Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Modern Day (Female) Franz Boas

Maybe the first step is a bowtie?

I am outing my inner nerd by starting this blog referencing the man considered “The Father of Modern Anthropology”. Let me explain. I graduated from Smith College in 2002 with a B.A. in Anthropology and a minor in Archaeology. Occasionally during my 4 years there, I would burst into friends’ rooms in moments of pure academic/geek moments to explain something I had just read. They tolerated me with a smile and sometimes it even lead to long conversations involving their areas of study.

An academic revelation came to me after reading how Boas effectively changed the conceptions around “primitive” and “modern” representations in museum displays. He argued against his colleagues, insisting that different cultures did not represent the states of evolution from savages to intellectuals, but instead were contemporaries of each other. In my museum studies, I learned that before Boas, artifacts were displayed according to function or level of technological development no matter where they originated, since they all supposedly represented a point in progressive evolution. (For example, stone tools from cultures all over the world were lumped together in one display of "primitivism".) In his 1887 article Museums of Ethnology and Their Classification, Boas stated that “though like causes have like effects, like effects have not like causes”.  Meaning that, even though stone tools may look similar, they were created in different contexts and for different reasons and therefore, grouping them together was misleading (and in my mind, demeaning). Boas began to push to develop exhibits in cultural and historical context, something that drives contemporary curating today. 

How did this affect me? I became passionate not for becoming an expert in a single culture in a specific point in history (as I felt necessary for Archaeology or Art History) but for the anthropological study of humanity.  For me, there was excitement in learning the immeasurable diversity in the world and marveling in the fact that seemingly disparate people could find similarities in their traditions. 

That brings us to today, where now I am a development professional for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). I recently received a NextGen Arts Program grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, supported by The James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, designed to support career development for the next generation of arts leaders. For this award, I designed a "crowdsourced" mentorship program to network with people from different sectors where I've seen incredible things in the areas of organizational development, marketing, innovation and philanthropy. I am hoping to use these meetings to glean practices and values I can then apply to my role at YBCA (and beyond). 

Do you see why I started with Boas? Like the stone tools mentioned above that were created to solve problems of production in different contexts, perhaps the solutions available in other sectors could apply in my own work. There are certainly valuable points of learning in the arts nonprofit sector, and I’ve had great mentors in the nonprofit field thus far. But now I’m curious about the wide world of valuable experience that exists beyond where I’m already familiar. 

As part of this grant, I agreed to document this experience to provide insight to other young professionals and report on how these conversations play into my experience in the field. So here it is-- announcing the blog, The Future Archives, as my pet project.

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