Fire and Frost: The Virtues of Treating Museums, Libraries and Archives as Commons

This piece by Michael Peter Edson, is part of our celebration of the online release of Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of essays about notable commons from around the world. Edson's essay was originally published in the book, edited by me and Silke Helfrich and now freely accessible at patternsofcommoning.org. All chapters are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

 

Edson is a strategist and thought leader at the forefront of digital transformation in the cultural sector. Formerly with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Edson is now Associate Director/Head of Digital at United Nations Live Museum for Humanity, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The opinions in this essay are his own.

By Michael Peter Edson

 

It was usually a note in the newspaper, a few pages back. Or, if the blaze was big enough and a camera crew arrived quickly, a feature on the evening news. It seems like house fires were more common when I was young, and the story was often the same: “As they escaped their burning home,” the newscaster would say, “they paused to save a single prized possession…” And it was always something sentimental – not jewelry or cash but a family photograph, a child’s drawing, a letter, a lock of hair. Ephemera by any measure, and yet as dear as life itself. Museums are simple places. Libraries and archives too. Collect, preserve, elucidate. Repeat forever. We don’t think about them until the smoke rises, but by then it’s usually too late.

When Hitler ordered the destruction of Warsaw in 1944, the army tried to set the national library – the Biblioteka Narodawa – on fire, but the flames smoldered.[1] It turns out that the collected memory of a civilization is surprisingly dense and hard to burn, so a special engineering team was brought in to cut chimneys in the roof and holes in the walls so the fire could get more air. Problem solved. Museums, libraries and archives are simple places, but once the flames take hold they burn like hell.

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Seeing Wetiko

One of the most important languages for expressing the values of the commons, I have come to realize, is art. It can often express visceral knowledge more effectively than words and give those insights a more powerful cultural reality.

Those were my thoughts when I saw "Seeing Wetiko," an “online gallery” of artworks, music and videos just released by the global arts collective The Rules.  “Artists and activists from around the world have come together in a burst of creative energy to popularize the Algonquin concept of wetiko, a cannibalistic mind virus they claim is causing the destruction of the planet,” the group announced. 

Wetiko is an indigenous term used to describe “a psycho-spiritual disease of the soul which deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others is logical and moral.”  The dozens of artworks on the website convey this idea in vivid, compelling ways.  The term wetiko was chosen for the project as a framework for understanding our global crisis, from ecological destruction and homelessness, to poverty and inequality.  To illustrate the scope of wetiko today, the website features a wonderful four-minute video, graffiti murals from Nairobi, carved marks from the US, a film about plastic bottle waste in Trinidad and Tobago, and a theater performance about patriarchy in India. 

The Rules is a global network of “activists, artists, writers, farmers, peasants, students, workers, designers, hackers and dreamers” who focus on five key areas needing radical change – money, power, secrecy, ideas and the commons. 

In an essay in Kosmos Journal describing the wetiko project, Martin Kirk and Alnoor Ladha, co-founders of The Rules, write:  "What if we told you that humanity is being driven to the brink of extinction by an illness? That all the poverty, the climate devastation, the perpetual war, and consumption fetishism we see all around us have roots in a mass psychological infection? What if we went on to say that this infection is not just highly communicable but also self-replicating, according to the laws of cultural evolution, and that it remains so clandestine in our psyches that most hosts will, as a condition of their infected state, vehemently deny that they are infected?"

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“Build the City”: The Critical Role of Art, Culture & Commoning

A new anthology of essays, Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture, powerfully confirms that the “city as a commons” meme is surging. This carefully edited, beautifully designed collection of 38 essays shows the depth and range of thinking now underway.  The book was published by Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation in September as part of ECF's Idea Camp convening

Thinking about cities as commons is so compelling to me because it gives a structured framework for talking our moral and political claims on cities. It helps makes our entitlements as commoners visible, as well as the scourge of enclosure – two concepts that are not particularly welcome topics in respectable political circles.

The essays of Build the City celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city.  The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need. In developing this theme, this book is a timely complement to the Bologna “The City as Commons” conference in November.

You can download a pdf of the book here – or you can order a hard copy here. Besides ECF and Krytyka Polityczna, the book is a collaboration with Subtopia (Sweden), Les Tetes de l’Art (France), Oberliht (Moldova), Culture2Commons (Croatia) and Platoniq (Spain), all of whom are partners in the action-research network Connected Action for the Commons.

If there is one recurring theme in this book, it is that commoners must devise the means for more open, inclusive and participatory models of democracy in cities – and that art and culture projects can help lead the way.

“Cultural initiatives that challenge the extremely individualized model of the world are worth closer attention,” writes Agnieszka Wiśniewska, a Polish member of the “Connected Action for the Commons” network, “as they may help us re-esetablish social ties and our trust in others.” The real challenge, then, is how to devise effective new structures that can empower commoners in improving governance, building social connection and democratizing power.

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One Amazing Benefit Social Media Brought this Scholar

This past week, I finally hung a light that I got as a gift last year over my favorite painting. The story is worth sharing, I believe, because it has to do with my most rewarding benefit I’ve received from social media activity as a scholar. Another reason it is personally meaningful is that it marks the conclusion of a promise I made.

Painting, 'Politician at a Podium,' by Ashley Cecil, http://AshleyCecil.com.

In late 2013, my book, Democracy and Leadership, was published. I had looked far and wide for the right image for the cover. My first publisher put out my first two books without giving me a choice about the cover. So, while I appreciate that one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, I’ve heard enough people do it to be eager for a say in its design. I wanted to find just the right image to capture what I’m up to in the book. I’d hoped it could be a pretty painting somehow, featuring a context for leadership, but somehow highlighting the people more than the politician.

Cover for Democracy and Leadership.I did a ton of searching online and came across Ashley Cecil’s work. Check it out. When I found the painting above online, I loved it instantly. My publisher for the work, Lexington Books, had a cover template that would maximize space for a cover image, which is the one I picked. With that template, furthermore, I was able to frame the image such that you know there’s a “Politician at a Podium” (the title of the piece) — at least you see the podium — yet he isn’t the focus of the image on the cover.

I was delighted when Ashley permitted me to use the image on the cover of the book. Of course, I had only seen a high quality photo of the painting online. She had sold the painting a few years back. That said, I spread the word about the book a bit online, and per our agreement, I sent Ashley a copy of it. When she got it, Ashley put a post on her Web site about the book, as not every artist has his or her work on a book cover.

Social media offers us powerful tools. People who love Ashley’s work, as I do, follow her blog, and one collector saw the post where she announced that her painting was now cover art. The collector who bought that painting years ago saw her post. Kentucky attorney John Rogers contacted me, I believe via Twitter. He showed me a photo of the painting and said that he thought I should have it. I told him I’d obviously send him a copy of the book. All he asked was that I share with him a picture of the painting once I’d gotten it up on the wall. True story. It continues to mean a lot to me, every time I see it, in fact.

A puff pastry, to symbolize a "puff" piece.

A pastry-style puff piece. lol.

People can be very cynical about humanity sometimes, what with the news we hear about politics & violence. We sometimes call happy stories “puff” pieces, with little substance and thus little meaning. I think that this story resists that label for two reasons. The first is that while there are costs and reasons to worry about some elements of social media, it is easy to overlook how they can connect people with kindness and goodwill across distance. It helps to know that not everyone is a “troll” or a credit card predator. The second reason is that as a scholar who’s trying in modest ways to put work out there, to let people know what I’m doing, I’m so glad to know that some people see it and are encouraging.

Once again, I can’t thank you enough, John. The painting means a lot, and so does your kindness and encouragement.

 

On my old blog, which I’m putting out to pasture now that I have my new designed, I had written about this story, calling it “‘My Coolest Internet Experience,’ or ‘People Can Be Remarkably Kind’.” Here’s the content of that post:


 

‘My Coolest Internet Experience,’ or ‘People Can Be Remarkably Kind’

 Saturday, February 15, 2014

I’ve always been somewhat optimistic. There are limits to what we can control, which we need to be stoic about, but positive thinking makes a difference within those limits. When we see daily reports about crimes or read books and watch television shows about crooks and drug dealers, it’s no surprise that some folks come to feel cynical about people. I’m happy to report that this week I’ve had my coolest Internet experience ever, which confirmed my feeling that people can be profoundly kind.

With all of the silly and crazy Internet tools we have available (see the absurd variety hereabove), we can spend a lot of time spreading the word about issues we care about or projects we’re working on, while none of our individual tweets or posts seem to be particularly effectual. I’ll write about the several interesting opportunities and connections I’ve made through these channels in some other post, but I have to say something here about an amazing experience I’ve had this week.

Thumbnail photo of the cover of 'Democracy and Leadership,' bearing Ashley Cecil's painting, "Politician at a Podium."

My 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue, came out with a publisher that permitted me to pick and design the cover, from a few possible form templates. The talented Ashley Cecil‘s beautiful painting is on the cover, as you may already know (it’s on right here). To spread the word about the book, I posted on these various Internet channels, including on a new Facebook Author page — why not?

I have friends with nearly 1,000 “likes” on their author pages, which is great. It’s a way of reaching lots of friends and interested audiences when you’ve got something you feel needs to be said. My own page today has a modest 247 “likes,” but I’m just getting started.

As I was spreading the word about the release of the book and creating the Facebook page, Ashley Cecil posted an announcement about the release of the book on her Web site. Some of Ashley’s fans and art collectors connected with my Facebook page. That’s how I came into contact with John Rogers, an attorney and art collector from Glasgow, Kentucky. It turns out that John was the art collector who had bought Ashley’s painting.

Obviously John and I have sympathetic taste, because when I was looking for cover art — and I searched quite a bit — I knew instantly that this was the painting I wanted for the cover, if I could make it work out. John asked me how I had come across the painting. Though I had looked through various databases of art (paintings and photographs), starting with works in the public domain, I eventually stumbled across Ashley’s painting by wading deep through search term results that I found on Images.Google.com.

While it’s fun to connect with an art collector with sympathetic taste, the story gets better. John wrote me (via Facebook message) to say that he thought that I should have the painting.

I couldn’t believe it.

Art collectors sometimes invest in works that they hope to sell later for a profit. For me, the painting has great sentimental value, because it’s the beautiful first artwork that I’ve been able to select for a book cover. In addition, the book was 4 years in the making and was a lot of hard work, so the artwork is seriously meaningful to me.

At the same time, my university has granted me a sabbatical to write my next book. You can either accept full-pay for one semester, or you can take the same funds divided over the course of a full year. More than a year ago, I discussed this with my wonderful wife Annie (yesterday was Valentine’s Day, I should note), and she agreed that time is the hardest thing to come by. So, we trimmed expenses, saved up for about a year, and now we’ve made it so that I can take this full year to write. It also means that I can’t get into art collection… Certainly not for a while, anyway.

I didn’t see John’s generosity coming. And remember, I’m one of the optimists out there.

Three days after John’s message, the painting arrived — on Valentine’s Day, no less. Here it is on our kitchen table:

This is a large photo of Ashley Cecil's original painting, "Politician at a Podium."

The painting is 8″ by 10″ and is going to go up in my office at work. It is not only the artwork that an artist first gave me permission to use on a book cover. It is also the first such work that I also now own. I’m still somewhat in disbelief about John’s magnanimity. I believe that people are largely very good and sympathetic with others when not conditioned otherwise in some way. That doesn’t capture just how friendly and giving people can be, though.

Therefore, this blogpost — and a copy of Democracy and Leadership soon to be in the mail — is dedicated to John Rogers of Glasgow, Kentucky, for showing me just how remarkably kind people can be, especially to a stranger several states away. Thank you so much, John, for your generous gift, and thanks to Ashley for creating this piece and allowing me to use it for the book.

I can’t thank you enough, John.

A Tragic Tale of Enclosure, Poetically Told

What does enclosure feel like from the inside, as a lived experience, as a community is forced to abandon its “old ways” and adopt the new worldview of Progress and Profit?  British author Jim Crace’s novel, Harvest, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, provides a beautiful, dark and tragic story of the first steps of the “modernization” of a preindustrial English village.

The story focuses on a hamlet that is suddenly upended when the kindly lord of the settlement, Master Kent, discovers that his benign feudal control of a remote patch of farmland and forest has been lost to his scheming, cold-hearted cousin, Edmund Jordan.  Jordan is a proto-capitalist who has a secret plan to evict everyone and turn their fields into pastures for sheep.  He plans to become rich producing wool for the flourishing export market.  But Jordan can’t simply announce his planned dispossession of land lest it provoke resistance.  He realizes that he must act with stealth and subterfuge to take possession of the land and eradicate the community, its values and its traditions.

The story is essentially a tale of what happens when a capitalist order seeks to supplant a stable and coherent community.  But this states the narrative too crudely because the book is a gorgeously written, richly imagined account of the village, without even a hint of the ideological.  Told through the eyes of a character who came to the village twelve years earlier, the story doesn’t once mention the words “enclosure,” “capital” or “Marx.”  (Indeed, the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer praises the book for “brilliantly suggest[ing] the loamy, lyric glories of rustic English language and life.”)

Harvest depicts the sensuous experiences of a village community wresting its food from nature, but with relative peace and happiness.  "Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamour deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives," the narrator tells us.  The book also shows how easily this world is shattered by a brutal outsider who uses fear and social manipulation to rip apart a community in order to install a new regime of efficiency, progress and personal gain.

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Poetry of the Commons

I’ve always thought that the commons, in its attempt to achieve a holistic balance of relationships, is profoundly aesthetic and ethical.  It aspires to a certain dynamic but disciplined shapeliness.  How wonderful, then, to encounter Harris Webster’s Japanese-style poetry about the commons, inspired by his reading of The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State!     

A few years ago, Webster, a retiree living in Montpelier, Vermont, heard a presentation on the commons by University of Vermont professor Gary Flomenhoft.  Then he read a number of pieces on the commons in Kosmos journal and discovered The Wealth of the Commons.

Webster has a hobby of writing tanka poems, a genre of classical Japanese poetry akin to haiku.  He had developed a taste for Japanese poetry in the course of several exchange visits with the prefecture of Tottori, Japan, as the representative of the Japan-American Society of Vermont.  Webster decided that he wanted to capture the essence of some essays in The Wealth of Commons in the succinct, austere style of tanka. (Links to the original essays are embedded in the authors' names and essay titles.)

I hope you enjoy this wonderful poetic experiment as much as I do! 

Introduction

Question: Should earth’s people share

our earth’s seven seas?

Answer: When some Somalians

lost their share of fishing grounds,

they became pirates.

 

Good church members are stewards

of the church commons,

its resources  and culture.

Earth’s people should be stewards

of the earth’s Commons.

 

Unknown Elinor Ostrom

won a Nobel Prize

for research on the Commons

throughout our wide world.

May it be well known world wide!

 

The Commons looks at the ‘whole.’

resources, people, and norms,

(oceans, fishermen, and rules,)

nested together.

Do markets and government?

 

Do people value

good soil and fresh air?

Of course , but they are not priced,

advertised or for sale.

Is that why they’re uncommon?

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HowlRound Brings Commoning to the Theater

American culture has been dominated for so long by Hollywood, Broadway and the nonprofit industrial complex that it is hard to imagine theatrical performance without the stars, the spectacle, the corporate investments and marketing hype.  What would it be like if theater were taken off its big-money pedestal and allowed to speak to serious social concerns, politics, ethnicity and the human condition as it is actually experienced? 

Welcome to HowlRound, a growing hub of the nonprofit theater world hat boldly bills itself as a “Center for the Theater Commons.”  HowlRound, hosted at Emerson College in Boston, is dedicated to the idea of “recouping the idea of nonprofit theater as an instrument of civilization."   

For those who participate in HowlRound, the commons is not just a fashionable buzzword; it is a fundamental organizing principle and ethic.  As its website explains, “HowlRound is modeling a commons….. A theater commons, if it is to be manifested, will need to be cocreated by others committed to its existence.”

In a world of shrinking foundation grants, government austerity and hyper-competition for entertainment dollars, can nonprofit theater reinvent itself as a commons?  I spoke with Polly Carl, director and editor of HowlRound, to learn more.  On the project's website, Carl describes herself as “a scholar and dreamer. A bicycle enthusiast, and tattoo 

aficionado, her most recent ink job features her pup Joey riding a blue Schwinn, tennis ball in mouth. She makes her ravioli from scratch.”

That's more or less what HowlRound is trying to do for nonprofit theater:  to make it from scratch. Carl is convinced that commoning is the most effective way to revive the creativity and relevance of theater for ordinary people.  “Sometimes you just have to let go of things that you think are really valuable [like conventional structures for nonprofit theater], and experiment,” she said. 

HowlRound was born two years ago when Carl, David Dower, Vijay Mathew and Jamie Gahlon decided that all artists should have more say in how the American theater is run. Carl explained that “market-driven institutions have left the artist behind financially, and artists can no longer control their destiny.”  

So why not try to amass a community of people dedicated to “the core principle that theater is for everyone”?  

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The Case for Stewardship (not Ownership) of Antiquities, Language, DNA and More

In this age of marauding markets, it almost seems quaint to ask, “Who owns culture?”  We know the answer.  When push comes to shove, the owners of copyright, trademarks and patents own everything.  We may think that the music, images and stories of our culture belong to us, but as a matter of law, in the 165+ countries that have signed the Berne Convention, our designated role is....to buy (and not use someone else's "property.")   

A new book of essays complicates this picture.  Negotiating Culture:  Heritage, Ownership and Intellectual Property -- just published by the University of Massachusetts Press -- points out some of the distinct limits to “intellectual property’s” dominion.  The book is a series of essays by academics from various disciplines that explores how social practice and culture have their own moral legitimacy and social power -- enough to push back on claimed property rights. 

The book chronicles controversies over who should have legal rights of ownership and control over Native American remains, Green and Roman antiquities, works of art looted by the Nazis, among many other objects and resources.  We are asked to consider whether culture should be treated as property that can be bought and sold (and treated accordingly), or whether it must be considered inalienable, or not suitable for sale on the market, and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.  

These are the magic words:  It seems that the core issue in so many of these disputes is a matter of identity, dignity, respect and, of course, power.

Museums are increasingly at the epicenter of cultural ownership issues these days.  The 2005 trial in Italy of Marion True, the former curator of classical art at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a beautiful case study of how social norms about the ownership of ancient antiquities have dramatically shifted.  Prior to that trial, museums often bought or accepted donated antiquities without too much thought about the provenance of the work.  After all, antiquities don’t usually come with title deeds or receipts, and it was an open secret that many of them were dug up by looters and spirited out of the country into the hands of profit-minded dealers.

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Using the Debt Crisis to Steal Public Assets

Now that the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one of the most critical questions will be what assets will be put on the table to pay creditors – and what assets, if any, will remain inalienable, that is, not capable of being sold.  You see, there are moves afoot to sell off priceless paintings and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay off the city’s debts.  The stash of assets include works by Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh. 

Normally the market value of large art collections is not calculated except as needed for blanket insurance policies.  But now that a pack of hungry creditors wants to be made whole, many people are starting to look yearningly at the estimated $2 billion that could come from liquidating the museum’s collection, or substantial portions of it.

The whole scenario is of a piece with other enclosures driven by finance capitalism.  The investor class has gone way beyond privatization; now it wants to use the debt crisis to gain outright ownership of public assets and start charging for the use of them.  As economist Michael Hudson has put it, cities are selling sidewalks and citizens have to start paying to walk on them. 

The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection will say a great deal about how far we Americans are willing to go in monetizing our cultural heritage.  Museums are supposed to act as permanent trustees of a community’s priceless heritage.  Donors are willing to give works to museums only because they believe that the works will be there forever, and not sold off to satisfy some unrelated financial claim against the city.   In other words, the artworks held in trust for the public by a museum are supposed to be treated as the priceless heritage of the citizenry, beyond any market valuation. That principle may be breached very soon.

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