The Passing of the Indians Behind Glass
November 15, 2014 3:34 AM   Subscribe

Francie Diep on why natural history museums are taking down their indigenous cultures dioramas—and what can take their place.
Visitors and museum staff say that by displaying American Indian cultures alongside dinosaur fossils, gemstones and taxidermied animals, dioramas make their subjects seem less than fully human. And because they depict a culture in a freeze-frame moment in time—often during the seventeenth century, around when many tribes first contacted Europeans—they make children think that all the American Indians are dead.
posted by frimble (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best museum on indigenous peoples: The Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut. It's by the peoples themselves, and includes wonderful exhibits showcasing all aspects of their cultures. I cannot recommend it enough. The films, offering an alternative to the Eurocentric viewpoint generally seen in media, are real eye-openers.

The Rochester Museum of Science offered a wonderful exhibit a couple of years ago which placed the local Iroquois in context side-by-side with European settlers. It was refreshing to get a completely different take on events taught with racist overtones decades ago.
posted by kinnakeet at 3:48 AM on November 15, 2014 [11 favorites]

The dioramas look like they were crafted with a lot of care. Sad to see them go, as miniature diorama-making isn't exactly an ascending art.

But museums have been disappointing me lately, like when the Smithsonian took down its exhibit of my people.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:36 AM on November 15, 2014 [11 favorites]


A century ago they displayed live ones.

"Kroeber brought Ishi to the University of California’s Associated Colleges Museum in San Francisco, where he worked as a living diorama until his death in 1916"
posted by fairmettle at 4:42 AM on November 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best museum on indigenous peoples: The Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut. It's by the peoples themselves, and includes wonderful exhibits showcasing all aspects of their cultures.

I haven't been to that museum, but here in the west there are a number of really good tribally-run museums and cultural centers that are amazing counterpoints to the old-style presentation (and dioramas!) that I remember from museum visits as a kid. I've only been to a few of them, but have considered taking an extended road trip one summer to visit as many as possible.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:53 AM on November 15, 2014

Interesting. I visited the Peabody Museum last weekend and was really taken with the miniature dioramas of Native American dwellings. I liked being able to look at a bunch of different kinds of dwellings and see all the different ways of construction and thinking about how climate/resources pushed in specific directions. The tiny figures in the dioramas were each active and doing something and it felt like you could have turned around for a minute and come back and the person would be further along what s/he was doing.

Article definitely got me thinking about the dioramas in a different way.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:58 AM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I really, really love dioramas. The Melbourne Museum used to have this extensive one showing life on the Victorian goldfields that I just loved - you could trace the paths of ore, squat down and peer into mine workings, really get a feel for both the geology and the technology of the era. That being said, there weren't any problematic racist overtones with it. I think they used to have life-sized ones with Australian Aborigines in them; if so, they've been gone for many years.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:11 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Royal Ontario museum has a display of First Nations people in traditional dress doing 21st century things.
posted by brujita at 6:15 AM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can we still have stinky vikings?
posted by poe at 8:06 AM on November 15, 2014

Victoria, BC, has a native history display. A zillion artifacts, no punches pulled on how their settlements and culture were devastated, and IME a humongous learning opportunity.

Removing those displays would be a huge loss: it would literally erase the memory of those people from the public mind.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:31 AM on November 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've spent more time than was fun at various German museums and monuments remembering the Holocaust, the hideous state sponsored wholesale slaughter of Jews, Roma, and other "undesireables". I'm always impressed with how direct and without bullshit the presentation is. "We did these things. These are the things we did." Little explanation of why, certainly no attempt to justify or explain away. But not even a facile apology. Just a documentation of the evil that Germans did. It is enough.

I want a museum about the American Indian genocide. A couple of rooms documenting pre-Columbian life, to convey the Native American's culture, their society, their technology. Purely to humanize them and set the context for what comes next. Then room after room documenting the systemic program of murder, and burning, and sabotage. A room dedicated to the science of disease, the amount of destruction wrought by smallpox whether accidental or deliberate. A room or two of war weapons. Letters from the Indian killers explaining their techniques and goals. A room about the Indians who fought back and the disproportionate response to that rebellion. A whole diorama about Andrew Jackson (themed to the twenty dollar bill). One stark room depicting the mathematical scale of the genocide, perhaps with abstract sculpture. A temporary exhibit on the Trail of Tears not as an anomaly, but as a systemization of the violence done more haphazardly before.

That's the museum I want to see. It's not a museum about Native Americans really. It's a museum about Europeans, the things we did to conquer this continent. And should never forget.
posted by Nelson at 8:31 AM on November 15, 2014 [39 favorites]

UBC's Museum of Anthropology has struck a partnership with local bands that hat has resulted in reorganisation of displays as well as some repatriation, along with explanations of the changes and why they were done. It makes for a fascinating experience viewing, and sort of an ongoing self I interrogation (for settlers like me) about the experience of viewing living culture in a museum.

Some changes were to make the masks face all the right direction for their spiritual role. In other cases, family members come dance with particular masks every few months to keep them alive.

Thanks for this article, will be sharing with museum and archive loving friends.
posted by chapps at 9:01 AM on November 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian has these fantastic displays (some with figures behind glass, some with videos of people, one with a member of the tribe there at the museum to discuss what was behind the glass) detailing the spiritual universes (for lack of a better term) of several tribes from both North and South America. The curators went and consulted with four or five respected members of each tribe and had the tribe members help design the exhibit. It felt like I was looking at something looking back, but something that was alive, not dead. This was a slow moving movie, not a lost people. The videos of tribe members explaining their religious beliefs really helped, as they talked about it in the present, not the past. It felt to me like mannequins done right.

I contrast this with the American Museum of Natural History, which should honestly just shut down it's foreign peoples halls until they can come up with something that isn't an embarrassing image of the way America looked at the world in the '50s.
posted by Hactar at 11:19 AM on November 15, 2014

There are all kinds of upsetting things (if you're upset by death and dying and malformation, anyway, which I tend not to be, at least not in museum contexts) in the Surgeons' Hall Museums in Edinburgh, but by far the worst of it was that they still have two preserved Bantu skeletons. They were sent to Dr. Robert Knox, "the boy who buys the beef" in the Burke and Hare murders, as curiosities to illustrate the anatomical differences between Bantu and Western Europeans. Although I think the museum has a plaque up saying something brief and worthy about how this recreation of Knox's study, with the skeletons, is an era of a different and more horribly racist time, it's still awful to see two small lovely skeletons encased in cold class and wood, so tremendously far from home. There's nothing else about the Bantu peoples in the museum at all. I know Bantu isn't a single group, so it might be hard to track down who to return the bones to even if the museum wanted, but it broke my heart to see them still there, still pretty much ignored, still tucked away for visitors to gawk at. I'll be the first to admit I'm tender-hearted when it comes to bones for some reason, but it just seems so unfair.

So yeah, I think anything we can do to stop "othering" folks that we now think of as obscure or irrelevant or vanished is a great idea. I think the dioramas being removed have a place in a museum, but that place is part of a larger exploration of how we present the people we've "conquered", as Nelson says above.

(I still recommend the Surgeons' Hall, though. The rest of the museum is a treat. Just remember to stop by and pay your respects to the Bantu. Someone should.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:31 AM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The gravestone drawing from the child in the article is really moving. When a museum display makes you think your own culture is extinct, something's seriously wrong.

I'm glad museums are finding different ways of presenting the material.
posted by jaguar at 11:34 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

And Nelson, I love your proposed museum, but I'd also extend it to the much more recent past and to the present, with boarding schools and white-perpetrated violence on the reservations and sports mascots and the like.
posted by jaguar at 11:36 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Would the increase of violence towards native American women fit into the mascot display?
posted by clavdivs at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2014

I worked at the UM Exhibit Museum referenced in the article in the late 90s/early 2000s. The dioramas were simply gorgeous and so intricately detailed; on slow days I would examine my favorites for quite some time. I understand the objections and am pleased they chose to remove them.

The best/worst thing that ever happened regarding the dioramas while I was there is: I am working as a weekend host, so my job is to wander through the museum and answer questions about exhibits. I see a mom with two kids, about 8 and 6, all peering at the dioramas. She's pointing at specific figures and then turning and talking to the kids. I assume they're having some awesome museum learning time. I walk past them and get close enough to hear. She's pointing at the figurines, many of which are depicted topless, nude, or wearing loincloths, and saying, "See that lady without a shirt? SHE NASTY. See that man without pants or shoes? HE NAAAAASTY. See that baby with no diaper? IT NAAASTY."
posted by holyrood at 12:52 PM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a child, I loved the dioramas of native American settlements in our local museum. To see how different environments led to different styles of architecture was not harmful or bad. To see how different climates led to different clothing styles was not bad. Those dioramas are now gone, and there is nothing in their place. I think you can have dioramas if they are sensitive. I love the Tenement Museum in NYC, and it's just a huge diorama about urban people. I guess the difference is that walking around a big reconstructed apartment necessarily makes you envision yourself as the people living there, whereas a diorama does not.
posted by acrasis at 3:30 PM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess the difference is that walking around a big reconstructed apartment necessarily makes you envision yourself as the people living there, whereas a diorama does not.

Yeah, I think there's a definite distinction between "Imagine yourself in this environment" and "Look at these strange exotic people in this environment."

I'd be interested in seeing the mannequins modeled after actual tribal members, though, and whether that specificity changed that perception.
posted by jaguar at 3:39 PM on November 15, 2014

Nelson: plz take my money and make that happen
posted by ghostbikes at 12:34 PM on November 16, 2014

« Older For all we see as wrong, some of its appeal might...   |   The Great Heinlein Juveniles Plus The Other Two... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments