Museum curators once regarded non-Western cultures as primitive. Now they’re trying to change the narrative.
“Every society trains itself to see categories,” the Georgetown University professor Charles King wrote in his 2019 book, “Gods of the Upper Air." “The mobilization of sham science to justify bigotry,” he continued, “might be said to be a deep characteristic of only one culture: that of the developed West.”
From at least the 18th century onwards, European naturalists developed a theory of human difference in which a population’s shared habits and behaviors were seen to be rooted in their bodies and linked to geography in the same way as their skin color. That belief left its mark on natural history and anthropology museums across Europe and North America as they tried to exhibit the cultures and characteristics of people across the world.
In New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the Hall of African Mammals is diagonally across the corridor from the Hall of African Peoples. Likewise, the Hall of Asian Mammals leads to the Hall of Asian Peoples. The Hall of South American Peoples is located on the same floor.
The museum has no Hall of European Peoples. Although each of the cultural halls was developed separately over different periods of time, the omission perhaps speaks to the era when Western thinkers saw Europeans as exceptional, as modern and civilized in ways that other races weren’t. According to this worldview, White Europeans didn’t belong to nature; instead, they were destined to control it. Western cultures were dynamic; others were static.
In his book, King explains how these foundational fictions of race began to be challenged in the early 20th century with a generation of anthropologists who highlighted that culture and biology were separate, and that racial categories were not based in biology. Among them was the liberal, anti-racist anthropologist Margaret Mead, who argued that Western cultures were not the pinnacles of civilization they imagined themselves to be.
There remains a tension between the biases of the past and the future of museums like this one.
Mead worked at the American Museum of Natural History from 1926 until she died in 1978 — although it has taken until the 21st century for the museum to fully interrogate its collections. An annual festival now held in her honor features films and performances aimed at more sensitive understandings of human cultures.
In 2018, a 1939 diorama showing the moment that a delegation of Lenape met Dutch leader Peter Stuyvesant was annotated with labels added to the glass, explaining its historical inaccuracies and misleading characterizations.
And in May 2022, the museum opened its new Northwest Coast Hall, a sharp departure from the dioramas of the past. The hall features more than a thousand cultural artifacts and contemporary artworks, curated in collaboration with Indigenous communities, as well as a video by Michael Bourquin, a filmmaker of Tahltan-Gitxsan descent, explaining the cultural damage wrought on local Native communities on the Pacific Northwest Coast as a result of settler colonialism.
In the old cultural halls upstairs from the Northwest Coast Hall, though, there remains a tension between the biases of the past and the future of museums like this one. Older exhibits feel oddly out of place against newer ones. Curators recognize the need to move on, to draw a fresher portrait of humanity, one that doesn’t reduce people to caricatures. Until the resources are available to redesign everything, some have tried to contextualize what there is. An explanatory panel in the Hall of Asian Peoples admits, “We are rethinking the future of mannequins in museums.”
But perhaps there’s some educational value in leaving things as they are, at least for a while. Entering the cultural halls — where some exhibits are now more than five decades old — can feel like a lesson in itself. There’s a subtext to the outdated dioramas. Observe closely, and they tell an alternative story from the one they were designed to tell, a story of how the myth of race set the boundaries for the study of human difference.
They point to another kind of culture — that of European and American racism.
A Celebration of Human Culture
Margaret Mead, a liberal, anti-racist anthropologist, worked at the American Museum of Natural History for more than 50 years. An annual festival now held in her honor features films and performances aimed at more sensitive understandings of human cultures.
Old Halls in a New Light
Observe closely, and these exhibits tell an alternative story from the one they were designed to tell, a story of how the myth of race set the boundaries for the study of human difference.
Writing Over Errors of the Past
In recent years, the museum has added context to some older exhibits and opened the Northwest Coast Hall, which is a sharp departure from the dioramas of the past.