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Culture: A Theme that Bridges Differences

More and more, our schools are gathering places of students with differing cultural backgrounds. Stepping from his Spanish-influenced household, a youngster may head off to his English-speaking school where the teacher introduces the customs of the Chinese New Year. Similarly, museum docents welcome busloads of diverse children and explore with them the life-ways of yet other cultures. Educators are continually challenged to honor these specific life-ways while teaching the fundamental commonalities, such as tolerance and respect, that make our schools work.

The situation is not lost on leading museum directors and educators who highlight the capacity of the arts and art education to promote cultural understanding within our diverse school populations. In fact, some would view art education as a necessity. Re-emphasis on the arts, previously reduced in the school curriculum, is a welcome change to those who recognize its potential benefits.

All well and good, but doesn’t this lofty request — to use the arts to bridge cultural differences — put an added burden on the docent or teacher? And aren’t educators, by teaching about the arts of specific cultures, already engaging the curiosity of students, broadening their thinking and attitudes about differences? Indeed, docents play an important role by presenting ethnic art forms, including much material culture that may not initially have been intended as art, to young visitors. But, there is room for improvement in this task of building bridges of understanding among multi-ethnic students.

What is Culture

Perhaps what is needed to bring about a change in students’ attitudes about their differences is a perceptual shift in our thinking about the concept of culture. Most of us are comfortable teaching about the customs, ideas, and material arts of a specific culture. However, we need also to think of culture as a broad, general term . . . culture with a capital “C”, so to speak. Culture becomes a conceptual tool that helps us learn about people and how they develop the specific patterns that we recognize. It means, within a given time and place, looking at forces operating in individual lives that influence how different life-ways take form, endure, and change. To do this, anthropologists and archaeologists usually make three assumptions about culture: namely, that it is learned, that it is shared, and that it is adaptive over time.

We need some specific examples that show how focusing on these three broad assumptions about culture reveals important insight to culture as a process. Focus on process points up commonalities that children of all cultures can apply to their everyday world.

Culture is Learned

Each of us grew up in a culture that influences what and how we learn. For humans, the accumulated knowledge of a culture is mostly passed down by use of symbolic communication, i.e., language. A good place to observe behavior that leads to the assumption that culture is learned is at a craft workshop of origami (Japanese paper-folding) at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California.

Thirty sixth graders take their place at tables neatly laid out with colored paper for each child. Alice Stewart, the instructor, welcomes her young guests and shares a brief history of the craft they are about to try. (Importantly, Japanese island dwellers who developed a highly structured society, took an earlier Chinese craft and gave it their unique expression.) Stewart then sets the tone for learning a Japanese craft: each child will need to listen carefully, stay with the teacher, complete each step before starting the next, and make precise paper folds with the edges lined up. Stewart proceeds in measured steps with pauses in-between while docent helpers keep the students on track. Toward the end of the first project, students move from blind faith about what they are doing to some happy discoveries, “Hey! This looks like a frog!”

Children, the ultimate pragmatists, are quick to assess whether something works or not. By actually doing the hands-on workshop, students get immediate feedback. If the Japanese way of doing crafts gets results, children may compare it favorably to their own way of doing things. They can see that less than precise is less than a frog.

The students will tuck the finished product — the frog — into their backpacks, but more lasting perhaps is their encounter with how it was made. The frog is a performance in time that grew out of a particular culture and context. The docent’s job is to illuminate the details that help children imagine themselves as part of another culture. The structured experience of learning origami may contrast with the child’s more freestyle way of doing things. By helping students experience the process of learning, a common ground for all students, docents provide the conditions for them to gain insight into their own behavior and that of their classmates.

Culture is Shared Ideas

We can’t see ideas, but they usually show up in some kind of patterned behavior. Generally, it is shared ideas that inform and allow us to recognize a society’s arts and material culture. For an example of our second assumption, that culture is shared ideas, we turn to a recent exhibition at Pacific Asia Museum that was popular with the school-aged crowd. “The Creative Voices of Reason: Philippine Painters, Poets, and Craftsmen” was an exhibition that featured the material culture of the Manila/Acapulco Galleon Trade, 300 years of commerce between Asia and the Americas. Years of subjection to colonial influence had suppressive effects on the Philippine people. Still, their determination to maintain their identity surfaced in their crafts, paintings, and poetry.

The “soul” of the Philippines was reflected in the collected works of artist Fernando Amorsolo (1892- 1972). His work provides a rich example of culture as shared ideas. He painted vibrant landscapes bathed in tropical light, and contented peasants in colorful native dress amid abundant harvests. By briefly telling ‘ the circumstances of when the paintings were made and posing some key questions, the docent can help the students reach for the emotions that the artist was expressing. For instance, one could ask, “What kinds of subjects did the artist select to paint?” “What feelings do you get from viewing the paintings?” “How do the people seem?” By guided observations, students see the paintings through the optimism of the artist.

More broadly, docents can help children see that art is a visual language that communicates, and through it artists share their emotions and their perception of reality. Amorsolo used his artistic skill to show pride for his country. He created images to which his people could relate. He chose to leave out negative possibilities such as poverty or hardship, which clashed with his optimism. The docent might ask, “What other emotions might an artist want to share?” “Do you share emotions with your own art?” “How?”

By asking a series of questions, docents can move students from the particulars of a Philippine artist to the commonality that art can express feelings. Ideally, children may form an emotional connection to the art, which makes their museum visit a more memorable experience. They can relate to the idea that an artist paints to share feelings and his perception of reality. This is an idea that transcends all cultures. By focusing on the general concept of shared experience, docents further reflective qualities in students that promote cultural understanding.

Culture is Adaptive

Generally people adapt their culture in ways that improve their chances for survival in a particular environment. Beyond their physical needs for survival, such as shelter, humans have social needs, such as status and recognition. All sorts of material objects can represent these social needs.

We can best understand the final assumption about culture, that it is adaptive, by talking about a category of Chinese objects from the permanent collection of Pacific Asia Museum. Scholars have referred to them as “objects of the Emperor’s study.” From very early times, the Chinese people have had great respect for literacy and writing. Their material culture reflected this interest with a profusion of inkstones, brush holders, writing instruments, and desk accessories. The production of these exquisite objects, crafted in jade, ivory, and ceramic, reached a culmination in the late Ming (1550-1644).

In that time, the spread of literacy, a chance at civil examinations, and increase in commerce and trade allowed more people to afford such fine accessories. The situation created a demand for further production of purely decorative desk items. Ownership of such luxury items meant more people could consider themselves as part of a lifestyle that was formerly available only to the elite. The material items became emblems of social recognition and upward mobility.

Docents can help students understand that culture is adaptive by using the circumstances of a different time and place (here we use the popularity of desk accessories in Ming China) as analogy to a current and familiar situation. Despite the gap in contexts, students may begin to see that material culture continues to reflect and shape people’s needs today. Consider the growth in sports equipment. By selecting, for instance, a certain brand of athletic shoe, a student gets closer to perceived capabilities and good life projected by our sports elite. The same is true of the growth of computer equipment. Material culture is ever changing and develops according to whether it has meaning and advantage to individuals in a culture.

Docents can make effective use of the short time students are with them by having a clear idea of what they want to teach and asking relevant questions. For the Ming brushpot, one might start by having students closely observe the item — describing its materials and the designs appearing on it. As they conclude that it is a luxury item, interject how it was that more people at the time of the Ming dynasty were able to afford such a piece and why they might have wanted it. From there, ask the students for an example of a luxury item they might buy. Ask them why that item is important to them.

Learning why the Chinese applied so much energy to making desk accessories in Ming China helps students understand some of the forces that influence material culture in their own lives. Whether brushpots or athletic shoes, the objects reflect universal human needs that take on the specific character of the time that they were made or acquired. Understanding something about the adaptive quality of material culture may help students take a more objective look at their own behaviors.

On Building Bridges

Starting with the details of the specific cultures represented in our museums (whatever the time or place) can allow docents to make connections to visitors, while connecting visitors to our collections. Testing out a Japanese paper craft gives insight to the fact that aU people learn, but each has a different style. A Philippine artist reminds us that art is a medium through which people share emotions and outlooks. A close look at a brushpot leads the way to discovering similarities we may have in common with these people who lived long ago and far away.

In each case, we step outside our familiar world and see that people do things in different settings but with common themes. With hands-on learning and guided questioning, docents set the stage for imaginative comparisons. Students look at their own ways of doing things with new eyes. Importantly, this awareness exposes and subjects their familiar thinking and behaviors to scrutiny.

So, yes, docents who continue to learn about and make use of “culture,” both its specific and general aspects, can support our schools by aiding to ease some of the tensions within our multi-ethnic classrooms. Tour by tour, docents can build bridges of understanding.

Mary Elizabeth Crary holds a Master of Arts in cultural anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles. She serves as chairman Of the docent training committee at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. Ms. Crary published an article in The Docent Educator previously, which was entitled “The ‘Why Question: Meeting the Challenge” (Spring 1998).

Crary, Mary Elizabeth. “Culture: A Theme that Bridges Differences,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 10-12.

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