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A look at the american museum of natural history

Photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian.

In this museum … it actually does. What are you talking about? Everything in this museum comes to life at night. They are outdated as exhibits, ranging in age from 30 to 116 years old, and their biggest audience is a captive one: New York City school children. It is precisely that audience that makes the collective message of the Halls so troubling and in need of urgent change.

In its Cultural Halls, the AMNH erases the colonial contexts in which the artifacts were collected and exhibited, and thus implicitly sanctions that history. The content of the exhibits and the absence of any real collaboration with the non—Euro-American people on display have the representational effect of recolonizing these groups and reasserting the singular authority of Euro-America to define and represent its cultural others.

We did not have a chance to talk to the AMNH anthropology curators for our earlier review, so we promised a second installment based on interviews with them about the Halls and the prospects for seriously reforming the installations.

At first, a look at the american museum of natural history were not certain we would be able to talk directly to curators because the museum does not have a reputation for openness to publicity it does not control. They asked the museum to remove the triumphal and imperious statue at its main entrance, which depicts Teddy Roosevelt on horseback flanked by an American Indian and an African-American on foot. As it turned out, the protest probably helped.

At the least, it was clear that curators had received a green light from the AMNH administration to talk to us because they all agreed to our interview requests. We appreciate being allowed to record our conversations; as requested, we do not attribute quoted text to any individual museum employee.

We also arranged to interview several of the DTP protest organizers, since some of their criticisms about the Cultural Halls echoed ours.

As we tacked back and forth last December, interviewing museum curators and organizers of the DTP protest, we felt as if we were being tossed between Weber and Marx. The curators and the organizers agreed that the halls were colonial legacies and that they needed to be reformed. There was even a little hope that more substantive changes were possible, but as we will show, in light of what else the curators said, it is hard to imagine how a deep reform of any or all the Cultural Halls could come to pass without significant change at the top.

Material Constraints The AMNH is an economic and political institution, dependent on donations — some small, some very large — on admission contributions and on state and federal funds. Several curators we spoke with helped us see how this dependence puts decisions about changing the Cultural Halls in the hands of administrators.

The most common refrains we heard when we asked why the Halls had not been seriously updated in decades were: The administration does not want to update the Cultural Halls because a half-million New York public school children visit them each year as part of their social studies curriculum. This makes no sense to us. Nor could we understand why the administration lavishes funds on renovating natural and physical science exhibits, which students also visit, in order to keep them up to date, while it immiserates the Cultural Halls.

One curator told us that for each of the past five or six years, the museum has had … more than five million people come in here. We had more people than we could accommodate. In other words, why bother fixing the at tires?

Anthropology curators at the museum experience their low administrative priority on a smaller scale when they submit requests to change a label or a case. Nothing can be opened, moved, removed or changed without its approval.

The curators cannot act directly on any exhibit; they must schedule time for the conservators to consult and then negotiate with them about preservation. One might think that the cases would simply open from the rear to allow basic additions or changes. The cases do not open at all. Until the 1970s, the museum employed a look at the american museum of natural history own maintenance department; workers operated a powerful vacuum device that could be attached to the glass front of an exhibit case to pull it open.

All museum maintenance functions were outsourced in the 1970s, and the vacuum device was discarded. Opening anything today requires hiring specialized craft workers; glass has to be cut out, removed and replaced with very large custom plates. Nor is totally replacing an exhibit case much of an option, as this would run into museum architectural standards as well as conservation standards.

This is a look at the american museum of natural history the beginning of the problems. Any simple fix to make artifacts more visible runs into seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Aside from the exorbitant cost of opening the cases, the existing light fixtures are not compatible with any contemporary light bulbs. Worse, the electrical wiring behind the cases is many decades old, insulated with asbestos, and would be phenomenally expensive to replace.

The privileging of the hard sciences over the human sciences seems less an explanation than a restatement of the problem. Nor do we accept the notion that it is harder to raise money for renovating the Cultural Halls than for the Natural Halls, but even if it were, that is no excuse for letting the Cultural Halls stagnate.

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If exhibits in the Natural Halls were found to be inaccurate and antiquated, would they be allowed to languish? The other was their embrace of a neoliberal logic in making decisions about what to fund and not fund.

9 Things You Won't See on Display at the American Museum of Natural History

Both came into play around 1990, when serious work on the Cultural Halls faded to a halt. The effects of those rapacious colonial forces are still visible in the lives of Native Peoples who live within the national borders of the U. But now, thanks to NAGPRA, anthropologists and the museums we work in must deal every day with the uncomfortable reality that our Native American exhibits display the history of internal colonialism, acknowledged or not.

Often, remains and items are not labeled by museums, or are mislabeled, and museums vary widely in how proactively and positively they work with Indian groups on repatriation.

  • Across town in Brooklyn, a collective of climate-change activists took note of the effect of Busch's tweets;
  • They are outdated as exhibits, ranging in age from 30 to 116 years old, and their biggest audience is a captive one;
  • The AMNH had a beautiful collection of such bags from her area, so she got a grant from her community and spent a couple days in the museum studying its collection.

Some other museums have not. If you [change] a Hall, we are going to deal with the stake-holding communities. In a recent review, AMNH Director of Cultural Resources Nell Murphy and her co-author Martha Graham reported that the museum has returned 800 of the 3,500 remains of Native American individuals that it held, thousands of associated funerary objects and more than 400 cultural objects.

This looks like a positive record, but what mystifies us is that it is entirely hidden from the larger public.

  1. In its Cultural Halls, the AMNH erases the colonial contexts in which the artifacts were collected and exhibited, and thus implicitly sanctions that history.
  2. University of Arizona Press, 2014.
  3. We also write as social-cultural anthropologists who want the most current insights in our field to inform the Cultural Halls, not concepts that reigned 50 or 100 years ago. In other words, why bother fixing the at tires?

Nowhere in the museum itself or on the AMNH website could we find any mention of the consultations or the repatriated remains and objects [6], with one very small but telling exception, the False Face Masks. One curator told us about a label that is scheduled to be placed in another case in the Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians, next to an empty spot where a Meskwaki necklace once hung.

It is, relatively speaking, yet we are dumbfounded. The topic deserves more than a label. Even devoting the empty case to the topic, while a step in the right direction, would not be enough. It deserves a major exhibit area, one a look at the american museum of natural history would stage the new collaborations being undertaken with Native American communities as well as narrating the troubled history of reparations [9].

Better yet, all the Halls should be redesigned to function more as spaces of ongoing interaction between the AMNH and the peoples featured. The Zuni project exemplified that concept by combining Zuni and museum knowledge about items in the collection, but as far as the public is concerned, such a collaboration is the exception, not the rule, at the AMNH.

Individually and together, the Cultural Halls as they stand now are monuments to old-style museum practices that tell one-sided, top-down, outdated stories.

Some significant exhibits have been taken down, including the Eskimo Inuit displays that Holden Caulfield cherished in The Catcher in the Rye. Curators said they have presented numerous proposals over the past several decades to renovate one or another of the Cultural Halls, but the administration has declined to fund them.

Two proposals have been submitted recently, and it is possible that the more modest one will be supported. The more ambitious proposal calls for reorganizing and combining the Asian Cultural and Natural Halls. The plan had been solicited by the administration itself, took two years to prepare and involved extensive consultations with Asian-American communities and Asian museums. Submitted in the summer of 2016, it has garnered no response as of this writing.

One way the anthropology curators deal with their stagnant Halls is by maximizing access to their collections through other means. They publish articles and monographs. They have created and curate a comprehensive digital database and archives. They invite researchers from around the world to consult their collections in person, and they provide internships and training programs for graduate students.

They grant long-term or permanent loans to other institutions and deliver artifacts from their research directly to other museums. They also mount traveling exhibitions. Apparently financially it pays off, too. Absent the financial support to renovate their permanent installations, such ephemeral exhibits are the only updating opportunities open to anthropology curators.

This reflects a policy shift by the administration toward a neoliberal logic of maximizing revenue, a shift that not only rationalizes letting the Cultural Halls lie fallow but favors funding science over cultural shows.

  • We also write as social-cultural anthropologists who want the most current insights in our field to inform the Cultural Halls, not concepts that reigned 50 or 100 years ago;
  • And the big reason, the cosmic reason, I think, is the neo-liberal economy, the bottom-line-driven organization;
  • As we tacked back and forth last December, interviewing museum curators and organizers of the DTP protest, we felt as if we were being tossed between Weber and Marx;
  • We had more people than we could accommodate;
  • Nowhere in the museum itself or on the AMNH website could we find any mention of the consultations or the repatriated remains and objects [6], with one very small but telling exception, the False Face Masks;
  • But trustees are legally required to, among other things, safeguard their institution's finances, human resources and goodwill.

According to one curator, after the last Cultural Hall was completed in 1987, the administration turned its attention to renovating other spaces — the Dinosaur Halls, the Planetarium, Planet Earth, Ocean Life, Meteorites. And the big reason, the cosmic reason, I think, is the neo-liberal economy, the bottom-line-driven organization.

  • Absent the financial support to renovate their permanent installations, such ephemeral exhibits are the only updating opportunities open to anthropology curators;
  • The species is now considered extinct; the last of its kind died in an Australian zoo in 1936;
  • The effects of those rapacious colonial forces are still visible in the lives of Native Peoples who live within the national borders of the U;
  • We just sat in there and we drummed;
  • New York City school children.

And what do you do to do that? Well, you do away with extraneous labor, like the people who take the glass off the cases, and you look at your traveling exhibit program. Unfortunately, the touchscreen was not responsive when we tried to interact with it, but we recognize it as a gesture toward enlivening collaboration with Native communities.

Still, it seems a gesture more virtual — literally and figuratively — than real. And, of course, it makes no gesture at all toward the sense of reparations called for by NAGPRA and the new kinds of museum— community relations emerging elsewhere. The a affinity group member and protest organizer with whom we spoke also explained how vital such collaborations would be for Native American communities, both as a means of communicating with their ancestors and in renewing their traditions.

The Native American affinity group formed a drumming circle in front of the huge empty case where the False Face Masks were once displayed. I wanted it to a look at the american museum of natural history about talking directly to the ancestors and [saying] I know you are still here.

I still want to talk to you and receive your wisdom. We just sat in there and we drummed. In leaving the community — that journey — [our objects] took on a new kind of power. Sometimes in return they can bring something with them too, something different, but something useful. An invasive species, the emerald ash borer, is killing the black ash trees, which may all be dead in North America by 2030.

The grandmothers who weave ash baskets will lose a source of community income and a way to relate to the land. The AMNH had a beautiful collection of such bags from her area, so she got a grant from her community and spent a couple days in the museum studying its collection. So [the weaver] sat down with [the bags in the museum] and said this is where she started, and here is where she changed the threads, and here is where she did this. Which is about looking for a person who was behind the bag and looking for a way to relate to that person.

Conclusion We think the AMNH administration has shelved proposals to renovate the Cultural Halls for 30 years because it is reluctant to take on the task of changing how the museum relates to the communities featured in them, combined with its free-market fixation with maximizing the bottom line. Not all curators are on the same page about how to address this issue. Needless to say, we agree with them.