Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pasifika Styles: An Exhibition Review Case Study

The exhibition Pasifika Styles opened at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on May 5, 2006. From the western side of the Atlantic, the website, press materials, and informal buzz all suggested, when it was initially announced, that it was a show that really deserved to be reviewed formally and seriously in Museum Anthropology. We immediately began seeking a reviewer in the United Kingdom willing to write a review of it for the journal.

Exhibition reviews are notoriously difficult to commission. One must find someone prepared for the task who is both willing to devote time, attention, and travel to the task (for free) and in possession of enough social distance from the organizers to offer a reasonably unbiased review. This is particularly difficult when social networks of specialists are dense (as they seem to be in the UK) or when the topic falls into an area where a small number of specialists find themselves constantly reviewing each other's work.

Unfortunately, the case of Pasifika Styles illustrates the way the process sometimes ends unsuccessfully. After weeks of email exchanges (and some unreturned emails) we found a reviewer willing and well prepared to take on the review. Like most journals, Museum Anthropology regularly sends reminders to reviewers (of books, digital exhibitions, and gallery exhibitions) whose reviews are past due. These reminders are a normal part of life for scholarly journals and most scholars, at one point or another, find themselves over-committed and behind on such review obligations. Often the reminder leads to completion of the review but sometimes a reviewer must withdraw because new obligations prevent completion of the assignment. When this happens, an editor must decide whether to take up the search for a new reviewer or not. This is what has happened with the planned Pasifika Styles review. After a gap of many months, the reviewer who had planned to do it needed to withdraw. This scholar, in a much appreciated bit of assistance, recommended an alternative reviewer (who thankfully we had not yet asked). The proposed alternative reviewer, unfortunately, was unable to do it. This colleague, again generously, suggested a new candidate (another one whom we had not already asked). Checking into this possibility, we learned that this latest prospect had already reviewed the exhibition for a different journal. I relate this tale as an illustration of what sometimes happens. We have all known great projects--both books and exhibitions--that have, for what seem like inexplicable reasons, gone unreviewed in the literature. Sometimes an editor, having unsuccessfully asked everyone whom she or he can find, just has to give up. I hate to give up seeking a commissioned review of Pasifika Styles, but the quest has reached the point where it does not make sense to keep pestering colleagues about it, one at a time. It is partially a matter of how much time is available to any particular task and partially a problem of throughput. Each day the editorial office receives news of new exhibitions and copies of new books for review, including new works on the art of Oceania for which we will wind up troubling the same community of scholars in hopes of reviews. This is a discouraging reality of the work. We cannot review everything and sometimes projects that clearly deserve our collective attention go unattended to.

Perhaps web 2.0 can accomplish something of what the traditional system of reviewer recruitment, in this case, could not. If you have observations on the Pasifika Styles exhibition that you can share, please feel encouraged to leave a comment here.

Pasifika Styles
runs through February 2008 and has an extensive website.

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