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How I write about Arizona impacts how I write about the world

Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve lived in Phoenix for 30 years. That’s 30 years of wiping sweat from my brow and sand from my eyes. Thirty years of being surrounded by nothing but cacti and sagebrush. Thirty years of donning my cowboy hat and boots … Whoa there, pardner. Those images of life in the American Southwest suffer from a dusty case of over-sweeping generalizations.

Obviously, being an Arizonan has become a strong part of my identity. In previous blogs, I’ve recounted visits to museums that have helped me make connections to my still-forming sense of self.  At one museum, I’ve looked at the pursuit and preservation of identity among Native Americans of the Southwest, and at another museum, I’ve explored cross-cultural connections between the Irish and Jews like myself. In addition, another museum has helped me realize how strongly I identify with my father’s multiple stories as an immigrant and musician. But this website would be lacking without the Arizona facet of my identity formation.

This week in my travel writing class, as we study transculturation and the potential to be agents of change, I would like to think that blogging gives me agency to change perceptions about the Arizona side of me.

True, I’m always happy to share my knowledge of Arizona, cultivated from many years here. It pleases me when someone from outside the state or outside the country is curious about our cities, landscape, economy, culture and politics. Just the other day, a young woman I met who was visiting from London was dying to know how Phoenix residents can stand “43 bloody degrees” — that translates to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I gladly gave a quick primer on how to be a desert rat.

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The Joe Beeler bronze “Thanks for the Rain,” at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Photo by Deborah Ross.

It was the kind of conversation that I hope  dispelled misconceptions. Well-known travel writer Rick Steves, in a video called “Travel as a Political Act,” says the exchange of ideas and information between two people from two different parts of the world is one of the most powerful aspects of international travel. All it takes is a higher level of engagement and intellect at each stop along the way, and a realization that every region and every country has certain issues — Steves calls it “baggage” — that contribute to its character. Be open-minded and stop to look and listen, he says.

So, notebook and camera at the ready, I set out to dig deeper into Arizona culture. As Debbie Lisle points out in Engaging the Political: Contemporary Travel Writing and the Ethics of Difference,” the notion of being a self-reflective travel writer means asking yourself, “How am I representing ‘otherness’?” If “otherness,” in my case, is being this weird, heat-loving creature called an Arizonan, then how am I reflecting that to the world? More important, can my travelogue for this next stop in my summer staycation adventure afford me the practice that I need in becoming a well-rounded, politically aware and non-patronizing travel writer?

Desert Caballeros Museum
Exterior of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona.

The Grand Canyon State has a number of wonderful institutions shedding light on the history of this region, but I chose a jewel of a museum in the historic town of Wickenburg, about two hours northwest of Phoenix. I hadn’t been to the Desert Caballeros Western Museum for quite some time, and besides, that day Wickenburg was 10 degrees cooler. The outcome of this pleasant day trip was several good new nuggets of information about Arizona’s diverse inhabitants. As the museum confirmed, we Arizona types can claim a rich heritage.

Here are a few quick highlights, and I suggest allowing about two hours to tour the museum and its adjacent building, the Learning Center. By the way, the museum brochure has a nice tagline: “Experience the Old West, the New West and the Next West.”

One of the largest galleries shows off the DCWM’s extensive collection of Western art, from the golden years of Western landscape painting to contemporary depictions of the desert and its people, represented in paintings and sculpture by both Anglo and Native American artists. The works are a who’s who of notable artists, including Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt and Allan Houser.

Did you notice all those artists are male? To my delight, the DCWM currently has an exhibit called “Marjorie Thomas: Arizona Art Pioneer” (through November 27, 2016) that includes a few dozen Thomas paintings and drawings spanning the first half of the 20th century. I found out Thomas was the first artist to establish a studio in Scottsdale, which is now a Southwestern art mecca. Through a conversation with a museum employee, I also learned that Thomas created numerous pieces celebrating horses and mules, partly because she empathized with the work animals’ obsolescence as Arizona industry turned to motorized vehicles and machinery. On a related note, the DCWM hosts an annual “Cowgirl Up!” art show (every spring) featuring all-female artists working in Western themes.

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Marjorie Thomas, “Monument to the Mule,” Private Collection, Courtesy of David Hall Fine Art ©

Sections of the museum are devoted to Wickenburg’s history as a mining town, which went from boom to bust as American demand for gold, silver and copper ran dry. I was intrigued by the “language” of mine bell signals, as depicted in an antique sign. Three bells rung slowly, for instance, meant “hoist me up!” A large display window includes archival photos and documents, drills, core samples, tools and a dynamite case that looked straight out of a “Roadrunner” cartoon.

A temporary exhibit (through October 2, 2016) celebrates the “mother road” of Route 66, especially its impact on Arizona. On display are a couple of vintage cars and several paintings of nostalgic neon motel signs, as well as Route 66 ashtrays, postcards and other bric-a-brac. Listening carefully to a video, I found out that even though the advent of interstate highways spelled the end of several small towns along the route, the highway still holds a mystique for travelers willing to take the time to explore it.

Route 66 @ Desert Caballeros
From “Route 66: Recent Creations, Retro Collections.”

An adjacent building called the Learning Center has displays of Arizona-made quilts, along with an area dedicated to Arizona’s state tie (for real!), the bola tie, which I never knew was derived from boleadora, an Argentine cattle roping tool designed with braided leather.

Perhaps writing about an Arizona heritage museum doesn’t require the same level of introspection about purpose and audience as does writing about little-known cultures of the world, especially those off the beaten path of American and Western travelers. But it’s a start toward having those “meta-conversations” that Lisle recommends. Whenever I next embark on foreign travel — and get out of the desert heat — hopefully I will ask myself not only, “How am I representing ‘otherness’?” but also, “Why am I here?” and “Whom should I talk to?” From these acts of self-reflection, my writing stands a chance of effecting a change in perceptions, regarding whomever and whatever I’m chronicling.

 

How cultures unite in the multiple stories of their music

FeaturedHow cultures unite in the multiple stories of their music

My father’s life was a collection of multiple stories: growing up Jewish in a huge extended family in southwestern Germany; escaping the Holocaust as a teenager in 1938; and eventually marrying and settling down in the United States. Throughout life, he didn’t care to talk too much about Germany, but there was one constant in his journeys: his accordion.

According to my grandmother, my father, Eric, started entertaining family and neighbors on various small instruments when he was just three. His accordion made the boat trip out of Germany with him — it was the first in a long line of accordions he owned as he embarked on a career as a musician — but was eventually sold. Remarkably, Eric continued playing gigs until he was 85, and passed away about five years ago.

His last accordion is in storage, waiting for my son to retrieve it whenever he’s ready to hoist it onto his shoulders and try playing a few chords. Jason and I talked about Grandpa when we toured the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix a few years ago, and he let me linger over the accordion displays until the museum closed for the day.

So it was with a bit of melancholy that I returned by myself to the MIM last week, the third stop in my summer staycation as I explore and write about museums whose displays have the potential to bring me closer to defining my own identity.

I know I already said, “Ya gotta go to the Heard,” but may I expand on that? “And while you’re in Phoenix, check out the MIM.”

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Just six years old, the MIM is gathering a reputation as an essential place to learn about music from all around the globe — music’s history, cultural contexts and social importance. The exhibits on the second-floor are basically divided by continents; visitors to the European gallery, for instance, can see instruments from every region between Iceland and Sicily. In addition, the MIM is incredibly family-friendly. Young or old, everyone wears a headset so that as you move from one display to another you can hear samples of music from that region, even interviews with musicians. The first floor is even more interactive, with a variety of instruments laid out for visitors to play. My son and I must have tried out three different sets of gongs. As you can see, the MIM mixes lively audiovisual displays and hands-on activities while reminding visitors of the joys of music. A large quotation along a wall puts it succinctly, “music is the language of the soul.”

Applications to travel writing

The readings for my travel writing class have surveyed the various literary purposes of all kinds of travelers. “A Book of Travellers’ Tales,” assembled by Eric Newby, rounds up travel accounts from the famous, like Lewis and Clark, and the not-so-famous, such as 17th-century American settler Hannah Swarton. In “Writing Home,” Mary Suzanne Schriber sheds light on the cultural contributions of early American women travelers. I knew that to be the travel writer whose purpose was mining identity, I needed a narrow focus as I re-explored the MIM. So I lingered over those accordions again … and I must have taken photos of three dozen of them. To narrow my focus even further, I concentrated on accordions from non-European countries. It’s true that many accordions in use around the world since the 17th century have been the handiwork of German and French manufacturers, but this recent visit clued me in on how those accordions traveled to unexpected places.

Mexico makes sense — accordions are a staple of Tejano and Norteño folk music, which blends Spanish, European and indigenous influences. Also making sense is the popularity of accordion music in Venezuela, where many Germans immigrated during the 20th century.

But my surprises about non-European accordion music included the Cape Verde Islands in western Africa, where pickup bands play lively gaita-style accordion with guitar, mandolin and percussion accompaniment. In Chile, button accordions are an integral part of street bands called banda de pasacalles. In Argentina, you can’t dance the tango without the sounds of the bandoneón concertina accordion. In Egypt, the larger piano accordions that are imported from Europe are re-tuned to accommodate traditional Arabic maqām melodies. By the time I hit the MIM’s European galleries I had already seen dozens of accordions.

Continuing with my accordion obsession was irresistible by this point: in the Russia display I saw a harmoschka button accordion; in Estonia, a lõõtspill button accordion; and in Finland, a harmonikka button accordion adds a Finnish flavor to the country’s folk music, jazz and tango traditions. The accordion of my father’s that I kept is a small piano accordion, made in Germany.

In the Americas section, I learned about the accordion’s ubiquity in polka bands, klezmer music and zydeco, and even in “chicken scratch” music — also called Waila — played at social dances of the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona.

Contrary to popular visions of accordions as just black-and white, the instruments come in a variety of colors and often have ornately designed bellows and keyboards. No doubt there are multiple stories as to their creation.

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More applications to travel writing

One of the questions under consideration this week in my travel writing class is whether our sometimes parochial attitudes about unfamiliar places stem from ignoring or belittling the multiple stories from those places. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the phenomenon “the danger of a single story.” A related question is, does listening to multiple stories have the power to change attitudes? In the context of the MIM, spending time with its rich stew of exhibits is the equivalent of listening to multiple stories. The fact that cultures all around the world engage with music is a pathway into knowing more about them. An introductory video playing on the first floor explains that music often translates what words cannot express, and that is so true.

Naturally, I was in a pensive mood as I left the museum. It occurred to me that there are so many stories in the world that become highly accessible through studying indigenous music. But I think one of the best outcomes is that the exhibits reignited many fond memories of my father and his multiple, endearing stories. Just as important, the MIM helped cement my identity as the daughter of a lifelong musician who happened to play one of the most versatile and beautifully constructed instruments in the world  — the accordion.

 

 

My warm welcome into Irish culture

FeaturedMy warm welcome into Irish culture

The Irish Cultural Center, with its resemblance to a Norman castle, is one of the newer landmarks on busy Central Avenue in Phoenix. During community dances, crafts classes, lectures and holiday events, the center is a bustling place. It is the only non-church-affiliated gathering place of its kind in a metro area that has steadily shown more ethnic, racial and religious diversity.

On a scorching Phoenix summer afternoon, the friendly folks who work there aren’t necessarily expecting anyone to arrive for a tour. How lovely, then, that when I show up — because I’ve long been intrigued about the place — they jump at the chance to show a stranger around. Over the course of an hour, I am treated to a personalized tour inside the center’s three major buildings, while I listen to wonderful tidbits of Irish history and learn about ways of life in dear old Éire.

Later I chide myself over waiting so long to visit the center, and am glad my NAU class in travel writing has goaded me into doing so. This week part of our reading has been about women writers paving the way for travel accounts that encompass a culture’s everyday life as well as its anthropological characteristics. Susan Bassnett, in the piece “Travel Writing and Gender,” talks about writers on journeys of self-awareness who take readers along with them on that journey. So here’s one woman’s brief in-town “journey” to the Emerald Isle.

How wonderful that three docents take turns in giving the tour, and it is inevitable that at least one of them would ask me about my ethnic background. Sure, you don’t have to be Irish to tour the center, nor is it always apropos to guess whether a visitor is Irish — or Latino, or Native American, or Senegalese or Croatian or anything. But Anne does inquire in a roundabout way.

“May I ask, are you from here?”

“Yes, I’ve lived in Phoenix for 30 years.”

“What brought you to the center today?”

I briefly explain my blogging theme on finding one’s identity, and Anne seems eager to pry more information out of me. After all, it is just me. Plus, I’ve already asked questions about Irish heritage and its Catholic foundations that make it pretty obvious — I’m not Irish.

“I’m Jewish, and my parents emigrated from South Africa and Germany.”

“Ohhhh, then there’s a lot you can relate to here,” Anne says cheerfully.

And she’s right. She immediately leads me to an outdoor stone sculpture, An Gorta Mór, or the Hunger Memorial. Dedicated in 1999, it was the first structure to be built on the center’s grounds. In commemorating the Great Irish Famine, the memorial bears an inscription relating the starvation, disease and mass emigration that took place in Ireland in the mid-19th century. The famine affected 2 million people, or 25 percent of Ireland’s population.

“We consider the Great Famine to be our Holocaust,” Anne says, in a comment that takes me by surprise yet has its merit. Although World War II’s massive loss of Jewish life occurred under much different circumstances, who’s to say that one kind of death is more horrifying than another? The Holocaust claimed about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population — it’s a fact I know but didn’t feel it was polite to bring up.

Still, the cross-cultural connections crop up in other unexpected ways during my tour, and not just concerning Jewish heritage.

In An Halla Mór, the Great Hall, Anne points out the lovely stained glass windows depicting saints and crosses. She asks if synagogues have stained glass windows, and I assure her that many of them do. She lists the concerts, meetings and other events that the Great Hall hosts, even including English country dancing. “You see, we do let the English in here now and then,” she says slyly.

Here I need to express my bafflement as to whether animosities still exist between Ireland and the Irish — the formerly colonized — and Great Britain and the English — the former colonizers. I’m more aware of how travel writing has evolved in a postcolonial age since reading a chapter from The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha, who is interested in how national narratives spring from multiple stories on the margins of society. Did Irish stories that were part of “minority discourse,” as Bhabha terms it, only come to the fore after independence from the mighty Great Britain?

Maybe, though, Anne and other Irish-Americans continue a mock hatred for the British because it plays well in conversation and sparks a laugh. Anyway, I receive a quick lesson about the Easter Rising of 1916, “when England left Ireland to the Irish.”

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Detail from the Dunluce Castle mural in the Great Hall.

As we move along the walls of the Great Hall, I admire the ornately decorated céilí dance dresses on display, and then we stop at a landscape mural — mostly green, of course — reprising the legend of Dunluce Castle and its descent into the sea.

My second docent, Peggy, wants to know a bit about me, too. We find out we have Chicago in common. She grew up there, and Chicago is the place my paternal grandfather immigrated to from Germany. She recalls her mother’s stories of living in Ireland and learning to cook by boiling everything. As a child, Peggy ate boiled potatoes, boiled meat, boiled carrots, and so on, as she points to the black kettle and hearth that helps re-create Irish countryside life from the 1860s.

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Glinda, one of the three docents who led me on a tour, in the old Irish cottage at the center. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a chance to with Glinda.

We are in the center’s Irish cottage, which was built to replicate a heritage site in County Clare. In the small bedroom is an antique bed and a genuine 19th-century loom. Peggy explains to me what a St. Brigid’s Cross is; there’s one hanging above a doorway, and to me, it resembles a God’s eye — although straw and not yarn — from the indigenous people of Mexico. St. Brigid is the patron saint of women hoping for a child, Peggy tells me. At the photos of Phoenix politicians who urged building the center, she offhandedly mentions that one of the Lord Mayors of Donegal was Jewish.

I have to say, even in the awkward moments of my tour, I’m delighted by the stories I hear, for the way they bring Irish customs and beliefs to life. I leave with a greater appreciation for the many things woven into Irish heritage, from music and dance to religion and food. Which are not unlike the ethnic cornerstones of Jewish heritage.

So let’s raise a glass to the unexpected common ground between Irish-American and Jewish-American heritage. You say, “Sláinte!” and I’ll say, “L’chaim!” Or vice versa.

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The McClelland Library is designed to resemble a tower from a Norman castle.

 

Disclaimer: I wrote this blog with a tip of the hat to 18th-century women travel writers such as Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley (see Bassnett), which means that I took a wee bit o’ liberty with the order of things and with exact quotes, in order to give my account a more narrative feel.

 

 

Making connections with Native American culture

FeaturedMaking connections with Native American culture

If my “staycation” project is to relate my own identity and personal views to those of other cultures, then I probably couldn’t live in a better city than Phoenix to explore Native American culture. The metro area boasts several museums, community centers, stores and even restaurants that reflect the strong influence of Native American life in the history of Arizona way before it became a state.

Since my focus in this travel blog is hometown museums, I naturally gravitated to the world-famous Heard Museum in central Phoenix. It’s a rich resource in the study of Native American art and artifacts, with an emphasis on the American Southwest. I’ve lived in Phoenix a long time, and my routine statement to out-of-town visitors — “Ya gotta go to the Heard” – has echoed through the years. The museum is a beautiful addition to Central Avenue, with original hacienda-style buildings dating back to the early 20th century and new wings which gleam with white walls and arched colonnades. It’s good to allow at least a couple of hours to wander the neatly organized galleries of the Heard.

Permanent exhibitions

When my kids were young, I took them to the Heard gallery that recreates the Indian boarding school experience, which can be a real eye-opener. By peeking into various rooms, visitors can put themselves in the shoes of Native American children who were uprooted from tribal lands and transplanted into American-style schools in Anglo towns. There are areas of the exhibit examining not only school life, but also school sports, art programs and dorm life. My kids still recall the blue barbershop chair, surrounded by heaps of black tresses and braids, depicting the Indian schools’ misguided attempts to Americanize the students by cutting their traditional long hair as soon as they enrolled.

In the Heard’s permanent exhibition, “HOME: Native People in the Southwest,” the snaking display cases walk visitors through the rituals, utilitarian objects, art objects, ceremonial clothing and jewelry representing a number of Southwestern tribes. The glass cases of Hopi katsina dolls offer hundreds of examples of these carved figures, all of which depict various ancestral deities. Two must-see areas: the Navajo (Diné) hogan – you can practically smell the logs used to make this ceremonial space – and the Hopi room explaining the making of piki bread. Diné and Hopi people form the largest chunk of Arizona’s Native American population.

Also making wonderful stops while at the Heard are the sculpture gardens, the memorial to Native American soldiers, and the two gift shops.

Mapping my visit

This visit of mine to the Heard, however, was a mission to find cultural connections and, specifically, gain better understanding of the differences between the observer (myself) and the observed (Native American culture as represented in a museum). How interesting to read Casey Blanton’s “Narrating Self and Other: A Historical Overview,” which looks at shifting attitudes about the purposes of travel writing. Early in the piece, he incorporates a quote from travel-narrative scholar Janis Stout, who says that tales of journeys tend to confront “the elemental questions of epistemology, the relation between subject and object, knower and known.” The quote makes me realize how a museum experience can widen my horizons but also point to my dearth of knowledge about a certain subject. Much of Native American culture remains outside my sphere of experience and knowledge, but visiting the Heard is a step toward knowing more.

In line with my studies this week in English 624, the thoughts behind my Heard visit centered on “Mapping the Territory, Mapping the Self,” the name of our second module. The idea is to delineate why a traveler chooses or “maps” a certain destination, and how that choice reflects upon the traveler herself. To add this kind of personalization to my visit and to narrow my focus, I decided to zero in on maps themselves. I concentrated on artifacts and displays that directly and indirectly have to do with mapping the Native American experience. In other words, the displays need to show geographical boundaries and/or a linear reproduction of a historical theme, such as a timeline.

Here is a sampling of my finds:

— In the temporary art exhibition “Personal Journeys: American Indian Landscapes,” I admired what might be called a social landscape. Elizabeth Yazzie’s “Textile” from the 1980s is a woolen weaving depicting vignettes of dances, weddings, hogan life and other cultural events. In fact, I interpreted it as a “map” of Diné life, so full of details as it is.

As Joni Seager writes in the introduction to “Maps” on the website World History Sources, “As far as historians and geographers can determine, every culture in every part of the world uses and makes maps.” Later, she explains the variety of content, purposes and styles that maps have shown over the centuries. In Yazzie’s work and others, I could detect how they are artworks, yet maps at the same time.

In the same art gallery is Norman Akers’ (Osage) painting “Spring Matrix,” which struck me as an emotional and psychological “map” of Akers’ life that uses floating symbols to represent all that’s important to him.

—  An outdoor mural by Mario Martinez (Pascua Yaqui) called “Sonoran Desert: Yaqui Home” (2005) uses colorful drawings, family photographs and portions of maps to signify both the Yaquis’ diaspora from Sonora, Mexico, and the establishment of a new life in Arizona. It is a wonderful “map” of Yaqui ideals regarding home, nature and the spirit world.

— In “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience,” I studied a map reproduced for a wall display. Titled “Off-Reservation BIA Boarding Schools, 1879-2000,” the 34 dots on the map span the country from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to Sherman, California. Finding out that so many Indian schools existed, and in other parts of the gallery, reading about Anglo administrators bent on acculturating Native youths, I wondered about the ethics of such attempts at transformation. To what degree were these youths stripped of their heritage?

Toward a better understanding

So as you can see, my visit to the Heard helped me make connections to our English 624 readings; I could see my skills as an ethnographer growing. I was coming closer, as Stout says, to closing the gap between the known and the unknown. In addition, I thought about the “contact zones” that Mary Louise Pratt writes about, in describing the space where disparate cultures meet and often clash. What’s wonderful about the Heard is its comprehensive look at Native American life in the Southwest, and how its quiet spaces help visitors contemplate the divergence and convergence of cultures. Sometimes lifeways are at risk of disappearing, and sometimes they blend into other societies and flourish. As I often say, “Ya gotta go the Heard.”

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“Spring Matrix” by Norman Akers (Osage), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Heard Museum.

 

 

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The journey begins by establishing a purpose

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.

 

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The Heard Museum in Phoenix always has incredible contemporary art on display, as in this Allan Houser bronze “Gift of the Earth” (1991), which I admired in a trip to the Heard a couple of years ago. Photo by Deborah Ross.