How the Disintegration of Naples’ Cultural Heritage Affects You

Remnants of unfinished restoration work in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Naples, Italy
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Naples, Italy has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage site for 17 years, yet the local and national government have spent years mismanaging funds and neglecting much of its cultural heritage: approximately 200 churches and other historic sites have fallen into disrepair, stripped of their furnishings (including art) and/or left to rot due to lack of funds for conservation. Recent stories about the neglect and degradation of the city’s cultural sites have been spreading across the Internet, first with the report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and then with the English-translated rehash in The Art Newspaper. Another story in The Guardian, also published in January, discussed the arrests of two additional people in connection with the “‘premeditated, organized and brutal’ sacking” of the 16th c. Girolamini Library. It is estimated that as many as 4,000 historic documents and books have been stolen, though we may never know the full extent, as much of the library’s holdings were never properly catalogued. A petition has been initiated to strip Naples of its UNESCO status, as it is believed that the city is doing nothing to protect its heritage (though it should be noted that it is suspected that the Mafia may have some involvement, as they were behind the 2008 waste management crisis amongst many other crime issues in the area). The pillaging of the Girolamini Library prompted the director of the Vatican Museums to declare that the cultural heritage of Italy at large is vanishing, particularly in smaller institutions which do not have adequate security, and that “the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart.”

It can be easy for one to feel a detached sadness in this crisis, especially if one is separated from it by an ocean (and even more so if one is not generally engrossed by issues of cultural heritage and preservation). Indeed, The Art Newspaper‘s story in particular has a sort of “ruin porn”-air about it, with its beautiful pictures of hollowed out cathedrals and exclamation that one had better book a ticket to Naples now to see it before it completely falls apart. However, the disintegration of the cultural heritage of Naples and Italy at large is a catastrophe, not only to the Italians– to whom I can attest take extraordinary pride in their history, having witnessed it personally during my semester abroad in 2006– but to the world.  Continue reading

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Book review: Roaring Camp by Susan Lee Johnson

J.D. Borthwick, “Monte in the Mines” (c. 1851)
(Source)

Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush by Susan Lee Johnson is an extraordinary contribution to scholarship on the California Gold Rush.  The title of the book is a play on the title of the short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte and is intended to evoke ideas of the myths tied to the Gold Rush. However, the book is anything but playful: it is an account of a period that was so full of potential for redefining ideas of class, gender, and cultural tolerance, yet the opportunity was lost. The Northern Mines of California are the site of more widely acknowledged Gold Rush narratives; Johnson, however, focuses on the Southern Mines, which were a site of conflicted gender roles due to the mixing of multiple ethnicities and glasses and are comparatively outside of the major history of the Gold Rush. A highly deserving winner of the 2001 Bancroft Prize, Johnson utilizes her position as a New Western historian to persuasively coerce the reader to rethink not only what is acknowledged about the Gold Rush, but also how ethnicity, class and gender influenced notions of social roles even before the advent of postmodernism.  Continue reading

Book review: Print the Legend by Martha Sandweiss

A mid-nineteenth century daguerrotype of Native American lodges.
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Print the Legend is an impressive contribution on multiple planes, for Martha Sandweiss not only recounts the complex history of the use of photography in the American West between 1840 and 1890, she also guides both the general reader and historian alike in the process of rethinking how we interpret and utilize photography. She posits two ways to think of how we interpret and use photographs as primary source documents: in history, which requires knowledge “about the circumstances of its making, the photographer’s intent, the public function of the image, the ways in which it was received and understood by contemporary audiences” (p. 9) and through history, in which “we must give attention to the shifting fate of the image—the ways in which it might have moved into archives or attics, museums or scrapbooks, and the ways in which it has been reinterpreted over time” (p. 9). The title of the book is a reference to a quote from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, in which the newspaper editor states: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend” (p. 324). This highlights Sandweiss’s encompassing theme of the difficulty of promoting photography in the face of more mythologized media such as painting and printmaking. Print the Legend is highly marketable to a wide variety of audiences: her prose is eloquent and easy to read, and the book itself, which is printed on high-quality glossy paper, is aesthetically pleasing and can be distributed in multiple types of settings, such as major bookstores and museums. Sandweiss is currently a history professor at Princeton University, but her background as a photography curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and as a professor of American Studies allows her to tackle her subject matter with a fresh and unique perspective than she in turn is able to effectively communicate to multiple types of readers.  Continue reading

Book review: Devil’s Bargains by Hal K. Rothman

Historic photo of a Colorado ski resort
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Tourism in the American West has been a subject that has been ignored for far too long. Indeed, its last major scholarly treatment occurred in 1957 with Earl Pomeroy’s In Search of the Golden West, and historians since then have been distinctly reticent to tackle the subject for fear of mockery. However, Devil’s Bargains by the late Hal K. Rothman revitalizes the subject in a powerfully written and historically relevant manner. He expands beyond Pomeroy’s look at California and instead looks at much of the trans-Mississippi West, narrowing down his narrative to regions and specific time frames. Rothman argues that tourism is not a passive act that is simply rooted in the desire to take a break from everyday life, but rather a colonial act that transforms the locals who accommodate the tourists as well as the landscape itself. However, in many ways, tourism was and is a necessity for many towns and regions: ascribing these places to a touristic economy is, in essence, a devil’s bargain. Continue reading

Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum
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I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US.  Continue reading

Book review: The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen

Comanche portraits
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The Comanches are usually portrayed in the existing literature as a formidable equestrian power that erected a daunting barrier of violence to colonial expansion. Along with the Iroquois and Lakotas, they have been embedded in collective American memory as one of the few Native societies able to pose a significant challenge to the Euro-American conquest of North America. But the idea of a Comanche barrier leaves out at least half of the story. (Introduction)

In this masterful account of the history of the Comanche people, Hämäläinen demonstrates that the Comanches were far from disorganized bands of violent Indians as they have previously been portrayed to be, most notably in the work of T.R. Fehrenback and Walter Prescott Webb. Through his meticulous research, extraordinary detail, and superb prose, Hämäläinen instead shows that the Comanches represented something closer to an empire. This is evidenced in their calculated military prowess, strategies of diplomacy, innovations in culture and technology, and economic growth. He further argues that the Comanche empire changed the course of American expansion, particularly in what is now New Mexico and Texas, through their dominant presence in the Southwest.  Continue reading

Book summary: Native Seattle by Coll Thrush

A white woman buying a basket from a Native basket vendor, likely Makah or Nuu-chah-nulth (1911)
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The idea that Indians and cities are mutually exclusive– or, more to the point, that Native people do not ‘belong’ in urban places– is, in addition to being an outgrowth of broader American ideas about progress, also a result of the simple fact that Indian people can be very hard to find in cities. (Introduction)

Note: Now that I am back in school, I am finding that I have pretty much no time to blog anymore. I wanted to try to post the occasional book review of whatever I am currently reading for comps, but I don’t even have time for that, really. However, it’s not like I have a shortage of stuff that I am writing; because this blog is my study tool and a place of learning (or so I would like to think), I am going to go ahead and post rough drafts of things that I am writing for class. Therefore, here is where I have to include a disclaimer: While I am more than happy to share my thoughts on whatever scholarship I may be reading, these are my thoughts. Therefore, I highly recommend that you use these reviews/summaries/whatever as a starting point for deeper research, and do not copy what I am posting. That is plagiarism, and plagiarism is very frowned upon in academia.

Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush is an in-depth analysis of the complex relationship between American Indians and white settlers/inhabitants in Seattle since the landing of the first settlers, the Denny Party, in 1851 to the present. Thrush seeks to dispel the widely-accepted assumption that is particularly pervasive in Seattle itself of the “Myth of the Vanishing Race,” a complex (yet false) belief that Native Americans—frequently represented as the “noble savage” or the angry warrior—disappeared after the arrival of white settlers. His main argument is that the many tribes that comprise(d) what is now known as Seattle were crucial and integral participants in the development of the modern city, moving well beyond the 1930’s, which is when history begins to essentially exclude them due to pervasive stereotypes and discrimination.  Continue reading