Things Interpretations Dimensions


Things Interpretations Dimensions


Bigness - An Anthropological Approach to a Phenomenon

Anna Schmid

Measurement and measuring permeate our lives. Bigness, however, cannot be analysed anthropologically in terms of bulk or scale alone. To be recognized as "big", additional characteristics are needed that are culturally rooted – whether in global perceptions, like tall buildings with their symbolic strength, or in local forms such as exchange systems, or in world concepts of specific communities such as religious groups with their sacred sculptures. Relativization is also part of bigness, expressed, for example in the formula "bigger than"; mostly it is the human being who serves as the scale, a human scale.

No independent field of research has yet been established with regard to the anthropological consideration of size and bigness. Much more it is a cross-section theme, which has or should have significance in all anthropological thematic fields. With the exhibition BIG – Things Interpretations Dimensions, and the publication of the same name, we are undertaking a first approximation, in which we cast rays of light on bigness in economic, social, political and religious fields.


In her contribution, "Anthropology of Size – Taking a First Measurement", Beatrice Voirol deals exemplarily with four things: the telescope, the measuring rod, the container and the breast implant. Guided by the premise that both the process of enlargement as well as that of standardization are situated culturally, she contrasts scientific and religious cosmologies and looks at the perception of maximizing – whether in an economic sense or in the beauty industry. In "Total Architecture: Opposition and Integration in the Gogodala Longhouse" in Papua New Guinea, Michael Hirschbichler takes on the ambitious project of connecting the social structure of this group with specific characteristics of the architecture of the longhouse and its multiple uses. He interprets the longhouse as a "physical materialization" and integrating element of the overlapping schemata of order of this group. Reinhard Wendler considers the phenomenon "Big Data and Other Giants". Beginning with the figure of the giant in sagas and tales, he characterizes the tremendous amount of data – the big data phenomenon – as a "demi-leviathan, as a hybrid being that is at the same time immeasurably big and surprisingly small". Small because the amount of data can in no way capture the richness and abundance of life; big because the application and management of data – this includes essentially the development of pertinent programmes – would lead to radical changes in human life. Instances of a real mania of measuring are sprinkled among these essays. Beatrice Voirol, Daniel Wyss, Réka Mascher and Anna Karsko have collected some factual and astonishing examples. The spectrum ranges from formulas to determine normal weight, intelligence quotients and male and female size ratios to the calculation of how much a traffic victim is worth in Switzerland: 2.94 million Swiss francs.


Despite all of the measurements and numbers, a further parameter is necessary for an "anthropology of size". An example will make this clearer.

The figure of the giant: the mythical as a paradigm.

The Hindu deity Vishnu always appears when the world is threatened. As the preserver and protector of the universe, he assumes various avatars in order to free the world from lawlessness and injustice. In his fifth incarnation, Vishnu appears as Vamana, the dwarf. The demon king Bali has become too powerful: he has conquered the three worlds – heaven, earth and the netherworld – and has driven the gods from heaven. The deities ask Vishnu for help, he consents and is born as a dwarf and educated by the gods in order to appear before Bali as a Brahmin. The demon king welcomes him, asks what he can do for him and offers him valuable gifts. Vishnu refuses the presents and asks only for as much land as he can cover in three steps. Bali consents, whereupon the dwarf Vamana becomes gigantic – he grows and grows until he fills up the whole universe, reaching a size beyond all imaginings. With his first step he covers the earth, with the second one he covers the rest of the universe, and he then asks Bali: "Where should I place my third step? If you cannot honour your promise, you should go to the netherworld." Bali finally realizes that the dwarf is Vishnu and offers him his own head: Vishnu places the third step on Bali's head, thus banning him to the netherworld.


In this account, size is apostrophized as a transformative power: Vishnu's metamorphosis from dwarf to giant makes it possible to save the world; his size is synonymous with justice and creative energy. It enables the insight and the ensuing humility of the demon king, who initially is only a symbol of the abuse of power. Lastly, the metamorphosis shows that relations – not only those of power but of size as well – together with conceptions of the world and those of morality are not to be taken for granted, but rather are to be reconsidered and negotiated again and again. All of these transformations are powerfully visualized, and their significance accentuated, through the image of the giant.

Kumbhakarna as a shadow-play figure

The power of the giant is also conjured up in the figure of the Kumbhakarna. This giant is the younger brother of the demon king Ravana, a central figure in the Indian heroic epic Ramayana. Two contradictory dimensions are united in Kumbhakarna: on the one hand, the "terrifying and irresistible" strength of the giant who can barely be vanquished; and, on the other hand, the fact that he is not clearly either good or evil. Although he fights at the side of the demon king against the divine Rama, he nonetheless doubts his brother's motives. He accuses Ravana of acting without consulting his brothers, hence making them responsible for his own actions. Yet a younger brother is not entitled to let the elder one down if the consequence means battle. Thus Kumbhakarna uses his strength in the battle against Rama; the giant finally vanquishes and kills him.


Whereas Vishnu's size and power are positively connoted, Kumbhakarna is caught in a conflict. He must decide which socially accepted value he uses his strength for: for the duty that his family situation and the related preservation of power demand, or for justice.

In both accounts questions of relations are raised: between size, on the one hand; and ethical behaviour, the legitimacy of regulatory schemes, status, desire and the possibility of understanding on the other. The framework is broader in the present exhibition. It presents in fourteen stations the relationship of – actually or metaphorically – bigness to the division of labour, concepts of the afterlife, materials or techniques employed. The curator Beatrice Voirol took on the difficult endeavour of showing bigness. This was difficult because the architecture of the museum, and above all the scale of the rooms, at times set narrow limits to bigness. The logistics of transporting objects from one place to another and their placement in the museum was a challenge that we managed to meet despite these limitations. The film Moving Oversize Objects eloquently bears witness to this.


Of course, many people are involved when bigness is created. I thank them all very warmly for their engagement with the topic, its implementation in the exhibition and the publication, as well as the ensuing challenges. It almost goes without saying that, along with bigness, different uncertainties are involved than those we are confronted with in our everyday museum practice. I thank the entire team of our house for this great achievement. The curator, Beatrice Voirol, has chosen this theme – courageously and professionally – for her first exhibition at the Museum der Kulturen, and this in spite of the fact that it is scarcely established in the field of anthropology. For this, very special thanks!


We shall need more than three steps to cover the universe. And we have not been transformed from dwarfs into giants. But within a human scale we shall continue to explore the heights and expanses of bigness. The topic is replete with many facets, relevant for everyone.