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Dreaming spires and the popular imagination

May 16, 2015

Archaeologist Indiana Jones, played by actor Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981. Photograph by AF archive, Alamy

I was pointed to a thought-provoking article on National Geographic this morning, entitled “How Indiana Jones Actually Changed Archaeology“. The article accompanies an exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington that celebrates the famous Spielberg movie franchise and – interestingly –  both its contribution to, and debt to, real-world archaeology research.

Also interesting were the Twitter comments of the person who posted the link to this article. It was Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Head of Theology and Religion at Exeter University in the UK, who said – “As a kid, Raiders of the Lost Ark & Temple of Doom definitely played a part in shaping my love of ancient religion.”

She wouldn’t be the first eminent academic who identified a popular cultural text that fired an early enthusiasm for their specific field. My work in Science Communication has led me to many conversations with science-fiction inspired scientists – or medics who never missed an episode of their favourite TV hospital drama. Yet the subtle symbiosis between popular creative culture and the academic work it can both inspire and feeds off is, in my view, too rarely acknowledged or accommodated.

Recently I chatted with an academic about my belief in the power of popular narrative to allow our society to ‘think out loud’ about human problems or aspirations that have an academic dimension. As I explain in this recent article for the JRSM, I believe popular cultural narratives – even highly fictionalised – can enable an emotional engagement with academic meanings beyond the simple presentation of academic facts. The academic smiled kindly and, with a gentle wave of one hand, suggested that popular fiction or dramatic entertainment was tolerable as a basic means to “get the public through the door” of a serious institution or museum – after which, (I assumed) the proper work of real-world education could begin.

This, I felt, was not simply dismissive of the public as a sophisticated citizenry, capable of extracting valid meanings from popular cultural outputs, but also worryingly naive. It doesn’t just patronise – it fails to grasp the essential human interplay of public imagination and material reality, of emotional engagement and academic imperative, that defines the human relationship with reality.

As a society we dream, and create, and pray, and love, and pretend, and imagine, and dramatise. As the very same society we also study, and construct, and cure, and deduce, and calculate, and think. The idea that these essential human activities operate separately in our brains and in our society under a form of medieval feudalism – rationality and education the noble squire under which a serf-like popular imagination toils – is itself an imaginative fiction. Popular culture is not simply the child of an imagined public ignorance. It is, as Professor Stavrakopoulou suggests, the parent of our academic motivations.

We dream before we specify. We imagine before we do. But we do both – together and separately.  We also do not ‘ascend’ from the consumption of popular cultural myth to hermitic rational wisdom. We extract insight from a shared ore of human experiences. The driest of our academic insights are distilled from the same human force that painted its hands onto the walls of the Cueva de Las Manos. That joyous bricolage of hands that the paint reveals made the first tools upon which our modern world was built.


Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos, Río Pinturas,  Santa Cruz Province, Argentina.

Look at those hands. No individual statuses to be discerned amongst its subjects. Serving no clear evolutionary purpose. Inexact. Illogical. Unnecessary. Yet as immortal as the rock itself.

‘We are here. We feel. We dream.’

Perhaps the most poignant message in these walls is that the cultural distraction of these ancient people has now become the subject of serious research by our modern world’s academics. What was popular and shared has become the food for a detailed, rational analysis. Yet the hands of the experts who analyse are indistinguishable from the wild hands they study.

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