November 25, 2013
It’s not the place you would expect to find the world’s third-oldest manuscript of the gospels. The jade-like walls of the Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room are beautifully rendered in rich detail work. Delicate spirals rim the panels and gold-painted shelves line the walls, housing dozens of works of Asian ceramics. On one end, a woman immortalized in portrait, robe falling from her shoulders, watches over the room. To her left, a row of closed shutters block the room’s access to the sunlight. Golden peacocks, their feathers and tails painted in intricate detail, cover the shutters. On the far wall, two more peacocks are poised in an angry standoff. One is dripping with golden coins. The creature is a caricature of the Peacock Room’s original owner, the wealthy Englishman Frederick R. Leyland. The other peacock represents the struggling, underpaid artist—James McNeill Whistler. Whistler, who fought with Leyland, his patron, dubbed the piece “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.”
The parchment pages of the late 4th to 6th century biblical manuscripts, recently placed on view in the middle of the room, were originally intended to be handled and turned gently, most likely, as a part of the liturgy, by the monks that owned and read them. In the seventh century, wooden covers painted with the figures of the four Evangelists were added, binding the manuscript tightly and making the pages much harder to turn. At that time, the bound books probably made the transition to a venerated object—but yet not a work of art.
The man who saw them as works of art was Charles Lang Freer, who purchased the manuscripts from an Egyptian antiques dealer in 1906 for the princely sum of 1,800 pounds, about $7,500 in today’s dollars. In 1912, after having purchased the Peacock Room in London and shipping it to his Detroit home, Freer set out the manuscripts in the room, displaying them for his guests, along with his collection of pottery and various Buddhist statues.
“Freer had this idea that even though all of the objects in his collection were quite diverse from all different times and places, they were linked together in a common narrative of beauty that reached back in time and came forward all the way to the present,” says curator Lee Glazer. “By putting the bibles in this setting which is a work of art in its own right, with all of these diverse ceramics, it was kind of a demonstration of this idea that all works of art go together, that there’s this kind of harmony that links past and present and East and West.”
The Freer Gallery chose to exhibit the manuscripts—their first public showing since 2006—much as the museum’s founder first did in 1912, focusing on their value as aesthetic objects and their juxtaposition against the opulence of the Peacock Room.
“This display of the bibles is less about the bibles as bibles than the surprising fact that he chose to exhibit them in the Peacock Room as aesthetic objects among other aesthetic objects,” explains Glazer.
The bibles are the first antique manuscripts that Freer bought, and while he purchased a few other rare texts in his lifetime, he never really threw himself into collecting them with the same fervor that he applied to his pottery collection. To Freer, the manuscripts were an important chapter to include in his collection at the Smithsonian—another chapter in the history of beauty throughout the ages.
Not everyone agreed with Freer’s presentation of the rare texts, however. “In one of the newspaper clippings, they accuse Freer of being too fastidious in the way that he’s treating the bibles,” Glazer says. “They suggested that they shouldn’t be considered works of art as objects, but as holy scripture.”
To Freer, the manuscripts represented an ancient chapter in the history of beauty, but he also understood their historical significance for biblical study. Upon his return to America, Freer underwrote $30,000 to support research conducted by the University of Michigan. In translating and studying the texts, the scholars found that one of the gospels contains a passage not found in any other biblical text. The segment, located at the end of the Gospel of Mark, includes a post-resurrection appearance of Christ before his disciples where he proclaims the reign of Satan to be over. For some, this revelation was more scandalous than Freer’s decision to showcase the manuscripts as aesthetic objects.
“It’s not found in any other known version of the gospels,” explains Glazer. “The fact that it said that the reign of Satan was over seemed really potentially outrageous. People were in a tizzy over it.”
The manuscripts, normally kept in the Freer Gallery archives due to their sensitivity to light, are some of the most sought after pieces in the gallery’s collection. The manuscripts will remain on display in the Peacock Room through February 2014.
October 29, 2013
“Times have changed,” reads a disclaimer at the Natural History Museum, “and so have the dates in many of our fossil displays.” This notice, accompanied by a revised geological timeline, is currently posted throughout the museum’s fossil halls. It’s a stopgap measure to update exhibitions that haven’t changed in 30 years—but it won’t be needed for much longer. The Natural History Museum is about to undergo a gut renovation that will not only update these exhibitions, but also transform their narrative of earth’s fossil record.
The “Deep Time” project is the largest and most complex renovation in the museum’s history. All of the current fossil exhibitions, including Life in the Ancient Seas, Dinosaurs and Ice Ages, will come down to make way for the Deep Time Hall, a thematic, rather than encyclopedic, timeline of life on Earth. This exhibition, slated to open in 2019, will illustrate the relevance of paleontology to modern life, portraying ancient plants and animals as interconnected parts of ecosystems and revealing a fossilized world just as complicated as ours.
“We study things like climate change and carbon dioxide in the past, extinction, things that are going on in the world today,” says Matt Carrano, lead curator of the Deep Time initiative. “It’s all of these big systems that work together. . . those are the systems that we are paying attention to in the present.”
The biggest change is chronological: the Deep Time story will run in reverse. Visitors entering the exhibition from the rotunda will start with the most recent past—the Ice Age, during which humans actually lived—and travel backward in time to the primordial Earth. In many museums, Carrano says, the prehistoric world feels like an “alien experience” and visitors “may as well be taking a spaceship to different planets.” Deep Time, on the other hand, will move from the familiar to the abstruse: “You have a house, you’ve taken it down and now you’re looking at the foundation—rather than you have a hole in the ground and you’re trying to tell people that there’ll be a house there later.”
The infrastructure of the gallery space will also receive its first makeover in more than a century. When the Natural History Museum first opened in 1910, the paleobiology wing consisted solely of the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” little more than a trophy gallery for dinosaur fossils. Over the years, more and more exhibitions were tacked onto the space, resulting in the labyrinthine form of the fossil halls today. The renovation will remove the false walls subdividing the space and restore its original Beaux-Arts architecture. The new Deep Time Hall will be one cavernous, continuous gallery, with “display islands” that elaborate on specific themes.
Of course, no paleontology exhibit would be complete without a few dinosaurs, and the revamped space will display them to maximum effect. The fossil halls’ biggest draws, including the giant diplodocus on view and the Wankel T. rex on the way, will be placed in the center of the gallery so that visitors can see them all in one glance.
Other changes will be less noticeable, but more scientifically compelling. Carrano points to the current display of an allosaurus about to attack a stegosaurus: “What’s the point of showing that, besides the entertainment? We could talk about: What is it that predators do? What is it that herbivores do? Is that any different from today? Probably not. As dramatic as those animals are, they’re doing things that you can see happening out your window right now.” In the new exhibition, these creatures might represent predation or the relationship between species form and function. The work of the Deep Time team is as much about storytelling as it is about stage-setting for some of the Smithsonian’s best-loved fossils.
After the current fossil exhibitions go back into storage, a temporary gallery, focusing mainly on dinosaurs, will open on the second floor. Carrano puts it mildly: “We’re very conscious of the fact that you can’t just take the dinosaurs away for five years.”
October 24, 2013
“You are being watched.” This warning opens every episode of the hit CBS TV series, “Person of Interest,” created by The Dark Knight screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. In the wake of recent revelations about NSA surveillance, however, those words hew closer to reality than science fiction.
The “Machine” at the center of “Person of Interest” is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that tracks the movements and communications of every person in America—not through theoretical gadgetry, but through the cell phone networks, GPS satellites and surveillance cameras we interact with every day. The show’s two main characters, ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), use this power for good, chasing the social security numbers the system identifies to prevent violent crimes, but they’re constantly fighting to keep the Machine out of the wrong hands.
“Person of Interest” has been ahead of the curve on government surveillance since it debuted in 2011, but showrunners Nolan and Greg Plageman (NYPD Blue, Cold Case) have been following the topic for years. Both writers will appear at the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society,” this Friday, October 25, at 8 p.m. We caught up with the pair to talk about the balance between privacy and security, the “black box” of Gmail and the cell phone panopticon in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
I want to start with the elephant in the room: the NSA spying revelations. Now that we have definitive proof that the government is watching us, you guys get to say, “I told you so,” with regard to the surveillance on “Person of Interest.” How did you react when you heard about the government’s PRISM surveillance program, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden?
Jonathan Nolan: With a mixture of jubilation and horror. [laughs] “We were right, oh, dear, we were right.” Shane Harris [author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State], who’s joining us on the panel on Friday, is the one we went to again and again for research, and PRISM was really the tip of the iceberg. Not to sound snobby, but for people who were carefully reading the newspapers, they weren’t revelations at all. William Binney, another NSA whistleblower who’s not on the run, has been saying this publicly for years, which points to this other interesting aspect—the fact that the general public may not care if there’s a massive surveillance state. As the story’s developed, there’s been a slow trickle of information from Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian and the Washington Post, in terms of the documents they have from Snowden, to try to keep the story on the front burner. Clearly the story has got traction. But to what degree the public will actually put up with it is actually a question we’re trying to deal with now on the show.
Were you surprised by the public’s response, or lack thereof?
Greg Plageman: Yeah, I really think the capacity for outrage has been mollified by convenience. People love their phones, they love their Wi-Fi, they love being connected, and everything that’s wired is now being pushed into the cloud. We use it all the time, every day, and we can’t imagine our lives now without it. What the president has been saying, how we have to strike a balance between privacy and security—the problem is they don’t. They never do. And they wouldn’t have bothered even paying lip service to it if Snowden hadn’t blown the whistle. So I think now people are reeling from the “OK, so what?” When you tell them the consequence is we’ll be less secure, or you lose some convenience in your life, that’s when people tend to become placated. I think that’s a scary zone where we come in as entertainers and say, let’s present to you the hypothetical, dramatically, of why you should care. That’s the fun of our show.
How do you personally weigh in on that debate? How much liberty do you feel we can or should sacrifice for security?
Nolan: There’s a reason why people [used to] send letters with wax seals. That sense of privacy, the conflict between the state and the needs of the citizens, has been around for an awfully long time. We’re quite distrustful, at least in the writers’ room, of anyone who comes in with an over-simplistic answer to that question. It’s all terrible or, in the name of security, you can have access to all of my stuff, is an answer that is only acceptable, if possible, in the immediate short term, where we’re not at war, and there’s no widespread suspicion of the American public.
We’ve said this from the beginning, from the pilot onwards: privacy is different from what have you got in the bag. When the government takes your privacy, you don’t necessarily know that it’s been taken from you. It’s a fungible, invisible thing. That’s why this argument that has been hauled out into public view by Snowden is a very healthy one for the country to be having. If someone takes away your right to express yourself or your right to assemble or any of the rights in the Bill of Rights, you’re going to know about it. But when someone takes away your privacy, you may not have any idea until it’s far too late to do anything about it.
How did you develop the Machine in “Person of Interest”? Why did you make it work the way it does?
Nolan: We just use[d] our imagination. We did research. Aspects of the show that at first blush, when the pilot first came out, people kind of dismissed as curios—like, why don’t they find out if the person is a victim or a perpetrator, why don’t they get any more information than a social security number? It’s a great jumping-off point for a nice piece of drama, absolutely. We’re not shy about that. But actually, a lot of the mechanism of the Machine was based on Admiral [John] Poindexter and Total Information Awareness, which was the great-granddaddy of PRISM.
Poindexter is a really interesting Promethean figure who figured out a lot of what the general public is now just starting to get wind of. The tools were already here to peel back all of the layers of every person in the United States. It’s now become increasingly clear that there is no way to be sure that you’ve hidden your voice or email communications from the government. It’s almost impossible. If you want to communicate privately, it’s a person-to-person conversation and your cell phone is literally left elsewhere or broken, like we do in our show all the time, or handwritten messages. We really have stepped into that moment.
So the question was how do you go about this conscientiously? If we were to build this, how do you ensure that it can’t be used for corrupt purposes? How can you be sure that it isn’t used to eliminate political rivals or to categorize Americans according to their political profiles or their leanings, all that sort of stuff? It seemed like the simplest answer to that question was to make this thing a black box, something that absorbs all this information and spits out the right answers, which interestingly is exactly how Gmail works. That’s why we’re all willing to use Gmail—because we are promised that a human will never read our emails. A machine will read them; it will feed us ads, without invading our privacy. And that is a compromise we’ve been willing to make.
The show explicitly states that the Machine was developed in response to 9/11, that 9/11 ushered in this new era of surveillance. Right now, it seems we might be entering a new post-Snowden era, in which we, the general public, are aware that we’re being watched. How will the show respond to that new reality—our reality, outside the world of the show?
Plageman: In terms of whether or not we’re entering another era, it’s difficult to say when you realize that the assault on privacy is both public and private now. It’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s what you voluntarily have surrendered. What Jonah and I and the writers have been talking about is: What have you personally done about it? Have you changed your surfing habits? Have you gone to a more anonymous email provider? Have any of us done any of these things? There’s a bit of a scare, and we all react and say, wait a minute, do I need to be more privacy-conscious in terms of how I operate technology? And the truth is it’s a huge pain in the ass. I’ve tried a couple of these web-surfing softwares, but it slows things down. Eventually, if you want to be a person that’s connected, if you want to stay connected to your colleagues and your family, you realize that you have to surrender a certain amount of privacy.
I also believe, just having a son who’s now entering his teens, that there’s a huge generation gap between how we view privacy. I think older generations see that as something that we’re entitled to, and I think, to a certain degree, younger generations who’ve grown up with Facebook see it as something that’s already dead or wonder if it really matters, because they don’t understand the consequences of the death of privacy.
Nolan: In terms of the narrative of our show, we’ve already started looking into the idea that there will be a backlash. Maybe this is wishful because we’ve looked at this issue for so long [and seen] the slightly underwhelming response to the revelations by Snowden. We’re certainly not looking for people to take revolution in the streets. But you feel like it would be some consolation if there was an aggressive debate about this in Congress—and quite the opposite. You had both political parties in lockstep behind this president, who didn’t initiate these policies but has benefited from the extended power of the executive, in place for generations of presidents from the postwar environment, from Hoover and the FBI onwards. There isn’t much debate on these issues, and that’s very, very frightening. We’re very close to the moment of the genie coming completely out of the bottle.
One of the questions that Shane deals with most explicitly in his book is storage. It sounds like a banality, like the least sexy aspect of this, but storage in many ways may actually be the most profound part of this. How long is the government able to hang on to this information? Maybe we trust President Obama and all the people currently in power with this information. Who knows what we’ll think of the president three presidents from now? And if he still has access to my emails from 2013, in a different political environment in which suddenly police that are mainstream now become [secret] police, or people are sorted into camps or rounded up? It sounds like tinfoil hat-wearing paranoia, but in truth, if we’re looking at history realistically, bad things happen, fairly regularly. The idea that your words, your associations, your life, to that point could be cached away somewhere and retrieved—it feels very much like a violation of the system, in terms of testifying against yourself, because in this case the process is automatic.
These issues that we’re fascinated by are one part of our show. We presented our show as science fiction in the beginning—but, it turns out, maybe not as fictional as people would hope. Another science fiction component that we’re exploring in the second half of this season is the artificial intelligence of it all. We took the position that in this headlong, post-9/11 rush to prevent terrible things from happening, the only true solution would be to develop artificial intelligence. But if you were to deduce the motives of a human being, you would need a machine at least as smart as a human being. That’s really the place in which the show remained, to our knowledge, science fiction—we’re still a long way off from that. For the second half of the season, we’re exploring the implications of humans interacting with data as the data becomes more interactive.
Jonathan, you previously explored the idea of surveillance in The Dark Knight. How did you develop the system Batman uses to tap the cell phones in Gotham?
Nolan: The thing about a cell phone is it’s incredibly simple and it’s a total Trojan horse. Consumers think of it as something that they use—their little servants. They want a piece of information, they pull it out and they ask it. They don’t think that it’s doing anything other than that; it’s simply working at their behalf. And the truth is, from the government’s perspective or from private corporations’ perspective, it’s a fantastic device to get unbeknownst to the consumer. It’s recording their velocity, their position, their attitude, even if you don’t add Twitter into the mix. It’s incredibly powerful.
In The Dark Knight, [we were] riffing off of storylines from existing Batman comic books. There’s a shifting side to [Batman] where he’s always playing on that edge of how far is too far. In the comic books, at least, he has a contingency and a plan for everyone. He knows how to destroy his friends and allies, should they turn into enemies, and he’s always one step ahead. In a couple of different storylines in the Batman comic books, they play with the idea that he would start constructing [a surveillance device]. In the comic books, it was mainly about spying on his friends and allies and the rest of the Justice League. But for us it felt more interesting to take existing technology and find a way [for] someone like Bruce Wayne, who’s this brilliant mind applied to the utility belt. There are all these gadgets and utilities around him—why should it stop there? Why wouldn’t he use his wealth, his influence and his brilliance to subvert a consumer product into something that could give him information?
In the previous incarnations of Batman on film, it was usually the bad guys doing that—rigging up some device that sits on your TV and hypnotizes you and makes you an acolyte for the Riddler or whatever. In this one, we sort of continued the idea because Batman, most interestingly, is a bit of a villain himself—or at least is a protagonist who dresses like a villain. So he creates this all-seeing eye, the panopticon, which I’ve been interested in since I was a kid growing up in England, where they had CCTV cameras everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s.
[Batman] would deploy those [cell phones] as a nuclear option in terms of trying to track down the Joker’s team, something that definitely spoke to the duality of the character. He does morally questionable things for a good end—hopefully. In The Dark Knight, as epic and long as it took us to make it, [we] really only got to scratch the surface of this issue, the devil’s bargain of: What if someone built this for a really good, really singular purpose? What level of responsibility would they feel towards it, towards what they created?
It’s something you really hope the government is sitting around agonizing over. [laughs] I hope the government spends as much time worrying about this as Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox do in The Dark Knight, but I’m not 100 percent sure that that’s the case. Certainly if you look at the history of polity and the way that government interacts with checks and balances, you kind of need a crisis, you need a scandal, you need something to prompt this self-policing.
Plageman: Are you saying that the FISA court is a joke, Jonah?
Nolan: [laughs] If it is a joke, it’s a joke on all of us. But again, we don’t want to sound unsympathetic. “Person of Interest” takes for granted the existence of this device and, potentially controversially, the idea that in the right hands, such a device could be a good thing. But I don’t think Greg and I or any of our writers are ever looking at this issue and reducing it to black and white.
We’ve occasionally read that the show is kind of an apologia for PRISM and the surveillance state, just as I had read, a few years ago, certain commentators looking at The Dark Knight and imagining that it was some kind of apologia for George Bush. All those ideas are ridiculous. We look at this show as a great mechanism for posing questions, not supplying answers. That’s where we hope it’s not didactic, and The Dark Knight was certainly not intended as didactic. I think where we were ahead of the curve when it came to “Person of Interest” was that the thing we were assuming was still a question for everyone else. We kind of started the show in the post-Snowden era, as you put it. The show’s premise is that the surveillance state is a given, and we’re not changing that, and you’re not stuffing the genie back in the bottle. So what do we do with all the other information? That I think will increasingly become the real quandary over the next 10 to 15 years.
Jonathan Nolan, Greg Plageman and Shane Harris will speak in a panel discussion on Friday, October 25, as part of the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society.” This event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; first come, first seated.
October 18, 2013
Last night, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, celebrated innovators of design both large and small with an awards gala, held in New York City. The gala kicks off National Design Week, an educational initiative that recognizes achievement and innovation in American design and honors the impact of design in everyday life. The honorees—winners of the National Design Awards and the People’s Design Award—were presented with a trophy as unique as the celebration itself, handcrafted by the Corning Museum of Glass.
The honorees represent multiple aspects of the industry from architecture to commercial media ventures:
- The lifetime achievement award was presented to James Wine, founder and president of SITE, a New York-based architecture firm founded in the 1970s.
- Michael Sorkin, architect and urbanist, was awarded the Design Mind award. The award for architecture design was presented to Studio Gang Architects, a collective of architects based in Chicago.
- Graphic designer Paula Scher was awarded the National Design Award for Communication Design. Behnaz Sarafpour took home the award for fashion design.
- And Local Projects, a media design firm specializing in museums and public spaces, won the award for interaction design.
- In the realm of interior design, Aidlin Darling Design, a firm based out of San Francisco, was honored, while Margie Ruddick took home the award for landscape architecture.
- NewDealDesign was honored for product design, while the non-profit organization TED (of TED Talks fame) won the Corporate & Institutional Achievement award.
Winners of the National Design award were chosen through a submission process which began this fall, and included suggestions from leading designers, educators, journalists and design enthusiasts. The winners were selected from this pool via a jury, which chose the top nominees over a two-day period.
Here on Smithsonian.com, we invited the public to vote for a design of their choice—chosen from 20 nominees—to receive the People’s Design Award. Past winners of the People’s Design Award have included Marianne Cusato, designer of the Katrina Cottage, Toms Shoes, the Zōn Hearing Aid, the Trek Lime Bicycle, the Braille Alphabet Bracelet and Design Matters, a show about design and culture.
This year, the People’s Design Award was given to the PackH2O Water Backpack, a backpack that allows water to be easily transported from a source to wherever it may be needed. The backpack, easier to carry than jerry cans or buckets is often used in places with little access to clean water, and includes a removable liner that can be sanitized with sunlight.
“Cooper-Hewitt has long been a champion of socially responsible design, most notably for our ‘Design with the Other 90%’ exhibition series,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the museum. “I am truly delighted that the American public has chosen to recognize this design solution for the developing world. Millions of people around the world lack access to a reliable source of clean water, and the PackH2O demonstrates the power of design to address this critical problem.”
September 30, 2013
The story of Djenné, Mali, is typically told through its architecture—monumental mud-brick structures that seem to rise out of the earth like a desert mirage. Every building in Djenné’s historic sector, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, has been molded and reinforced by generations of mud masons, following an indigenous tradition as old as the city itself. When Natural History Museum curator Mary Jo Arnoldi traveled to Djenné in 2010, she wanted to meet the masons behind the city of mud, to give them a chance to “tell this story in their own words.”
The new exhibition, “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D. (An older city, Djenné-Jeno, was founded southeast of the current town but was later abandoned.)
Djenné flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries as a hub for trade and Islamic scholarship, and to this day the city’s population is predominantly Muslim. The world-renowned Great Mosque of Djenné is the city’s spiritual and geographic center, and some of Djenné’s most impressive mud buildings—two-story houses with grand entrances and buttresses—reflect the influence of Moroccan architecture and the 19th-century reign of the Islamic Tukolor Empire.
Visitors to the exhibition can explore the city of Djenné through more than 50 photographs, films and objects. On display are some of the tools of the masons’ ancient trade, including a basket for carrying mud, a rectangular frame for shaping bricks and a rod of the same local palm wood used in the long beams that jut out of the Great Mosque’s exterior. Masons use these beams as a built-in scaffolding, clambering up the sides of the structure to replaster the mud.
Djenné building mud is a calcite-rich alluvial mixture, extraordinarily durable but requiring regular reapplication. Most of the masons’ contracts are maintenance jobs on mud homes. Traditionally every family had its own mason who remudded the house year after year. “You were connected to a building,” Arnoldi says. When the mason died, his contracts would pass to an apprentice, thereby keeping clients in the family.
But as the masons explain in a series of short films in the exhibition, the old ways are disappearing. These days, Djenné residents seeking repairs often turn to younger masons rather than masters, bypassing the ancestral system. “If you have a friend with money, they may ask you to build a house,” says Lassina. “That’s how it’s done now.”
The craft itself is also changing. Boubacar is part of a new cohort of masons contracting with international groups on restoration projects, and the young apprentice Almamy goes to engineering school in Bamako, the capital of Mali, hoping to apply his technical education to time-honored masonry practices. “People aren’t against change,” says Arnoldi. “They just are against disrespect for people who hold knowledge. In Malian culture, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.”
In recent years, the city’s architectural fabric has become a battleground in this conflict between tradition and modernity. Many Djenné residents want to expand their homes and put in modern amenities and decorative accents. Photographs in the exhibition reveal satellite dishes, tiles, turquoise frames and steel doors peeking out of the earthen cityscape—but Djenné’s UNESCO World Heritage status forbids any alteration to building exteriors in the historic sector. “There’s a problem of freezing this architecture in time,” says Arnoldi. “People live here. This is their home. You can’t make them a museum.”
Tensions came to a head in 2009 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration of Djenné’s Great Mosque, which was built in 1907. Every year the structure is replastered with mud in a celebration that brings out all of the city’s residents. After a century of accumulation, however, these layers of mud had undermined the structure. The Aga Khan project stripped away much of the mud on the surface and suspended the annual remudding.
Many masons objected to this action, citing the spiritual and aesthetic significance of the remudding. The mosque is thinner now, with straight lines and sharper edges erasing the handmade, sculptural quality of the original. Master mason Boubacar says, “If you ask us, we would say that they did it in a European way. It’s no longer the African way.”
Judging by the jubilant crowds that still surround the mosque every year, the “African way” will endure—though it will undoubtedly change. New generations will graft their own skills and experience to the architectural legacy of their ancestors. The young apprentice Almamy, who represents the future of the craft, puts it best: “We’ll work with our own ideas and make our own mark, but we’ll leave the elders to their old ways of working. We want those to remain a reminder of what our parents have done.”