Reviews; July 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Small, Powell, Hargittai; 6 Page(s)
Anthropology is the granddaddy of multiculturalism. Long before anyone even considered putting the word "correct" next to "politically," stalwart ethnographers were taking notes by firelight in isolated camps, documenting the fact that there are many ways to create a life. And it is the beads, baskets and spears hauled back from points previously unknown that first demonstrated how every group is sophisticated in its own right, every society deserves reverence and every culture is in its own way "correct."
I have found that it is all too easy to lose touch with such insights. For me, over the years, the feeling of cultural magic that usually clings to anthropology had been buried under the daily grind of academic life. But last winter a most unusual place reminded me why I love my work. I was spending a few days in Oxford, visiting a former teaching assistant, Nick Fowler. This trip was for pleasure, not business, but Nick thought that nonetheless we should honor our anthropological roots by touring the Pitt Rivers Museum, the oldest anthropology museum in the world. "Oh great," I muttered. "Just what I need, a dusty, badly lit collection of bowls, baskets and spears." On the other hand, it might be amusing. We could laugh at what the world looked like before deconstruction and semiotics became as important as vaccinations and see displays in which certain ethnic groups were still called "Eskimos" and "American Indians." We decided to go primarily because of the museum¿s kitsch appeal.