Thoughts, Things, and Theories...What Is Culture?


The first display when one enters the Mathers Museum of World Cultures exhibit hall initially seems uncomplicated. Labeled "Learning Through Objects," the case features a 2002 Coca-Cola can juxtaposed next to a skull from Papua New Guinea. The two artifacts, one seemingly mundane while the other something most Americans would call "museum worthy," both raise questions and give answers about the cultures from which they come. These comparisons, the seemingly mundane with the seemingly exotic, serve as the foundation of Thoughts, Things, and Theories...What is Culture?, an ongoing exhibit that examines the very definition of culture, and raises questions of issues surrounding it.

The exhibit takes museumgoers in a walkthrough of two homes: a typical suburban house from Bloomington, circa 1967, and a house compound from Fanchan Tudu, Nigeria, from the same time. These homes address the issue of universal needs. Although the Bloomington home and Fanchan Tudu home look completely different, they both contain places to sleep and to eat. These needs extend past geographic location or cultural upbringing.

Past the homes a more traditionally-presented section focuses on "life stages," beginning with a display labeled "Birth and Infancy." Objects on exhibit range from an early 1900s Liberian baby carrier to an 1800s blanket used in Connecticut. Although the objects look different from one another and come from different communities, they fill common roles and common needs.

The exhibit continues through sections of "Childhood," displaying a mid-20th century Japanese doll set and an early 1900s boys' tool set used by European Americans, showing not only pasttimes of children of the era, but also expectations for them later in life. The tool set was more than a game; it was a means of showing boys how to be men one day.

"Transition to Adulthood," the next section, asks, "when does a person cease being a child and begin adult life?" An Australian aboriginal boomerang of the 1900s represents the culture's value and need for hunting and war. A Plains Native American bow fills similar roles--all the way on the other side of the world.

"Making a Living" and "Marriage" compare aspects of those life stages in various parts of the world, making note of differences regarding financial status and geography. An Egyptian bracelet pair shows the culture's value of the object in marriage ceremonies, while a Nigerian Wukari wedding bell denotes the focus on music in the same occasion.

"Older and Wiser" and "Death and the Afterlife" similarly show the universal fact of aging. A French porcelain clay plate tells museumgoers not only of the culture's practices in death, as such plates were left on graves of the deceased, but also "sheds a bright light" on cross-cultural interactions between the French and the Congo region of Africa, where the plate was brought after its production.

The exhibit ends with the assertion that culture "doesn't reach a conclusion, but is a process." Culture is a complicated topic, because individual practices from one region or upbringing to another vary greatly, but it's also a simple one--despite these differences, all cultures are structured around universal needs to fulfill.

The Mathers Museum of World Cultures is located at 416 North Indiana Avenue, Bloomington, Indiana. The Mathers Museum exhibition hall and Museum Store are open Tuesdays through Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

Free visitor parking is available by the Indiana Avenue lobby entrance. Metered parking is available at the McCalla School parking lot on the corner of Ninth Street and Indiana Avenue. The parking lot also has spaces designated for Indiana University C and ST permits. During the weekends free parking is available on the surrounding streets.

An access ramp is located at the Fess Avenue entrance, on the corner of Ninth Street and Fess Avenue. Reserved parking spaces are available on Ninth Street, between Fess Avenue and Indiana Avenue. If you have a disability and need assistance, special arrangements can be made to accommodate most needs. Please call 812-855-6873.