As an undergraduate I took a course with a heavy museum reading component – we looked critically at exhibit designs and item descriptions, looking for silences, unrepresented groups, misrepresentations, and the potential inadequacies of museum information. I was about to make a joke about how consequently, I have never been able to enjoy a museum visit since. However, in the time since this class, I’ve found that my experiences in museums seem so much more productive and nuanced. I get a lot more out of exhibits now that I have tools to evaluate the information being presented.
Over spring break I spent some time in New York City, for the first time ever. Mostly, I ate my way through the city, but I also got to spend an afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History. I can really see why they made whole movies about this museum coming to life, because the animal dioramas literally look like they could bounce to life at any second. As we walked through, I wondered to myself and also out loud to my travel companion about where the animals even came from. How did they acquire these incredibly lifelike taxidermy? Did they come from their native habitats, or were they taken from zoos? Were they hunted for this specific purpose or were they found? When did they get here? Do they ever replace the animals or add new ones? The descriptions were also listed on metal plaques – are they ever updated with new information about the featured species, such as their endangerment status?
We then proceeded into the halls on African peoples, which were pretty unbelievable. The artifacts were presented with very little context about how tools were used, who specifically used them, or when they were used (the general answer to this seemed to be, “When African people USED to exist, in primitive times,” which was nearly too much for me to handle.) Then we turned a corner to find a diorama, very similar to the ones in the animal halls, featuring loin-clothed and empty-eyed mannequins of “daily life in Africa.” I was dumbfounded that they would depict and display people in the same way that we had just seen the animals – as specimens to be studied rather than real people with culture, history, and agency. I left pretty quickly after this, feeling sure that I would be able to find a wealth of articles reading this museum with a critical eye, examining what went wrong, and proposing solutions.
However, my search turned up almost nothing, with the exception of this 1997 article by Timothy W. Luke. Luke writes, “From the beginning then, the American Museum has been a memorializing monument; indeed, a headstone marking the passing of pre-capitalist Nature with its vast accumulation of dead bits a pieces from the Nature’s not yet fully mortified corpse.” Luke also goes on to make some interesting statements about how inclusion in the museum automatically classifies things as either of Nature, or of History – both of which are dead and in the past. This idea has interesting implications for other areas of the museum, and Luke applies his criticism to the evolutionary presentations of world peoples, writing that these exhibits, “mix contemporary ethnic and geographic labels to freeze frame all of these exoticized humans in otherized times/spaces/ecologies/economies before, beyond, or beneath the universalizing transformative influences of North Atlantic capitalism erase them through trade or war.”
Which…yes. Yes, absolutely. But I had a difficult time believing that this was it in the wide world of possible criticism of the museum. I took to Twitter and Michelle Caswell, who has the greatest Twitter bio of all time, pointed me to this 1984 article by Donna Haraway. Haraway takes the reader on a vivid journey through the animal exhibits and all of their weirdness, writing “the Akeley African Hall itself is simultaneously a very strange place and an ordinary experience.” Haraway’s reading of the taxidermy and the project of the animal halls is much more compelling to me. Characterizing the museum as a patriarchal fever dream, Haraway calls it, “a vast public education and research program for producing experience potent to induce the state of manhood.”
While these articles answered many of my questions about the animal exhibits, I have still been unable to find any more criticism on the human “evolution” exhibits. I guess this is probably one of those things where a professor or mentor would tell you that it’s a great opportunity to go and write it yourself, but I can’t help but be disappointed.
If anyone can point me to some more reading on this topic, or knows anyone who’s doing any cool revitalization projects at the museum, I would be ecstatic to read and learn more. Additionally, if you can point me to any museums that have done it better, I’d love to add them to my list of places to visit.