Monday, January 18, 2010

What in the World?

The set of What in the World?, c. 1952. University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

Dear friends:
Since blogs are a fairly new form of communication, the average blog reader was probably born after 1980. I might be wrong, but I would bet that very few of you are aware of a TV program called "What in the World?", let alone actually watched it, since it aired in the early fifties and only for a decade. What in the World ? was the brainchild of Froelich Rainey, the visionary director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and anthropology (also known as the Penn Museum), who was only forty when appointed to such a distinguished position in 1947. The format was simple: there was an object on a pedestal, and the public was told at the beginning what it was (e.g. an Inuit mask, a Mayan ritual ornament from Mexico, a chunk of obsidian from Irak, etc.) The object seemed to appear from behind a fog curtain, the theatrics being part of the dramaturgy of the program. In the background, three scholars, each one a specialist in a given field (archaeology, ethnology, paleontology, etc) were shown live the object for the first time, and were expected to guess what it was, where it came from, and from what time. They were sometimes off the mark, and the possibility of the expert not guessing the right answers added to the public's expectations, but most of the times they got it right following an engaging process that involved expertise and deduction. This program was an early example of bringing high culture to the masses, and was very successful, proving that there is no need to "dumb down" content to appeal to a larger audience, and that the public responds accordingly.

The School of Panamerican Unrest (2003-2006)

Soap Opera Institute at Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2002.

One of Pablo Helguera's public think-tanks.

Pablo Helguera is a Mexican artist that lives and works in new York. His practice is multidisciplinary, ranging from books and installation to field work and performance. He has done long-term, research-based works like Instituto de la telenovela (Soap Opera Institute), which investigated the cultural significance of Latin American soap operas, and the School of Panamerican Unrest, a itinerant forum on libertarian thought that took him on a long journey from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego. He is also a museum educator, having held positions at the Guggenheim and at MoMA, and thus museum rhetorics inform his artistic work. He has worked with archives, libraries and collections, highlighting objects that might have been obscured or overseen. But his main interest, beyond the objects themselves, are the stories behind them. As we all know, any collection is the result of a series of conscious choices, and thus reveals a great deal about the person that collects them: just picture a collector you know and think of the collection as his/her portrait. But institutions do not make public their acquisition policies, so we forget that there are always individuals whose decisions shape the collections, and by extension (since they become the canon), our own understanding of the world.

The Vocal Archive of Florence Foster Jenkins at the Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, 2000.

Helguera is interested in bringing these individuals to the fore. In works like Parallell Lives, he has made visible the untold stories of people like Florence Foster Jenkins ("the world's worst opera singer ever"), or Ward Jackson, a Bartleby-like character he befriended at the Guggenheim, who had worked all his life there, tucked away in a corner of the building, and had become a sort of living archive of the museum.
Coming to the Penn Museum was a treat to Pablo. The director of the museum, Richard Hodges, embraced his project immediately, and granted him carte blanche. One of the museum curators, Bill Wierzbowski, provided access to both collections and his colleagues. Interviewing the staff, Pablo was able to find about many interesting, colorful characters that worked at various times at the institution. His eponymous piece will be a "subjective biography" of the Penn Museum done as a series of interviews that reference the original program. A facsimile of the original set will be built at the Penn Museum, where the videos will shown. We will also be airing a complete "season" of the program on youtube. Stay tuned!

José Roca.

No comments: