[-empyre-] Why Westworld?

Lawrence-Minh Davis lawrence.minh.davis at gmail.com
Sun May 21 22:40:28 AEST 2017

Why *Westworld*? Because I work at the Smithsonian, and *Westworld* feels
all about museums to me.

We get a theme park in Westworld that epitomizes the interactive, “user
experience”-centric model of encountering history so prevalent in museums
today. Helpfully we get to see the park from the participant and the design
end of things (the management end, too). Added bonus that *Westworld* twins
the wonder of museums and the violence that always inheres in that
wonder—the violence the traditional museum endeavors to hide, or at least
normalize. I mean representational violence, I mean epistemic violence,
and, of course, I mean real-time physical violence. Museums need them all.

Westworld the park makes no effort to pretend to be a faithful recounting
of history. Nor is it even showing us how history is made, wink wink.
Westworld’s Old West is a ritual, a flashy means of codifying relations,
reenacting or recreating an imagined past that is, of course, present and
future as well. Meaning it is playing out collective desires, most
immediately for white male power, that are not at all past, never past, but
present, and in tension, therefore in need of continual rehearsal so that
they might carry into the future. This is pretty much how our museums work

Complicating matters in *Westworld* are the hosts, historical props who are
not static but living, and feeling, and inconveniently fucking up the
ritual, not all happy to keep playing out the collective desires of park
visitors and designers.

Museums of today don’t have hosts…well, see the recent scandal at the 2017
American Alliance of Museums Expo, when the museum vendor LifeFormations
exhibited a true-to-scale diorama of a white man selling an enslaved black
man on an auction block. The mannequins didn’t revolt, but, surprise
surprise, expo-goers of color did (side note: the theme of this year’s expo
was “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility: Inclusion in Museums”!)

The message across spaces is pretty clear: you can’t stage human bodies as
props, or rather you can, but get ready for violent blowback.

In the museum world as in *Westworld* we're asking who gets the power to
tell stories, and the answer is never simple, even as more people from
marginalized communities make their way up museum hierarchies.

Watching the show I feel this deep sympathy for Bernard, who as park
engineer is a kind of curator, trying with conviction and bewilderment at
once to balance his various imperatives and impulses, trying to be ethical
and good at his job while figuring out on the fly his limitations, his
shifting allegiances, his own shifting identity, his relative privilege and
power, his complicity—feelings I certainly experience, and I would guess
pretty much all curators of color experience to some degree or another.
Like Bernard, we get the shock of getting put in our place sometimes. But
we're also in a time of revolt, and our own season 2 is coming.

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, PhD
Curator, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
Editor, The Asian American Literary Review
Adjunct Faculty, University of Maryland Asian American Studies Program
(443) 878-3796
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