Saturday 17 June 2017

NOTICING THE NOTICES or The Case of the Disappearing Vizier by Penny Dolan

As a young teen, I spent many school holidays wandering round the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, gazing, sketching and daydreaming about the objects around me. Since then, as teacher and later as a writer, I’ve visited many more, and had the joy of running writing workshops for children in smaller museums, galleries and historic sites> Museums are my places of inspiration.

Consequently, I am in awe of the people who work within such places, and also quietly fascinated about how museums work and change as organisations, especially in a period of funding cuts. 

Then, recently, I heard someone with a lifetime’s experience talking, informally, about collections and displays.Among many interesting moments, what stuck in my mind was this archivist’s view that the need to attract “footfall” - meaning children and families and schools – was shaping and simplifying the way that information was presented.

Vizier Khay: reign of Rameses II.
The example quoted was a notice seen on display within an Egyptian gallery: the word Vizier had been made “accessible” by changing the term to Prime Minister, with the implication that children would not understand the word Vizier.

This led to a long discussion as to why this was not a Good Thing. All the writers present felt that Vizier was an interesting and evocative word, one we’d discovered through childhood versions of the Arabian Nights and other stories.

The sight and sound of that word – even that unusual V and Z - suggested other places and other people and the sense of exploring different societies. 

Somehow, through those stories, we’d all understood that the Vizier was the most powerful man next to the throne, personally chosen by the king or ruler to do his bidding and certainly not elected.  

(Reading this as I write, questions about subconcious "imperialist" views murmur gently in the back of my mind . . .)

None of us, particularly at this time of electoral turmoil, felt that Prime Minister matched our cultural understanding and interpretation of Vizier

The loss of that word and language was also a reminder that “nature” words like harebell and conker had been excised from a certain children’s dictionary a year or so ago to make room for frequently-used "modern" words.

The main point being made was that the continual funding for and emphasis on education and general accessibility is transforming our museums into visitor attractions, or as was suggested "somewhere to take children on wet Sunday afternoons" - and if that was so, what were museums offering to  invite, interest or inform the individual “grown-up” visitor?

On the train afterwards, as I replayed this conversation in my head, I wondered whether the new, noisier museums are still places where young people can simply muse and wonder and think? Are they still places where young people can start to make up stories of their own and begin to grow into writers and novelists? Or is that a fantasy?
What, I wonder, are your thoughts?

Penny Dolan

Out of interest, a definition for Vizier from a simple dictionary was
A high official in some Muslim countries, especially in Turkey under Ottoman rule, origin mid 16th century: via Turkish from Arabic wazīr ‘caliph's chief counsellor’ 
and from an “Ancient Egypt” website:  
The vizier was a special advisor to the pharaoh. He made sure that the local governors were doing their jobs well and that the country was running smoothly.

A Prime Minister, in a dictionary definition, gave:
the principal minister and head of government in parliamentary systems; chief of the cabinet or ministry.

One can see how such a word-change worked, but it doesn’t feel quite right to me. It's as if something in the flavour has changed.



Joan Lennon said...

"Accessible" doesn't have to mean "lowest common denominator". And joy doesn't have to be expressed only by noise. And "Vizier" is a very fine word indeed.

Ann Turnbull said...

"Vizier" is an exotic word, and one that I adored as a child. I don't remember ever puzzling over what it meant. The meaning of words seeps into you, sometimes gradually; it doesn't matter if you don't understand them at once. (And anyway, who says museums are only for children?) When re-publishing one of my out of print books recently, I was very pleased to be able to reinstate the Ancient Egyptian name Ptah-hotep. The original publishers had asked me if I'd mind changing it to Tah-hotep, to make it easier - and I'd agreed. But this time I switched it back. I reckoned that children cope perfectly well with "pterodactyl" - and, even if they did pronounce Ptah-hotep wrongly, so what?

Momma Bear said...

We need to keep challenging our children to look up words they don't understand or intuit. Making it easier with a "modern"translation not only strip the past of its agency but we loose the nuances and flavor of different cultures by anglosizing. It's also white washing or culture appropriatiion, passive colonizing if you will. "Our way is better than theirs " I think there is enough of that going around lately.
If you feel you must explain, put it in as part of the definition
Visier, or a kind of prime minister to the king, etc.
Those that are curious will look it up those that aren't will at least have knowledge of the word.

Sue Bursztynski said...

At our gallery, exhibitions have both the detailed descriptions for adults and a simplified version for children, with questions to name them think. Who's to say you can't have "This is the Vizier. He was an adviser to the Pharoah and ran the country, a bit like a Prime Minister."?

I like noisy modern museums - sorry! Children become excited by what they see, as we didn't when I was a child(though I admit I liked our museum anyway, especially Phar Lap in all his beauty!).They learn things. They can touch things and play and experiment. In the old days it was strictly for adults and nerdy children. (And yes, I was one of those) Besides, art exhibitions for adults are just as noisy and crowded so that you can't stop and enjoy a painting. I'm going to see the Van Gogh exhibition at our gallery in a couple of weeks, when it will be easier to actually look at the paintings.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think museums have improved enormously and are very exciting places indeed. But As others have said, I don't think it's necessary to get rid of lovely words like 'vizier'.