01
Leading Questions
A Field at a Crossroads: Genetics and Racial Mythmaking
Leading Questions
A Field at a Crossroads: Genetics and Racial Mythmaking
01
Fallen Idols
Ghosts of Science Past Still Haunt Us. We Can Put Them to Rest.
Fallen Idols
Ghosts of Science Past Still Haunt Us. We Can Put Them to Rest.
01
Family Ties
What’s in a Genome? The Quest to Decipher Human Difference
Family Ties
What’s in a Genome? The Quest to Decipher Human Difference
01
Drawing Conclusions
Q&A: Jonathan Kahn on New Frontiers in Racial Profiling
Drawing Conclusions
Q&A: Jonathan Kahn on New Frontiers in Racial Profiling
01
Beyond Measure
Born of Eugenics, Can Standardized Testing Escape Its Own History?
Beyond Measure
Born of Eugenics, Can Standardized Testing Escape Its Own History?
01
Learning Curves
Race Is a Biological Fiction, and Potent Social Reality
Learning Curves
Race Is a Biological Fiction, and Potent Social Reality
01
Calculated Risk
A Crude Tool: How Race Has Influenced Breast Cancer Research
Calculated Risk
A Crude Tool: How Race Has Influenced Breast Cancer Research
01
Seed Money
Draper's Millions: The Philanthropic Wellspring of Modern Race Science
Seed Money
Draper's Millions: The Philanthropic Wellspring of Modern Race Science
01
On Display
Race and the American Museum of Natural History
On Display
Race and the American Museum of Natural History
01
Blood Lines
Good Blood, Bad Policy: the Red Cross and Jim Crow
Blood Lines
Good Blood, Bad Policy: the Red Cross and Jim Crow

Why There’s No Hall of European Peoples in the American Museum of Natural History

In the American Museum of Natural History in New York, a depiction of the Pokot people in Kenya’s Rift Valley in the Hall of African Peoples, originally opened in 1968 as the “Hall of Man in Africa." Visual: Kris Graves

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.

Maria Baranova

At the 2022 Margaret Mead Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, attempts are being made to rewrite the errors of the past. The Git Hoan Dancers — “people of the salmon” — show that Tsimshian cultural practices in Alaska are at once rooted in tradition and constantly reflecting on contemporary themes.

Maria Baranova

The dances reference wolves and whales, mice and eagles. The challenge they pose: How different might modern science and conservation look if researchers saw nature from the perspective of Indigenous societies who have an understanding of local environments developed over a much longer period of time than European colonial settlers?

Maria Baranova

“We are proud to be standing here in front of you,” says David Boxley, a Tsimshian carver from Metlakatla, Alaska, who formed the Git Hoan Dancers and helped the museum design its new Northwest Coast Hall.

Maria Baranova

“We are doing our very best to keep our culture alive,” adds Boxley, who hand-carves intricate masks like the one worn here by Git Hoan Dancer Jerome Nathan.

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.

Kris Graves

A diorama of Mbuti pygmies in the museum’s Hall of African Peoples, based on fieldwork in the 1960s by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who wrote the popular ethnographic book, “The Forest People.”

Kris Graves

The older cultural dioramas echo the dioramas of forests and wildlife elsewhere in the museum, like these in the Hall of North American Forests, which opened in 1958. When the museum was founded in 1869, scientists still thought about non-Western populations and cultures as tied to their geography like an Asian elephant is to Asia or an African elephant is to Africa. It was the era of real-life "human zoos," when living people from Asia and Africa were displayed as exhibits at Coney Island and the Bronx Zoo.

Kris Graves

The Hall of New York State Environment, opened in 1951, shows how agriculture changed after European colonial settlers arrived. Native nations who already lived on the same land were treated as primitive, their ways of life as belonging to the past and destined to fade.

Kris Graves

Exhibits in the Hall of South American Peoples are based on fieldwork among modern Amazonians.

Kris Graves

Museum curators today recognize that mannequins designed to represent entire populations can freeze in time cultures that are always changing.

Kris Graves

“Curators intended these mannequins to be teaching tools which immersed visitors in cultures from around the world,” explains an educational panel added to the 42-year-old Hall of Asian Peoples. “But what are they really teaching?”

Kris Graves

In 1978, villagers in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India posed for anthropologists to help them recreate this wedding scene.

Kris Graves

There’s a risk that dioramas like this one, of a Bedouin man, can conflate culture with physical appearance in the viewer’s imagination, summoning old racial myths.

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.

Kris Graves

In 2018, curators added labels to this 1939 diorama of ‘Old New York’ to highlight misrepresentations of the Lenape, and to remind visitors of the violent realities of colonialism.

Kris Graves

Unlike the Dutch men depicted in the diorama, the faces of the Lenape men appear curiously similar, giving the impression of racial homogeneity among Indigenous peoples, as though they have no individual identity.

Maria Baranova

The museum’s new Northwest Coast Hall, opened in May 2022, has no life-size dioramas. Instead, cultural objects are presented with commentary from expert curators from Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Haíltzaqv, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, Tlingit, and Tsimshian societies.

Maria Baranova

This corner of the new hall is explicit about the racism and colonial violence that decimated Native nations. Indigenous children were sent to residential boarding schools to assimilate them into White American culture and to convert them to Christianity. Thousands were abused and died. Adults were denied the vote, in turn denying them the rights to log wood in the same forests they had stewarded for centuries.

Maria Baranova

The new hall is part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to confront North America’s racial history. There is a 63-foot canoe suspended from the ceiling and rows of monumental carvings looming from the walls. Within living memory, Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest were persecuted for practicing these arts and cultures, for speaking their languages, and having traditional tattoos.

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In New York’s acclaimed facility, the Hall of African Mammals is 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. ‍But the museum has no Hall of European Peoples.

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On Display

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Dec 28, 2022

In New York’s acclaimed facility, the Hall of African Mammals is 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. ‍But the museum has no Hall of European Peoples.

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