, in this way, the museum can serve as a memorial to an everyday life that existed in the past.

On Period Pieces

Hamilton is an extremely interesting case study for this week’s theme of Denial, Myth, and Nostalgia. The selection of articles responding to Hamilton—both celebrating it and critiquing it—offer different perspectives on the validity of using myth in conveying history. One major underlying dilemma is whether to prioritize the truth (already in and of itself, potentially unknowable) over political or artistic purposes. Also embedded in this is the validity of using myth, nostalgia, or denial to tell stories about the past. None of the articles offer an outright condemnation of Hamilton, especially not of Hamilton as a Broadway musical with a uniquely minority-majority cast (although in good company with shows Fela and The Color Purple)—however those that critique the show take issue with the historical actors Miranda chose to centralize, the sort of ‘Founding Fathers’ chic subsequently reinforces, and the constructing heroes from the past.

These readings also reminded of conversations we have had in class and on this blog discussing films such as Hidden Figures, as well as critiques I have read of the film Selma, which for example The Washington Post claimed unfairly depicted Lydon B. Johnson, while the New Yorker argued it was in fact ‘more than fair,’ and the New York Times fell somewhere in the middle. Aside from arguments about the actual events that transpired, and the words that were spoken, at the heart of all of these debates again is the question of whether the political, social, or artistic ends justify the means—which range from re-writing the truth completely, cherry-picking which truths to tell, and how a story is framed and who is framed as the lead protagonist (especially when considering causality). The debate that rages over these issues also shows the importance that is being placed on popular culture as a source of historical fact. It is this last element that I think makes the strongest argument for prioritizing accurate storytelling. With this it is also important to note however that what is deemed accurate is very much under debate, and to most especially interrogate accuracies that conveniently reflect a mythos like the ‘Founders Chic.’