In the Footsteps of Denis Belliveau and Marco Polo
(Image courtesy of Denis Belliveau. The image depicts Taklamakan Desert. Denis Belliveau Ⓒ.)
Globalization is a buzzword used both in the political and business sector. Companies and politicians want to expand their reach and engage with new audiences. While many people extol globalization, the question remains: Who was the first globalizer? Some might think of a conqueror who brought one civilization into a different region. Others might believe it is the random writer who pens the thoughts and feelings of a generation. If I had to credit anyone, it would be Marco Polo.
(Image courtesy of Commons Wikipedia. The image depicts the Mosaic of Marco Polo at the Municipal Palace of Genoa Palazzo Grimaldi Doria-Tursi from the 19th century. The image is in the public domain.)
Marco Polo, the man whose name you yelled in the pool or the subject of a random television show, was the person who invented the modern concept of globalization. What makes Polo different from others, such as Columbus or Cortés, is his intentions. Polo humanizes the past as he did not exploit resources or people. His adventure did not stem from the need to conquer lands for his home city-state. His mission was purely commercial, and his transparency in his written work (The Travels of Marco Polo) and career saved Polo from being demonized or defied.
(Image courtesy of commons Wikipedia. The image depicts Marco Polo, Il Milione, Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV, a page from the Book "The Travels of Marco Polo" ("Il milione"), originally published during Polo's lifetime 1298-1299, but frequently reprinted and translated. Livre des merveilles fol. 58r. The Khan at war. The image is in the public domain.)
When I was eleven, I saw a documentary that changed my worldview. The film did not cover what I thought of as the typical documentarian topics of youth activism or medical breakthroughs. Instead, it told the story of two photographers retracing Marco Polo's travel in the documentary In The Footsteps of Marco Polo. Before the dawn of the internet, Denis Belliveau and Frank O'Donnel left their home to go on their Marco Polo odyssey right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The friends saw the past come to life in some of the most remote and anti-American nations.
(Image courtesy of Denis Beliveau. The image depicts Denis and Fran with their caravan in Afghanistan. Denis Belliveau Ⓒ)
But, at eleven, I did not find that to be the most extraordinary part. This documentary resonated so much with me because it discussed how photography was used as a tool to tell a story. I watched how Belliveau and O'Donnel magically bridged the 13th century with the modern day by taking pictures of the ruins and descendants of the people mentioned in Marco Polo's book.
(Image courtesy of Denis Belliveau. The image depicts Tibetan Monks. Denis Belliveau Ⓒ)
I have watched this film for the past fourteen years whenever I need a new perspective. Belliveau and O'Donnel illuminated a path I did not know was possible. While I still love photography, I am beginning a career in commercial storytelling (public relations). When I assigned this blog, both teachers had students write an introduction to the website. In December 2020, I took the time to ponder what, where, when, and how I came to this career. Then, as I rewatched In The Footsteps for the umpteenth time, I realized that the film was my initial push toward my professional path.
(Image courtesy of Denis Belliveau. The image depicts a Venitien Canal. Denis Belliveau Ⓒ)
Recently, I reached out to Denis Belliveau and interviewed him for my blog. I wanted to know how his travels changed his worldview.
(Image courtesy of https://news.harker.org/denis-belliveau-follows-in-the-steps-of-marco-polo-at-the-harker-speaker-series/. The image depicts Denis Belliveau.)
1. Why do the humanities matter?
For the past 10-15 years, the American education system has pushed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. Consequently, schools' budgets accommodated this STEM focus by slashing first the arts (visual art class, music, etc.) and now humanities. The humanities open students' eyes to how the wider world works. By eliminating history and literature classes, schools inadvertently rob the future of the importance of the past. I have seen educators recognize how detrimental cutting the humanities is to a young person's education. Teachers are trying to renew students' interests in the arts and humanities.
(Image courtesy of Denis Belliveau. The image depicts a Chinese wheat farmer. Denis Belliveau Ⓒ)
2. How does the past influence current geo-political events?
In the past three hundred years, empires broke down to create the modern notion of sovereign nations. When Marco Polo went on his adventures, he took the Silk Road through the entire Mongol empire. When Fran and I went, we needed to cross twenty-four modern borders. These border crossings were the most challenging part of the trip, as we needed the correct visas, bribe the border portal, or forge our passports. Marco Polo never had to worry about crossing different countries and having the proper paperwork. Throughout our travels, people saw us as two Americans with cameras traveling. So, the local authorities feared we were spies.
We began our travels right after the fall of the Soviet Union. When traveling through Central Asia, we saw how former Soviet satellite states tried to define their national identity. When we were in Uzbekistan, we saw the people pull down Lenin's statue and replace it with a Tamerlane statue.
In the modern political sense, current events in Eastern Europe mirror how the Russian government under Vladimir Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union. China's Belt and Road Initiative is an effort to reanimate the Silk Road. The Belt and Road Initiative mirrors the U.S.'s Marshall Plan in post-WW2 Europe. So, the Chinese government is pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in their neighboring countries like Mongolia and Pakistan. For the first time in 500 years, the world's focus is shifting back towards European and Asian political and economic interactions rather than European and North/South American interactions.
3. How can educators connect the arts with social studies?
My company, In The Footsteps of History, uses virtual reality and gaming to create a historically accurate, highly immersive experience. Our work allows students to witness historical events and expand what history education can look like. We recreated what Marco Polo could have seen when he met with Kublai Khan in Xanadu (a city that no longer exists after the Ming Dynasty expelled the Mongols). Students can explore the world that Marco Polo described in his work. Similar to how the PowerPoint updated educational pursuits, VR in the humanities allows students to have a Kinesthetic learning experience. We also have a nonprofit wing called The Foundation of Historical Exploration, which allows underserved schools the same educational opportunities.
(Image courtesy of Denis Belliveau. The image depicts Student avatars exploring Tibet. Denis Belliveau Ⓒ)
4. What is the future of your work?
After our film came out, teachers from across the country called me to ask if I could talk with their students. After seeing how much of an impact reinterpreting what a history lesson could be, I came up with a curriculum discussing Marco Polo, The Mongols, and China. I called it An Explorer in Residence program, where I would go into schools and teach a project-based lesson plan. Some projects included: students making indigo dye and dyeing tee shirts or crushing lapis lazuli to create paint as Marco Polo described. During and after COVID-19, I recognized how more students could interact with this curriculum in a virtual setting. We have created digital storytelling with different explorers and eras. For more information, please visit www.inthefootsteps.org.