With the excitement building towards the opening of the Royal Ontario Museum’s captivating Liebeskind-designed Lee-Chin Crystal in June, I attended a special (and first of its kind) bloggers’ preview of the latest feature exhibit at the ROM, “Ancient Peru Unearthed“. Thanks to Eli Singer and the staff at the ROM for their hospitality.
This a good move for the ROM. Unlike mainstream press, bloggers take very personal and multidimensional perspectives to such a display of cultural excellence.
Mommy bloggers take note of the facilities for children. Fashionable young female bloggers see ancient tribal influences in contemporary jewelry fashion. Wonks and policy-geeks like me see contemporary lessons in the tales of the SicÃ¡n civilization’s rise and collapse.
In aggregate, these multiple perspectives communicate a much richer and more personally relevant understanding of the subject than a mainstream media piece will. I expect to see some interesting blog posts from this preview event.
Civilizational Collapse or Resilience?
I was intrigued that the SicÃ¡n civilization may have collapsed because of the structural burden on their economy and their society’s path dependence based on their obsessive-compulsive goldsmithing addiction. Tiny thin pieces of gold took 2 days to pound down into a paper thin 1 inch square. This goldwork drove much of their trade and cultural life. The contents of the SicÃ¡n Lord’s tomb featured in the exhibit contains almost a ton of gold handcrafted in this way, representing thousands of person-years of labour.
Thomas Homer-Dixon, in The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, develops and applies his theory that energy flows are the primary way to understand how civilizations rise and fall. “Thermodynamics of Empire” he calls it, and uses a tool called Energy Return on Investment (EROI) to prove it out. Rome declined, not because of barbarian invasions, but because of its inability to continue converting the sun’s energy into roads, aqueducts and armies through the use of arable land and slave labour.
Contemporary Relevance of Cultural Excellence
People sometimes question the relevance to the next generation of the major institutions of cultural excellence such as the ROM, the Canadian Opera Company or the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. That relevance was made clear to me during this preview for a gaggle of young, oh-so-hip bloggers. Captivation and “wow” moments are eternal human desires. Storytelling is always relevant. Lessons from history must be transmitted to the new generation using whatever media are available. These institutions must meet that new generation where they are and learn the norms of communication, authenticity and relevance by their rules.
I applaud the ROM’s initial steps to opening up the museum experience to a new generation in new ways. Eli has done a great job in stewarding them through this process.
Now, if we could just do something about all the flashtastrophe (neologism credit: Radiant Core) websites that the culture sector seems wedded to in search of a hipster figleaf. Rich media is not better media, people! Just look at Twitter.