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 by Karp and Levine), in which he criticizes ethnographic museums and exhibits for being superficial, unrealistic, outdated, and representing generalizations, rather than specifics.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.


Audience Reception: Resonance, Wonder, Memory, and #Selfies

This week in class we’re talking about audience reception. How do various members of the viewing public take in, interpret, view, see, and receive the images and information museums provide? How are we enculturated and socialized to view museum objects, and how, through in-the-moment interactions, do we actually end up experiencing them?

Heath and Von Lehn emphasized the importance of social interactions in and around exhibits and how viewers shape each others views and experiences of the objects on display.1 This might be extended to suggest that how people comport themselves in exhibit spaces is both an expression of peoples viewed of appropriate behavior, and a means by which this socially and culturally appropriate behavior is modeled and enforced.

The level of voices talking, whether in hushed whispers, or loud declaiming statements, sets a tone and level of expectation for others entering that space.  Museums may post signs asking for quiet, or asking people not to touch, and while such rules might be enforced by museum personnel, some museum-goers will also instruct and attempt to enforce such rules on the others with them, or on others in that shared space.

To add to this, we can add the ingredients that Greenblatt described as resonance and wonder.  “By resonance I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.”2

To experience wonder, according to Greenblatt, it helps to strip away everything else. To take away the placards describing context, or explaining the technique or style of the artist, to take away the historical and social context, and view an aesthetically pleasing and valuable work as just that, aesthetically pleasing.  This mode of viewing is one, most often associated with art museums, that postulates a universal aesthetic sensibility that all humans share.

However, it is exactly this proposition, that there exists some deep and fundamental, (and structural in the Levi-Straussian sense) shared human aesthetic, and a capability for discerning judgement that some people naturally possess that led Bourdieu to write Distinction,3 an entire book dedicated to debunking this belief, and instead arguing that aesthetic tastes are socially and culturally defined, and that some members of society have greater power and sway in defining these modes and values of aesthetic appreciation.  Bourdieu elaborated that it is specifically the members of the ‘cultural nobility’ or those with the greatest cultural capital, measured in terms of the level of education achieved, as well as to some extent social and economic class, that define what qualifies as taste and aesthetic judgement.

But in the realm of the memorial, in museums and spaces designed to memorialize the dead, and the historical circumstances that surrounded their death, there are battles over what forms of expression, taste, and appreciation are appropriate and correct. Two examples have been in the news lately that spring to mind. One is the construction, contents, and representations of the 9/11 Museum (and its gift shop and cafe), and the other is the phenomenon of taking selfies around the Ground Zero site and museum, and also in concentration camps like Auschwitz.

Who are the arbiters of taste when the judgements in question fall into the realm of moral and social propriety?

Via: The Daily Mail

Via: The Daily Mail

To return to the ideas of resonance and wonder, the 9/11 Museum, (and other memorial museums) are designed around the idea of resonance. They are designed with the idea that many of the visitors will already have a personal connection to the tragedy.  They are also designed to amplify that resonance, to bring into focus the events of that day, and the lives affected, to bring into a shared sense of memory, even those who do not themselves remember.

In this way the 9/11 Museum shares much in common with the Holocaust Museum, as well as museums and sites in Europe commemorating the Jewish community, and the deaths of millions of Jews (and others) at the hands of the Nazis in WWII. As with many holocaust memorials, the mantra is “never forget”, a sense that these historical events have to be preserved in our shared memories, transmitted to younger generations, so that the atrocities will never be repeated.

How can that resonance be created? How can we ensure that the resonance extends to younger generations who don’t have as direct a personal connection to the people and events in question?

It is here that I want to rejoin the ideas of Heath and vom Lehn, Bourdieu with the ideas of emotional and personal resonance with the historical introduced by Greenblatt.

Recently, the phenomenon of teenagers taking selfies at Auschwitz has exploded in the media and on social networks, and with more attention drawn by an article in the New Yorker.  One young woman, who tweeted a smiling picture of herself at Auschwitz, received death threats, after her tweets went viral. Even so, in contextualizing her own actions, she says that she took the picture to commemorate her own visit to the site, on the one year anniversary of her father’s death. But this one teenager isn’t the only one doing it, and it’s not just at Auschwitz or Dachau. This article in the Daily Mail points out that the phenomena includes selfies taken at Ground Zero, and in and around the 9/11 Museum.

In an article in the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey brings to bear some of the literature analyzing the phenomenon of selfies, suggesting that the selfie is the contemporary expression of “I was there”. But she goes on to say:

“That doesn’t make it “okay,” to borrow an un-nuanced, Web-ready phrase. In truth, it’s hard to think of anything less sensitive, less appropriate or less self-aware than a “selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp” — smiley — as if the suffering of millions of people was somehow subsumed by Breanna’s own personal narrative. She was there, sure, but so were tens of thousands of others, and her willful minimization of that fact is, frankly, pretty gross.” – Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, July 22, 2014

But while Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker asks the question: Should Auschwitz Be a Site for Selfies?, an op-ed piece by Leonard Pitts, Jr., (columnist for The Miami Herald), is titled “Selfies in Auschwitz — and why it’s wrong“. For Pitts, perhaps sadly, or revealingly, his opinion is framed in terms of a grumbling *kids these days* kind of statement.

“But this whole thing of mugging for cameras in inappropriate places feels viscerally … wrong. It suggests a cluelessness, a shallowness, and an incapacity for reverence that have come to feel like the signature of these times. It suggests a lack of home training and a surplus of narcissism that have come to feel ubiquitous. For all her professed love of World War II history, Breanna Mitchell bespeaks a fundamental lack of respect for, and comprehension of, that history when she poses at Auschwitz — death place for nearly 1.1 million human beings — like she thinks she’s at Epcot.” — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on, July 27, 2014

So to return to Heath and vom Lehn, how are social interactions, and the body language, and gesture of some visitors to memorial sites conditioning others?  Does one person taking a selfie at Auschwitz make it seem ok to others? Is that how this started? And conversely, how many attempted selfies in front of gas chambers have been shamed or cajoled into not taking that selfie, or deleting it? How many social interactions, in the moment and in the place, have attempted to push back against this mode of interaction with the place?

Further, to return to Bourdieu, who in society are the arbiters of taste, or propriety, when it comes to how we perceive and interact with memorials to the dead, and the history that surrounds them?  Does cultural capital matter? Or is it another sort of capital, the moral authority of personal connection to that tragedy?  Many of the news articles would seem to defer to the families of the victims of 9/11, including the families of working class firefighters and rescue workers, who do not fit neatly into Bourdieu’s schema of taste.

It is a debate that is raging in our society at the moment, a standoff between of selfie-takers on the one hand, who don’t see the harm, and families of the dead, both Holocaust and 9/11, who are profoundly disturbed by the lack of respect, on the other. To them the selfie is the ultimate expression of disrespect, which they view as a selfish or narcissistic act that takes away from the memory and commemoration of the dead, to instead commemorate oneself.

In order for resonance to occur, Greenblatt points out, we should not focus exclusively on the objects themselves, (nor on ourselves – though he doesn’t say this explicitly), but on the connection we feel between ourselves and the objects.

“The resonance depends not upon visual stimulation but upon a felt intensity of names, and behind the names, as the very term resonance suggests, of voices: the voices of those who chanted, studied, muttered their prayers, wept, and then were forever silenced.” – Stephen Greenblatt4


1. Christian Heath and Dirk vom Lehn, “Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the ‘Spectator’ in Museums and Galleries,” Theory, Culture & Society 21 (2004): 43-65.  
2. Stephen Greenblatt,  “Resonance and Wonder” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991): 42.
3. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routledge, 1984, originally published as La Distinction. Critique social du jugement (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979). 
4. Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” 47.

Access to Collections Online

Museum’s missions have always included (if not emphasized) the importance of collections, collecting, and researching those collections. It’s not what most of the general public thinks of when they visit a museum, because it’s the raw stuff, it’s not meant for them.

We’ve talked a lot about the accessibility of museums, what it means, and what forms it takes. One that we haven’t talked about yet is the accessibility of collections to researchers.  Increasingly, museums (at least those that can afford it) are taking their collections databases, and making them public, or at least semi-public.  Most of the time it’s a chore to find the link, if not deeply hidden, at least not completely obvious.

What’s the benefit of that? Are they intentionally trying to hide the link to their collections online? Or are they just not prioritizing it? How accessible is it, if you can’t find the link? 

So here are a couple museums. I challenge you to find the collections, specifically the database where you can actually look at or search for objects. To be fair, you should do it from their actual home page, not by googling “Museum name + collections” – because that only works if you already know they have collections online.

The Autry – The Autry National Museum of the American West 

The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology – at the University of Michigan

San Francisco MoMA – San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 

Museums and Social Media

This week we’re discussing museums and social media, or what one author called the “social media morass“.

As another source of good and interesting reviews and discussion, I found Museum Nerd on twitter @MuseumNerd, and on the web:

For the record, here’s the assignment:

Assignment: FIND 2-3 instances of Museums (and related institutions) on Social Media (apps, websites, etc.), and then do your best to collect the information outlined below, to be prepared to present your findings in class.

  1. Find ALL the varieties of social media they participate in (make a list)
  2. Are there some services they used to participate in that are old, obsolete, or no longer exist?
  3. Can you find the date they joined? Were they early adopters of the service?
  4. For each service/site/app they participate in:
    1. Based on their posts and/or an explicit statement, who is the audience they are trying to reach through their social media presence?
    2. What kinds of content are they posting?
    3. Do you think it is (or is likely to be) effective for reaching the audience they hope to reach?
    4. Do they explicitly state or implicitly suggest that they welcome participation of the public, the audience via those social media outlets?
    5. Do they explicitly ask for participation by viewing public?
    6. What kind(s) of participation are they seeking or hoping for?
    7. What kind(s) of participation are they getting?
    8. Who isn’t participating?
    9. Is the museum attempting to reach other audiences via other means, (other than social media?)
    10. Who from the museum authors these social media posts? Curators? Staff? Volunteers? All of the above?
    11. Do different categories of staff/volunteer author different kinds of social media? i.e. blogs vs. twitter?
  1. Overall, reflect on these museums social media presence:
    1. What are they doing well? What aren’t they doing well?
    2. What do you like? what don’t you like?
    3. Is there yet more potential to the social media that your selected museums have not fully reached or achieved?
    4. What more could they or should they be doing? & to what end?

Why Exhibits Need Authors (plural)

Exhibits, as we’ve been discussing in class, are really products of their times, the cultural and historical moment in which they are created. They are not created (in the passive voice), real people create them (in the active voice). 

Exhibits have creators, they have authors, but museums rarely make any public acknowledgement of those people who had a plan, and who executed that plan and made it happen. There are several reasons why I think museums should credit their curators and staff, in the production of exhibits. These are: credit and attribution, accountability, and reflexivity. 

First, I think that the authors and creators, the people with the skills, knowledge, creativity and so on, need to be given credit for their labors in the production of exhibits. This is especially true, because even though curators as individuals sometimes get credit (this isn’t always publicly known, or accessible to find out), exhibits are the products of teams, not just individuals, as Alexander and Alexander have told us.  And the labor of all those members should be acknowledged. 

Have you noticed that the New York Times has changed how they show bylines? Many more stories have multiple authors, and at the bottom of a story, several additional people may be credited with “contributing reporting”. That’s part of the sea change in our culture that emphasizes how important all contributors are, not just the top billed or or highest ranked member of a team. This article, as a random example pulled off today’s headlines, has the following, very detailed, byline at the bottom: “Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from London. Stephen Castle contributed reporting from Brussels; Carlotta Gall from Kiev, Ukraine; and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow.” Not only are all contributors credited (or at least that’s the impression they want to give), but their locations are offered as a way of supporting the contributions – the authority, access to sources, and expertise – of each author.

Here’s just one example of an exhibit with no authorship: Imperial Nature: Flora, Fauna, and Colonialism in India, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I happen to know the woman who was the primary curator, though I’m sure she wasn’t the only one working on or designing that exhibit. Her name is Risha Lee, and she has a profile page on the MIA website. But the exhibit page does not credit her as author, and her profile page doesn’t link to or even mention the exhibit. 

Second, I think that, as we understand museum exhibitions are contested, and they are specific to cultural and historical moments,  they incorporate the assumptions and biases of their authors, it is important to hold those authors accountable for the works they create.  Accountability means that there is a face and an identity, an embodied human person (or people) who are, and can be held responsible for the ways in which exhibits are produced.  Avoiding putting curators and staff members names on an exhibit, means these authors can hide and remain nameless in the face of controversy, or criticism.  

Lastly, I think that along side a public display of authorship, curators, as the authors (even auteurs) of exhibitions, should be encouraged to be reflexive about their role, their identities, their biases, and their influences in creating these exhibitions.  

As we move beyond the role of museums as authoritative structures that impart knowledge to the lowly and un-educated masses, towards an acknowledgement of multiple-voices in conversation,  the authors of the exhibits can and should make themselves known to the public they address. They, as curators and creators, should be made accessible to the public, and not hidden from view. Their backgrounds, experiences, identities are important for the public to understand, perhaps as important as the content themselves.

Such transparency in authorship would also make it clear when, for instance, museums are doing a good job of inviting community members, tribal authorities, or other stake-holders to participate, and when not.  If the Smithsonian puts together a new exhibit on the Lakota, how will we know whether or not they consulted tribal members, and if so, which tribal members, unless museums give them credit, and acknowledge their input? Shouldn’t those outside consultants get credit as well? 

Museums can never truly be considered as being in conversation with the public if they present themselves as monolithic entities, and faceless authorities on the exhibits they present.  Museum institutions are made up people, and those people deserve credit for their work, and the public deserves to know who they are.