Seeing Royals and Jungles From a New Perspective

1. What do you see in a jungle? 

Orchids at DC Botanical Gardens

I got to visit Washington DC a few weeks ago.

Gazing at the lush botanical gardens, I was reminded of an article by Veronica Davidov. She points out that westerners want to experience the Amazon as lush, dangerous, and full of magical cures for our disease–cures which can only be unlocked by white scientists.

…yet local communities see these same forests in quite different ways, as a means of livelihood and as something they have a right to both preserve and profit from.


2. What do you see in a ruler?

At the next museum over, we viewed pictures of Hawaiian royals, like Queen Kapiolani. What are the signs she’s royal?

Queen Kapiolani Hawaii

What did you come up with?

Here’s a clue from Princess Nahi’ena’ena:

Nahi'ena'ena, by Robert Dampier, 1825

As the exhibit at NMAI pointed out, 19th century European visitors could tell a royal by her sash and crown, which you may have seen.

But Hawaiians know a royal by their feathered robe. Nahi’ena’ena has one draped around her shoulders, and Kapiolani has one hanging over her throne.

So these Hawaiian leaders were pretty savvy. By displaying a sash and a feather-robe, they caught two sets of eyes. They signaled their power to two very different groups at once.


3. What do you see in a painting?

A few weeks ago at work, I picked up Heritage Keywords, a book on how we describe old paintings, documents, and buildings. I quickly thought of the Rijks museum in Amsterdam, which recently renamed some older paintings.

For instance, who do you see below? If you were a curator, how would you describe her?

She’s now called Young Woman with a Fan. 

But she was previously labelled Portrait of a Mulatto, East-Indian Type, and The Little Negress.

The museum still shares all the labels, but notes that the older ones are now “derogatory,” and they’ve chosen a neutral title until her true name is known.

As medievalpoc writes, the museum was founded in 1885. So many of the original names were given by curators, some time after the artist first painted the work.

Modern curators now change names given by curators 130 years ago. And these changing names shift our perceptions, opening up some possibilities and closing others.


4. What do you see in a temple?

In another chapter of Heritage Keywords, Anna Karlström talks about how temples are built in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.

What do you see in a temple?

Wat Ong Teu, Vientiane

…a sacred space, cultural heritage, something worth preserving?

Yet Anna watched as temple donors demolished an old temple in Vientiane, one with priceless 100-year-old murals.

“Why did you do this?” she asked, looking at the fragments of color on the ground.

A man explained that they gain merit by building beautiful new statues or decorations, by giving money, or by giving their work–not by preserving old buildings. To fill the new temple with spiritual goodness, they had to destroy the old one.

So the building wasn’t the cultural heritage, Anna comments. The spiritual values were the living heritage, being preserved and moved into the new temple with the erasure of the old (p.32-33).

Again, one cultural piece, and two different views of what matters. I think about this a lot now, as we talk about cultural heritage–what it means for Cal to save it, and what it means to share with the original communities and outside researchers in appropriate ways…

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