Hannah Whisenant

Hannah Whisenant | Martin Scholar

Beyond Hollywood’s America: Martin Scholar pushes for a more robust export of American culture


by Donna Emert

If you were in a foreign land trying to grasp what American culture is all about, and you relied solely on movies, television and the internet, chances are you’d come away thinking a couple of things: That Americans really like to blow things up, and that they drive way too fast.

And that’s just the action flicks. The top U.S. news stories can seem even more violent and unsettling.

So how does America shape its image and its relationships abroad, and how does it share the full richness and diversity of its art and culture? That’s a question Hannah Whisenant is working to help answer.

“I feel like there is a big gap in American politics for peaceful cultural diplomacy,” said Whisenant, a University of Idaho senior. ”Our biggest cultural export is Hollywood. I don’t think it represents our country.”

Whisenant is a theatre arts major, minoring in radio and TV broadcast digital media and international studies. She’s one of four 2011 Martin Scholars investigating the function and value of the arts as a tool for international diplomacy.

The University’s Martin Scholars are selected for distinction in prior research projects, international experience, a distinctive combination of interests across the curriculum, and evidence of successful collaboration in small group work.

They devote a full academic year to researching their topic; 2011 scholars will present their findings in May.

In her research so far, Whisenant found that the United States has decreased its expenditure on diplomacy through cultural exchange to almost zero since 2003, when the federal budget became more focused on financing war.

She’s looking at how theatre can help build diplomatic relations with other countries, foster cultural exchange and mutual understanding, and ultimately strengthen diplomacy. Toward that end, she’s designing a model for cultural exchange between theatre departments in universities around the globe.

One of the core strengths of exchange programs is that they offer an authentic slice of culture.

“It’s fine to talk with people about your culture, but sometimes you just have to show them,” says Whisenant. “People abroad want to know what America is like.”

Whisenant brings her own experience abroad to bear on the project: While still in high school, she served as a People-to-People Student Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand. In her junior year of college, she spent two semesters studying theatre, media, and culture in England. In the spring 2010, she interned in Norway as a “scenographer's” assistant, stage hand, and performer.

“A lot of people I met in those countries wanted to know what America is like. They’d say, ‘In the movies it’s like this.’ But that’s just not the whole picture. I also realized there was very little American art anywhere I travelled.”

That lack of exposure between cultures can undermine efforts at diplomacy, Whisenant argues.

“The better the understanding between cultures, the richer the communication you have with other countries,” she said. ”We should be sharing art, music, theatre, and dance as much as possible.”

To her surprise, Whisenant found that while the U.S. does have an agency for art and cultural exportation through the State Department, it, too, has suffered funding cuts since 2003. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) serves that function for many nations, promoting peace through academics, sciences and the arts. Whisenant also found that U.S. involvement in UNESCO has declined sharply since 2003.

While some worry that cultural exchanges, and indeed the United Nations, foster personal as well as cultural values that conflict with American values, Whisenant seems to have emerged from her own international travels with a clearer understanding of the core American value of self reliance, and how to apply it.

“When I went to England, I knew no one,” said Whisenant. “In Norway, I knew one person. I had to figure everything out for myself. It helped me make decisions and it’s made me a more independent thinker, more self reliant. That’s a good skill for any job.”