Strangely ahistoric sensibilities at the American Museum of Natural History

Design of the American Museum of Natural history, 1911

By Jon Weier

When you visit New York City in late January you find yourself avoiding some of the activities that would characterize a spring or summer visit.  Strolls in Central Park, though beautiful, lose some of their allure on a windy and cold afternoon.  Walking from Midtown to the Lower East Side for dinner is no longer worth the effort.  And visiting the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Union Square takes commitment.  What a cold Saturday afternoon does lend itself to, especially for historians like myself, is visiting the American Museum of Natural History.  Lucky for me, my wife agreed to go with me.

My favourite museums had always been ones which were willing to use different materials and tools, and draw from a broad variety of disciplines to tell the history of a country, a region, a people, or a theme.  Three museums that come to mind are the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, all of which tell interesting and complicated histories well, while respecting those whose history they explore.  While I wasn’t expecting that exact experience at the American Museum of Natural History, I was expecting something more than the very simplistic, exploitative and static history that we encountered.

Anyone who has seen the movie Night at the Museum will have some idea of what I expected.  I expected a fairly straightforward antiquities house, a mixed collection of artifacts and fossils, arranged thematically and chronologically to tell a story, likely one of 19th century European exploration and discovery.  I also expected that, though this would be the defining narrative, there would be some attention paid to respecting the history and culture of those whose artifacts were on display.

Image by InSapphoWeTrust

The strength of the American Museum of Natural History lay in the natural history exhibit halls.  Galleries were full of stuffed mammals and birds from around the world, mounted and displayed in dioramas accurately representing their habitat and natural environment.  The prehistoric galleries featured skeletons and models of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals arranged chronologically and thematically to show a history of evolution and development.  Various scientific galleries offered opportunities to learn about everything from the highest heavens to the deepest oceans.

What shocked my wife and me were the anthropological exhibits.  Depicting everything from the cultures of American indigenous peoples to South Pacific island societies and ancient Asian and Middle Eastern civilizations, the anthropological collections presented these cultures in a static, primitive and completely outdated fashion.

Sculpture of a Semai woman at the American Museum of Natural History

In a succession of increasingly surprising exhibits we were treated to an ever intensifying process of historical inaccuracy and eurocentrism.  In the Hall of Eastern Woodland Indians, various displays and dioramas presented us with pictures of American Indians practicing a culture that failed to reflect the evolving relationships between European colonizers and aboriginal peoples from the 17th century to the present.  There was no mention of the great cities and cultures that had existed pre-contact, only dioramas depicting small, primitive looking villages.  There was no recognition that these were evolving and politically and socially complex societies, that the Iroquois for example, had developed a strong and evolved confederacy, or that they had been important players in the wars between the European colonizers from the 16th century on.  Nor was there any recognition of the intense and constant intermixing of aboriginal peoples and European settlers from the first moments of contact.

The Hall of Plains Indians presented us with the supposed heyday of the Sioux, after they had been introduced to the horse but before they had been introduced to firearms, or for that matter to European alcohol or manufactured goods.  This was a time of noble savages, roaming the plains unhindered as they hunted herds of buffalo.  Information panels made no mention of Custer, Little Big Horn or Wounded Knee, and in the final panel, the Sioux were consigned to the dust heap of history for their “difficulty adapting to modern, industrial society.”

Predictably, the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples depicted a society that would have been familiar to her early 20th century audience.  Islanders were depicted in various states of undress, untarnished and unaffected by the colonization of British, American, German or Japanese occupiers.  They were innocent and primitive in their openness and peacefulness, though savage and unpredictable in their cannibalism and brutishness.  There was little recognition of the dynamism of these cultures or of the effects of colonialism and conquest.

Finally, a succession of ancient Asian, African and Middle Eastern cultures and civilizations were presented in a static ahistorical fashion.  China was represented by the art works of various Imperial dynasties, Japan as the home of Samurai culture, and the Middle East as the cradle of civilization.  In the Hall of African Peoples, the slightest mention of slavery was made in a panel off to the side in well-hidden alcove.

Effectively, the anthropological exhibits felt like a collection of artifacts brought back to the museum by a succession of collectors sent out around the world in search of cultural treasures.  And this is very much what a museum was a century ago.  My wife and I were both surprised that the American Museum of Natural History had not evolved into a more modern conception of a museum, one that respects the dynamic and complex nature of the cultures on display.

Jon Weier is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Western University.  His thesis is a transnational history of the First World War work of the YMCA.  He regularly posts on twitter as @jonweier.

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3 thoughts on “Strangely ahistoric sensibilities at the American Museum of Natural History

  1. Peter

    We had the exact same response. The natural sciences seemed up to date, and wouldn’t be tolerated if they weren’t (snakes and turtles aren’t “reptiles” anymore, e.g.). But the anthropological displays were appalling. And actually, so were the dioramas of Great Big Animals. Both felt like that “succession of collectors” you mention.

    With distance, we can look at these displays as a museum of museography. We can visit in order to learn about the shocking history of human portrayals of other humans. And to be shocked that no one there thinks it’s time for those portrayals to change.

  2. Brenda

    Jon: I, too, cringe when attending the AMNH in NYC but it has prompted me to reconsider, and especially in light of my research, how such institutions can actually be utilized as sites from which to critique the public mandates, roles, and authority held by museums. We can consider this museum as a site for anthropological and historical analysis, particularly by considering how ‘culture’ was once ‘scientific’ and relied on ideas of the ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’ to be publicly displayed. This does not dismiss the offensiveness of the dioramas: what it hopefully provides is opportunity to question why such exhibitions continue and for what purpose. I would hazard a guess that many people who attend these galleries do question why such exhibitions continue, and why they haven’t changed. Those questions need to be asked more often, and answered in a timely manner. I see the former happening, but not the latter.

  3. Anne Marie

    I have found the same as well, especially in small museums in the midwest US. It’s like the curators are not connected to anything that has happened in anthropology in the last century. But of course it is more shocking in a major museum such as the AMNH.

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