Why we should beware of the word ‘traditional’

Museum of New Zealand
Te Papa Tongarewa
Posted 20 December 2016 by Sean Mallon & filed under Pacific.

In 1994, four years before the opening of Te Papa, Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt was an advisor for the planned Pacific exhibitions. He requested that we abandon the use of terms like ‘traditional art’ in our labels and display signage. ‘Traditional means nothing to me!’ he said…

‘I came to feel very uncomfortable with terms such as traditional, folk history, folk art…Colonial scholars and researchers used them whenever they referred to us but not to their cultures. Such terms I concluded were part and parcel of the Euro-centric colonial vocabulary. Traditional inferred our cultures were /are so tradition-bound they were static and slow to change; that they weren’t dynamic and growing and changing; that because they were slow to change and fixed in history they were ‘simple and easy to understand.’ Traditional also had implications about how we were viewed as people even to the extent that, because we were tradition bound, we behaved out of habit and past practice and [were] slow to adapt to other ways or change our own ways, that we didn’t want to think for ourselves, or were incapable of individual thinking and expression.’

… In his essay, he argued, ‘Any real understanding of ourselves and our existing cultures calls for an attempt to understand colonialism and what it did and is still doing to us.’

Wendt challenged the idea of ‘traditional cultures’ and cultural essentialisms, criticising corruption and the use of ‘tradition’ by our political and cultural leaders.

He argued that, ‘There is no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness),’ and warned of stagnation, ‘an invitation for a culture to choke in its own bloody odour, juices, and excreta.’

He reminded us, ‘No culture is ever static and can be preserved . . . like a stuffed gorilla in a museum’ (Wendt 1976, 58, 53, 52)…

He asked a series of questions that are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago:

(a) Is there such a creature as traditional culture?

(b) If there is, what period in the growth of a culture is to be called traditional?

(c) If traditional cultures do exist in Oceania, to what extent are they colonial creations?

(d) What is authentic culture?

(e) Is the differentiation we make between the culture(s) of our urban areas (meaning foreign) and those of our rural areas (meaning traditional) a valid one? . . .

(f) Why is it that the most vocal exponents of preserving our true cultures live in our towns and pursue life-styles which, in their own terminology, are alien and unpure?

(g) Are some of us advocating the preservation of our cultures not for ourselves but for our brothers, the rural masses, and by doing this ensure the maintenance of a status quo in which we enjoy privileged positions?

(h) Should there be ONE sanctified/ official/ sacred interpretation of one’s culture? And who should do this interpreting? (Wendt 1976, 52; italics in original)…

Read more/Source:
Te Papa Blog

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