In 1915, the Panama Canal opened, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through center of the Americas. To celebrate this momentous milestone, the city San Diego held a glorious world’s fair. Here, the exotic animals that would become the basis of the San Diego Zoo could be found in cages for visitors to see up close. As could aboriginal men, part of an analysis (true to scientific thought of the day) of what caused mankind to change from savagery to civilization. Yes, men were on display in cages as a scientific display one hundred years ago.
WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO MUSEUMS
Last month I attended the California Association of Museum’s annual conference in Sacramento, as a journalist intent on learning what the latest trends are in the museum community. I found common themes of inclusion, race, diversity – not ironically the same themes that will appear over and over again at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting next month in St. Louis.
During a session titled “The Work Inside: Case Studies in Developing Conversations about Race, Equity and Inclusion,” Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Public Engagement at the San Diego Museum of Man spoke about the radical transformation that the museum has undergone in the past few years – from being about what biologically makes us “human” to what entails “humanity.” Playing a major role in this revised mission is an exploration of race and racism, with a permanent installation of the American Anthropological Association’s exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” as its centerpiece.
Combined with the former traveling exhibit are artifacts showcasing the history of race and race perception in San Diego – among these, a photo of an anthropological exhibit of live men in cages during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
Humankind has always been beleaguered by beliefs of superiority of one group over others – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender, gender identification, height, weight, hairstyle, piercings….the list goes on.
This behavior is not unique to humans. In the natural world, prejudices exist within other species as well. There is ageism, discrimination against the disabled, against those that look different, against those who act different. One of the biggest differences between animals and humans is that we, as a species, take those prejudices and code them into law – be it religious, civil, or a combination of both.
It is not a coincidence therefore that both the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit on the Black Panther movement featured redline maps of their respective cities. Instituted in 1934 by the newly established Federal Housing Administration, the practice of redlining utilized “residential security maps,” where ethnic and minority communities were distinguished on the map as being ineligible for financial services, resulting in continued impoverished conditions while artificially inflating home and property values in white neighborhoods.
Museums are now looking at the past to create dialogue about our present and our future. One could say this is a response to the Trump presidency. Certainly, there have been plenty of cries of racism during Trump’s first few months in office. But racism did not begin with him. Ferguson and Black Lives Matter took place under a different president. Women’s equality did not begin with him. The SONY hacks showing unequal pay took place under a different president. Native American rights did not begin with him. The protests at Dakota Access happened under a different president. And countless incidents on the same topics happened before under numerous governments going back decades, if not centuries, within the United States and around the world.
As keynote speakers Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg of Lord Cultural Resources showed, museums are changing their missions and the design of their exhibits as they shift from a hard power to a soft power philosophy of operation. The difference is night and day and comes from the world of international affairs, where “hard power” refers to military action, while “soft power” refers to diplomacy. In the museum world, the “hard power” model has a collection made of animal and artifact trophies collected around the world, explores the traditional hierarchies of empires, and the “great men” of note in history. A “soft power” museum influences through persuasion, attraction, or agenda setting. It becomes the catalyst for activism and community change on one end and discussion within the community on the other. Most “soft power” museums fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.
Museums are not the only place “soft power” can have an effect. In just a few days, a “soft power” moment will be taking place with the world’s leading themed entertainment designers.
WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO THEMED ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN
As has been discussed previously on this blog, there can easily be confusion between museum exhibit design and themed entertainment design. Themed entertainment is often equated with the fun to be had at theme parks. But it’s much more, and museum exhibit design is actually a subset of themed entertainment design. A theme is a topic or a setting. Entertaining is another way of saying engaging – engaging the mind through sensory or intellectual stimulation.*
If there’s a theme to this blog post, it’s intolerance and how we examine it. On Thursday, themed entertainment producer Kile Ozier will be sitting down with Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis during the 2017 TEA Summit to discuss the fact that being HIV positive in many nations where TEA members do business is illegal, and could result in prison (thus the men in cages analogy) and career destruction. Kile goes into more detail of his own issues working within the UAE in this excellent blog post.
But the HIV restrictions in the UAE, a theological monarchy, are not just for health purposes. They are a way of circumventing a human rights issue.
As a teenager growing up during the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, I was taught there were three ways you could get the HIV virus – homosexual sex, needles, and sitting on a public toilet. Yes, we were actually taught in public school the importance of keeping our rear ends suspended at least an inch above the toilet seat.
By my twenties, it was well known that anyone could contract the virus. I recall seeing a fax to a government official staying at a hotel I was working at. Without disclosing the most confidential of details, the one line that caught my attention stated simply: “Magic Johnson is going to announce tomorrow that he’s HIV positive.”
Later that year, one of my co-workers was hospitalized and passed away. We didn’t know until afterwards that he had died of AIDS. We found out only because his wife sued the hospital. According to her, he had been afraid to disclose the HIV to his family, co-workers, or his congregation because in the Conservative, Bible-thumping South, he feared that they would associate it with the lowest rungs of their perceived moral ladder – homosexuality, drug abuse, adulterous sex. The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, showed that he had acquired it through tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident.
But saying that HIV doesn’t affect just the gay community poses the same risks as saying “All Lives Matter,” when such a statement evades four hundred years of civil rights oppression among the African-American community. HIV has had an altering effect both within the gay community as an epidemic and all too real threat and from without as an associated tool for bias.
As a straight man, I’ve had gay friends, gay co-workers and bosses, and gay relatives all my life, but I didn’t understand HIV’s effect on the community until about a decade ago. It took the collaborative efforts of a playwright, director, actors, production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, and dozens of craftspeople and crew – a collaboration of the creative and the technical arts – for me to understand.
When I was the Audience Services Director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, we suddenly changed our last production of the season to Steve Yockey’s play “Octopus.” The plot is simple – an older gay couple has a one night tryst with a younger couple. One of the older men acquires AIDS and dies. But the anguish of both the surviving partner and that of the dead one – floating forever in an undersea abyss fighting off the eight-tentacled monster of the disease encircling him – are forever etched in my mind.
The arts and themed entertainment design have an ability to bring people together, to let them discover others and themselves in new and inventive ways. From Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook’s “Foresta Lumina,” which uses universal concepts of folklore, to the moving 7/7 tribute and dance number during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (not seen in the USA as NBC opted to switch to paid advertising during this segment), there is an ability to transgress boundaries.
It would be great if theme parks could take on the great issues of our day. But outside of conservation and environmentalism, they’re prone to leave societal issues to museums. Even Epcot, founded as a showcase of the great power of humanity working together, years ago eliminated two attractions where questions of race and inclusion could be discussed – Electronic Forum and Wonders of Life.
What Kile is doing is a first step – and I applaud him on that. He’s creating a dialogue within the creative community. If it succeeds – if the industry can place pressure on governments or become a political force and encourage the US, Canada, and European governments to exert the pressure – the soft power moves towards advocacy. And it can lead to advocacy on many other things. Once the foot is in the door, it has two ways to go. It can back out. Or it can go further.
And maybe one hundred years from now, a man with HIV in a cage won’t be a reality, but a photo of antiquated practices of the past in a display about humanity in a UAE museum.
*One important differentiating factor of themed entertainment, which is why it is inclusive of museums, is the OOH! Factor (trademark pending). It takes place Out Of Home in an environment where strangers can congregate for a shared experience.