What is it about Color and Memory?

In our 24/7 video and internet world, we have come to associate color with immediacy.  The content of the images may be irrelevant or insignificant but their colors nevertheless signify a sense of NOW.  Indeed the boundary between past and present– photographically at least– is the use of color.  The distancing of black and white photography from the present is what gives “pastness” its seemingly frozen character.     But in recent years, caches of precociously vivid color photographs have come to light.  There is a luminous, surprising quality about them– letting us into a world that still seems to be unfolding, that still seems unfinished and alive.  

NOT in black and white: American soldiers marched through a southern English coastal town, en route to board landing ships for the invasion of France, circa late May or early Jun 1944. U.S. National Archives.

Is this a temporary sensation?  Is it merely the novelty of seeing color in place of black and white that tricks us into believing that the image is more lifelike and alive?  It’s uncanny that even photos from less iconic and earthshaking settings possess the same character– a kind of luminosity that seems to have the uncanny ability to resurrect long-dead people and the beauty of their world.   

An Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (in present day Turkey), circa 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/Library of Congress)


 Ruth Ellen Gruber drew my attention to this stunning series of photographs of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia taken by the Czarist court photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944).  Using an ingenious system of red, green, and blue filters, he captured the exotic, the mundane, the familiar, and the novel throughout the empire of Nicholas II.  The collection is now in the U.S. Library of Congress.  Yet, in looking at the pictures of villages, government officials, and colorful ethnic characters and costumes, it is as if the pre-Revolutionary realities of Russia are, for a moment, re-lived in our gaze.      

And it’s not only about exotic locales and distant landscapes.  Margie Purser has pointed out a series of arresting images commissioned by the US Farm Security Administration from across the country in the depression years.  There’s the hustle-and-bustle of downtown storefronts, country fair girlie show performers, the handmade pastimes of the era’s children, the tragedy of a farm auction, and the unquestioned propriety of men doffing their hats before saying grace.        

Here too there is something almost tangible about the volumes the colors create– the browns and purples of the peoples’ clothing and the brown/green of the grass.  It’s not that these color photos are in anyway realistic, or even as vivid as the pigments of paintings from far earlier times.         



The Faro Caudill family eating dinner in their dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico. October 1940. Photo: Russell Lee (1903-1986)


It’s the fact that they SHOULD be black and white and that makes all the difference.  They make us pause for a moment and question our conditioned perceptions that everything old should be monochrome.   

The social historian’s ideal of understanding a lived present– as if we did not know the subsequent outcomes– seems to to be embodied in these rare colored images from the past.  Just look at these views of London in 1927, when it seemed that the future was wide open and anything was possible.   


The colors suggest that living eyes saw those colors as experience, not frozen history.     

Hitler’s DNA

If DNA analysis can be (ab)used to come up with a result like this, what significance can it possibly have?  What is this study trying to say?  What are the other DNA studies linking Vikings to West Lancashire, Jews to Scotland, and individuals to bogus bloodlines trying to say?  Sounds like dangerous, highly interpretive racialism to me. Is it the intellectual DNA of the politics of ethnic separation through illusory biological traits? 

From CBS News World Watch 25 August

DNA Tests: Hitler Descended From Jews, Africans?

The history of Adolf Hitler is well known. Apart from bringing the world to war, the Nazi leader was obsessed with the idea of a European “master race,” which served as the foundation for his hostility toward Jews and led to the tragedy of the Holocaust.

But DNA testing may provide a new twist: Hitler may have been descended from both Jews and Africans, according to a Daily Mail report.

Belgian journalist Jean-Paul Mulder and historian Marc Vermeeren conducted tests on 39 of the Nazi leader’s relatives earlier this year.

A Belgian news magazine reported that according to Mulder’s and Vermeeren’s study, Hitler’s relatives have a chromosome called Haplopgroup E1b1b (Y-DNA) that is rare in Germany and Western Europe. It could have its roots in Africa and the Middle East.

“It is most commonly found in the Berbers of Morocco, in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, as well as among Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews,” Mr Vermeeren said in the article.

For complete article, click here:

Does China Make Ramadan Any Less Real?

Ramadan Lamps. Photo by Al Tompkins at http://egyptal.wordpress.com/


It’s a paradox of our time that even as intangible traditions, religious ritual, and ethnic identification become more vivid– as statements of resistance to global cultural homogenization– the material objects with which those identities are expressed can be made almost anywhere in the world.    

Does that fact make the counter-identities part of globalization?  Or is globalization an unwitting facilitator of ever more rigid national and ethnic identities?    

Thanks to Nigel Hetherington in Cairo for pointing out the following news story:  

from BBC News 20 August 2010   

Egypt’s lantern-makers threatened by imports from China

By Yolande Knell  

Brightly-coloured lanterns are strung across Egyptian streets and lighting up homes and offices as part of celebrations for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  

The lantern – or fanoos – is an enduring symbol of the festivities and dates back more than 800 years.  


But in recent years, cheap, plastic lanterns and lantern-themed toys imported from China have become more popular with Egyptian children.  

Most run on batteries. Some move or light up and play tinny musical tunes.  

“Everything is from China,” says Um Duwai, who sells the modern lanterns. She grins as she points out this year’s best-sellers.  

“There is one shaped like a mosque with lights and these ones which look like Hassan Shehata [the Egyptian football coach] and [the football player] Abu Treika. He is most popular.”  

“Our bride doll is also beautiful,” she adds. “And we have Inspector Columbo from the TV. We were asking for it this year. Every year the Chinese make something new.”  


While the Chinese goods are fun, they have many critics who fear they could lead to the demise of a long-cherished, local tradition.  

“The traditional lanterns are threatened by Chinese lanterns,” says journalist Ahmed el-Dereiny who has studied the history.  

*   *   * 

For complete story, with the energetic reaction of local Cairene lantern makers, click here.

Swords into Ploughshares– 21st Century Style

Anyone who has visited Vietnam in the last twenty years knows how the notorious “Tiger Cages” and underground tunnels used by the Vietcong forces during the Vietnam-American War have become enormously popular tourist attractions.  They are part of the official national narrative of determined resistance against external foes. 
But now we are beginning to see the development of war-related sites developed for tourism for their sheer creepiness alone.  The horrors of war are muted.  The only narrative that seems to really matter is the promise of a unique visitor experience.

Underground Bunker Tourism in Indonesia. Next stop Taiwan.


From the China Post – August 22, 2010 

TAIPEI — Four unused ammunition depots on a small islet in Penghu County built during Japanese colonial rule should be rehabilitated and turned into new tourist attractions, three Control Yuan members said. 

The three members — Lee Ping-nan, Yu Teng-fang and Chou Yang-shan — made the recommendation after completing an extensive study of the century-old ammunition depots in Penghu’s remote Siyu township near Nisin Bay in the Taiwan Strait. 

Three of the depots, built close together on the islet, had bronze plates as their inner walls and were equipped with airtight windows and two iron gates at each of their entrances. 

Those features had led some to believe that the depots were toxic gas chambers or biochemical weapon research labs, Lee said, but an extensive study showed the speculation to be unfounded because their design and equipment did not live up to the standards for such facilities. 

Moreover, samples of air, soil, water and 10 other items collected at the location did not test positive for traces of any toxic gases or chemicals, he added. 

After extensive discussion with military historians and ancient ammunition experts, Lee said they concluded that the three depots were used to store smokeless ammunition. 

“They have existed since 1907 when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule,” Lee said, noting that they are the only depots of their kind ever to be found in Taiwan. 

After World War II, the Republic of China government took control of the depots, which continued to serve as depots for a nearby army base and are now abandoned. 

There is another abandoned depot in their vicinity, which was also built by the Japanese during their period of colonial rule, Lee said. The depot has brick outer walls and wooden inner walls and its floor stands one meter high, a design believed to be helpful in fighting humidity. 

According to Lee, cultural heritage experts from the Council for Cultural Affairs and the Penghu County government who joined his team in surveying the four structures agreed that the depots should be designated national historic sites subject to special protection for their historical and cultural value. 

“Given their rarity, special architectural features and building technologies, they should be preserved and refurbished to serve as tourist attractions and as a resource for studying World War II history,” Lee said. 

For complete article, click here

Poor John the Baptist

Beheaded back then.  Exploited again.  This is a classic modern heritage/pilgrimage tale. Which will die first– Bulgaria’s optimistic economic projections, the credibility of Bulgarian archaeology, or poor John the Baptist’s dignity?  

From the Wall Street Journal August 13  

Bulgaria Looks to John the Baptist to Resurrect Flagging Economy

Archeological Find Promises Fame, Tourists; Questions Remain Over Relics’ Authenticity

By Joe Parkinson  

SOZOPOL, Bulgaria—Archaeologists and clerics here say they have unearthed bones belonging to John the Baptist, an itinerant preacher revered by many Christians as the last of the Old Testament prophets.  

Bulgaria’s government is looking to the discovery for salvation—of a financial sort.  

The remains, including a skull fragment and a tooth, were uncovered last month during the excavation of a fourth-century monastery on St. Ivan Island, off Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. They were in a sealed reliquary buried next to a tiny urn inscribed with St. John’s name and his birth date.  

Officials of this recession-scarred country think the purported relics will give a big boost to tourism, drawing believers from neighboring Orthodox Christian countries to this nearby resort town,  

Tens of millions of dollars have already been earmarked to prepare for an anticipated surge in visitors. Construction crews are enlarging the port and building a big new parking lot. Tour guides are being rewritten and new signs are going up to direct people to the relics.  

“I’m not religious but these relics are in the premier league,” says Simeon Djankov, Bulgaria’s finance minister and an avowed atheist. “The revenue potential for Bulgaria is clear.”  

Bulgaria’s Orthodox church hierarchy has declared that the bones are authentic. “This is a holy find. It doesn’t matter about the science,” says Metropolitan Bishop Joanikii of Sliven, who oversees church affairs in Sozopol. “The holy relics of St. John radiate miraculous force. I cannot explain it by using words.”  

Kazimir Popkonstantinov, the archaeologist responsible for the finding in Sozopol and now hailed as a national hero, insists his discovery is in the same league as the Shroud of Turin. “This kind of discovery happens perhaps once every two hundred years,” he says. “We have very strong proof that this is genuine. I know this is very important for the whole Christian world.”  

Some experts, however, are skeptical about the origin of the bones—as well as their earnings potential. Michael Hesemann, a religious historian who helps the Vatican date relics, says the bone fragments “appear to be authentic.” But he thinks they lack the “box-office draw” of better-known religious attractions such as the Shroud, which believers say is Christ’s burial cloth.  

To read the entire article, click here and be sure to look at the slideshow.  

Update of Aug 3 post.

But I Thought Cultural Plagiarism was Actually Good for the World…

You have to see this website:

We are not talking about physical return of artifacts or conservation of sites.  We are talking about exclusive national copyright here. 

So please tell me:  Who owns English Muffins, Turkish Coffee, Danish Pastry, and French Fries?

See also posts of July 17, March 1, and February 24

Wi-Fi, Latte, and Amnesia at the Grassy Knoll Cafe


There was a time when everyone who could remember November 22, 1963 felt a cold, creepy feeling at the mention of the Texas School Book Depository.  It was from its sixth story corner window– so the official narrative related– from a “sniper’s nest” of cardboard boxes littered with the remains of a fried chicken lunch that Lee Harvey Oswald trained his rifle on the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy rode.   

Over the years, conspiracy theories and conspiracy experts about the JFK assassination flourished.  They flourished despite of– or because of– the official verdict of the Warren Commission, eight dour establishment figures who failed to calm the nation at a very anti-establishment time.  But whether one accepted the narrative of the deranged (?), radical (?), or soviet programmed (?) lone assassin, or whether one clung to the idea of a vast mafia, CIA, or industrial-military conspiracy, The Texas School Book Depository and its surroundings in Dealy Plaza became names to conjure with.  The “Grassy Knoll,” “the Railroad Bridge,” and the “Stockade Fence,” where shadowy figures that may or may not have been accomplices or additional gunmen were reported to have lurked, became an enchanted mythic landscape.  

It is indeed Hallowed Ground for our collective national experience.  It is and has been since 1963 the focus of fascination, not about what kind of monument should be erected there or what political or religious group should not be allowed to be there– but about the enormity of the event and what difference it made to the country, whatever one happened to believe that might be.   And while today the debate rages about the siting of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, it might be useful to toss away that red herring for a moment and consider what kind of memorial commemoration we will likely see where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.  

In the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in the worldwide transformation of historical sites and museums into leisure time venues– that are (functionally speaking) part multimedia entertainment attractions and part themed shopping opportunities.  I have blogged here the debate over the propriety of a casino at Gettysburg; about the marketing of Cold War kitsch in Berlin; and about the slash-and-burn urban renewal underway in Luxor.  I could even mention– and may do so at greater length one of these days– the role of Auschwitz in Poland package sightseeing tours.  All of these are somehow motivated by economic factors– jobs, tourists, merchandise, extra hotel nights per capita– for in an age of ever-decreasing public budgets for culture and its frequent outsourcing to heritage management companies, no museum or site executive worth their salt (on either hallowed or unhallowed ground) would dare to neglect the economic aspect of its own sustainability.  

It has certainly happened in Dealy Plaza where the permanent exhibitions (sponsored by American Airlines) have transformed an abandoned building with a grotesque history into a multimedia, experiential tourist attraction, complete with interactive screens, slick graphics, and a meticulous reconstruction of the “sniper’s nest” of cardboard boxes, protected from the tourists by a wall of thick plexiglas.   

As a sightseeing attraction for visitors to Dallas, it’s so neatly arranged and unthreatening (but surely a bit enjoyably creepy like Madam Tussaud’s or Alcatraz Island) that one wonders what happens to the memories.  

That’s why the following article from Dallas got me thinking not about the “Mosque at Ground Zero” but about the kind of memorial we are likely to have as the years roll on from September 11, 2001.  For despite the Fox News/Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck babble about honoring this site of American tragedy and resolve, we have gotten to the point where our forms of historical commemoration are so naturally meant to be economically self-sufficient– and their forms so uniformly designed for that purpose– that hallowed ground has all too often become just an another opportunity to direct traffic flow to the cafe and the gift shop– and turn visitors into consumers of souvenirs, snacks, and hot drinks.  I’m not sure that the new forms of edu-tainment and stylishly marketed refreshments necessarily encourage serious reflection.  Will the visitors remember anything except the visit itself?  

The carefully reconstructed "sniper's nest." Photo: The Sixth Floor Museum


 If it has happened at Dealy Plaza, it can happen at Ground Zero, with or without a “mosque.”  Musealized commemoration has become a technique for attracting paying crowds and keeping them occupied.  It’s also about selling a decontextualized vision of the past along with the themed merchandise.  Just follow the inescapable logic that site managers are now trapped in– and see if you agree that the kind of modern museum infrastructure that will likely furnish the future Ground Zero Visitor Center really makes visitors “feel inspired from the moment they walk through the door.”  

From AOL News – July 22  

JFK Assassination Museum Beckons With Lattes, Wi-Fi

by Linda Jones  

…With 325,000 visitors annually, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is the most popular tourist attraction in Dallas, yet it’s often overlooked by locals. Less than a third of its visitors, in fact, are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  

Now, officials are seeking to remedy the landmark’s relative obscurity among natives by luring them with a new store and coffee shop right across the street.  

Opened on July 1, the Museum Store and Cafe represents a “strategic opportunity” to increase the visibility of the historic site, said Liza Denton, director of public relations.  

“We believed this corner location, with commanding views of Dealey Plaza, would increase visitors’ overall engagement to the museum and historic site,” she said, “as well as attract those who live and work downtown.”  

Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, as his presidential motorcade traveled past the former Texas School Book Depository Building, which is now owned and operated by the Dallas County Historical Foundation, a private nonprofit. The museum is housed on the building’s two upper floors.  

Across the street, the new store and cafe — outfitted with contemporary, loftlike decor — is already receiving a steady stream of traffic and positive responses from the local community, with many residents paying return visits, Denton said.  

The cafe at the Museum Store and Cafe, across the street from the Sixth Floor Museum, a repository of documents and artifacts from the Kennedy era, at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, offers coffee, snacks and Wi-Fi. Photo: The Sixth Floor Museum


Like the shop inside the museum itself, the store here is stocked with 1960s-themed merchandise, such as reproductions of Jacqueline Kennedy’s three-strand pearl necklaces, as well as books and souvenirs. It also has a variety of items from local artisans that make statements about Dallas today, including jewelry and handbags.  

Visitors can refuel with gourmet coffee, sandwiches and pastries at the cafe, which also aims to lure local workers with pre-ordered boxed lunches. Organizers hope that the cafe’s free Wi-Fi will further draw in residents, and that the large wall screen showing continuous Kennedy film footage and photos will compel locals and visitors alike to settle in for a while.  

“We want our guests to feel inspired from the moment they walk through the door,” Denton said.  

For complete article, click here.

Pretty Brutal, No?

Human Dignity can never be divided or based on disrespect.


Barbarism in the name of “Tolerance” continues in Jerusalem.  How ashamed of our selfishness and self-serving hypocrisy we will all be when we finally come to our senses– or when the flow of History demands that we do.  

Just look at this.  

And look at my earlier posts of Feb 10 and Feb 12 for some context. 

Well at least they invited the Finance Minister and Diaspora Minister to the parade

Diaspora + Relics = Finance  

Archaeology is irrelevant to the equation.  

*   *   *  

Via Chris Fennell  

From Sofia New Agency – 3 August 2010  

Bulgarian Minister Urges Calm over St John the Baptist Archaeology Find

Bulgaria’s Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov has called upon the media not to speculate over the recent archaeological discovery of relics of St. John the Baptist in the Black Sea town of Sozopol.  

Pictured: the opening of the small sarcophagus said to hold relics of St. John the Baptist. Photo by bTV


“The find near Sozopol is very engaging and pleasant. But we have to wait for the results from the tests. Emotional statements are nice but one should be careful with them. Take me, for example. When I found that we are going to have 25 000 square meters for a museum in Sofia, I exclaimed that this will be the “Bulgarian Louvre,” Rashidov stated Tuesday when asked about the alleged relics of St. John the Baptist.  

According to Bulgaria’s Diaspora Minister and notable historian Bozhidar Dimitrov, there is no doubt that the relics found in Sozopol belonged to St. John the Baptist.  

The relics, which include part of an arm bone, a skull bone, and a tooth, were found in a sealed marble reliquary in the St. John the Forerunner Church on the St. Ivan Island near Sozopol on July 28, 2010, by the team of archaeologists led by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov.  

According to Dimitrov, who is himself a native of Sozopol, the monastery of the St. John the Forerunner Church in Sozopol was one of the largest in medieval Bulgaria and Byzantium, and had an imperial status. Many of its leaders rose to the ranks of becoming Patriarchs of Constantinople. His surmise is that the Constantinople Patriarchate presented to holy relics of St. John the Baptist to the Sozopol Monastery.  

Dimitrov believes that Sozopol can become a “Second Jerusalem” because the local church St. George already has a piece of the Holy Cross, and relics of St. Andrew.  

The relics of St. John the Baptist are also to be donated to the St. George Church in the town, the Sozopol Municipality announced. The ceremony will include a parade with the participating of Finance Minister Simeon Djankov and Diaspora Minister Bozhidar Dimitrov.