Cultural Artifacts Are Not Natural History

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Natural history museums can be thrilling to visit. The smart ones use state of the art exhibition design to complement the often breathtaking items in the collection: massive dinosaur fossils, exotic plant specimens, minerals (both terrestrial and extraterrestrial), an enormous, uncannily lifelike fiberglass blue whale hanging above visitors’ heads, lots and lots and lots of taxidermy, etc. Plus, who doesn’t love IMAX!

Three of the vigango from Denver Photo: Richard Wicker/Denver Museum of Nature and Science
Three of the vigango from Denver
Photo: Richard Wicker/Denver Museum of Nature and Science

However, I’m going to talk about what should not be in natural history collections, the bright line between thrilling natural exhibits and functionally white-supremacist narratives about diverse cultures. This is going to get righteous.

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Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a story about the Denver Museum of Nature and Science returning to Kenya some traditional Kenyan religious objects in the museum’s collection. The article, by Tom Mashberg, explained the museum’s complex concerns, including the legal and ethical issues that the decision to return these artifacts raises. Curators and scholars weighed in, all pleased to see the wooden carvings, called vigango, on their way back to a country and to communities where they were made. Anthropologist Monica L. Udvardy told Mashberg that “Kenyans believe that vigango are invested with divine powers and should never have been removed from their sites and treated as global art commodities.”

Indeed, these vigango were originally sold and collected as African objets d’art. The Times cites Ernie Wolfe, a dealer who sold them in the 1980s, often to Hollywood celebrities, as justifying the collecting of the carvings by claiming he “rescued them after they had spent their spiritual powers.” That self-serving tidbit notwithstanding, it is good news that the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is taking the culturally sensitive, ethical step of returning the vigango to Kenya. Although, Mashberg calls the speed at which American museums, in general, are returning cultural artifacts to their original countries “glacial.”

What the article did not address and what practically no one ever addresses is how genuinely horrifying it is that a museum of “nature and science” has collections of cultural artifacts at all. I’m not talking about art museums displaying looted, spiritually significant African objects, for example, which is problematic in its own way. Neither am I talking about anthropological or ethnographic museums treating foreign and different cultures as exotic or benighted, which is also suspect (especially when I phrase it that way…). I’m talking about man-made objects of cultural significance to non-white people of the world being treated as nature for the amusement and edification of the American museum-going public: Aren’t those primitives so authentic, so unspoiled by civilization, with their trinkets and their little rituals!

From this perspective, being treated as global art commodities would be an improvement; at least that would recognize the humanity and agency of the makers. Collecting African, Asian, Pacific or Native Pan-American cultural artifacts in a natural history museum-which many American natural history museums do, Denver is hardly alone-is an unmistakable institutional declaration that those people are savages, sub-human, animals.

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This, I am arguing, is not acceptable.

Human Zoo
A heavy-handed example of
precedent for cultural artifacts in natural history museums
William T. Maud, A Peek at the
Natives
, 1899 / via

I acknowledge that it is ironic to write this on the occasion of a natural history museum deaccessioning and respectfully repatriating cultural artifacts. But everyone talks and writes so casually about this kind of object in this kind of museum; it is so normalized and easy to accept that these grand, popular American institutions lump many groups of people from around the world, far and away the majority of people in the world, in with the wild animals and the rare minerals and the giant sequoia.

Natural history museums, as a category, have a cultural history that was not a happy history for the people whose artifacts these museums collect. The fact of non-European cultural artifacts in natural history museums, upsettingly, remains in the tradition of Colonial Expositions and similar 19th- and early 20th-century spectacles providing the European visitors an opportunity to gawk at natives of the far-flung colonies as if they were animals in a zoo. Of course, displaying cultural artifacts in a 21st-century natural history museum is a significant step away from exhibiting the people who made those artifacts in fairground cages. A significant step away, but in an unbroken line. This is a persistent relationship that should give everyone pause.

At the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in New York, the Hall of African Peoples is very close to explicitly framed as parallel and equivalent to the Hall of African Mammals. This is bad enough, but the complete list of “Cultural Halls” at the AMNH drives the point further:

Hall of Mexico and Central America
Hall of African Peoples
Gardner D. Stout Hall of Asian Peoples
Hall of Eastern Woodland Indians
Hall of Northwest Coast Indians
Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples
Hall of Plains Indians
Hall of South American Peoples

Something is missing…can’t quite put my finger on it…Oh! I’ve got it: What’s missing is the Hall of Self-Important and Racist European Diasporic Peoples.

And that is really the tip-off that this inclusion of cultural artifacts in the natural history museum is not innocent. The missing Hall of European Peoples is what puts the imperialist, hierarchical structure of the natural history museum endeavor into such high relief. It’s not subtext, it’s just text: American natural history museums make an argument to their visitors that Europeans-white people-are intellectually curious scientists, the pinnacle of civilization, beneficently teaching visitors about those dark-skinned savages, so close to nature; “they” are not like “us,” “they” are inferior to “us.” This is what we’re teaching to children on school field trips.

(I don’t so much mean to pick on the AMNH more than any other natural history museum in the U.S.-the Field Museum in Chicago, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, highly prestigious university natural history museums-but it’s the one I’ve visited the most recently and the most often and is, in its way, the Platonic form of Natural History Museum. Plus, it has the best Web site (to its credit!), which makes it easiest for me to link to it critically. I also should say that I’m not calling any person who works at a natural history museum a racist imperialist; this is a polemic against the class of institution.)

The concept of the natural history museum is compromised beyond saving. We should dissolve them and start over. Europe seems to have worked this out, at least marginally better. In Paris, London, Berlin, there are separate natural history and ethnological museums. There is absolutely an argument to be made that ethnographic museums are also creepily imperialistic and flirting with racism, but treating ethnology as ethnology, not as sub-human nature, is a dramatic step in the right direction.