The questions posed above are uncovering the positionality of the museum experience. Positionality is a term embedded in philosophy, particularly phenomenology, is rampant in feminist discussion, and is a concept in the consciousness of every good researcher and scholar. Positionality studies how we know what we know being who we are. Think about this: How do we know what we know when we crawl out of bed in the morning? Well, to begin, our family definitely had an influence. They taught us right and wrong, immersed in our ethnic culture, perhaps religious culture, and definitely our family culture giving us the basis for what we believe and why we believe it - or why we don't. Then comes school that, again, exposed us to right and wrong, immersed us in community culture, and the basis for what we believe and why we believe it - or why we don't. Next comes work, and a whole new understanding of the way the world works is imposed upon us. Then marriage (perhaps). Children (perhaps). At each stage of life, with each experience in life, we pick up from our immediate world what we know by filtering our present understanding to meet our accumulated understanding. This is a reciprocal process because we live among other people. Therefore, as a result of positionality, others are filtering through their accumulated understanding coming to a conclusion about how they understand us. The underlying challenge within the questions presented is to understand how accumulated understanding is filtered when we enter a museum exhibit.
Positionality and Exhibit Thesis
The exhibit's thesis argues the Maya did not disappear, but rather they transformed over the years and are continually changing. This statement is interesting in its inferred generalized positionality because the Maya are not simply one people, but many individual societies and communities coming under the blanket term 'Maya'. Considering the Maya's vast population covering five countries, it should not be surprising different Mayan societies developed their own ways of living over the centuries distinguishing themselves from other Mayan societies. Yet, it is certainly true all Mayan societies are descended from the same peoples. As a result, one sees many similarities as well as many differences when studying Mayan communities. The museum exhibit, this museum exhibit specifically, positions its conveyed understanding on the similarities, the simplistic, in order to package a unified narrative for its audience.
Given the above, a visitor to the museum must be careful of the positional generalizations made when viewing such exhibits based on the simplistic presentation. The visitor must be careful in forming the understanding of the Maya as homogenous. Visitors to the museum simply gaze. That is, the voice of those studied is absent﹣deafeningly silent﹣ prohibiting a more complete understanding. The portrayals in the exhibit are still, motionless....perhaps one can say dead counter to the transformative thesis implying continuation. There is not a live, lively, vibrant discussion or debate being undertaken. The Maya are being gazed at by a certain group of people who can afford the steep admission price ($27 for student admission) to the exhibit with a real danger of understanding them as stagnant.
Positionality and Exhibit Marketing
Finally in this discussion of the positionality of the museum exhibit, I turn to the use of technology using this exhibit's promotion of the Mayan calendar. The museum must recoup the costs for presenting the artifacts, the exhibit designers, the replicas, etc. Increasingly, museum exhibits use hands-on exhibits and technology in order to appeal to and hold the attention of students, making the exhibit marketable to schools, summer camps, religious youth groups, etc. But it must be kept in mind these hands-on and technological displays also cost money. The intersections between authenticity and marketability are profound because they influence the narrative presented.
Below is a video I shot of the interactive display explaining the Mayan calendar in relation to our Gregorian calendar. The technology is fascinating to school-age children who can make the calendar stop and go. Students may also find the Mayan nahual, or animal spirit, that is assigned to their date of birth meant to predict the person's traits, qualities, and tendencies as well as informing their life path. What does this technological exhibit tell us about how the Maya understood their world and how they understand their world now? How does the modern technology of this exhibit influence this understanding? How does the technology help market the exhibit? I'll let you speculate, and comment, if you wish, as a little hands-on action in the exhibit of my blog. For me, I suggest there is no better metaphor for the meeting of the ancient with the modern, revealing the hidden, and presenting the extinct as transformative. However, I am not at all certain it meets the exhibit's purpose of presenting the Maya as living, vibrant, transformative, and modern.
So, based on the mere three examples I presented through studying the positionality of the exhibit, what argument can I make about the exhibit's effectiveness in increasing our understanding of modern Maya after exploring their ancient history? I would have to argue the exhibit's effectiveness is questionable. Very little of modern Mayan society is present in the exhibit. When the modern is present it has a stagnant feel because it is displayed in terms of the ancient as active today. For example, the exploration of Mayan weaving explains through video narration the designs represent centuries-old stories or beliefs, which continue to be created using the same ancient style of looms. There is no mention of the tourist economy's reliance on seeing weavers in traditional dress at work on their old-fashioned looms and the purchases of such hand-weaved textiles as part of vacations, which troubles the exhibit's explanation. There is also no mention that a majority of today's Maya struggle economically. I posit a more accurate understanding of the Maya revealed through the exhibit's positionality are as a people caught in the tension between reclaiming and maintaining their ancient ways of living in a sometimes hostile, discriminatory environment, and a market economy that expects the Maya to maintain their ancient ways as a commodity― a commodity to be purchased through various means including through the purchase of a ticket to a museum exhibit.
I traveled to Guatemala January 9 - February 4, 2016. In the Casa de La Memoria, a museum by CALDH (the human rights and justice nonprofit representing Mayan victims and survivors of the war within the Guatemalan justice system) in Guatemala City, I encountered an interesting juxtaposition to the American museum exhibit:
The local U.S. exhibit rather glorifies the "people power" of the Maya demonstrating how some Maya transport resources even in modern times. Adjacent to this monologue was an interactive model where people could try balance blocks on the back of a human form.
The Guatemalan exhibit uses the "people power" of the Maya to depict subjugation of a particular ethnic and cultural group. The truth is those transporting goods in such a manner, either in the past or in modern times, are more than likely (though perhaps not always) economically struggling.
Spivak, G. C. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Takacs, D. (2003). How does your positionality bias your epistemology? Thought & Action, Summer 2003, 27-38.