See America First – The Authentic American

Anthropologist Richard Handler has argued that the museum is ‘the temple of authenticity’ for a nation or culture, in that it allows people to come in contact with ‘authentic pieces of culture,’ thus enabling them to ‘appropriate their authenticity, incorporating that magical proof of existence into what we call our personal experience.’ He explains that authenticity is a cultural construct that is key to ‘the modern Western world.’ Related to the emergence of individualism, the concept of authenticity allows the modern individual to define him or herself in opposition to the rest of the world.” (See America First, 122-3)

Can we please talk about how ungodly sexy the above paragraph is? Yes? Good.

There is so much going on here.

First, Hander’s theory of a museum’s function: to house what we determine are historic and culturally relevant items. Warehousing an identity, as it were.

Now, museum administrators are not just shelving these items in some temperature-controlled storage facility in order to preserve it for future beings (human or otherwise) to explain who we are, no.

Instead museums trot forward these items on display, in decorative halls of either historic or hyper-sleek design, in order to provide access to present-day seekers.

Second, this trotting forward allows people to interface with the items. To what end? Well, according to Handler (and Shaffer, who is exploring this idea), to establish identity via authenticity.

The phrase he uses is “incorporating that magical proof of existence into what we call our personal experience,” which I think is (a) wonderful writing and (b) suggesting that, by verifying an item’s existence (and reading its museum-authenticated origin), we are verifying to ourselves the history that goes along with the item–as well as any stories/personal narratives/historical narratives/mythologies that are wrapped around that item. Which are stories (etc) that help us define who we are as a resident of, in this case, America.

And as Shaffer inserts, the authenticity that is leant to these items (via the institution of a museum) allows individuals to latch their identity onto narratives outside themselves, narratives that are (theoretically) individual to their particular country’s history.

This isn’t just a matter of authenticity, though. It’s a matter of identifying oneself with one’s place of residence. If you allow yourself to obtain self-definition through a source outside yourself–one that impacted you only indirectly–that’s dangerous ground. (In my opinion, anyway.)

By allowing (often shoddy) historical narratives given to you at an early age to live within you unquestioningly throughout adulthood, you create an identity based on myth. You create fanatics who shovel nationalistic propaganda into their mouths, gulping it down because it’s easier to do that than accept that, just maybe, life is more than a collection of myths.

Man, this got off-topic.

While I’m touching on identity, the quote at the top indirectly references the need of individuals to establish an Identity (yes, that capital “I” is on purpose). This is one of those things that I have never understood.

And yet here we are, collectively as a nation, aggressively searching for who we are. And it feels like it has been that way from day one. America is an angsty teenager giving their parents the finger, dying their hair blue, and listening to KoRn or whatever it is kids are listening to these days. (I’M OLD AND VERY UNHIP, STOP WITH THE JUDGING.)

Metaphors aside, reading Shaffer’s See America First was amazing, delightful, and educational. It was also an entire book about not just history and travel theory, but of an insecure nation doing whatever it could to feel like… more. Like Not-Europe. Like Not-Old-Worlde. Like Not-Them. Like Not-Silver-Spoon. Like Not-Ruled-By-Aristocracy.

Our history is one big reaction, our museums are warehouses of artifacts telling us that we are more than just a teenage rebellion.

Other excellent authenticity/identity quotes:

“[Handler] argues that in a society anxious about the ‘unreality’ of modern life, this fascination with authenticity reflects an ‘anxiety over the credibility of existence.’ This in turn, can be linked to nationalist anxieties of the nation-state struggling for recognition. From this perspective, Handler argues, ‘the existence of a national collectivity depends upon the “possession” of an authentic culture.’ In other words, a shared national consciousness depends upon the collection, preservation, and display of this culture. Thus the metaphor of the parks as national museums or public classrooms served to sanctify an ideal of the nation.” (123)

“The guidebooks worked to define a set of shared traditions, an overarching history, a common development that could be named or labeled as ‘American,’ and in the process they located those characteristics in the landscape. Throughout the guidebooks, sites across the North American continent were marked, deciphered, and celebrated and in the process transformed into national heritage, providing the reader with a territorially and historically bounded image of America. In effect, individual [state] volumes served to ‘museumize’ America, surveying, codifying, and deliberately selecting and arraying facts, historical events, and anecdotes related to various places across North America to present a coherent narrative. The reader, whether reading one volume or the whole series, was placed in a position of power where he or she, through the process of reading, could order a diverse array of facts into an imaginary wholeness.” (186)

“Drawing on an established American mythology surrounding the importance of nature in America, the series [of guidebooks] suggested that dramatic natural landscapes revealed the extent of geological time, providing an ancient tradition for a nation that seemed devoid of history.” (187)

“[…] ruins, shrines, monuments, and markers authenticated an American antiquity and a historic tradition. And in doing so, they served to justify the status of American civilization, measuring the nation’s history and culture in relation to the Old World.” (194)