September 29, 2008

Smithsonian museum replaces Indians

Exhibition Review | Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Diving Into a New WorldFor almost 100 years the same space, now used to show the diversity of the ocean’s creatures, sample its fossils or exhibit the life forms of the darkest realms of the deep, was focused on non-Western ethnography and the American Indian. Those exhibits, now retired, were an essential part of the mythological narrative of the 19th-century natural history museum, of which this institution was a late but imposing example.

That old model typically resembled a temple within which the citizen of the West would survey the natural world—dinosaurs, taxidermic animals, geologic marvels—along with the icons and totems of premodern and non-Western tribal cultures. Here is the world out of which modern man evolved, these institutions declared, inspiring appreciation for the wonders of nature and the strangeness of other cultures; of course, they also drew attention to the elevated perspective of the Western observer who was making sense of these objects.
Comment:  In this context, removing the Indians is a good thing. As the article notes, including Indians as part of natural history rather than history is prejudicial and insulting.

For more on the subject, see NYC Museums Showcase Indians.

1 comment:

dmarks said...

I was there a few days ago. Unfortunately, the ocean exhibit was opening that night, and during the day all I could do was peer past the barriers at the new stuff which was blocked off still.

Of course it makes great sense to get the American Indian stuff out of that museum, since there is an entire Museum of the Native American now nearby.