Museums – Racist and Non-Neutral
Part 1: Museum Anthropology 101
Museums in North America are popular destinations for entertainment and education. They have been a part of Western society and culture for hundreds of years. They have come to be incredibly trusted and well-liked establishments. Most people don’t give them much thought outside of a school field trip or a visit with friends or family in town. I used to be one of these people. Even as a well-educated person interested in museums, and volunteering in museums while getting my B.A. degree in Anthropology, I did not know the extent of the bias and racism in museums. People should not have to get a master’s degree in Museum Anthropology to learn this, which brings me to this post.
Ho-Chunk scholar Amy Lonetree writes that:
Museums have played a major role in dispossessing and misrepresenting Native Americans, and this has been a critical part of the identity of Euro-Americans (Lonetree 2012, 9).
Since Europeans first realized that the world is much larger than they had thought, Europeans have colonized North, Central, and South America. North America is predominantly controlled by settler colonialists because Canada and the United States are settler-colonial countries. As kids, we are taught about colonization in school with images of heroic “white men who bravely conquered the Wild West,” (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill 2013, 12). These stories don’t show the violence, oppression, and white supremacy involved, and they don’t show that colonization is still ongoing in North America. Settler colonialism is a “structure not an event” (Wolfe 2006, 390) which “cannot be reduced to… the merely unfortunate birth pangs [of the country] that remain in the distant past” (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill 2013, 12). The United States and Canada were founded upon racism and violence against Indigenous people. This continues on in different forms, including institutionalized racism and sexual violence against Indigenous women. Colonization is here and now, even after all these years. We’ll dive deeper into settler colonialism in a different post.
The type of museums most often seen in Western countries like the United States are, unsurprisingly, Western institutions. Their employees are most often predominantly white and from the dominant culture. Because of the staff’s own bias, Western museums have been guilty of representing non-Western peoples through an ethnocentric lens – presenting people of different cultures with all of the stereotypes and assumptions that the curators and other museum staff themselves have internalized (Ames 1992).
For hundreds of years, museum curators have organized artifacts according to what they thought were real, universal themes, including “race or evolutionary stage” in which white Europeans and white settlers were at the top (Ames 1992, 17), a racist classification that can still be seen in museums today! One example is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), which features exhibits on dinosaurs, wildlife, outer space, minerals, and Native Americans (Denver Museum of Nature and Science n.d.). Walking through the museum, visitors have to walk past various science and wildlife exhibits, filled with taxidermied animals, rocks, and model spaceships, in order to get to the DMNS exhibit North American Indian Cultures (DMNS n.d.). This shows how museums have treated Indigenous cultures as “natural,” animalistic, and completely “other” - and classifiable alongside extinct animals and outer space (Hill 2000)
Anthropologists have collected Indigenous artifacts for centuries, and then donated or sold these objects to museums – exploiting and profiting off of other cultures as a career (Lonetree 2012).
Anthropologists tried to “salvage” the “most authentic” cultural artifacts from Indigenous groups, thinking that Indigenous ways of life were disappearing. What was actually happening was the governments of the United States and Canada were trying to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples into dominant culture – literally trying to erase the very people and ways of life that create objects which are valued as “exotic” and “primitive” in museums (Lonetree 2012, 10–11). This EXTREMELY PROBLEMATIC process influenced the exhibits themselves, which influenced how the public understood these cultures.
Settler colonialism and genocide of Indigenous peoples has meant that white people often only see Indigenous cultures inside of museums – behind glass, and with a little plaque that is supposed to explain its significance. This keeps Indigenous people “frozen in time,” – the world changes, but the people and cultures exhibited do not (Hill 2000). These types of exhibits continue to be seen in the 21st century. You can imagine the extent of the influence of these exhibits on public perceptions of Indigenous peoples. These are our museums, and this is why we need to change them.
Museum anthropology turns the museum into the field site. Where other anthropologists, like archaeologists or linguistic anthropologists, might go to a dig site or to a community to do their research, museum anthropologists go to a museum to study what happens there. This is a breakthrough in holding museums accountable – museums aren’t just places for research to be shown to visitors; they’re places for research to be done. For my master’s thesis research, I went to Winnipeg to study the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a large museum focused on exhibiting human rights issues across the world. I interviewed staff members and learned how they decide what to exhibit, who to work with, what art and artifacts to showcase, and just generally how they do their jobs. I could have also interviewed visitors to see what they thought about the exhibits and what they learned from them. I could have tried to speak with some of the groups represented by the museum and ask how they feel about the museum’s exhibit about them. There are a lot of possibilities, but ultimately museum anthropologists want to learn what goes on behind museum exhibits, and why. We think this is important because museums are generally very trusted by the public. People usually feel comfortable believing what they learn in museums, so what exhibits show to the public is important, and how museums talk about people, particularly non-Western and marginalized groups such as Black people, Indigenous people, other People of Color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. At the end of the day, curators and other museum staff behind the scenes have so, so much more influence on exhibits than the general public thinks, and I would like visitors to be more aware of that.
Next time, we’ll talk more about how Western museums were created through the exploitation of non-Western peoples, and also the steps they’re taking to get better!
And finally, I would like to acknowledge that much of North America and other settler-colonial areas remain unceded, unjustly ceded, and effectively stolen while European colonial settlers commit(ted) genocide against the peoples that are indigenous to these lands. My current home, Denver, is on the lands of Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples. I am writing this on the lands of the Coharie Tribe, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, and the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina. All non-Indigenous residents of Indigenous lands are benefitting from the genocide and forced relocation of these peoples. After reading this post, please consider donating to an Indigenous-run organization promoting Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and equity. If you are unable to donate, it’s free to read, follow, and support them in other ways! Go to our website for some suggestions.
Madison Dillard, M.A., is an aspiring activist and museum professional. Her interests in social justice and decolonization are reflected in Slightly Problematic’s mission of entertaining and educating the public on anthropological topics. After switching majors to Anthropology halfway through her first Anthro class, she has never looked back from pursuing her passion for connecting with people - academically and otherwise. Her master’s research focused on Indigenous rights representation within museums, an interest she hopes to further pursue professionally. As a lifelong baker, crafter, and cat mom, she enjoys cozy nights in and long walks to the fridge. She can be reached via the Slightly Problematic Contact page, or on her LinkedIn.
Ames, Michael M. 1992. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes the Anthropology of Museums / Michael M. Ames. 2nd rev. ed. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Vancouver [B.C.]: UBC Press.
Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. 2013. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations 25 (1): 8–34. https://doi.org/10.1353/ff.2013.0006.
Denver Museum of Nature and Science. N.d. “Floor Maps.” Accessed August 7, 2020. https://www.dmns.org/visit/plan-your-visit-reopening/floor-maps/.
Hill, Richard. 2000. “The Museum Indian: Still Frozen in Time and Mind.” Museum News May/June: 40–44, 58–63, 66–67, 74.
Lonetree, Amy. 2012. Decolonizing Museums Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums / Amy Lonetree. First Peoples (2010). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, December, 387–409. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240.