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witness the strangest customs of the red, white, brown, black and yellow races ... attend their startling rites, their mysterious practices ... all assembled for you
February 14, 2008 7:41 AM   Subscribe

The Secret Museum of Mankind :: "Published in 1935, the Secret Museum is a mystery book. It has no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, no index ... The tone of the commentary is dated, and uniformly racist in the extreme, often hilariously so. It reads like the patter of a carnival sideshow barker, from a time when the world was divided between "modern" Europeans and "savages" ... Presented here is the Secret Museum in its entirety, all 564 pages scanned and transcribed-- nothing is omitted or censored ... Treat it as entertainment instead of education (don't take it seriously and don't believe a word it says!), adjust for the blatant racial bias of the time, and enjoy."
posted by anastasiav (67 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, I'm not so crazy about the book, but this guy has some excellent pages about old glass insulators.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:10 AM on February 14, 2008


Treat it as entertainment instead of education

Ah, yes...racism can be viewed as entertainment.

This FPP left a bad taste in my mouth. It could have been an interesting FPP, but you need more than just one link.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:22 AM on February 14, 2008


Yeah, "entertainment" isn't quite the right word, but a lot of this book is sort of funny.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:23 AM on February 14, 2008


Info-tainment?

Seriously though, yes, there are cringes of racism to our modern sentiments and something like this if written today would be pillaried, but taken in context it's actually pretty open-minded and non-judgemental. It was books like this that actually lead people into modern anthropology and attempts to better study and understand other cultures.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:31 AM on February 14, 2008


Ah, yes...racism can be viewed as entertainment.

Yeah, bad wording there. But I think what he's getting at is "I'm not posting this because I agree with its views, I'm posting it for purely non-instructive use," i.e., historical curiosity combined with the occasional OMG WHAT DID HE JUST SAY.

Plus I don't know what links could possibly contribute to this as anything other than padding.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:35 AM on February 14, 2008


Also the title of a series of early recorded ethnic music cds released by the estimable Yazoo records.
posted by OmieWise at 8:43 AM on February 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there's a lot of unthinking racism in it, but you can see the author's point was to explain and generate interest. There's actually a lot of respect in these passages. And some very interesting historical photos.

Also, "The Secret Museum of Mankind" is an excellent title. Reminds me of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
posted by echo target at 9:00 AM on February 14, 2008


What an intense document. I had never seen this before. Great find - the photography on its own is interesting, and the commentary is definitely a window into a cultural mindset not that distant, though shockingly distant, from today's. It's layered. Thanks for making this post - wow.
posted by Miko at 9:01 AM on February 14, 2008


Mysterious Unique Racist - Verbatim!
posted by Artw at 9:06 AM on February 14, 2008


Great photos. I really enjoy the European section - there were so many native costumes!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:10 AM on February 14, 2008


You can buy a modern copy of the book for $45 from Amazon.

Ah, and on preview OmieWise beats me to mentioning the CD series, (though I will do it with more linkage) curated by a very dedicated postal worker, radio host and musician, Pat Conte. It's the aural equivalent of the website of the book—a modern eye ear collecting works of ethnomusicology from before there really was such a science—and is 100% awesome.
posted by mumkin at 9:14 AM on February 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Koku, what the hell are you talking about? What other links could you add to something like this? If you find them -- post them in the thread and make it better.

This is exactly the sort of thing MeFi is for... obscure but interesting links that you'd be unlikely to find any other way.
posted by Malor at 9:36 AM on February 14, 2008


Is there any clue as to where the photos came from? I didn't see one but I haven't explored the entire site. They kind of ring a bell, like a World's Columbian Exposition sort of bell.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on February 14, 2008


What Malor said. This is an awesome link. More links or additional lamentations about the implications of paleoracism wouldn't really add much to it.
posted by Artw at 9:41 AM on February 14, 2008


Interesting link. I'm a bit confused though; the scanner/web page creator seems to think he can release the photos and text under a Creative Commons licence. In the first place it's not his to release, and secondly, if it's out of copyright, anyone can do as they please with it.
posted by Harald74 at 9:57 AM on February 14, 2008


I am utterly, utterly thrilled that the only "Europeans" on that first page are Irish (the coracles) and Basque. My two favorite groups!!
It looks GOOD for us to be ranked with the exotic images from Africa and South America.
Loving this post, it reminds me that the only time it's acceptable to be overweight is when you're pregnant, like the only time it's acceptable to be in a minority is when it's for historical interest.
posted by Wilder at 10:00 AM on February 14, 2008


Harald74 typed "Interesting link. I'm a bit confused though; the scanner/web page creator seems to think he can release the photos and text under a Creative Commons licence. In the first place it's not his to release, and secondly, if it's out of copyright, anyone can do as they please with it."

Yeah, I found that a little weird too. Is it possible to "license" one's own work of scanning and transcribing, like a photographer?
posted by roll truck roll at 10:09 AM on February 14, 2008


Meh. Shit like this always makes me feel a mixture of sadness and anger. Maybe its being descended from one of the groups being "exposed" here, I don't know. Contrary to what an earlier poster wrote, this is not a book that lead people into modern anthropology. This thing was published in the 30's and 40's, well into the time of modern anthropology. I just think of all of the courageous black leaders and activists at this time, and this is what America was thinking of, when they thought of Africans. Its not that I'm surprised, I knew this. I study this. But coming across things like this tend to fill me with despair. Sometimes really believe that people suck. Racism is not, has never been and never will be funny, amusing or entertaining.
posted by anansi at 10:29 AM on February 14, 2008


I'm not sure which is more interesting, the photos or the copy. I can see where the calls of racism come from, but I don't know that I'm seeing anything that I would consider an overt these-people-are-sub-humans, rather than more of a aww-how-quaint kind of vibe.

Yeah, it's not politically correct, but it doesn't seem to be suggesting of the kind of dark and malevolent rhetoric that real racism tends to favor.

But I only looked at a few of the pages. There could be some really awful stuff I missed. But what I saw, I found kind of neat.
posted by quin at 10:45 AM on February 14, 2008


This is a rare chance to see a thread mid-wendell.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:58 AM on February 14, 2008


I have the book. I like looking at the cover itself just as much as the inside of the book. It's strangely compelling.
posted by kozad at 11:16 AM on February 14, 2008


Sure racism is funny, the same way the luminiferous ether is funny. People used to believe weird things. Good thing I'm not them!

or

HURF DURF STUPID HSITPORICAL PEOPLE
posted by GuyZero at 11:49 AM on February 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


This thing was published in the 30's and 40's, well into the time of modern anthropology.

Um, I'm not sure your definition of madern anthropology and mine are the same. I'd say an era where cranial capacities were being cataloged and used to show the inherent superiority/inferiority of races was not exactly a time of modern anthropology. That is precisely what was happening in the 30's and 40's. No where in these pages is eugenics or racial classification posited, as was common in the 30's and 40's even in schools outside the Third Reich. There is certainly terminology that is racist and offensive but frankly it reads better than many academic papers of the time and certainly better than what was published in National Geographic. Had it not been for curiosity papers like this and National Geographic, many people would not have been drawn into academic study of other cultures. This material shows people doing things differently from WASP culture and does so without juxtaposing it against WASP culture as inferior. I'm not defending the language used nor apolgising for it, however I don't think materials like this should be condemned outright as simple pieces of racist propaganda, particularly in compared to its contemporaries. After all one of the major seminal works of 20th century anthropological study is "the Sexual Lives of Savages," no pun intended.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:52 AM on February 14, 2008 [2 favorites]


Coon's chicken.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 12:05 PM on February 14, 2008


I have to agree with Pollomacho. I'm not an anthropologist, but I read some academic stuff on culture studies, and the general feel to me seems to be that what we'd call "modern" anthropology emerged from small revolutions in the social sciences beginning in the late 50s and running through the 60s. Even the 1950s editions of National Geographic I grew up with often contained egregiously racialist characterizations of people. And this book was roughly concurrent with the eugenics movement, a science-based movement to define and remove unwanted genetic influences from the population.
posted by Miko at 12:05 PM on February 14, 2008


/ROBERTA: Let's address some discussion to this piece.

SNOTTY GIRL: I don't like it.
ROBERTA: Can you tell us why?

SNOTTY GIRL: I don't know.
HIPPY-ISH BOY: I think it's totally weak.
BLACK GIRL: Yeah, it's not right.

ROBERTA: These are all valid comments, but I think we should see if the artist has anything to bring to this.

ENID:Well, I got the idea when I was doing some research and I discovered that Cook's Chicken used to be called Coon's Chicken, and so I decided to do my project based on this discovery as kind of a comment on racism... and the way racism is whitewashed over in our culture...

ROBERTA: Did you actually do this painting?
ENID: Well, no - it's more like a "found art object."

ROBERTA: And how do you think this addresses the subject of racism?
ENID: It's complicated... I guess I'm trying to show how racism used to -- more out in the open and now it's hidden, or something...

ROBERTA: And how does an image like this help us to see that?
ENID: I guess because when we see something like this it seems really shocking and we have to figure out why it's so shocking?

A long pause as Roberta and the class stare at the painting.
ROBERTA: I don't really know what to say, Enid...(another over-long pause)... It's a remarkable achievement.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 12:06 PM on February 14, 2008


Well, HVAC, one can definitely critique the framing in the web presentation of this book, but it makes the book itself no less interesting as a historical document.
posted by Miko at 12:14 PM on February 14, 2008


While the early part of the 20th century certainly had its share of racist ideas imbedded within anthropology, this is also the period when Luis Leakey was making major discoveries in East Africa, Franz Boaz was making his monumental contributions and Claude Levi-Strauss was doing his ethnographic work. This is indeed the beginnings of modern anthropology, a far cry from the 19th century apologetics to European racism and hegemony that were then termed "anthropology." Anthropology today (and sociology, its ugly cousin) has its share of practioners who do what they can to further racialist ideas ("The Bell Curve", anyone?). Does that mean that we are still not into "modern" anthropology? I restate my claim that this rubbish is not what propelled modern anthropology, it was already there. This book is nothing more than carnival side-show racism/look at the primitives porn. Once again, I say, meh.
posted by anansi at 12:31 PM on February 14, 2008


I dunno, surely there must be something of anthropological interest in seing how people in the 1940s got to see boobies?
posted by Artw at 12:42 PM on February 14, 2008


this rubbish is not what propelled modern anthropology, it was already there

That I can agree with. It's more interesting historically than anthropoligically -- but there is anthropoligical interest in looking at one way in which the dominant culture of the 30s expressed its popular (as opposed to official/scholarly) view of other cultures.
posted by Miko at 12:44 PM on February 14, 2008


Just for context, just remember that Piltdown man was not exposed as a fake until 1953, only two years after Leakey published his 20 year compendium on Olduvai. While Louis Leakey was certainly a pioneer, his ideas ran contrary to the belief in the 1930's and 40's that homo sapien evolved in the much superior Europe, as evidenced by the European's "superior," "more evolved" status. There were definitely more like him.

As mentioned "the Sexual Lives of Savages," was all the result of Malinowski, a European being stranded among who he originally percieved as "savages" until he began to get to know them out of boredom, curiosity and frankly the desire for sex and titillation and discovered they were a society as rich as any found back in Europe. By accident and boredom he formed and founded modern participant observation and radically altered the "look at the curious natives" concept of anthropology to that time.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:29 PM on February 14, 2008


Miko: I’m missing your meaning. I was alluding to a scene in Ghost World which somewhat mirrors the patter in this thread. The initial revulsion to the post, criticism, and so forth. My implicit, perhaps occluded, assertion is that while the Secret Museum is revolting, it does have value.

My interest was certainly piqued. And not only for the historical content and gingered up photos. The use of language is fascinating and the writer’s tone is often colorful and jocund whether it’s condescending or not: “Rustic Yeoman of Slovakia” and so forth.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 1:51 PM on February 14, 2008


Oh -- sorry. I'm hopeless when it comes to movie allusions.
posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on February 14, 2008


Very cool.

I think the transcriber's attempt to put what's pretty clearly a public-domain work under a CC license, however well-intentioned, is a little skeezy though. Scanning something in and converting it to HTML doesn't get you a new copyright on the original book's text and images. He probably has a claim to the new website that would keep someone from just mirroring it wholesale, but not to the text/images itself. (Unless I'm missing something and it's not public domain and he's actually somehow the copyright holder.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:51 PM on February 14, 2008


He's probably just all high on copyright activism and slapping CC on anything at random.
posted by Artw at 2:53 PM on February 14, 2008


This is nothing, really, compared to what you would find dropping by your local dusty used bookstore and reading in a 1895 textbook about the "happy carefree lives of the slaves."

The contents are a random mish-mash of photos with off-the-cuff semi-misinformed comments. It could have engendered feelings of superiority in the racist; it could have triggered feelings of joy at the diversity of mankind in the romantic, the liberal, the artist or the scientist.

This is just one reason postmodern theory (remember those good old days?) grabbed a toehold in academia: realizing the need to read the text in the context of its audience and sociopolitical context.
posted by kozad at 3:57 PM on February 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm under the impression that he would have rights to the actual image and text files on his site, which, without the CC license, you would not be legally allowed to copy or redistribute, &c. The original images and text may be in the public domain now, but his act of digitizing them created a new work, which he could choose to exercise rights over. You can scan the old stuff yourself, if you like, but the labor he invested in scanning everything himself has won him rights over the product of those labors. I think.

Similarly, a record company can release a CD containing songs from 1915 and sue you if you pirate them... they took the original 78's and transferred them to a new format (hopefully doing some skillful, careful restoration and cleanup in the process.), creating a new work. You're free to find the same old 78s yourself and do what you like with 'em, but distributing tracks ripped from your copy of RCA-Victor's Best of the Teens compilation could earn you a visit from the RIAA man.
posted by mumkin at 4:01 PM on February 14, 2008


And... I should really shut up, because Project Gutenberg has a completely different take (and some legal advice) stating that scanning, image correction and transcription of text are not sufficient to earn a new copyright. Of course, they might very much like that to be the case, so could be a bit biased, and it sounds like it hasn't been tested in the courts yet, but there 'tis. I still wouldn't fault Mr. Secret Museum for explicitly CCing it.
posted by mumkin at 4:13 PM on February 14, 2008


this is also the period when Luis Leakey was making major discoveries in East Africa, Franz Boaz was making his monumental contributions and Claude Levi-Strauss was doing his ethnographic work.

You forgot Margaret Mead.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:48 PM on February 14, 2008


Great find anastasiav, it's an interesting document. In light of Wednesday's event, this commentary is interesting: A "Blackfellow" and his family settle down to farming "The man lives on a farm by Marra Creek in New South Wales, and works, for strong drink, with white men in the construction of a barrage. But look at the miserable shelter of branches and grass, in which he lives with his wife and three children. A century's intercourse with white Australians has not taught the aborigines (generally, but wrongly, called blackfellows) a better way of building".
posted by tellurian at 5:13 PM on February 14, 2008


A century's intercourse with white Australians

heh.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:29 PM on February 14, 2008


Speaking of better ways of building, it's funny that whenever you see reports on outback aboriginal communities, the basic houses that have been built there are almost always ruined - broken windows, no doors, rubbish all over the floors etc.

Apparently, the blackfellas in those communities simply don't like living in western style housing. So, the government or some NGO shows up, builds all these things, and the locals think: "Great! Free firewood! And somewhere to throw our rubbish!"

At least, that's what I've heard.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:34 PM on February 14, 2008


This is a great find and thanks for sharing it.

Now, anansi, I think I agree with you. But not exactly. I think the joke is on whoever wrote those hideous captions. It's farcical, jokey and smells a bit like a hoax too. I think that it's kind of insidious and probably offensive to you, because the "author" uses just enough terminology to make it seem credible or written seriously. But I'm pretty sure he/she was just a jack ass. It was pretty obvious in the caption for the lady with the gigantic afro which looked fake anyway. Even if it wasn't fake, the caption was just stupid and had no merit. /rant

Many great photos though!
posted by snsranch at 5:49 PM on February 14, 2008


I have the book. Some of the pictures are very old (much older than the publication date), and show glimpses of things now long gone from this world. Some are rubbish, many are fascinating. I think getting too hung up on the shortcomings and motivations of the culture and era that produced this is really just missing out on, well, a secret museum of mankind.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:53 PM on February 14, 2008


show glimpses of things now long gone from this world. posted by -harlequin
Exactly. Much of what we see in those photos is long gone. So stupid caption aside, this is a great thing to visit and witness.
posted by snsranch at 6:00 PM on February 14, 2008


I skipped through a few pages of the book and would some of the high authorities on everything who usually comment on this site tell me where the racism is supposed to be?

All I am finding are great pictures of different people, their dresses, customs and environments, with comments which are rarely disparaging and rather trying to find something "noble" or "fine" even in the most squalid conditions. That, to me, shows cultural tolerance rather than racism.

I'll go through it though and inform the esteemed public whether it turns me racist. The same is warmly recommended to those who shoot faster than they think. Read first, comment later.
posted by Laotic at 12:21 AM on February 15, 2008


I don't know, he seems to vary a bit in his judgement. He seems to appreciate Buddhism, for example, and seems a lot less racist than he does a product of his time. Of course, he is rather tactless by our standards.
posted by Sukiari at 3:27 AM on February 15, 2008


I skipped through a few pages of the book and would some of the high authorities on everything who usually comment on this site tell me where the racism is supposed to be?

Here try and see if you can spot the racism in this passage:

"This black beauty has decorated herself to attract her chief's favour. She prefers harem to field work. Her face and body designs are in black paint, as well as the usual scars."
posted by Pollomacho at 4:41 AM on February 15, 2008


Also the title of a series of early recorded ethnic music cds released by the estimable Yazoo records.

This Village Voice article claims that the original Secret Museum of Mankind inspired Harry Smith to compile the Anthology of American Folk Music. So I guess it would be an apt name for an ethnic music anthology.

I guess it goes to show that, on some level, the book shows more about its readers than its subjects. For racists, the book can be used as evidence of the inferiority and "otherness" of nonwhite races. But for other people, they see it as a glimpse at the fascinating diversity of the world.
posted by jonp72 at 7:24 AM on February 15, 2008


Miko: “I'm hopeless when it comes to movie allusions.”

We all do have our blind spots. My own loom large at times.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 1:45 PM on February 15, 2008


This reminds me of an old book I picked up at a used book sale on Animals of the World or something - which I only glanced at and then bought. And then when I read through it I found that the animals in the photographs were all very dead and stuffed. Some of the photos even had the hunter with a gun next to dead animal, which had been prop'd up to appear alive. Just...not what I'd expected - and very much not something that would be produced today, for all the right reasons.

It's good to document that these attitudes once existed and critique them for what they are. But the text is usually what makes me more uncomfortable on this site than the photos, like the sentence Pollomacho quotes. Though I do wonder what the people whose photos were taken were told about what was happening (the taking of a photo), whether they were happy about the fact, or were even told what was going on. Hard to tell from expressions - I've seen just as potentially unhappy looks in our family photo albums, but then I hate having my photo taken.

...Um, is it bad that I want to go make a leaf hat now? It's probably very wrong of me, but dammit, I admire a nice leaf hat. And I'm not being sarcastic.
posted by batgrlHG at 6:09 PM on February 15, 2008


Not at all, those are lovely leaf hats. And, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the Secret Museum text is pretty accurate in Latvia's case.
posted by mumkin at 7:01 PM on February 15, 2008


Yep, wikipedia tells the truth. This festival still takes place in Latvian communities all over the world.

The leaf "hats" are actually wreaths. They're called "vainags" (that's singular) - you can do your own googling if you want to know how to make them - I'm in a hurry & can't find anything in English on a quick search.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:17 PM on February 15, 2008


This is one of the most fascinating posts I've seen on the blue. But, that said, it seems that the "racist" aspect may have just been an aside had it not been mentioned in the post. And that's not a criticism. It's just interesting how a post like this can thread off in so many directions as a result of some unintentional editorializing.

In these times the world is really becoming homoginized. (sp) So it's a great pleasure to see these photos of times past. Skip the captions, enjoy and witness for yourself.
posted by snsranch at 7:30 PM on February 15, 2008


Here try and see if you can spot the racism in this passage:

"This black beauty has decorated herself to attract her chief's favour. She prefers harem to field work. Her face and body designs are in black paint, as well as the usual scars."


Pollomacho, please, would you explain where in that passage you see racism?

This statement is not judgmental and is not racist either. It would be if the author implied that a harem was worse than a family or that the standards of the black woman are inferior because she is black.

This statement, however, applies even today to any woman (or man) who dresses up to attract the attention of a well-positioned male (female) in order to avoid the difficult existence of, say, low-paid supermarket jobs in exchange of the easy life of a protege.
posted by Laotic at 3:36 AM on February 16, 2008


Sorry for another post:

jonp72
For racists, the book can be used as evidence of the inferiority and "otherness" of nonwhite races. But for other people, they see it as a glimpse at the fascinating diversity of the world.


How is "diversity" different from "otherness"? Dictionary anyone?

My point being, this book has so far taken great care NOT to infer any "inferiority", so all a racist could use it for would be to see that people in different parts of the world have different customs.
posted by Laotic at 3:45 AM on February 16, 2008


Laotic: boy, it's a lot more complicated than that. I know you're beng wilfully ignorant, but it seems you have never considered how subtle and pervasive the language of discrimination can be.

The difference between "diversity" and "otherness" is that "otherness" contains the idea of defining another solely by their difference (which has the effect of limiting their individual identity), whereas "diversity" contains the idea that differences are myriad, and in themselves valueless. Drawing attention to difference in a context in which the differences are presented as as strange, exotic, or unusual is an evaluation of differences which defines someone as "other." The differences highlighted in this book are not valueless, they are presented as evidence that the world can be thought of as a "museum" - a place to view unusual objects -- rather than as home to diverse human beings who are to be understood through something other than a caption.

This statement, however, applies even today to any woman (or man) who dresses up to attract the attention of a well-positioned male (female) in order to avoid the difficult existence of, say, low-paid supermarket jobs in exchange of the easy life of a protege.

So if this caption were about 21st-century Wal-Mart, this would sound all right to you?

"This black beauty has dressed herself in order to attract her manager's favour. She prefers cashiering to stock work."
posted by Miko at 9:28 AM on February 16, 2008


Miko,

So if this caption were about 21st-century Wal-Mart, this would sound all right to you?


it is completely irrelevant whether the caption sounds all right to me or not, the point is that it describes a common fact. Except for one thing - your transposition of "black beauty". In today's Wal-mart world it would just be "a beauty".

What you (or I) choose to do about the facts is another matter. The book describes facts in the fashion which was prevalent at the time and stays mostly non-judgmental at that. Call me thick but I don't understand your point about the world not being a museum of unusual objects. It is a museum or whatever you call it, a basically pointless place where myriads of entities kill and eat each other every second to gain advantage, and this all irrespective of whether you like it or not.

But what the hey, all this started around some racism, which I claim exists where we don't see it and is absent where we most decry it.
posted by Laotic at 4:19 PM on February 16, 2008


The difference between "diversity" and "otherness" is that "otherness" contains the idea of defining another solely by their difference (which has the effect of limiting their individual identity), whereas "diversity" contains the idea that differences are myriad, and in themselves valueless.

hm, whatever. people apparently love our leaf hats, and look up wikipedia to learn about our customs. beyond the politically correct waffle above, people who probably had never even heard about Latvia before learned a little bit, as I learned about other Northern European & Scandinavian midsummer festivals. and this is somehow problematic to you, miko?
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:40 PM on February 16, 2008


*correction: Miko*
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:40 PM on February 16, 2008


people apparently love our leaf hats, and look up wikipedia to learn about our customs. beyond the politically correct waffle above, people who probably had never even heard about Latvia before learned a little bit,

Exactly. They learned a little bit, so that Latvians no longer need be just human oddities who wear leaf hats. They are now people with an array of customs which occur within a cultural context.

It's not a point I want to belabor too much, but the between the tone of this book and the tone we prefer today is one of attitude or approach - it's the difference between pointing at someone and saying "whoa, freak!" and looking a bit deeper to set aside the viewer's own cultural presumptions and try to understand what's going on with those images from a more informed perspective, perhaps drawing on sources which originate from within that culture itself. We've learned over the past century that beginning with a more respectful tone, and rejecting the assumption that some cultures are inherently superior to others, is more conducive to fair inquiry.

So yes, certainly the tone of the book is problematic: it was in its day, because extensions of that approach resulted in widespread deaths and the extinction of cultures. And it definitely would be today if produced in seriousness and disseminated to a popular audience. However, I work with texts like this all the time, and there is a lot to be learned from them, so I'm not inclined to overreact: it's a product of its time. I think it's most definitely a good thing that representations of culture in mass media have become more sophisticated. However, I have no doubt that in 100 years, we'll look at our own time and identify imbedded prejudices that are now invisible to us.
posted by Miko at 8:12 AM on February 17, 2008


it describes a common fact. Except for one thing - your transposition of "black beauty". In today's Wal-mart world it would just be "a beauty".

Well, you didn't object to the "black" there, so I left it in. But more to the point, even if it were changed to just a "beauty," there is still a voice at work characterizing the people and their motivations as if the voice is an authority. But is it really? If I am from another culture and I call the Wal-Mart employee a "beauty," I am (for one thing) reducing her to her physical appearance and (for another) imposing my own cultural and personal standards of beauty on another culture. And if I suggest that is dressing a certain way in order to draw the favor of a superior, so that she can make a plea for a job assignment she prefers, I am making a whole lot of other assumptions, as well. Is it the supervisor's decision? Does dressing that way actually appeal to the supervisor, or does he, perhaps, prefer another style of dress, or is he gay, or otherwise uninterested - perhaps he's from a culture which would prefer women to cover their hair? Are we sure her dress is designed to appeal to him, or to a regular customer she likes? Or is she trying to win friends among the women in her department? Or does she harbor a desire to become a fashion designer one day, and therefore pays special attention to her clothes and makeup?

We can't know the motivations and the relationships of the individuals well based on a photo alone. The captioning in this book (which, in most cases, was not written by the photographer or at the time of the photo) assumes total knowledge of the subjects. To know more, we would need better sources - better interpreters of these photographs. We would want to ask about ideals of beauty within the culture, about the relationship between the two people, about their goals and motivations. We would want sources from within the culture. Without those, we have piles of assumptions which can lead to erroneous conclusions, which can (did) in turn, lead to discrimination and persecution.
posted by Miko at 8:26 AM on February 17, 2008


Nicely said, Miko, although I'd suggest it didn't so much lead to discrimination and persecution but that this text is a symptom of a widespread mindset of discrimination & persecution, and assumptions of cultural & racial superiority, which were the ideological driving force behind colonialism in particular, a system that was being unravelled precisely at the time this book was published - the first world war was huge nail in its coffin, and WW2 pretty much signified the collapse of the colonial enterprise, at least in its traditional sense of military occupancy.

As such, I'd place this book at an interesting historical watershed between objectifying the exotic other, and demonstrating a curious respect for foreign cultures.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:12 PM on February 18, 2008


First of all having read most of the text of the book - yes, racism, dissmissive condescending tone - sadly not unique for the time period. (It's always a shock to me to come upon this sort of thing in old textbooks, brrr.) But coming to it without that kind of baggage - the photos are still fascinating. I wish we had more knowledge on who took the photos, whether it was just one or many photographers, and whether the author was one of them or just gathered them up and slapped on the captions. Anyone see any info on this? I'm assuming I may have missed it, if it's there.

"They learned a little bit, so that Latvians no longer need be just human oddities who wear leaf hats. They are now people with an array of customs which occur within a cultural context."

Exactly.
I guess I should feel good that I'm far enough removed from the author's mentality that I didn't even see the human oddity part and just saw the cool hat. Seriously. Am now making plans on constructing my own. Ok yes...it's a wreath, but that sounds like something you'd hang on a door. Wikipedia says oak leaves were used - I'm also interested that they decorate their cars with oak branches too. Now I want to see more modern photos of that - off to google...
posted by batgrlHG at 5:26 PM on February 19, 2008


Do not mess with the Latvians. Their leader, Doctor Doom, will crush you as he crushed the bug Reed Richards.
posted by Artw at 7:15 PM on February 19, 2008


Also I know the website says that:
"It has no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, no index."
It just seems odd that there'd be no speculation on who the photographers were...
posted by batgrlHG at 7:21 PM on February 19, 2008


A lot of them look very similar to photos I've seen taken at world's fairs in the late nineteenth century, where people of different backgrounds were literally exhibited in simulated environments. That seemed like one possible source of the photos, to me.
posted by Miko at 7:24 PM on February 19, 2008


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