Constructive action following the Field Musem Aztec Exhibit

Jerry Offner ixtlil at
Thu Jan 1 18:35:03 UTC 2009

Good.  Perhaps a few more comments may come in.

Accuracy is of course the goal but compaining about inaccuracy to the exclusion of everything else is feckless and self-isolating.  Hence my post.  

There were several messages in my post:

1.  Is the actual exhibition of good quality?  If the linguistics is lacking, what else may be faulty?
2.  Is there an existing pronunciation guide that could have been used?  If not, why not?
3.  Can perhaps one be constructed for "next time"  at this time for use at another exhibit? It would seem a simple task.  
4.  How does one engage the visitors?  In Chicago, with its enormous Mexican population, a good number will be Nahua speakers.  This is an interesting language teaching/learning situation.

This was in fact a wasted opportunity as was just pointed out by several.  The exhibit was well known to be in progress for a long time.  Why did the network of the curators and consultants fail to network with a linguist?  Equally importantly, why did no linguist insist on getting involved?  Was someone actually rebuffed in such an attempt?  And as Fran Karttunen implies, why did the exhibit personnel think this could be a "do it yourself" job?  What is it about NahuaAztec/archaeology/ethnohistory studies these days that created this approach?  This relates to the isolation I mention in my post and its origin and probable continuance.  It is an interesting problem in the sociology of knowledge.  After all, language is central to understanding another culture, so why did the group of curators and consultants handle things the way they did?  There is evidently a good deal of disfunction in the discipline revealed here.  It also seems rather retro as the US becomes much less E!
 nglish monolingual.  And just maybe, it was the judgement of the curators and consultants that what they did was the best they could do, and the result of an effort on their part to engage the audience as they and the consultants saw it in the most cost-effective manner.  

A few exhibit panels could have been dedicated to language.  Were they?  Nowadays, interactive displays are easy and increasingly affordable.  But this takes away from the budget for object display which is what brings in the bucks--a critical concern to museum these days meaning an uphill battle with some risk for a curator advocating for such a allocation of dollars.  For the general public, not volunteers registering for and showing up in your classes, how do you capture their interest?  Do you engage them with "coyote" and the several other Nahua loan words into English?  Do you try some interactive pronunciation games, along the lines of the complaints registered here?  Kids love this stuff--it is a continuation and extension of their computer and cell phone play.    Do you seize the opportunity of the "tl" issue to talk about Nahua language history as well as a fun thing for visitors to try to pronounce?  Do you talk up the poetry and put some passages on the wall with!
  translations?  Do you have (good quality) video recordings of  contemporary  Nahua in conversation?  Does one have a separate panel for Spanish speakers, where loan words are more plentiful, or even a panel for  Nahua speakers, or will that cause problems with the budget, or the trustees or some odd English-first elements in the community?  

In sum, complaints, yes, accuracy, it goes without saying, but constructive action for "next time" would be nice to see emerging as a result of this incident at a major US museum.  And if there are any volunteers, odds are that the web site for the exhibit could be changed very quickly and cheaply.  Adding a pronunciation guide would cost nearly nothing.  Has anyone already contact the musem?  Any one going to call the Field Museum to volunteer?  I don't know the details of their IT setup, but even with an external webmaster, changes could be made cheaply to the website on the scale of a week or two at the most.  

This, I have observed, is how things get started, how relationships get built and communities get expanded--lessening chances for a repeat and decreasing isolation.     

Jerry Offner
ixtlil at
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