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Call me an exoticist; it’s not enough for me
to fly to some foreign land on a jet carrying domestic markings. I need
more. To feel like I'm really encountering difference, I’d ideally be
flying between one foreign land and another on an airline sporting the
markings of a third. And even then, I know that all this exoticism is
largely a sham: “the staging of difference against the scenery of
standardization and globalization,” as theorists of the postmodern would
A couple of years ago, for instance, I happened to find myself on a
plane between Japan and Thailand. It was an Air India plane, a Boeing
747 customized with Taj Mahal-esque shapes appliquéd—in a clear attempt
at exoticism—around each window. There were, I calculated, three levels
of “otherness” on that flight: the Japanese passengers, the Indian
staff, and the Thai destination. Disappointingly though, the in-flight
movie was a 1990s Hollywood epic. Then I remembered that I’m British and
that this is the 21st century: ‘90s Hollywood is exotica too!
Actually, perhaps there were even more levels of otherness than that.
The plane was an old one, a 1970s model 747. And the Air India regalia,
the “exotic” decoration, had a ’70s feel too. So: Japanese passengers,
Thai destination, Indian staff, American film, 1970s graphic and
industrial design. Exotic enough yet?
And yet, behind all this difference lurks standardization in the form of
the familiar processing routines and etiquettes of airports, planes and
passengers. The rigid, regulated forms required by international jet
travel allow for a playful, symbolic articulation of cultural
difference. But they also negate difference by making us all the same,
reducing us to passenger-units traveling through space at 600 miles per
hour, 30,000 feet up, watching a movie and eating food.
Even knowing that modern global experiences mostly negate difference, we
can still be devotees of the multi-layered symbolism with which they’re
staged in a standardized world. Personally, I’m drawn to slightly
run-down museums for the same reasons I’m drawn to slightly run-down
airlines. What they lack in authority or reliability they make up for
Take the American Museum of Natural History, for instance. During my
last New York visit I went there twice. Like that Air India flight, a
typical room at the Natural History Museum contains at least three
levels of difference. Typically, you’ll have a room depicting something
that’s remote in time, remote in place, and framed with the design
language of a remote decade. One moment you’ll be in an expensive,
freshly-designed series of halls telling the story of the dinosaurs with
slick cut-away multimedia graphics, the next you’ll find yourself in a
neglected cul-de-sac featuring Maori masks from 19th century New
Zealand, all framed with sans serif typefaces, dry transfer lettering,
salmon pink display cases, green carpeting and walls that meet the floor
with rounded corners—design signifiers from the early 1970s.
What’s so wonderful about the Natural History Museum is the way its
narrative is always portraying differences (and differences, often
doomed ones, are very much the theme of any museum or zoo, a place, like
Bedlam, where we come to see the Other rendered as a kind of Freak
Show) differently. A lack of funds, thank god, prevents the
museum from refurbishing the whole building at the same time, or
placing, heaven forbid, one superstar information designer in charge of
the look of the whole place. As a result, the Natural History Museum
(like some other eccentric museums—London’s Horniman comes to mind, or
Edinburgh’s National Scottish Museum, or the ethnographic museums of
Berlin’s Dahlem district) speaks “in tongues,” its presentation areas
each colored by a unique “accent.” For me, it’s poetry.
Displayed in a darkened room containing stuffed animals in dioramas,
hanging next to some ancient relief maps, I found a framed, hand-inked
scroll dated 1930, the year the hall was opened. “The American people,”
it read, “are indebted for these lifelike groups of South Asiatic
Mammals to Mr Arthur S. Vernay and the late Colonel J.C. Faunthorpe of
Great Britain. From 1922 to 1928 Mr. Vernay and Colonel Faunthorpe made
six expeditions into India-Burma and Siam to collect and later donate to
the Museum this collection.”
The notice then credits James L. Clark with the layout of the animal
groups and the architectural setting. There’s even space, in tiny
letters at the bottom, for the name of the designer of the notice
itself, Arthur E. Sanford. This notice is unusual, not only because
museums tend to leave their designers uncredited, but because, by
drawing attention to named individuals who’ve laid out the displays in a
“lifelike” way, the museum explicitly frames its own framers of
difference and gives us a glimpse into its wiles. Undermining its
position as an objective, impersonal authority, the museum risks
revealing itself as something of a theatrical impresario, a master of
lights and sleight of hand. And it tells us all this in the “accent” of
1930s calligraphy, speaking to us in the voice of a crusty, old actor,
only to adopt, a room or two later, the tone of a 1960s swinger.
Whether we encounter endangered differences via an airline or a museum,
they’re likely to be staged with a fascinating blend of science and
showbiz—and all taped together with the grammar of ... well, whatever
design tropes were current last time anyone could afford a revamp. Those
of us who find a certain poetry in otherness of presentation as well as
otherness of content—who spot the streamlined metallic lettering
designs of 1947 with as much excitement as we spot a stuffed giant panda
chewing bamboo in a synthetic forest—can only hope that the Natural
History Museum remains poor enough to stay rich in strangeness.
When should a college support its students in the face of censorship? At the recent School of Visual Arts commencement, President Rhodes stated that the responsibility is crystal clear.
Section: Inspiration -
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