“This diorama at the American Museum of Natural History was amended in a way that allows museumgoers to see the historical inaccuracies it perpetuates. Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times, Critics have said the diorama depicts cultural hierarchy, not a cultural exchange. Museum officials said they had been aware of these implications for a while, and now they have addressed them.The narrative, created in 1939, is filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation, said Bradley Pecore, a visual historian of Menominee and Stockbridge Munsee descent. “These stereotypes are problematic, and they’re still very powerful. They shape the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people” (Fota, 2019). Retrieved April 10, 2021 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/arts/design/natural-history-museum-diorama.html

“We think of museums as places of objects. In fact, they are places of ideas about nature. Ideas give rise to the objects created by humans. Ideas are the principal means by which humans interact with objects in museums. Too often our different ideas lead to conflict rather to understanding. Our ideas about objects change over time as our knowledge and attitudes about them change and our research techniques improve. Changing ideas are controversial because they contradict what we have previously believed”

~ (Boyd, 1990).

Upon searching for an article/s, I came across an interesting video on YouTube that talked about musuem controversies, as well as mentioning Encyclopedic (comprehensive) Museums for example the British Museum and the Smithsonian, as well as others. This is not a term that I’ve ever heard about. It refers to museums who have artifacts from cultures all over the world. The question: Should museums repatriate these artifacts back to countries and their cultures that they belong too? This is not a new statement. It is one that I’ve heard numerous times. The museums stances are that these collections allow the visiting public to compare and contrast other civilizations throughout history, and to educate the public as a whole on humanity across the board. Boyd (1990) explains that “In some instances, the simple display of an object can be controversial. When exhibits go beyond the “wonder” of the object standing alone and are designed to inform and stimulate visitor learning, they consciously invite controversy-as they should (p.185. para.3).

How many of these artifacts have found their way to private collectors and/or museums? “Artifacts on display at Don Miller’s farm in 2014. For more than seven decades, Miller unearthed cultural artifacts from North America, South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and in Indo-Pacific regions such as Papua New Guinea. (FBI), Five years ago, F.B.I. agents descended on a house in rural Indiana packed with ancient artifacts unlawfully obtained by the home’s owner, 91-year-old Don Miller. Over a six-day raid, the agency seized more than 7,000 objects in a collection that ranged in the tens of thousands. It remains the largest single recovery of cultural property in the agency’s history. Witnessing the sheer number of artifacts accumulated was “jaw-dropping,” F.B.I. Agent Tim Carpenter later recollected in an interview with CBC’s Susan Bonner. Most staggering of all was the discovery that Miller had amassed approximately 500 sets of human remains, many of which are believed to have been looted from Native American burial grounds” (Katz, Mar. 2019). Retrieved April 10, 2021 from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/fbi-trying-return-thousands-stolen-artifacts-including-native-american-remains-amassed-indiana-collector-180971604/

It appears that everyone these days are discussing illegally obtained artifacts and the returning of property to its rightful owners. This raises ethical and legal issues as well. In addition, DNA sampling and whose property belongs to what culture. It is a sensitive topic that requires dignity, respect, and transparency. It does beg another question: If multiple groups claim said ownership of artifact/s or to a collection: Who decides, the eventual outcome?

PBS had an interesting special as well, where a particular tribal delegation went to Europe to view their ancestral artifacts. Most of these tribes have never seen their cultural materials displayed in this context. We need to examine the context in which all artifacts were obtained with regard to the earlier days of archaeological expeditions and anthropological research, accidental discovery on private land by its owner/s, individuals who have bought illegally or legally, traded, and/or exchange agreements between institutions and/or wealthy benefactors, etc., during a time where laws were either non-existent and/or with very limited restrictions in place. We could spend a lifetime discussing all the associated topics tied to museum artifacts and their resulting collections. Boyd (1990, p.185, para. 3) avers, “In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, museums were at the forefront of challenging our accepted ideas about the world.

Moreover, attitudes and perspectives have changed overtime with more and more populations being open to the preservation of their cultural artifacts. I do know that some tribal entities do not have the facilities or funding in place to preserve their cultural materials and have entrusted local college museums to preserving their artifacts. On the other-hand, there are more and more tribes who are actively engaged in constructing a curation faculty for their material culture. I discovered this during a training session, awhile back with several midwestern tribes. A speaker brought this up, but did not go in-depth on the topic.

Another article goes on to say that museums should have a plan in place, to be transparent, and to create an educational framework that explains a curator’s choice of exhibit, even though it may bring about controversy (Wall, 2019, p.1, para. 3). Wall continues, “Museums are not neutral and generally have institutional biases that reflect Western colonial power imbalances, we must as museum practitioners acknowledge that fact and incorporate the voices of those that were historically silenced” (Wall, p.1, para. 3). Although, she makes this statement, I disagree, not all Western museums reflect colonial imbalances. Most have in the past but are moving away from this topic. I believe that more and more museums are making those silenced voices heard throughout their exhibitions.

I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a Biology Professor, mentor and friend. He has so many stories to tell from his life and the people that he has met throughout his long career. He told me a story about a battle with a tribe in northern Wyoming. He stated that battles are typically one-side, and that history usually has the successor of a battle relaying a completely different historical account of the ensuing encounter. Western accounts provide written accounts to glorify a victor of an encounter. I do not remember if this was an encounter with the U.S. Calvary or settlers. Tribal accounts are told through oral documentations from generation to generation. However, this does not negate their account/s of an encounter either. What bothers me about past Western written accounts is that people believe them over Indigenous oral accounts. This is usually reflected in old exhibitions of the past, and there lies another controversy. My question is stated above: however, I do realize this is an old question that has been recycled throughout-time and can be an in-depth one as well.

References

Boyd, W.L. (1990). Museums as Centers of Controversy. Daedalus, Vol. 128. No. 3, America’s, Museums. pp.185-228. Pub. MIT Press. Retrieved April 19, 2021 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20027572?seq=1

Fota, A. (2019 Mar). What’s wrong with this diorama? You can read all about it. New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2021 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/arts/design/natural-history-museum-diorama.html

Katz, B. (2019, Mar).The F.B.I is trying to return thousands of stolen artifacts, including Native American burial remains.Retrieved April 10, 2021 from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/fbi-trying-return-thousands-stolen-artifacts-including-native-american-remains-amassed-indiana-collector-180971604/

Wall, A.S. (2019 Mar). How should museums deal with controversy? Musuem Studies at Tufts, University. Retrieved April 10, 2021 from http://sites.tufts.edu/museumstudents/2019/03/19/how-should-museums-deal-with-controversy/

4 Thoughts to “#12 Controversies Discussion”

  1. Michael Hubert

    Barbara,
    this question will be around for a long time, so far I have talked to lots of people and this question always come up, some want the objects back, some are ok with the museums holding on to them, some are afraid if they are returned that they won’t be able to take care of the objects and will eventually loose them. so I believe it is really up to the people that would be sending these objects back to.

  2. Erin Gingrich

    Hello Barbara,
    Indeed a controversial topic for many. In regards to the question, my answer is yes, if wanted. I really do feel that it would be very simple to have living artists recreate objects for educational purposes for public exhibition and that images, 3d scans, other information would be more then adequate to educate the public, it also would allow more collaboration with cultural stakeholders. I feel that many of these things can be related to the topic of Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights and whether there is consent given to the museum to hold the objects in trust or not (or to recreate them or not.) I find the diversity of our world and the cultures of its people to be very beautiful but the reality is that these artifacts are not needed to share that, what is needed is consent and collaboration. It will not be simple but that is the point, to work with others is not simple but it is what could be more equitable.
    Quyana!

  3. Barbara Long

    Good Evening Erin,

    Thank you for your response. I agree with you.

    Respectfully,
    Barbara

  4. Tony Thompson

    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you for sharing! I appreciated how you touched on accurate and appropriate representation in exhibits. To answer your question, I think that the question of repatriation and ownership should be answered on a case-by-case basis. Echoing kind of what others have said, I think certain aspects like cultural importance and representation should be considered. My article this week was about the repatriation of a fossil to Brazil one of the reasons being that it contributes to their scientific resources. I feel like a lot of people think of science as being set in stone: facts are facts types of things. I think that because science (and history as you’ve mentioned) is written by humans, there are inherent biases that are unavoidable. That is why I mostly stand on the side of repatriation to the country of origin so that they are able to write their own stories, as it were. This is of course unless there is explicit permission for the object to be loaned elsewhere.

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