Despite the way that the name of my blog hints at exotic destinations and intrepid encounters with foreign cultures, my “travels” this summer will be limited to my home state — but with a difference. I want to focus on four museum destinations in a 30-mile radius of my home, and I want each visit to bring me closer not only to understanding a culture that’s not my own, but also to recognizing the sturdy common ground that world cultures share. What I hope to learn about, say, Native American culture, will take on new meaning when I relate it to my own experiences and values. By investing more time and critical thinking as I view various museum displays and absorb their treasure troves of historical, political and cultural information, my goal is to begin to see the intersections with all that is familiar to me, in my Anglo-American –and, some would say, privileged — way of life. No doubt I will also receive a quick education in the wide gaps of difference between my self-identity and that of a person from a different ethnic, racial or religious group. The idea excites me, and I hope there will be a few eye-opening moments for you, too, as you “follow” me around town.
Why approach museum visits this way and turn my thoughts into travel pieces? I believe in getting out of my own little bubble of Phoenix, Arizona, where I have lived for 30 years, to see new places and faces — whenever the opportunity arises. Alas, this is a “staycation” summer, dependent on finding diversions in the Phoenix area. Fortunately, my city has a number of museums that can temporarily transport me to faraway places, figuratively if not literally. Furthermore, I’ve chosen four museums that I plan to describe in this blog as I study concepts in contemporary travel writing. The idea of the travel writer as ethnographer is something I hadn’t considered before, yet it makes perfect sense.
By the way, all of these museums offer excellent insights into cultures and identities that are not my own:
— The Heard Museum, which is one of the best repositories in the world for Native American art and artifacts. I have visited it several times, so I’m eager to see how I’ll respond to the exhibits when applying the filter of identity.
— The Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, northwest of Phoenix, which contains a surprisingly rich store of Western art and cowboy artifacts, along with a rock and mineral display and dioramas of life in the Old West. It’s a must-see for anyone identifying as an Arizonan.
— The Musical Instrument Museum, which pairs hundreds of instrument displays with interactive geographical, historical and cultural information from every corner of the world. Because the MIM is so vast, I will be concentrating on the role of accordions in non-Western cultures. I have a soft spot for accordions, as that is the instrument my father played.
— The Irish Cultural Center, which I have neglected to visit all these years, figuring that my ethnic background of being an American Jew would preclude any interest in it. I’m sure I will be proven wrong.
I know, it’s an unusual kind of travel writing, not based on my actually hitting the highway, climbing a mountain, boarding a ship, or getting on a plane. But it seems that the blogosphere already has plenty of websites with highly descriptive text and photos of exotic places, often delivered in an awestruck and breathless tone. I want to dig a little deeper into the art of description and make connections between the sights at these museums and my own prior knowledge. I anticipate that many preconceptions will be shattered, and that my horizons will be generously broadened, even if I’m only consuming a quarter tank of gas.
As I make the rounds, I would imagine that James Clifford’s words about travel writing as it reflects comparative cultural studies will come to mind. In the first chapter of Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Clifford mentions “diverse, interconnected histories of travel and displacement (18).” To me, the phrase is a good reminder that any culture never remains static, and that there is bound to be great diversity within one culture. Its roots may go deeper than what a traveler sees in one visit. In addition, every culture feels the impact of outsiders, and even runs the risk of diaspora. These are substantive issues that will help define my purpose and guide my writing as I work on this blog.