Anachronistic Anthropology Museums – A Disservice to the Public and to Anthropology

This week we have been reading about and talking about Anthropology museums, ethnographic and archaeological collections, and the key issues of representation that surround anthropological exhibits.

Kenneth Hudson (1991) wrote a chapter entitled “How Misleading Does an Ethnographical Museum Have to Be?” (in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. by Karp and Levine), in which he criticizes ethnographic museums and exhibits for being superficial, unrealistic, outdated, and representing generalizations, rather than specifics.

Because it is important not to make generalizations, I think it’s worth mentioning that museums are not all equally guilty of these crimes of misrepresentation.  One good counter example is MOA‘s exhibit Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art. Also, recently, The Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford hosted a conference in 2013 on the Future of Ethnographic Museums.  I wish I could say I have found or seen more examples, but its tough (at least in the US, where I’m most familiar with the museum landscape).

He levels one particularly poignant critique about anachronism:

“Nobody in their right mind believes that modern Italians behave like Romans in the time of Caesar or Cicero, but a great many people have the impression, if not the conviction, that the habits and customs of people in, say, Ghana today are very similar in many respects to what one would have found in the same area a hundred years ago. They are encouraged to hold this view by what they see in museums, where the collections and displays are overwhelmingly of the shield, spear, boomerang and war-canoe type” (Hudson 1991, 459).

He closes with this:

“In today’s world, to emphasize “traditional culture” is not, in my view, a particularly responsible or constructive thing to do, however attractive it may be from the point of view of showmanship” (Hudson 1991, 460).

Hudson’s eloquent critiques on the importance of showing contemporary cultures as contemporary is probably one of the most important criticisms of anthropological and ethnographic museums in the contemporary moment.

These critiques are much like those that have been leveled at the field of anthropology broadly speaking, and especially in the written representations of ethnography for quite some time.  Many critics, including anthropologists, have fore-fronted issues of, to list a few,  exoticization, the residual baggage of colonial-period racism, failure to recognize or identify the ethnographer as a subjective person, excessive attention to the “traditional”, rather than contemporary life, etc.

And, to give credit to the many anthropologists I know, most of the anthropological research that is done today, and most of the ethnographic texts that are written (and have been since the 1980’s or so) have done much to rectify the failures and mis-representations of the past.

So why is it that while anthropologists are out there studying contemporary life in America, Canada, Mexico, Ghana, India, China, Germany and so on, and writing ethnographies that give richness and texture to the lives of contemporary people, and sometimes even write and talk about objects, artifacts, art and material culture, yet anthropological museums remain anachronistic in relation to the broader field?

Those anthropological museums that are doing a pretty terrible job of representing what anthropology is doing right now, are doing a disservice not just to the public, but also a disservice to the field of anthropology.


  • Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret Mead on a canoe with Manus children, 1928. Gelatin silver print, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107)

The old anthropology itself belongs in a museum. Someday I would like to see a series of dioramas of famous and influential anthropologists of the past – a scene with wax figures of polynesian people dancing, while a wax Margaret Mead stands by, with a notebook, jotting down her observations. There could be another similar diorama with Malinowski, maybe in a Trobriand garden. We might instead make dioramas of the verandah, the anthropologist seated on a wicker chair, making notes and drinking iced tea, while “natives” sit around his feet.  Anthropology has contributed valuable knowledge, but it has an uncomfortable and problematic history.  In shying away from any explicit discussion of this history, and instead displaying the artifacts of various traditional cultures, each within their place, in a “Hall of African Peoples” or “Hall of Asian Peoples” we lose ourselves, and fail to show the significance of more recent work.

In a time when colleges and universities have begun to question the value of their departments, and those departments right to a continued existence, every discipline is scrambling to show what value they bring, and what important ideas they have to offer.  But many more people will see an anthropological or ethnographic museum exhibit than may ever sit in a classroom taking an anthropology course.  We owe it to ourselves, if we value the work we do in understanding contemporary life and culture, to show the world that work, to show the world the field of anthropology as it has grown up in the 21st century. Because museums are so powerful in their ability to make ideas real and tangible, to educate and inform the public of all ages, we could accomplish so much, if only we used museums to show the valuable insights anthropology has to offer.


Solutions are not easy to find. Museums are in a pickle when it comes to being collections-based. Most collections are by their very nature dated. As a curator, you may well be stuck with a stock pile of boomerangs, drums, shields and spears, and few resources to engage in new collecting.  What to do with your amassed store-rooms full of objects of “traditional culture”, if not to exhibit it?  And I’m not suggesting museums should stop exhibiting what they have, or throw it away.  But consider introducing and including materials that are easier to obtain from contemporary ethnographers: photographs, videos, sound recordings. Maybe draw videos from youtube.

The contemporary world is out there, but the challenge is to bring it inside, in a legible and meaningful way, to the museum-going audience.  A first step (and some museums are taking this first step), is to add an addendum, or like this paragraph, a postscript to existing (often permanent) exhibitions.  Logistically, this is much easier than re-making entire permanent exhibits.

In that postscript (or pre-script), update the audience: Since the time of the collection of those shields and spears, what has happened? What does contemporary life look like? Do people still use such spears or shields, and if so in what contexts? A few tidbits of modern life will serve to demonstrate that the culture and place in question are not entirely frozen.


3 thoughts on “Anachronistic Anthropology Museums – A Disservice to the Public and to Anthropology

  1. I think you’re right that many of the museums featuring anthropology collections seem to be focusing on outdated objects. Could this be though because museums are less focused on collecting and taking from cultures and more focused on teaching individuals? It’s harder to explain the daily lives of a culture with just text on a wall or videos. I’m not sure what anthropology museums could be doing to update their exhibits more but I hope they will strive to work in that direction.


  2. I completely agree that museums need to work on how they represent other cultures and anthropology as a field. I think that with your idea of having dioramas of anthropologists doing field work is good but i think that it should also show how it has changed over the years because it is has changes a lot since its beginning. Also this idea leaves out the three other sub-fields of anthropology. It goes so much further than cultural. There is linguistics, biological, and archaeology. This is important for museums to take into consideration if they are trying to show what anthropology is and want to be accurate. But also I think the reason that so many museums are behind in advancing is because of having the money in their budget. Most of their budget is going to be used for getting an exhibit that will draw in customers therefore getting them more money. I hope museums can keep advancing to having a better representation of cultures and anthropology.


  3. I agree that there is much room for improvement in ethnographic areas of anthropological museums. I think a major fault is the lack of whiteness/westernness on display amidst the halls of African or Asian people. I suppose there are some halls of Western Decent but those are usually under the label of Ancient Rome or Greece (and those aren’t even ethnographic). Museums should include displays of the United States or Europe. Museums also need to do a better job of declaring from when their ethnographic collections are. “Traditional” is not enough as the average museum goer will not understand the meaning behind the term. The displays of different peoples should generally all focus on one time. If the artifacts from the “Hall of African Peoples” are from the mid 19th century, the artifacts from the newly added “Hall of European Peoples” should be from the same. Ideally, all of these halls would display artifacts from recent times to avoid giving museum goers the wrong idea about different cultures. Although I think wax figures in any sense are a bit creepy and outdated, I appreciate your thought on incorporating the anthropologist into the scene of “natives.” These will start to bring the thoughts of modern anthropologists into the museum.


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