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The Persistence of Bias: Teaching about Cultural Heritage

What’s something everyone wants, few believe they get, and all must give to appreciate the cultural heritage of others? The answer is . . . “respect.”

Fundamental to everyone’s psyche is bias, or their predisposed point of view. Bias is the consequence of individual, temporal, and cultural variables. It is a powerful force that colors how we consciously, and subconsciously, view the world and everything in it.

Attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and practices are molded and shaped by learned value judgments and cultural presuppositions. They become ingrained and are not easily suspended. This is why, when we confront differences that impugn our entrenched notions and beliefs, the judgments and determinations that established our ethos come to mind.

Docents who teach about the customs, rituals, and artifacts of unfamiliar cultures undertake a formidable challenge. The persistence of their learners’ biases can create obstacles that inhibit access to understanding and appreciation.

Simple methods that help visitors drop their barriers and suspend judgments are few. Teaching visitors openness and tolerance within the time constraints of docent-guided tours may be close to impossible and surely exceeds any realistic objective set for most touring programs. Nonetheless, establishing an appropriate tone and providing visitors with accessible ways to approach new or different ideas and devisings can assist docents to succeed in this highly specialized field of teaching.

Hawaii, which is a very diverse society, does not have a clear majority population or completely dominate culture. 1 asked Dr. Leon Bruno, director of the Lyman Museum and Mission House in Hilo, HI, how docents there manage to teach about (and to) these many, sometimes competing, cultures.

His response was deceptively simple. “We strive for sensitivity to others, complimented by a pride for one’s own. Respect,” he said, “is the key. It must permeate everything we do.”

But how do those teaching with cultural artifacts and expressions engender sensitivity and respect? The approach taken at the Lyman Museum and Mission House is to communicate a balance of information so visitors perceive no prevailing attitudes among its teaching representatives.

The Lyman family, whose home is toured, were missionaries whose presence profoundly changed the native Hawaiian Islanders. While presenting material evidence of the
changes wrought, docents strive for balance, describing how missionaries both obfuscated expressions of native culture and how they preserved them. For example, missionaries were responsible for the destruction of the islanders’ native religion. Yet, they transcribed the Hawaiian language (which had been only oral) into written form, protecting it from possible extinction.

Balanced presentation of information, a perceivable lack of judgments, and the perceivable presence of respect are among the prerequisites for teaching others about cultural heritage.

Since actively acquired concepts whose meanings emerge through the learner’s own discoveries tend to be the most useful and best retained, docents teaching about cultural heritage should strive to involve their learners. One technique that can make other cultures more accessible (and that encourages interaction and discovery) is to present the familiar as strange so that the strange will seem more familiar.

Before bringing learners to an exhibition that may invoke their personal and cultural biases, an introduction is in order. It could begin by asking learners to name some of the many things we do to enhance our appearance. Their answers will range from make-up to hair removal, and from contact lenses to tattoos.

After each answer is offered, restate it in a way that makes it sound less familiar or “acceptable.” For instance, if a learner offers the answer, “ear piercing,” the docent might say, “yes, we do hang decorative objects from holes poked through parts of our bodies.” Or, if someone else says “high heels,” the docent could respond, “yes, some of us wear shoes that force us to stand on the front of our feet, misshaping them and throwing our backs out of alignment in order to make our legs appear more attractive.”

Then, when the docent shows learners what people from other cultures do to decorate themselves, she might ask them to draw parallels to what we do to ourselves. Scarification could be equated with tattooing or cosmetic surgery. The use of rings to elongate necks could be viewed as similar to wearing pointy-toed shoes or using metal braces to move teeth into a more pleasing arrangement. Blackened teeth or the use of body paint might be seen as similar to having teeth capped or painting one’s finger and toe nails.

The same kind of introduction and activity can be successful when introducing learners to rituals or customs. The docent begins by making the familiar sound strange so that the strange seems less unfamiliar. Rites of passage into adulthood, as an example, might then be paralleled with confirmations and bar mitzvahs or hazing in fraternities and sororities.

It is essential to convey to learners that all people, regardless of culture, are motivated by similar needs and desires, and that it is only the expression of these needs and desires that are distinctly dissimilar. Revealing our common origins, in a balanced, nonjudgmental, and respectful manner makes each culture’s manifest differences seem less threatening, and makes this form of specialized teaching more successful and effective.

Alan Gartenhaus is the publishing editor of this newsletter. In addition, he provides workshops for docents and classroom teachers on interpretative teaching techniques, creativity and its enhancement, and questioning strategies. He is the author of the text. Minds in Motion: Using Museums to Expand Creative Thinking, which has been placed on the recommended reading list of the National Education Association. The text, which was published by Caddo Gap Press of Sacramento, CA, can be ordered by your local bookstore or museum shop.

Gartenhaus, Alan. “The Persistence of Bias: Teaching about Cultural Heritage” Docent Educator  1.4(Summer 1992): 2-3.


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