source: amnh.org
The Hall of Plains Indians exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

Why Native American Art Doesn’t Belong in the American Museum of Natural History

Katherine Abu Hadal
2/20/13

Natural history museums—they are all over the US and abroad too. They house amazing dinosaur fossils, exotic hissing cockroaches, and wondrous planetariums—right next to priceless human-designed art and artifacts created by Native peoples of the Americas.

Like me, you might wonder why these designed objects are juxtaposed with objects of nature such as redwood trees and precious metal exhibits. Yes, of course art is part of the natural world that we live in—but then, why are there no Picasso paintings or Degas sculptures on display in the American Museum of Natural History?

How is a Haida mask different from an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in its precision and intent? They both belong to the category that we call art and they deserve to be exhibited in a similar manner.

When Native American, Pacific, and African art and artifact is lumped in with natural history exhibits, it sends a message that these groups are a part of the "natural" world. That the art they produce is somehow less cultured and developed than the western art canon. It also sends the message that they are historical, an element of the romantic past, when in reality these peoples are alive and well, with many traditions intact and new traditions happening all the time.

Another thing we don’t need in order to look at and understand Native American art are dioramas of Native Americans in the actual exhibit. Dioramas only serve to confuse the public and enforce already present stereotypes. It’s offensive and demeaning and it detracts from the art. There are no dioramas of Greek or Roman life in fine art museums. Dioramas can muddy the experience by placing a contemporary interpretation of a life that we do not have firsthand knowledge of. Furthermore, they are simply tacky, taking an art display into the realm of Madame Tussaud's .

How exactly the museum acquired its collections is another important question and one not answered by my research. The museum website does note the following about its anthropology collections:

“The founding of the Museum’s anthropology program in 1873 is linked by many with the origins of research anthropology in the United States. With the enthusiastic financial support of Museum President Morris K. Jesup, Boas undertook to document and preserve the record of human cultural variation before it disappeared under the advance of Europe’s Industrial Revolution. Their expeditions resulted in the formation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the core of the Museum’s broad and outstanding collection of artifacts.” (American Museum of Natural History, retrieved 2.15.2013)

Let’s consider other ways Native American art could be exhibited to the benefit of the public and Native peoples themselves. First, ancient art and artifact could be displayed next to contemporary Native art in order to show that Native cultures are not just a thing of the past, but are in fact living and dynamic. Or curators could more deeply consider the way these objects were used in context—that is, elaborate on the significance of the pieces to their makers; certainly they were not designed for the purpose of one day sitting in a natural history museum. As another option, the pieces could be placed under the control of contemporary Native groups who would decide how they should be exhibited. That has been met with controversy in some cases.

I know that it will not be easy or convenient to redesign the exhibition of Native art, but the current state of display at the American Museum of Natural History is embarrassing and ineffective in communicating the complexity of non-western art. The American Museum of Natural History and its collections are a product of an era much different than the present day. It’s time that the collections reflected the wishes of their creators and also current aesthetic and ethnic discourse.

Katherine Abu Hadal is a designer and researcher who loves learning and teaching about other cultures. One of her interests is Native American/Indigenous art. You can read more of her thoughts on Native art at nativeamericanartschool.com, where this piece was first published as "Why Native American Art doesn’t belong in the American Museum of Natural History (and neither does African or Asian art)."

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Meghan Mulkerin's picture
Meghan Mulkerin
Submitted by Meghan Mulkerin on
I posted this on facebook in response to this article, but wanted to include it here as well. The Museum Studies program at the University of Delaware asked, "This author is calling for a major reorganization of the collections, removing the aesthetic objects of indigenous people from natural history collections. She has a point. What do you think?" I responded: "The author makes good points, and as far as representation, I agree. However, I would generally disagree that Native American artifacts (and other cultural artifacts) have no place in natural history museums, due to the fact that natural history museums often have anthropology collections. What would be better is a re-emphasis on anthropology in natural history museums, which does include human art of all cultures. When you think about the Smithsonian museums, there is no museum of world cultures, which would be the only other real solution. We have instead split the Natural History museum many times into other museums, American History, National Museum of African American History, American Art.. etc. There is no place for the world collections of all peoples. Sadly, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Anthropology Department was at one time many years ago, offered a chance to start a "museum of man" but refused, citing concern for their research priorities over the running of a museum. I believe this museum of man was authorized by congress, or at least by Sidney Dillon Ripley. Another important point, is that these kinds of museums are currently severely underfunded, to the point that we often are unable to renovate or put on new exhibits without multi-million dollars. Even when we want to put up simple temporary display cases, the $40,000 dollar price tag keeps curators from being able to follow through with new exhibits, say of modern native american art along side the other exhibits. This is not from a lack of desire by the staff, but rather due to a stifling effect of bureaucracy, and a real lack of funds." I would add that it is a real shame that there hasn't been more public support for museums, because those exhibits pictured above are clearly from the 1950's-1970's or perhaps even earlier. The same is the case with several halls at the National Museum of Natural History, though not relating to Native Americans. There seems to be increasingly less support for cultural anthropology exhibits that are not relating to popular topics like Egypt or human origins. We have amazing things at NMNH, but no money to display them. Moreover, because we no longer make all of our exhibits in house due to staffing cuts, change in the way museums operate, etc., it costs more to buy these supplies from others.

katherineabuhadal's picture
katherineabuhadal
Submitted by katherineabuhadal on
Thanks for your reply, Meghan. First of all, I definitely agree and it seems very clear to me that there are issues that the Institutions face in regards to budget and display. Sometimes I wondered if it was just me that thought the displays at the AMNH seem a bit depressed compared to some fine art museums, but now I hear you say it also. I would really like to know more of your insights as to why you think that is. I know how hard the museum staff works and very much care about the pieces which they curate, and it was never my intent to critique their personal efforts or qualifications. Instead I was merely calling for a sort of paradigm shift in the way we classify art and artifact. For me personally, it is a disconnect to see human work in with dinosaur fossils and nature dioramas. I can see your argument for having a museum of man or one dedicated to ethnography, but then the question becomes where does "culture" stop and art begin? How do we decide what goes in the fine art museum and what goes in the museum of man? I ask this as someone (trained as both and artist and anthropologist) who has grappled with the question myself and I don't claim to have the answer. But hopefully we are just at the beginning of the conversation :)

Elizabeth McLaren's picture
Elizabeth McLaren
Submitted by Elizabeth McLaren on
I am in full agreement with this article. The Native Americans should decide what and how items are displayed , to supply the history. It only makes common sense that they should do this after all it their heritage.
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