In a recent internal blog at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a question was raised about whether it was appropriate for an anthropology and the museum to address subjects that are derived from popular culture rather than the traditional subject matter of anthropology. This was my contribution to that discussion:
As we look at ways to attract audiences to the museum, there is always the question of how far we should go away from the traditional topics of anthropology and archaeology. This was brought up here as a question about whether we should make the museum like a “theme park” and include topics like “Burt [Bert] and Ernie” or “Batman.” Since I’m usually the one who says we should address these popular figures from an anthropological perspective, I thought it would be useful to say why. To me, there is no subject that should be off-limits for anthropology and archaeology. But what we do in our research is hard for many “civilians” to understand. Our job, I believe, is to translate the big questions we always ask in our research—what does it mean to be human, how do people make their way in a fragile or dangerous world, how do people create meaningful lives—into formats that people without academic training can get. I also believe the way we do this is not to force them into our world but to build bridges to theirs, to connect these questions to what people already know well. This summer, at least 100 million people worldwide shared a story called “The Dark Knight,” a Batman myth. Why would we want to ignore that fact? Why wouldn’t we want to point out that bat mythology is common throughout the world, that our bat artifacts cover many cultures and times, and that the premise of the entire movie, how to keep your humanity when faced with chaos and violence, has resonated through human history? Theme park? Actually, yes, because themes are what tie past and present together, what show us that different cultures have something to say to each other. We all have our limits of what we find acceptable topics (I, for example, draw the line at that purple dino, Barney) but perhaps our best hope is to open up the traditions of anthropology and archaeology so they can talk with, rather than just at, today’s world.