March 16, 2013

Indians in natural history museums

Why Native American Art doesn’t belong in the American Museum of Natural History (and neither does African or Asian art)

By Katherine Abu HadalNatural 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.

If you are like me, you might be wondering 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.

I will explain to you the message it sends when Native American, Pacific, and African art and artifact is lumped in with natural history exhibits. It sends the message that these groups are a part of the “natural” world. That is, they are somehow less cultured and developed than the western art canon. It also sends the message that they are historical and an element of the romantic past, when in reality these people are alive and well, with many traditions intact and new traditions happening all the time.
Comment:  I've written about Indians in natural history museums in Southern California Indians on Display and NYC Museums Showcase Indians. For more on the subject, see Indians in Bailey at the Museum and Natives in Danny and the Dinosaur.

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