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Conserving and Revitalizing Craft and Knowledge in Papua New Guinea: An interview with Professor of Anthropology Dr. Paige West

This is the first in a series of interviews TRIP will feature with grantees to bring attention to issues and remarkable innovators in global culture. TRIP spearheaded the development of The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research to provide ongoing support to Barnard College faculty conducting research that promotes mutual understanding between diverse societies and allows Barnard’s exceptional faculty to engage deeply in original studies on topics spanning international relations, peace building studies, economics, and human rights. The inaugural grant was awarded to Professor of Anthropology Dr. Paige West, who recently published Dispossession and the Environment (Columbia University Press, 2016), a study on the impact of NGOs, tourism, and foreign visitors on Papua New Guinea. Dr. West is currently working to preserve the island’s threatened cultural tradition of Malagan—intricate, layered carvings that communicate ancient histories and local knowledge through their motifs.

Q. How did you become interested in Papua New Guinea?

I became an anthropologist because of Papua New Guinea. When I was a child, like so many of us, I read National Geographic. So the sense of other people and others places was in my consciousness from an early age, and I was interested in Papua New Guinea. As happens, I forgot about it. [But] during my senior year of college, I read a book by Roy A. Rappaport (d. 1997), [the anthropologist who wrote about the relationship between the island’s culture and economy]. I realized in that class that I was incredibly passionate about the environment and culture—the island is both the most biologically and the most culturally diverse place on Earth.

Q. You are now an authority on Papua New Guinea and respected locally. In fact, you were recently approached by Papua New Guineans themselves. What did they share with you?

My research partner and I were approached by elders from the New Ireland communities. New Ireland is one of the large islands to the north of New Guinea. They were concerned about Malagan carvings—the lynchpin of local ceremonies and culture. These elders explained that there are only six master carvers alive today and these men are in their late 50s and early 60s. When they die, the knowledge of both Malagan carving and the underlying ontology and epistemology of the Malagan ceremonies will be lost.

Q. What makes the objects important and unique?

Malagan carvings are represented in public collections all over the world, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. These are the most collected, most spectacular objects from the island. They have this incredible power because their motifs contain family histories, origins, and crucial knowledge about the relationships between people, plants, animals, and spirits. The carvings themselves are not objects of value for Malagan culturally; rather, it is the imagery, or the motifs, that are carved onto the objects, that contain what is of value. Only master carvers can produce these carvings and there are strict rules for when, where, and to whom a carver can pass on his craft and knowledge.

Q. How are you using the funds?

Prior to this gift, we received a U.S. Ambassador’s Fund For Cultural Preservation Grant to begin working with the last living master carvers to document their knowledge. This support is unspecified and unrestricted, which is allowing us to really move forward with this project, expand our team of collaborators, and do environmental and cultural conservation together. It is allowing us to buy tools; make introductions for carvers; and connect with researchers at institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Australian Museum. The support from The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund is also supporting our long-term goal, which is to help Papua New Guineans who want to conserve and revitalize their tradition access the people who can help them do it. We want to get these carvers hooked into global networks of art and conservation that value these objects and help the carvers articulate to younger people in their societies why Malagan matters.

Q. You mentioned that the funds have allowed you to do environmental and cultural conservation together. How so and what is the urgency?

We believe that this kind of work can really help articulate the connection between art and the natural world, and we want to help local people understand why it so important that these traditions be talked about, discussed, and argued over right now. There is this really fundamental connection through these objects between the culture and the environment in Papua New Guinea. The environment is changing very quickly: sea levels are rising rapidly and there is extensive bleaching of coral atolls. The Malagan carvings have five different layers of stories in them and all of these stories have an ecological and cultural and ecological component. The ecology motifs are very site specific to where the carvers are from. Most of these villages will have to move [as a result of rising sea levels], and the ecological basis for their societies will be gone. These carvings house the memory of that.

Q. The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research is a permanent  endowed fund that allows a diverse cross section of Barnard’s exceptional New York City faculty to engage deeply in research. As the inaugural recipient, why are funds like this important?

It is very important because it will help myself and other faculty to develop new kinds of research projects and programs that might not traditionally fit within the funding structure of our disciplines. This fund will help the faculty at Barnard break down interdisciplinary boundaries when we are asking new kinds of questions.

Q. In closing, your recent book is a searing study of how local knowledge is devalued and eroded by journalists, developers, surf tourists, and conservation NGOs in Papua New Guinea. What is the connection between dispossession and the threatened knowledge of the Malagan carving tradition?

Europeans, Americans, and Australians have built academic careers, museum collections, and scientific bodies of knowledge that really started in Papua New Guinea. There is this way in which the people and the places from which this knowledge was extracted have never benefited directly from that knowledge, nor have they ever had the opportunity to work in the fields developed through that knowledge. When I think about dispossession, in addition to extraction of natural resources, for example, I think about this more ephemeral thing—knowledge.

#culturematters

Image: Funerary Carving (Malagan), Late 19th-early 20th century. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum

2016 – A Year of Innovative Projects at TRIP

Dear Friends and Partners—

Culture Matters! We are delighted to share a brief overview of 2016’s new TRIP projects and grants.

Highlights include thought leadership gatherings, exhibitions and events at local cultural organizations including the Queens Museum, The Trust For Public Land and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as National Park Centennial projects, from Arizona to Florida. Internationally, we were excited to assist a new World Monuments Fund partnership with Cuba in dialogue for its rapidly unfolding future; develop a new initiative for cultural projects in Jordan; and support academic research on the diverse cultural landscape of Papua New Guinea.

Innovation: We keep a constant eye out for innovative cultural projects that spur economic development and a shared appreciation for authenticity and cross-cultural understanding in a rapidly changing world. In 2016, we once again elected to support projects that delivered on this mission.

Queens—Cultural Capital—The Trust for Public Land

The vision of The Friends of the QueensWay is to transform the abandoned and blighted 3.5 miles of the former Long Island Railroad Rockaway Beach Branch into a new linear park and multi-cultural greenway—improving quality of life while reaping economic benefits for residents, businesses and visitors to Central and Southern Queens. The Trust for Public Land creates new parks and protects land for public use. TRIP funded a dynamic conversation at the Queens Museum in October, convening 20 cultural and civic stakeholders to discuss innovative strategies for engaging community, political, and business leaders in arts and cultural programming. The Queensway is expected to debut in 2020.

JERUSALEM—Every People Under Heaven

As of this writing, an incredible four-month exhibition is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art—Jerusalem, Every People Under Heavenfeaturing a multiplicity of perspectives on the cultural heterogeneity that Jerusalem has embodied for centuries. We send our congratulations to Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters and Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters for their brilliant research, diplomacy and vision in executing this landmark study and securing such important loans for display in New York City.

Papua New Guinea—Disposession and the Environment

The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research at Barnard College awarded a grant to Professor of Anthropology Dr. Paige West, who published her research this year in the book Disposession and the Environment, a study on the impact of NGOs, tourism and foreign visitors on Papua New Guinea and furthering inequalities in a globalized world. Our grants support college faculty conducting research that touches on the relationship between culture and international affairs or policy, and that work to promote mutual understanding between diverse societies. This permanent endowed fund allows a diverse cross section of Barnard’s exceptional New York City faculty to engage deeply in international research spanning the subjects of foreign relations, peace building, economics and human rights.

National Parks’ 100th Anniversary—National Park Foundation’s 50TH Anniversary
In 2016, the 100th Anniversary of our 410 National Parks, TRIP was privileged to support the National Park Foundation (founded in 1967) and several park projects that develop future stewards of these national treasures. TRIP’s grants supported an exciting new Youth Center scheduled to open in 2020 at Yellowstone National Park; an artist in residence program at Everglades National Park; and the program Honoring Tribal Connections at Desert Watchtower of Grand Canyon National Park. Robin enjoyed volunteering for several events at Grand Canyon and Ellis Island. In 2017, we look forward to finding new ways to join together in energizing new cultural connections at our parks.

Other News
We are delighted to announce that our VP Colleen Ritzau Leth was selected by the University of Oxford to deliver a TEDx talk at Cambridge University in April. “Why Museums Matter—Seeing the Present as Future” touched on several key components of TRIP’s mission, including the value of museums in providing space for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.

In 2016, Robin sponsored a new book: The Beautiful POND: Old Mill and Compo Cove, Westport. All proceeds were donated to SoundWaters, doubling their outreach to STEM programs for Connecticut youth and enlisting the next generation of stewards for local waters. She supported local conservation and cultural efforts and many events to raise awareness and support of traditional Connecticut coastal issues.

In closing, we look ahead to a very exciting 2017 for TRIP and our partners, with new engagements in our home cities as well as a number of international grants supporting initiatives in USA, Cuba, Greece, Jordan and Peru. We remind our friends and collaborators of our very simple mission: culture matters. And we ask you to forward any interests of your own.

It was a pleasure to collaborate on projects that impact communities and make a lasting difference on the way we see the world and one another. Thanks to everyone who supported our journey this year.

Wishing you peace in 2017,

Robin Tauck and Colleen Ritzau Leth

Seeing the Past as Present: Why Museums Matter

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Cambridge – Colleen Ritzau Leth, Vice President of TRIP and an MBA student at the University of Oxford, was recently invited to deliver a TEDtalk at TEDxOxbridge, an annual TEDx event co-hosted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This year’s event included speakers from across the business, academic and social sectors.

Colleen is a specialist in museum management and the history of collecting. During her talk, she asked audiences to consider the role of art history and museums in a post-digital world. In an age replete with entertainment stimuli, visitation rates to encyclopedic museums around the world are rising. But why do museums matter today more than ever before, and what do historic objects and images tell us about ourselves?

The following is a condensed and edited excerpt. You may enjoy Colleen’s complete talk here.

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We live in a world of advanced technology. Much of our cultural production has gone online; we can access millions of images, centuries of art and endless information with the click of button. And while attendance at concert halls and theatres is down throughout most of the world, museum visitation is up by as much as 50 percent in the past 10 years in many countries. So how does the traditional art viewing experience manage to compete for our precious time?

The answer might be found by considering a well-known painting by Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was broke and slowly dying on a remote Polynesian island, without career prospects, indebted to friends back in Paris. And still, he painted for perpetuity’s sake. Facing the end of his life, he added a small detail in the corner, at the border of his last creation. It reads: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Every year, 1.2 million people stand in front of this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and ponder this question. Gauguin got to the heart of it: art seeks to provide answers to these essential questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Sometimes the answers are found in giant oil paintings, more often they’re glimpsed in everyday objects: a small Greek urn, a 16th century map, even Edward Snowden’s laptop now on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Museums are not graveyards of dead art or storehouses of the past: they are active records of ‘us’ in the broadest most universal, global and cosmopolitan sense of the word. To wander and wonder is to activate a special kind of enlightened curiosity about the world, in which we see ourselves in the creations of someone else and come to know ourselves as part of a continuum of shared human identity. This is so critically needed in today’s world. Museums are a means of dissipating ignorance and promoting tolerance.

I’ve spent most of my life in the art world. And people often ask me: if disaster struck, and you had to save one object, what would it be? Would it be the Rembrandts, the Mona Lisa, the mummies, the $120 million contemporary sculpture?

No. It would be the Lamassu—a towering, odd, enchanting hybrid species. Part bird, part lion, part bull, part bearded king, created 5,000 years ago by the ancient Assyrians. I’ve been curious about lamassus for as long as I can remember, and I still get a bit of childish delight when I turn a corner in a museum and see one staring down at me. Lamassus were once as prevalent throughout the Middle East as representations of Christ would become throughout Western Europe 4,000 years later. They stood at the gateways of cities and temples in an empire that stretched from present day Egypt to Iran. They were believed to embody the power of the rulers they protected. Lamassus were icons of a tremendously imaginative world; they drew their power by straddling that intriguing, liminal zone of sign and signified, animal and human, terrestrial and mythological, local and foreign.

If the art of art history is the ability to use images to trace relationships between disparate cultures, to find connectivity and shared conversations across place and time, then the Lamassu is an exemplary place to start.

They were prevalent throughout the ancient world, appearing on coins and inscribed onto clay seals—the original email signature. This hybrid animal deity went on to form the basis of many of the world’s great art historical traditions. The Lamassu appears not only in the art of ancient Babylon and Assyria but also in the arts of ancient Persia, Judea, we even see traces of it in depictions of the four Gospels in the early Christian period when the Tetramorph took on the wings of the eagle, body of the bull, and feet of the lion to depict the spread of Christianity. By 1860, the birth of archaeology led to a mass excavation of these monumental sculptures from the sands of Iraq, shipped overseas to the secular temples of new national museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York and beyond. 100 years later, they began to appear in French, British and U.S. military insignia, including during the Gulf War.

These images exemplify the continuum of a conversation we as a human race have shared across cultures and across time. They are not merely antiquities fixed in a lost past, but cultural capital that has been borrowed, reused, and revalued in fascinating ways that have much to tell us about the linkages between us and others, here and there, then and now. They remind me that culture knows no political boundaries; it has always been dynamic and hybrid, formed through contact and exchange.

Which is why their present use as pawns in a disastrous war of iconoclasm and backwards anti-idolatry is so deeply troubling. Today, nearly all of these beautiful ancient sculptures of the Middle East have been severely damaged if not destroyed by ISIS or Daesh. A part of our story is being erased. The ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria is the most significant humanitarian crisis of our age and the most widespread loss of historical material since the Second World War.

The Baghdad Museum was once home to 7,000 years of art history. I’m happy to say it’s reopened 12 years after its looting in 2003 when 15,000 objects were lost. Of course, this is but one success story in a sea of casualties. We live in a time of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence, factionalism and narrow-mindedness.

If we are to foster mutual understanding and appreciation for our shared past, and if we are to remain curious about difference rather than destructive of it, we must do a better job of protecting not only historical objects, but also encyclopedic museums—microcosms of the world’s cultural legacy where curiosity can thrive, where we can learn to forget who we think we are and see ourselves as part of a broader historical narrative.

There are 55,000 museums in the world, thousands of heritage sites and many of them need your support. Continue to visit, continue to remain curious, let yourself wander and wonder, be captivated by an object made 5,000 years ago. For only by valuing and protecting the remains of where we have come from, will we know where we are going.

Colleen Ritzau Leth

TRIP Supports Landmark Exhibition at The Met

We are delighted to provide support for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven opening September 20, 2016. This is the first major exhibition to unravel the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands that enriched and enlivened the medieval city during the most creative moment in the most complex city on earth.

The exhibition features more than 200 works, nearly a quarter from Jerusalem, including loans from the city’s religious communities some of which have never been seen before outside their walls. Jerusalem played a crucial role in shaping world culture—a lesson vital to our common history. TRIP is helping underwrite a 350-page illustrated catalogue appropriate for both specialists and general readers alike. Barbara D. Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, curators in the Met’s Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, along with scholars from the United States, Europe and Middle East, contributed to the exhibition catalogue, to be published by the museum and distributed by Yale University Press.

We encourage you to visit the exhibition this fall and experience the museum’s corresponding series of programs.

Wishing you a lovely summer,

Robin Tauck and Colleen Ritzau Leth

An Exciting 2015 for TRIP

Dear Friends and Partners—

2015 was an active and exciting year for Tauck Ritzau Innovative Philanthropy (TRIP), marked by over 25 grants to organizations around the world. We are pleased to share a few highlights with you.

Celebrating and Rejuvenating U.S. Public Lands

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and we feel privileged to support the National Park Foundation and park friends groups with a multi-year gift as it embarks on a new century of stewardship. The National Park Service protects more than 400 national parks and has over 100 special park projects planned for its Centennial. Robin was asked to help re-brand NPF and develop a multifaceted strategy with the U.S. Travel Industry, an honor which led to a recent and unique outreach project: Top 25 Park Projects for the Travel Industry. TRIP’s in-kind expertise over the years culminated in additional collaborations, from an artist in residence grant at Everglades National Park, to several conservation efforts and supporting local economies at Four Corners in the American Southwest, home to the greatest cluster of World Heritage Sites in the U.S.

The broad, vital task of the National Park Service requires private philanthropy, and we encourage others to support the Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks. The initiative will meet critical capital, conservation, programming and technology needs. Please join us in energizing, rejuvenating and defending our parks: an exemplary collection of public lands.

Supporting International Cultural Research

We strongly believe in investing in cultural research and scholarship, and 2015 signaled a new commitment at TRIP to supporting research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of our nation’s leading cultural organizations with significant global reach.

For millennia, Jerusalem has served as the center, and crossroads, of the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Between 1000 and 1400 CE, arguably the most creative moment in the most complex city on earth, Jerusalem was home to more cultures, faiths and languages than at any other period. We are delighted to share that TRIP will support The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark 2017 exhibition Every People Under Heaven: Jerusalem, 1000-1400 by partially underwriting its catalogue—a beautiful 350-page publication with essays by Barbara D. Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, curators in the Met’s Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, among other scholars. The exhibition and exhibition catalogue will reach millions of audience members, feature a multiplicity of perspectives, and illustrate the cultural heterogeneity that Jerusalem has embodied for centuries.

Also in New York City, TRIP has embarked on a multi-year partnership with Barnard College, a leading liberal arts college for women within Columbia University, founded on the premise that women deserve equal education and opportunity. As Vice President of TRIP and a 2008 alumnus of Barnard, Colleen spearheaded the development of The Colleen Ritzau Leth ’08 Family Fund for International Research, which will provide ongoing support to Barnard faculty across departments who are currently conducting research that touches on the relationship between culture and international affairs or policy, and whose scholarship promotes mutual understanding between diverse societies. This permanent endowed fund will allow Barnard’s exceptional and deserving faculty to engage deeply in research spanning international relations, peace building studies, economics, and human rights.

Art in Public Places Thought Leadership

In 2015, we reported to you that TRIP provided underwriting for a dynamic conversation between artists, curators, nonprofit leaders and executives of city, state and national park systems on the future of art in parks. The summer conversation was organized by Creative Time, the award-winning nonprofit that produces historic public art projects, on the occasion of Drifting in Daylight, its historic public art commission in Central Park (the first since 2004) that reinvigorated the overlooked northern end of the park with sculpture, music and performance art.

We would like to applaud Creative Time for its tremendously successful Creative Time Summit—now the world’s largest international conference on art and social change, held this fall in Brooklyn. The discussion focused on education policies in the U.S. and the effects of pedagogical art practices and omissions in contemporary curricula, as well as political issues such as the re-segregation of public schools. Creative Time believes artists are truly change agents, with the ability to affect society for the better. We couldn’t agree more.

In closing, as we look ahead to a very engaged 2016 for TRIP, from National Park Service projects across our nation to a number of international grants supporting Nepal, Peru, Egypt, Myanmar and more, we’d like to remind our friends and collaborators of our mission: culture matters, It is a belief that is especially important at this moment in our shared history.

It was a pleasure to work with many of you to move the needle forward on issues and projects that impact communities worldwide. Thanks to everyone who supported our journey this year.

Wishing you and your communities peace in 2016,

Robin Tauck and Colleen Ritzau Leth

Image: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. TRIP is supporting the National Park Foundation with a multi-year gift as it embarks on a new century of stewardship. Credit: Raj Hanchanahal