Decolonizing or Recolonizing? The (Mis)Representation of Humanity in Natural History Museums

Every Indigenous Peoples’ Day since 2016, members of the activist group Decolonize This Place have gathered at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, chanting “rename the day, remove the statue, and respect ancestors.”[1] The AMNH protests have taken place in the context of a growing number of museum controversies throughout Europe and North America. These public confrontations include demands for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts; the rejection of tainted funds; calls to address historical inaccuracies in exhibits; and finally, protests against offensive, stereotypical, or otherwise problematic representations of human subjects.

Of all these conflicts, the misrepresentation of people on display has been the least discussed in the public sphere.[2] Decolonize This Place’s October 2019 protests have received minimal press coverage compared to their more successful actions—for example, calling attention to the Whitney’s acceptance of blood money from donors such as tear-gas magnate Warren Kanders. And yet the ways in which museums organize, categorize, and display the cultures of non-European peoples reflect and reify outdated cultural hierarchies which have their origins in nineteenth-century science. Natural history museum practices today are still guided by some of the key assumptions of anthropology’s founding period, including the belief in a civilizational hierarchy, with Northern European cultures figured as superior to all others; the importance of “salvage” anthropology, in which scientists sought to preserve the remnants of “primitive” cultures supposedly on the verge of extinction; and finally, the naturalization of non-European populations in specialized exhibit spaces—a segregation of the “West from the Rest.” In the words of Museum Studies scholar Ray Silverman, “Ethnography has provided the ‘scientific’ justification for much of the colonial project…. It is a mode of thinking that has proven difficult to shake off and continues to influence how Indigenous peoples are represented in museums and related cultural institutions.”[3]

The persistence of colonial visual culture is especially glaring in natural history museums. As the American political scientist and writer Danielle LaVaque-Manty has pointed out, “There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History. And there aren’t any other kinds of people.”[4] Natural history museums have been among the least responsive to decolonization efforts and, given the naturalizing effects of their ethnographic exhibits, among the most harmful.[5] Such exhibits foster the segregation, exoticization, and “Othering” of non-European cultures. Unwittingly or not, they perpetuate persistent global assumptions of human difference and hierarchy. The prominence of these museums underscores the power of cultural institutions to confront or avoid some of the most pressing issues of our day.

In this essay, I compare the AMNH in New York and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, which, to varying extents, continue to “display the exotic diversity of pristine civilizations under European domination.”[6] I wish to make clear that there are two paths ahead for museum and public history spaces: one that strives for a collaborative process of decolonization and repair, and another that clings to the status quo, thereby reinforcing colonial categories. I conclude with some thoughts about why these two museums have taken different approaches to decolonial critiques, and also point out ways in which both remain stuck in nineteenth-century frameworks. Finally, I review some of the solutions offered by curators, activists, and scholars, suggesting that this crisis provides opportunities to address urgent issues of representation, memory, and justice.

The American Museum of Natural History: Stuck in the Past

Four types of museums display ethnographic material: “global” art and heritage museums, such as the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; anthropology or ethnography museums, such as the Berlin Ethnological Museum; tribal or Native American Museums, like the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, or the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI/NMAI); and finally, natural history or field museums. Each type of institution faces its own particular challenges. Critics have discussed the need to revise European ethnographic museums, especially in light of very public controversies over provenance and repatriation.[7] Samuel J. Redman, in a recent review of the Hamburg Ethnology Museum, observed that without critical revision, ethnographic museums reveal more about the cultural history of the collectors than the objects of collection.[8] In contrast, many tribal and Native American museums, while not immune from critique and controversy, have prioritized incorporating diverse Indigenous and community narratives.[9]

Of all these types of institutions, natural history museums face unique obstacles to the decolonization process due to the entangled histories of anthropology and natural history. The AMNH was founded in 1869 and remains one of the most prestigious natural history institutions in the United States.[10]  Its history is tied to Franz Boas, who made his mark as one of the most important anti-racist scientists of the twentieth century only later. Boas’s early work at the AMNH, however, included practices that would be condemned as unethical today, including the display of “living Indians” in the Museum, stealing Indigenous peoples’ bones, and authorizing autopsies in secret. He also created the Northwest Coast Hall at the museum, today the target of the bitterest of criticism.[11]

Figure 1: Floor Plan of the American Museum of Natural History, Second Floor. Accessed December 29, 2019.

In October 2016, Decolonize This Place organized a tour and occupation of the AMNH and introduced a set of specific demands, including removal of the Roosevelt statue (which shows Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, trailed by subservient Native American and African figures), as well as an institution-wide review of cultural representations across the museum.[12] On September 25, 2017, likely anticipating the second annual protest, the AMNH announced a multi-year project to “update, restore, and conserve the Northwest Coast Hall.” Decolonize This Place responded in a press release: “While we welcome this long overdue initiative, the false and degrading representations in the rest of the culture halls remain as a present reminder of inaction and colonial violence.”[13] In the wake of the protests, the AMNH also added labels to a diorama deemed inaccurate and offensive. A New York Times article described the exhibit as “filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation” and cited the Indigenous consultant hired by the museum, historian Bradley Pecore, who condemned the diorama as replete with harmful stereotypes that “shape the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.”[14]

Figure 2: The website of the American Museum of Natural History, listing Human Origins and Cultural Halls. Accessed December 29, 2019.

As it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019, the AMNH has not announced an institution-wide review.[15] While it attempts to frame some of the issues it faces—including, this year, a display and website on the Roosevelt statue, featuring the debate around its history and iconography—it should not be forgotten that, in addition to the Northwest Coast Hall, the AMNH has quite a few permanent exhibits of non-European peoples (including Mexican, Plains, and Asian peoples). There is no Hall of Northern European or New England cultures. Taken together, these ethnographic exhibits perpetuate the naturalization of non-European peoples and “freeze” them in time in a way not typically imposed on European ones. The resulting impression on visitors is that only Indigenous and non-Western peoples belong on display with fauna, flora, rocks, and minerals. This outdated “West and the Rest” approach to human cultures—aligning the non-West with the natural, biological, primitive, and pre-civilized—is glaring at the AMNH, as it is in other natural history museums; it reflects a cultural vision from a century ago. The persistence of such representations is remarkable, especially after decades of critical race and postcolonial theory, not to mention the debunking of scientific racism.

The Musée de l’Homme: A Return to Anti-Racist Roots

The Musée de l’Homme, also known as the Trocadéro Museum, was built in 1878. Originally conceived as an exhibition space for the tens of thousands of objects bought or stolen during French scientific expeditions, the museum was strongly influenced by natural history methods of the day, including taxonomy and comparative display.[16] In 1928, French anthropologist Paul Rivet, a correspondent of Boas, took over as director and began to restore and modernize the collections; in 1937 he gave the museum the universalizing name Musée de l’Homme. At this point, it incorporated anthropological objects from the French Natural History Museum (of which, to this day, the Musée de l’Homme remains a branch). Reborn at a time of rising fascism in France and Europe, the Musée de l’Homme under Rivet was known as a node of resistance; some of its personnel ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis. Rivet was adamantly antiracist.[17]

This institutional memory of anti-racism would prove central in the Musée de l’Homme’s renovation seventy years later, which explicitly drew on Rivet’s humanistic approach. Consequentially, shortly before the Musée de l’Homme was renovated in 2009-2015, most of its ethnographic objects were removed and sent to the new ethnographic art museum, the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac. Opening in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly’s mission was to provide access to pieces of art and ethnographic objects from “Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas” for both public and research audiences. The loss of their ethnographic items necessitated the Musée de l’Homme’s radical exhibit reorganization.

Figure 3: An exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme that displays European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

The museum’s curators shaped exhibits in distinct ways explicitly recalling Rivet’s vision. First, they created displays to historicize the museum’s historic relationship with scientific racism, including critiques of French racial science and anthropology’s role in the dehumanization of non-European peoples.[18] Second, in a major innovation, the Musée de l’Homme curators decided to organize exhibits about cultural production not by geography or tribe, but by themes, including music, language, religion, and ornamentation. In these thematic displays, diverse cultures appear side-by-side, with artifacts from Asia, Africa, and America next to European ones. Here, Europeans are a cultural group, on display, like any other. This horizontal representation is reflected on the cover of the museum’s guide as well, underscoring a philosophy of connection between all human cultures, and aiming to “unfreeze” non-European cultures and peoples.

Figure 4: A Musée de l’Homme guide displaying European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

While the new Musée de l’Homme has received overwhelmingly positive reviews in the press, museum studies scholars have criticized aspects of the renovation. Nathan Schlanger has pointed out that the Musée de l’Homme naturalizes human society itself, filtering it through an evolutionary framework.[19] Anthropologists, as well, might raise objections to the thematic exhibits, which decontextualize the objects, removing their cultural specificity, and risk overstating universal categories. Moreover, while the Musée de l’Homme subverts human classification and advocates for multicultural and relativistic approaches to human diversity, at times, its displays come uncomfortably close to romanticizing globalization. That said, it is noteworthy that the Musée de l’Homme has, since its reopening, attempted to grapple—however imperfectly—with its racist and colonial past, connecting itself to present legacies as well as imagined futures.

Lessons and Next Steps

Why have the two natural history museums discussed here taken such different paths in the face of demands to decolonize? There are three reasons: one accidental and two systemic. A unique circumstance was triggered in the early 2000s with the transfer of ethnographic objects to the Musée du Quai Branly. This decision reduced and limited the Musée de l’Homme’s ethnographic collection and forced a reimagining of the museum as a whole. The two systemic factors have to do with the national, economic, and historical contexts in Europe and in the United States. As state-funded institutions, many European museums are spared some of the pressures of the market and can be more responsive to critical academic voices. In the United States, museums fear public controversy that might threaten dwindling streams of government funding; at the same time, dependence on private funding leaves them beholden to well-heeled donors and their frequently conservative political views.[20]

The second systemic factor relates to legacies of colonialism. While on both sides of the Atlantic, the forces of private property and Eurocentric narratives (themselves often described in neutral, naturalized tones) are powerful, responses to decolonizing critiques play out differently in the two national political cultures. European nations grapple with the tensions of empire, though these are often imagined, however falsely, as existing at a distance from national borders. In the United States, the pressures are arguably more acute. American societies are immersed in the intimate historical legacies of settler colonialism; descendants live together on contested ground. Museums, too, are located on settler colonial lands. To center Indigenous perspectives would require reckoning with Lonetree’s “hard truths.” Decolonization discourse is unsettling.

If creating accurate and inclusive exhibits is a top priority for any museum, what are some steps forward? This essay has described some recent attempts to decolonize natural history museums, both of which have had mixed receptions by public, activist, and scholarly audiences. The two “paths” described here, however, are just first steps and should open up a broader conversation about how we represent humanity in public-facing scientific museums. First, more funding for cultural institutions would help curators enact cutting edge procedures, incorporate critique from scholars, and collaborate with Indigenous people and other community members.[21] As many curators have recognized, consulting with affected communities is crucial.[22] Moreover, Indigenous scholars and elders are not just a source of historic and cultural information, but also offer specific ideas to expand museums’ horizons, including the concepts of respect, reciprocity, and repair.[23] Mutual respect in the Indigenous sense of the word goes beyond ethnicity or nation, and encompasses “social relations of its producers, including source communities and museum staff.”[24] Some institutions have recently embraced these frameworks to rebuild collaborative cultural spaces, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Canada Science and Technology Museum—which recently created an exhibit on First Nation astronomy called One Sky, Many Astronomies.[25]

Recognition of the value of collaboration, reciprocity, and Indigenous voice and authority is increasingly common in academic spaces adjacent to Indigenous Studies.[26] Historians of science contextualize human classification practices and remind us of the legacies of colonialism. Historians and anthropologists of settler colonialism in the United States document the “full spectrum” of life, including both survivance and “hard truths” about the past and present. Artists, too, participate in museum decolonization. Since the 1980s, performance pieces have called our attention to the temporally frozen representations of Indigenous people in natural history museums.[27] These works remind us that all people—regardless of identity—have not just a past, but also a present and a future.

After a few decades of critical engagement from activists, curators, scholars, and artists, challenges to Eurocentrism in natural history museums have met with uneven and limited success. This stagnation attests to the unfinished business of reckoning with colonialism and settler violence, including its present legacies. In turn, it reflects our failure, at national and global levels, to reach consensus about how we approach human difference, human classification, and cultural hierarchy. To the extent that museums reflect systemic inequities, misrepresentation will remain a stubborn problem. For now, museum administrators and visitors alike can be alert to normalized colonial tropes, and work towards repair by bringing to the center of exhibitions the perspectives of those who are most harmed by ethnographic displays.


[1]Open Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Decolonize This Place Blog, October 10, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[2] A recent discussion among historians about “the compromised histories of the museum and the epistemologies of public display and national narratives” can be found in “Museums, History, and the Public in a Global Age,” American Historical Review 124, no. 5 (2019) 1631-1672; 1632.

[3] Ray Silverman, “The Legacy of Ethnography,” in Susan Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 9.

[4] LaVaque-Manty was referring to the Ruthven Museum at the University of Michigan; see “There Are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” Wicazo Sa Review 15, no. 1 (2000): 71-89.

[5] Yannick Marshall recently pointed out that “colonialism’s violence is the violence of the everyday. Its most deleterious effects are those that are routinized and banal more than those that are spectacular… It is difficult to recognize the violence that has been naturalized.”; see “There is No ‘Relatively Benign’ Version of Settler-Colonialism,” Black Perspectives Blog, October 28, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2019.

[6] Nathan Schlanger, “Back in Business: History and Evolution at the new Musée de l’Homme,” Antiquity 90, no. 352 (2016): 1092.

[7] In November 2018, French President Emanuel Macron announced that 26 objects at the Musée du Quai Branly would be returned to Benin; see Farah Nayeri, “Return of African Artifacts Sets a Tricky Precedent for Europe’s Museums,” New York Times, November 27, 2018. Recently, Germany has been fraught with controversy over the building and reorganization of ethnographic collections in the Humboldt Forum; see Graham Bowley, “A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany,” New York Times, October 14, 2018. See also Philipp Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam?Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking ethnographic collections. Accessed September 18, 2018.

[8] Samuel J. Redman, “Have Anthropology Museums Become History Museums? A visit to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 40 (2016).

[9] Amy Lonetree addresses the multiplicity of perspectives in tribal museums, arguing for the inclusion of “hard truths” of settler colonialism such as violence and trauma in addition to stories of survivance in Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native American in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[10] The four best-known natural history museums in the United States are the AMNH in New York City, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Even though I only discuss the AMNH in this essay, all of these institutions have similar approaches to ethnographic exhibits. In October 2018, the Chicago Field Museum announced the first major renovation of the Native North America Hall in sixty years; the press release emphasized Indigenous participation in the project, but did not address the question provoked by LaVaque-Manty’s statement about “Indians in the museum.” See https://www.fieldmuseum.org/about/press/field-museum-renovate-native-north-america-hall-open-2021. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[11] On Boas, see David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, eds., Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[12] In 2019, the AMNH installed a plaque next to the Roosevelt statue on the front steps of the museum. The plaque read: “This statue was unveiled to the public in 1940, as part of a larger New York State memorial to former N.Y. governor and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy. You can learn more about this statue inside the Museum and at amnh.org/addressing-the-statue.” For an image of the plaque, see Nick Mirzoeff, “How Do We Address a Statue of President Roosevelt That Affirms Racist Hierarchies?” September 24, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019.

[13]Public Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” October 4, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[14] Ana Fota, “What’s Wrong With This Diorama? You Can Read All About It,” New York Times March 2, 2019. “The labels were quietly added in October [2018], after three years of protests…. The museum consulted with outside experts, but not the protest group.” Azi Paybarah, “Museum of Natural History: When an Exhibit Offends,” New York Times March 21, 2019.

[15] For information on the Roosevelt statue at the AMNH see https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/addressing-the-theodore-roosevelt-statue. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[16] Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France 1850-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 32-34.

[17] Alice L. Conklin, Exposer l’humanité: Race, ethnologie et empire en France (1850-1950) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), chapter 6.

[18] The Musée de l’Homme also curated a special exhibit on racism and racial science called “Us and Them” in 2017-18.

[19] Schlanger, “Back in Business,” 1096. See also Claude Blanckaert (dir.), Le Musée de l’Homme: histoire d’un musée laboratoire (Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle/Éditions Artlys, 2015).

[20] The Whitney-Kander story has received a great deal of press; also, in 2018, the AMNH was forced by public outcry to cancel an event featuring the right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an open racist who has attacked Indigenous rights. See also Michael Massing, “How the Superrich Captured the Art World,” New York Times, December 15, 2019.

[21] As H. Glenn Penny has pointed out, curators often want to decolonize, but lack funding to complete their vision; see H. Glenn Penny, “Exasperation: An outsider’s take on (some of) the current debates surrounding the Humboldt Forum,” Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Accessed September 30, 2019.

[22]  They also strive to include the viewpoints of other community members who have a stake in cultural representation, such as museum staff and children/youth visitors. See Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam”; Ahdaf Soueif, “On Resigning from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees,” LRB blog, July 15, 2019. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[23] Reconciliation—a process currently embraced more in Canada than the United States—rests on the Indigenous concepts of mutual respect (including Indigenous definitions of community and rights) and reciprocity (a shared and equitable process that includes sharing and the principle of “right relations”). See Kim TallBear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019).

[24] Jennifer Shannon, “The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian,” in Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge, 240. See also Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds., The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

[24] Christie Taylor, “Relearning the Star Stores of Indigenous People.” Accessed November 1, 2019.

[25] Public historians have taken the lead in calls to decolonize professional spaces; see, for example, The Inclusive Historian Handbook. Recent historical scholarship includes Susan Sleeper-Smith, et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). See also “Decolonizing the AHR,” American Historical Review 123, no. 1 (2018): xiv–xvii.

[27] Two well-known examples of critical Indigenous and Latinx performance art in museum spaces include James Luna, The Artifact Piece (1986); and Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Americans Visit the West (1992).

Authors
Julia E. Rodriguez: contributions / Julia.Rodriguez@unh.edu / Department of History, University of New Hampshire

2 Comments

  1. The late Nancy O. Lurie was highly aware of the contested points raised by Rodriguez. When she became Curator of Anthropology at Milwaukee Public Museum, 1972, her first exhibit in this natural history museum was “The Urban Habitat”, an ecologically oriented history of urban habitats culminating in too-close-for-comfort dioramas of a trash-filled local stream and a heap of garbage. Then she began working with local Indian people as an advisory committee, backed by their reservation and off-reservation communities, to change what visitors would understand about American First Nations. With limited funds (the Museum is supported only by the county and local philanthropists), and given the beauty and historical value of the full-size dioramas of culture areas, the final result of the collaborative work is the 1993 “A Tribute to Survival” greeting all visitors to the American Indian halls with a tableau of a powwow Grand Entry, life-sizes mannequins of actual local Indian people in their powwow regalia, revolving on a turntable as if entering the arena. Texts of displays in the halls were rewritten, where appropriate, to inform that dioramas are historic and the nations continue in today’s world. A complementary exhibit hall during Lurie’s employment at Milwaukee Public Museum is European Village, where visitors stroll past replicas of traditional-style houses from every region of Europe, the windows of the houses revealing furnishing and crafts of the regions. Milwaukee Public Museum has ranked among the leading natural history-and-ethnography museums of the world since the 1880s, and Nancy Lurie successfully countered a colonialist message in her unprecedented work there until, and after, her formal retirement in 1994.

    • I want to second colleague Kehoe’s tribute to both Nancy Lurie and the MPM. It is surely one of the finest museums for presenting the world and its peoples to the public and Nancy’s humane attitude and style surely played its part. I recommend a visit to the museum by anyone who is in the area.

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