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 2 of 2.
Q: What collection-based project have you worked on that you are most proud of?
A: I’m quite proud of the digital curation I did for NYU’s Hemispheric Institute in 2009,
a module called “The Indigenous Americas.” It took years to develop a digital interface
for their collection of materials related to indigenous performance and politics.
Unfortunately they only allow their member institutions to see the result of that curatorial
work. For your readers who belong to a member institution, they can visit that collection here. If your readers are not institutional members of the Hemispheric Institute, perhaps this will be an enticing invitation. I don’t want to imagine a world without the Hemispheric
Institute, their director Diana Taylor, and their amazingly global team of activists,
scholars, performers, artists, and technicians.
Q: What challenges have you faced as a curator who has not been trained in this practice?
A: The greatest challenge is one of recognizing the expertise of collaborators. I don’t
know about restoration and archiving practices. I wouldn’t dare tell someone doing that
work how I think they should go about storing or hanging something based on best
practices for preservation. And yet I have encountered museum staff telling me what to
write or not write in the text, literally down to word choices. To be sure, the best editors
for my representations of an indigenous community are going to be people with decades of experience in the community being represented. And I don’t know if professionally trained curators take business and economic classes, but I haven’t. So while I want to be careful to respect the expertise of the people working hard to keep museums in the black, I am also dismayed by the small amount of money museums want to invest in shows including the reimbursement of their staffs’, curators’, or artists’ time and energy. The result is not necessarily “lip service,” but a type of interest in representing indigenous art in ethical ways up to a point; and that point seemed to be defined by “up until it costs too much money.” I have seen that what then counts as “too much” could symbolize most settler colonial attitudes towards Native people. Museums and galleries might, for example, have a public face of reconciliation and repatriation, but an actual practice of tight proprietary control of everything down to the color of the font used in the advertising. It’s important to add, though, that as in all collaborative work, we must find a way to see how things look to everyone around the table. I find that gratitude helps immensely in the moments of disagreement. I do not have to excuse myself from critical engagement in order to be grateful for the opportunities to work on projects that bring me joy.
Q: In a large sense, what role do you see digital humanities playing in the museum field in the future?
A: In my two most recent shows, I was surprised by how disengaged the museums and
galleries were from the digital outlets. In one case, they created only one single webpage that had black text on a square white screen with one banner image from the show. I’m not a programmer and even I could have created a visually stimulating and intuitively sharable site in about an hour. They sent Press Releases but spent very little time approaching the show as an opportunity to show the works in the advertisements or in some digital form. When we consider how art gets kept from those people challenged in terms of mobility or transportation, we have all the more reason to have people come in, or on staff, who can create at least truncated but equally engaging digital versions of shows and collections. The reality is that we have talented web designers, photographers, videographers, designers and college-educated people ready and waiting for these sorts of jobs. It would take two days to make some gorgeous, smart digital form that represents the exhibit to those unable to get to the physical show.
As to the question being framed in terms of 'digital humanities,' I'm not a huge fan of linking digital modes of engagement with only the 'humanities,' versus the 'arts' or 'social sciences,' so I’ll not speak too much about the hermeneutic aspect of digital projects. But across multiple disciplinary approaches, the digital era invites us to think of our work bidirectionally, not simply as showing or telling, but also as listening and changing intersubjectively.
Q: Do you see any of your digital linguistics-focused projects (ex: the Wiki for
Indigenous Languages) fitting into a museum context?
A: Without a doubt; and it’s such an insightful question. The Wiki for Indigenous Languages (WIL Project) is a labor of love that is getting attention internationally right now. At its heart is a commitment to building community around the value of language learning, which of course entails biological, cultural, environmental, and religious knowledges. The arts are inseparable from that, both in terms of indigenous art practices but how we shape the website in aesthetically appropriate and enticing ways. Just that level alone is what we are working on now for the second version, coming out in the new year.
In terms of your question about bridging this work with the museum work, I have begun sketching out a museum show that is driven aesthetically by not only the texture of language, but also the content of the indigenous languages. Knowing that communities are losing, and fighting for, and revitalizing languages, helps us find ways of assisting those people from whom we’ve taken so much. For example, when we consider that many indigenous languages are generative rather than representational, the opportunity arises to imagine museum collections more socially since indigenous art then reaches beyond simply symbolizing an objective world. We can imagine then a museum populated and embodied, offering social presence. All of this would proceed by understanding how language works as both the result of and the seminal creation of cultural production. The problem is that such thinking gets at the heart of NAGPRA claims for repatriation. Until museums acknowledge their colonial legacies and make amends, then most of their work on indigenous peoples will remain “on” and not “with.” The question is if whether I can find a large enough gallery space with the sound and video capabilities. The mission is clear enough.