Friday, 9 December 2016

#20: Mujerhoy

Every Saturday, along with Ideal, Andalusia’s newspaper, comes the magazine Mujerhoy, (‘Woman Today’). 

This is a rather contradictory publication. On the one hand it offers stories of women overcoming barriers of gender, class, and sometimes race and income. In recent weeks we’ve heard about Clara Peeters, a 14th century painter who ‘swam against the current’ by creating her own works (an exhibition of these is currently at the Prado); Josephine Kulea, a Kenyan woman who founded an NGO to rescue girls at risk of genital mutilation; and Harvard professor Drew Gilpin Faust, whose mother apparently told her as a child that it was a man’s world. The narrative is usually of individual achievement in the face of family, gender, class and financial pressures. 

We also have recipes, horoscopes, lifestyle articles and short stories (two recently were about a woman who learned to accept her difficult mother and another who met a sexy dwarf in a forest). The magazine is of course full of adverts for cosmetics, clothes and cookie-cutter interviews with stars endorsing toiletries. Other articles focus on individual emotional growth and encourage looking inwards, not outwards.

This contradiction is nowhere more stark than in the July 2016 issue, which carried an article on prostitution. ‘Linking prostitution with free time is the same as justifying kidnapping and slavery,’ said the headline. It interviewed eight people, mainly from journalism and show business, (why not women who work or who have worked as prostitutes?) all talking about how to combat the trade. ‘On this topic there is much social hypocrisy,’ commented journalist Jesús Cintora.

But turn the page, and what do we see? A fashion shot (part reproduced below) of a sad pale woman, underdressed and overthin, (in designer clothes made to look cheap), standing next to a car on a cloudy day near blocks of flats. Hypocrisy indeed. 

However, there is no doubt that women’s magazines have to perform a difficult balancing act. At the end of the day they have to make a profit, mainly through adverts, which try to sell us an ideal life and encourage discontent with our own. At the same time they need to tell women they are forging ahead and achieving more than ever before. 

One could interpret all this in a more hopeful way and say that make-up and fashion companies are subsidising stories of women’s bravery and achievement. But I wonder whether these stories of achievement themselves are a type of myth of individuals overcoming the odds – it’s very rare to read a story about collaboration between women in the pages of Mujerhoy. I suspect the veteran feminist campaigner and founder of Ms magazine Gloria Steinem would not be happy (although she is featured in this week’s edition).

The women’s magazine market is extremely competitive, and content is finely finessed for particular market segments – and stories of achievement are better in any case than tips on how to keep the curtains clean or relate to your husband’s secretary. But this isn’t saying very much. I think of advertisers and editors using whichever narrative they can sell to most readers, in order to hold onto their jobs and sell products. Perhaps it is up to us to demand, or try to create, different narratives.

Spanish translation here - a collaboration between myself, Salvadora of Asociación de las Mujeres Órgiva and Bing Translate. 

Original images © Mujerhoy

Monday, 28 November 2016

#19: Babylonian map of the world

Illustration by Minho Kwon

This has proved to be one of the objects which has stayed longest in my mind during five years spent off and on writing Curiosities from the Cabinet– a Babylonian tablet made in 700-500 BC sitting in the middle of room 55 in the British Museum. Assistant Keeper of the Department of the Middle East Irving Finkel explains that it is ‘the world’s oldest usable map’. The Babylonians who drew it were picturing their known world – a circle surrounded with a ring of ‘bitter water’ and six stylised mountains where there are wonders like ‘winged birds [which] cannot flap their own wings’, and oxen which can run fast enough to catch wild animals. 

 ‘The real principle [of the map] is to anchor in position some of the heroes and important things in mythology and odd things that were to be seen if you went far enough,’ says Dr Finkel. ‘It’s an attempt to bring a lot of disparate material under control.’

Perhaps the tablet’s staying power for me is because it is a document as much as an object. Its words and pictures throw out links to other times and civilisations, such as the Judeans who lived alongside the Babylonians and borrowed the flood myth from them (which the tablet’s script touches on), or to later medieval myths recounting the fabulous things to be seen on voyages. Also because of the questions it throws up, often unanswerable – which birds were those? Was it purely a kind of ‘mental map’, to help people understand their world, or might it have been actually used for navigation? 

After speaking to me about the tablet for half an hour at his desk in the British Museum, Dr Finkel went off script and chatted about what he thought museums were for, showing that even very experienced museum professionals still puzzle over the nature and function of their institutions. He commented:

‘Museums are not meant to be universities. In my opinion the correct way to categorise a museum is as a wonder house. The museum should be full of wonders so when you see something you think ‘I never knew they could make something that beautiful’, or ‘I never knew they had earrings like that all that time ago.’ You see something and questions present themselves and sometimes you answer them, sometimes you don’t.

‘Another idea is to connect objects typologically - toys together, cosmetics together, or glasses, dolls, tea strainers, whatever they may be. I have always loved those cases that are absolutely stuffed so every time you go there you see something you’ve never seen before. People’s lives are beset by the same problems, and by and large they tend to respond in the same ways. But the things they produce are always characteristic of their part of the world and their artistic tradition. If you put objects with the same purpose from different parts of the world together, then visitors will automatically supply their own context, and the objects will fizz into a unity.’

Sunday, 9 October 2016

#18: My local library

Alexandra Park library, North London

To fight funding cuts and closures, libraries have been energetically trying to prove their worth over the past couple of decades. One way to do this is by using five categories of experience supposed to conceptualise informal learning – the kind that happens outside school or university. (These were developed by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Association and labelled Generic Learning Outcomes).

As a big fan of libraries, I will now try to use these categories to summarise what I remember learning over the past two years from books in five of my local libraries in North London – Southgate and Palmers Green (both London Borough of Enfield) and Muswell Hill, Alexandra Park and Wood Green (all Haringey).

Enjoyment, Inspiration, Creativity A lot. Fascinated to read about the development of writing from cuneiform on clay tablets to email in Steven Fischer’s A History of Writing (particularly liked the picture of bird bone tubes incised at regular intervals by Neanderthals paired with a picture of the ‘pictograms and pulse signals’ on the 1972 Pioneer 10 spacecraft which the designers hope will be readable by any alien life which happen to meet it). Also: Fischer’s A History of Reading; Rosemary Goring’s Scotland: The Autobiography (collection of disparate pieces written over a thousand years: funny, touching, intriguing); biography of Amy Winehouse by her father which seemed after a skim read to be a lot about attempts to help her stay off drugs; Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (an old favourite).

Knowledge and Understanding Can’t be separated from the above IMO. Felt I was getting some insight into complex physics from Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time since it was carefully structured, well-written and not too faux-chatty as many popular science books tend to be, which too often comes across as patronising. This was fished out of the Alexandra Park reserve collection for me a couple of times – thanks!

Activity, Behaviour, Progression Am gradually moving towards a Paleo diet (no refined carbs or sugars, no dairy) prodded partly by Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease which explains how our hunter-gatherer bodies are ill matched to a world filled with chairs, sugar, lifts and shoes. It’s also a good read apart from any health changes it provokes (Lieberman is Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard) – did you know Neanderthals’ brains were about as big as ours? Lieberman thinks they were as ‘smart’ as homo sappy but not as creative or communicative. Also got a lot from another health-related book which I would not have seen but for a display mounted at Southgate Library.

Skills Umm… struggling a bit here. Learnt a bit about putting a ‘call to action’ on your website from a marketing book whose title I don’t remember (must try that one day) and the best way to use your LinkedIn profile (reminds me, must update mine) – from Social Media for Dummies or similar.

Attitudes and values Neanderthals rocked. The medical profession should focus more on preventing illness rather than treating it.

None of this will show up on any official statistics (how can I quantify an expanded understanding of the wonderful world in which we live?). Perhaps most of what we get from books can’t be expressed simply, let alone measured. I can say though that the NHS has already saved something due to the health-related book I read (and subsequently bought a copy of) and might save more if Daniel Lieberman is right and the Paleo diet keeps people healthier for longer. 

What I particularly love about libraries is the way you discover things by accident – this doesn’t happen so much on the cookie-controlled web. It happens in bookshops too of course, but those are diminishing even more than libraries. And you are more likely to risk reading something new if you don’t have to pay out. We need paper, we need accidental discoveries. Here’s to the value of a good local.

PS Library attendance has fallen by almost a third over the past 10 years – 48.2% of adults visited libraries in 2005/6, compared with 33.4% in 2015/16, according to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. One hundred libraries closed in 2014.

Trinity College library, Dublin