Public Anthropology and negotiating what that means on TV.

Public Anthropology and negotiating what that means on TV.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on making archaeology popular in which I recounted the ways in which archaeology became part of public discourse through television media, and its impact on peoples lives. In that post I also write about how through archaeology game shows, Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s personality becomes associated with a certain kind of archaeological knowledge, and how he is voted TV personality of the year in 1954. His face, his demeanor, his person becoming a household name and one that allowed for a separation of his more ‘public’ persona vis-à-vis his academic or personal one. I will not recount the many ways in which I find that troubling and the ways in which I (and other scholars) have linked him to a particularly problematic colonial legacy of archaeology in the South Asian subcontinent. I’ll just say: I do find it troubling that someone like Wheeler would be a beloved TV persona.

Reflecting back on that and what it might mean for Anthropologists to find themselves on television, I thought of the many ways by which our work, our ideas, and even our presentation is often mediated and fit into what the public wants to see or expects to see. There are some moments when things shift and change, but even as those happen, they are often directed by, edited, and then re-presented to the world – and not by us. As an anthropologist who works with and within many distinct and overlapping publics, I thought I might try this venue out when the opportunity presented itself. What would it mean for me to be on TV and how might I react to this negotiation? Was my public anthropology public enough for television media consumption?

I was contacted in early 2017 by Wall-to-Wall, a production company that was interested in filming at the World Heritage site of MohenjoDaro (Pakistan) and they wanted me to work with them on a project for a series entitled, First Civilizations. After a series of long, thoughtful, and hesitant (on my part) discussions, I was won over by the public-ness of this project: this documentary was for PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service). PBS is our public outlet for TV in the United States. It is the only channel that continues to thank “Viewers Like You,” because it depends on all of us to continue to support it alongside the many grants and funding that they receive. I had grown up watching PBS, and was keen on it’s children’s programming for my own child, and so I felt generally good about the whole discussion, except for the explicit lack of control we would have over editing and content.

This lack of control is made explicit so that there is built in protection for the director and editors of the series and their creative and research rigor. We are then, as academics on the “show,” just one part of a larger story they want to tell. In some manner of speaking, it is as if they cite us in person, on film; and so the same way we have no control in the ways that the many worlds may cite us in text, we have little control over what they (directors/editors/etc) may chose to do with our sound and image.

This is simultaneously somewhat liberating, but mostly anxiety producing. There is something unsettling about having ones image and sound captured by another, particularly knowing you have no control over how it might be used. The irony of that statement is not lost on me when I think about the history of Anthropology and what our discipline has done to many around the world in an effort to learn about humanity.

To be honest, public presentations always have a bit of the adrenaline and exhilaration of things being out of ones’ control. My experience with this team was not unlike many of the other public lectures I’ve done in many different locations around the world. I may want to tell them about something specific, but the interest that is shown is in something completely different. And I have had to cater many a talk, and in particular, public/community workshops, to what was being asked of me. When I first started doing such work, the advice I had been given by senior researchers was, “make sure you get what you want out of it.” My experience however, has always proven the opposite. Public lectures, workshops, and meetings, have nothing to do with “what I want” in a research sense. But in terms of my ethics around public research, it is exactly what I want. What I want is to make my discipline, my work, my research more accessible – and what that means is making sure it finds its way into public discourse in responsible forms. It means conducting workshops that address different community’s curiosities around the ancient world and contemporary issues around heritage. Sometimes it might also mean how to teach people how to do research on different topics, how to write policy papers, how to revamp a syllabus, and now apparently it also means being filmed for TV — whatever form it takes, as long as it is informed by my work in Anthropology, I consider it to be part of my larger project as an anthropologist.

Beyond that ongoing ‘project’, what I did get out of it was another visit to one of my favorite ancient cities, another chance to get to know the men who work and live close to the site (see images below), and another chance to demonstrate to the American public (at least those who watch PBS) that there might be a different voice and vision of who does the knowledge sharing on TV.

The episode on Trade, as a part of the First Civilizations series aired May 15th, 2018. It was predictably awkward to see myself on TV, but my students (past and present) loved it. They felt like they were back in my classroom – many of them sent me emails after saying it reminded them of how important learning about anthropology was in their own practice and lives.

I may not agree with all of the ways in which the argument and premise of the show unfolded; I may not agree with all of their editing decisions; but I am glad I did it anyway. If nothing else, the negotiations we have to do with those creating, directing, editing and presenting the many publics we encounter and engage with, has become more clear.

Top image: Author being filmed at MohenjoDaro (image courtesy of Ibad Rahman). Bottom two images: Hanging out in DK-G Area, MohenjoDaro (images taken by author, with permission to publish by all present in image).