Facing the Museum
(Case: left label) These “ethnographical busts,” created at the turn of the 20th century,were retrieved from a dumpster at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and, figuratively, out of the rubbish bin of the historyof anthropology. Museum artists produced more than five hundredsbusts to show early anthropologists’ belief that humanity wascomposed of a number of fixed racial and ethnic groups that could bearranged hierarchically from the primitive to most highly evolved.Why show them here? In bringing these busts out of the trash, weacknowledge the legacies of colonialism and racism in theanthropology museum. We also note the progress museums havemade, and urge you to consider the challenges museums face indisplaying the “other” in a respectful and non-objectifying way.(Case: center label (main label))Museums of anthropology have a complicated history. Once placesthat constructed hierarchies of humanity, museums today serve ascenters for understanding the beauty, complexity and diversity of theworld’s cultures.“The story that the museum could tell, and whose telling would makeits present function so much more powerful, is the story of therepresentational practice exercised in this museum and in mostmuseums of its kind. This is the story of the changing but still vitalcollusion between privilege and knowledge, possession and display,stereotyping and realism.”—Mieke Bal,
Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis
,1996(Case, right label) These masks, like so many artifacts in the museum, represent identity,tradition, creativity, and community. They suggest individual andgroup identity, as well as religious and spiritual beliefs. They showcommunities defining themselves through material culture andperformance. They introduce the museum as well. We have chosen artifacts thatrepresent some of the ways that objects enter the collections:archaeology, contracts with artists, ethnographic field collecting, andby purchase and generous gift.