Thursday, February 26, 2015
Friday, February 20, 2015
Exhibitionism: a quick guide for the offended
The shirt, which was produced to promote the heavy metal band Cradle of Filth and shows a nun masturbating as well as the slogan JESUS IS A CUNT, was banned from New Zealand in 2008. Canterbury museum's curators got special permission to show it - in a secluded, adults-only room - as part of an exhibition called T Shirts Unfolding. The museum wants its visitors to think about the limits to freedom of speech, and about the functions of censorship. The YMCA and co argue that the T shirt is offensive, and that museums should not display offensive objects.
I've been wondering when the organisers of the campaign against the T shirt will turn their attention to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. On its second floor, in a room dedicated to the Second World War, Auckland's museum displays two of the most offensive objects of all time - Hitler's swastika flag, and his demented book Mein Kampf. Both objects help the museum tell the story of World War Two.
But almost every object in a museum is likely to be offensive to someone, if that someone has mistaken exhibition for endorsement. Besides its swastika flag and commie newspaper, the Auckland museum displays artefacts from dozens of religions and relics from a series of wars.
On the museum's ground floor, for instance, masks and drums associated with Papuan religious rites rest a short walk from a massive and austere sculpture of Kave, a goddess from Nuku'oro atoll, a carving of the Madonna and child by an early Maori convert to Catholicism, and a Samoan-language Bible published by a Protestant church. Relics of the religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt advertise their creeds upstairs. In the room of the museum devoted to the New Zealand Wars, the Union Jack and the banners of Maori nationalist movements confront each other, as speakers play recordings of bugle calls and haka.
We can only appreciate myriad and contradictory exhibits like these if we accept that a museum is a space where different aspects of and ideas about the past are allowed to manifest themselves, and where visitors, rather than curators, have the responsibility for forming final interpretations.
When I worked at the Auckland museum the institution mounted a major show about Charles Darwin’s life and work. Darwin offended the religious views of some visitors. I remember, as well, the way that some veterans of the Vietnam War were offended by the museum’s coverage of that conflict. Those vets didn’t like the museum mentioning that the war had created considerable public debate and protest in New Zealand.
They may have been offended, and their views may have been shared by hundreds or thousands of other Aucklanders, but neither the religious folks who objected to Darwin nor the Vietnam veterans who objected to references to anti-war protests should have had the right to intervene and alter or shut down the museum’s displays. A museum’s duty is to the truth, and the truth about the past is complex, and polemicists speaking on behalf of a nebulous community have too little patience with complexity.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Public intellectuals, and other enemies of elitism
I am a public intellectual because I do intellectual work that I try to relate to public issues. I research and write about the history of culture and ideas, but I don't want my research to be of merely historical interest. If I study New Zealand's nineteenth century, it's partly because I think that the events of that time, like the attempts of New Zealand to build a Pacific empire and the wars between Pakeha and Maori, are of relevance to the twenty-first century. In the same way, if I write about a great cultural figure of the past like George Orwell, it's because I think that figure has something to tell us today.
What does the role involve?
Saturday, February 14, 2015
John Macmillan Brown's return from exile, and other fantasies
I sent this e mail to Paul Janman recently. I don't think he has time to take on the project, and I don't have the time or the expertise to develop the idea myself. I thought I'd post my e mail to Paul here, though, in case it finds a reader who is equipped with the time, expertise, and enthusiasm to retrieve John Macmillan Brown's vast and strange novels from exile in the library of obscurity...]
John Macmillan Brown was educationalist, an explicator of Shakespeare, and a scholar - a sometimes wayward scholar, it must be said - of the Pacific, who is perhaps best remembered today for being the grandfather of James K Baxter. In the first years of the twentieth century Brown published, under the pseudonym of Godfrey Sweven, two massive novels - Riallaro, the archipelago of exiles, and Limanora, the island of progress - that were intended as satires on religion and superstition and as arguments for atheism, rationalism, and science.
Influenced by Gulliver's Travels and - perhaps - by HG Wells, Brown sends the narrator of his books on a journey to an obscure region of the Pacific, where a series of bizarre societies have evolved on a series of almost perfectly isolated islands. Some of these societies are rustic and fierce; others are highly enlightened, and fitted out with supermodern technology. Readers are invited to draw conclusions about the connection between material progress and rationalism.
But the images which Brown cumbersomely assembles are often original and strange. Arguably, they express subconscious obsessions and urges that are at odds with the author's rather sterile rationalism.
Let me offer an example. In a city that Brown's narrator visits, old-fashioned religion has been replaced by a sort of theatre, in which humans can watch film-like projections that give them the same ecstatic feeling that the worship of gods might once have provided. Brown's strange theater seems to me to express a longing for religious rapture, as much as a freedom from it.
Brown's books can be seen as pioneering works of science fiction, and they also look forward to some of the work of the surrealists. It is extraordinary that a New Zealander could produce such material a century ago.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]