Friday, 24 October 2014

Exploring the "Only Encyclopaedic Museums" myth

James Cuno has a number of justifications why (only) encyclopaedic museums can achieve a whole range of socially-useful results which is how he justifies retaining trophies such as the Parthenon Marbles in them. The case made sounds like special pleading and deliberately avoids certain topics (like why "globalism"/cosmopolitanism  is "good",  when it leads precisely to the erosion of culture and cultures). I thought I'd take his main justifications and examine them from the point of view of another type of collecting.

There is a lovely Polish kids book, "Mikołajek" which has a funny story explaining why stamp collecting is a socially useful hobby, the comedy resulting from the self-righteousness and pretentiousness of the claims made. I was put in mind of it on reading Cuno's piece on encyclopaedic museums in "Foreign Policy". Stamp collecting has been encouraged because it fosters curiosity and awareness. Stamps have pictures and writing, sometimes slogans, and often commemorate events of importance to the culture of the issuer. Sometimes they embody values at odds with those of the collector's own society (e.g., stamps of the Soviet Union, 1933-45 Germany). Learning about what they represent helps learn about the history, cultures and everyday interests of the societies that issue and use them. Postage stamps sometimes serve to foster/celebrate  national identities (with the picture of the leader on them, or with series of historical buildings or folk costumes etc.). In September 1939 Stalin had Polish stamp collectors rounded up and executed along with all the other 'dangerous minds' because in his regime's view they had become too 'cosmopolitan'. So would Cuno's arguments work with postage stamps ? Let's see:

"the power and promise of [philately]. By preserving and presenting [representations] of the world’s cultures, they offer their [viewers] the world in all its rich diversity. And in doing so, they protect and advance the idea of openness and integration in a changing world".

"This principle is exactly what [stamp collections] encourage: understanding the intertwined nature of different cultures that are more similar than they are different, the result of centuries of contact through trade, pilgrimage, and conquest".

"the values represented by [stamp collections]: openness, tolerance, and inquiry about the world, along with the recognition that culture exists independent of nationalism. These ideas can flourish everywhere, not only in the United States and Europe but wherever there is a spirit of inquiry about the world’s rich and diverse history".

"this more open future mostly depends on individual governments’ setting aside their nationalist claims and encouraging among their citizens a cosmopolitan view of the world’s many different cultures".

Yep, I reckon Cuno's arguments apply to postage stamps and sound equally pretentious as when applied to a load of fragments of marble and cruddy bronze exhibited in a fake Roman villa* in Los Angeles as trophies of some vanished society.  In addition there is absolutely no possibility of understanding the societies of the USA, or UK or Poland in the full richness of their variety based only on the selective images carried by their postage stamps -  even though they are specifically intended to convey such messages (addressed sources par excellance).  In the same way no ancient society can be properly studied in the full richness of its variety by the study of its coins and statuary alone. For this the study of a wider range of evidence is needed, archaeological evidence being one of the primary ones. One cannot do that if a large amount of the archaeological record has been trashed by artefact hunters seeking stuff to smuggle out to foreign dealers.

* an example of a vision of the 'pure form' of antique culture Cuno ridicules among the brown-skinned foreigners. 

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