Museum Anthropology Leaders: David Delgado Shorter, Professor & Vice Chair, Department of World Arts and Culture, University of California - Los Angeles, Part 1 of 2

Exclusive Museum Anthropology Blog Interview with David Delgado Shorter, Professor & Vice Chair, Department of World Arts and Culture, University of California - Los Angeles.

This interview is the fifth installment in our series, Museum Anthropology Leaders, where blog intern Lillia McEnaney will be interviewing various anthropological museum professionals. This interview is very different than the rest, for Dr. Shorter is the first interviewee who is not a classical museum anthropologist. 

This interview was conducted over written email correspondence. 

This is Part 1 of 2

Q: Can you please explain to the readers how your familial and cultural background impacted your decision to study culture?
A: I grew up in Alamogordo, New Mexico, near where the first atom bomb was tested. My father worked out in the desert on top-secret projects and I spent my years before preschool living with my great grandmother in the housing projects. My mother made sure that I was very connected to her family’s history. We regularly visited my great, great grandmother (whose brother ran with Billy the Kid) up in Lincoln County. Because my father was of German-mixed ancestry, and my mother of mixed Hispanic/Mexican/Indian ancestry, and because I spent my weekdays in the projects but weekends living in the wealthier subdivisions of the city, and because we lived near an air force base with many people moving in and out from different countries, I think I was quite early aware of cultural differences in term of ethnicity, class, and nationality. We were often traveling through the Mescalero Apache community up the highway as well, so early on I was fascinated by religious differences as they could be discerned through ritual and self-representation. Of course, at the time we are not consciously strategizing these factors into what we call our drives or motivations; looking back, I can now see how these environments and communities shaped me.

Q: You mentioned that you got your start in digital curation. Can you please elaborate on this?
A: After graduating from the History of Consciousness Department at UCSC in 2002, I
was noticing how the Internet seemed to be a game changer. (See a comparison here). For example, the now bankrupt Borders Books, Inc. had stores in almost every city. I wanted to test the waters of new modes of publishing, so to speak. I applied to the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU for one of their small grants to develop an online research project. With their, I think it was $3,000.00, and some of my own monies, I realized that a website could meet multiple purposes at once. If done well, a website could attract non-academics and teach them some things about a culture or tribe without playing into ethnic voyeurism. A site could help academics by providing them research, field notes, and media. For the community being represented, such a site could also include archival materials not easily seen elsewhere as well as language tutorials. And unlike a book, the site could be revised, be free, and have a discussion blog. That site was my first opportunity to not only think about what should be used to represent, but how the act of representation might best be accomplished through the graphics, design, and dynamics of the represented culture. The color choices, the movement between screens, and the primary language were all from Yoeme (Yaqui) practices. The result ended up being a product that enabled my tribal collaborators to recognize that I had been paying close attention for the previous, at that point, ten years. Since they were primarily not literate, seeing and hearing my representational work meant a lot to them. Kids enjoyed seeing their language on something as cutting-edge as the Internet.

Q: Seth [Schermerhorn, Hamilton College, Religious Studies Department] informed me that you worked closely with the Yaqui collection at UCLA. Can you reflect on your experience curating this collection at the Fowler?
A: The Fowler Museum told me in 2013 that they had a collection of Yaqui masks
contributed to them by Carlos Castaneda. I was immediately interested in working with
them since supposedly Castaneda had contrived all of his fieldwork among the Yoemem
(Yaquis). Before this experience, I had primarily worked only with intangible materials or
original works by indigenous artists, so this was the first time I “put on the gloves” as a
curator of objects. I went into their collections with their specialists and we examined
what they had been given and the condition of the masks. They also had some incredible rattles made from moth cocoons. From their larger collection, there were a few that would have been quite exciting to show but tribal codes of conduct do not allow for their display. It was an easy decision to exclude them since their absence would not have detracted from a still very exciting display. And we are quite fortunate that in the Yoeme case, the particular mask genre we displayed, the pascola or pahko’ola masks, do not have any ontological status in and of themselves. While the masks ceremonially have and instill much power, Yoeme artists also make them to be displayed on walls as crafts of incredible skill and beauty.