A new introduction to the museum

Anthropology museums are not easy places to explain. For those who know about the history of the anthropology, they carry a lot of baggage, a long history of exoticising the other, of scientific racism, of cultural and social evolution. For those just walking in off the street, it’s very easy for the displays to reinforce cultural notions based in part on that long history: don’t read the labels, and the displays of many anthropology exhibits still seem to be about the primitive, the exotic, the foreign.

An introduction to the museum should address these issues, and try to explain them. But words aren’t enough. We need to find objects that suggest not just how we might understand other peoples, but the value of doing so. We need to acknowledge the history of the museum, its problems, and not just sweep it under the carpet so that it remains an unspoken assumption for many visitors.

It’s a difficult problem, but one worth trying. Here’s my proposal, to be installed in the Haffenreffer in the next few weeks. Any comments and suggestions welcome!

Three elements. Ahead of you as you walk in, four masks in a case, facing you. From around the world. In the same case, facing the other way but visible between the masks: three “ethnographical busts” from about 1900, part of the history of the anthropology museum’s attempts to typify the “races” of humanity. The labels for the masks not only explain where they’re from and how the people who made them used them; they also explain the range of ways that museums acquire artifacts. The labels for the busts tells something of the history, but also tells as much as we can find out about the individual portrayed. The “race” is on the pedestal; here, the label is headlined with the individual’s name.

And on either side, an explanation of the museum, and an explanation of the history of the museum.

Images of the objects, and the text of the labels, after the jump.

Here’s the text (still in draft; comments welcome!):

View this document on Scribd

And here are the busts and the masks:


1 Comment

  1. tmcnichol

    Hi Steve,
    Fascinating material. It sounds like an extraordinary collection especially with the inclusion of hundreds of masks. I think your copy is excellent for it conveys very directly complex cultural traditional beliefs and attitudes. I had two thoughts reading it: how the mask’s reverse side was other-worldly and/or altered identity(ies). I like the inclusion of the ethnographic busts and how they contrast with the complexity of contemporary notions of identity such as the 2010 census whereby individuals could self-identify race, a method that was neither scientific nor anthropological. And then there is popular culture’s approach to altering identity with botox, plastic surgery and the like.

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