PROBLEMS IN EXHIBITION IN ANTHROPOLOGICAL MUSEUMS
by John Beatty
Almost invariably, when museums are discussed, the basic concept is that of an art museum-something like the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The concept of a museum as a place to exhibit art, has greatly colored the way in which Americans especially have dealt with other kinds of museums.
The idea behind an art museum is that the object is exhibited in such a way that the viewers can observe its aesthetic qualities. Statues, for example may be placed on revolving platforms and highlighted with spotlights.
Anthropologists, on the other hand frequently have much more complex things to exhibit. Many of these may be "art" objects from other parts of the world, but many may be simply practical artifacts-a Tongan fish hook; an Iroquois digging stick. Aside from that, there are the problems of displaying things which are symbolic, as well as certain abstract concepts as "matrilineal kinship".
The Nature of Anthropology.
Anthropology has been defined as the study of the human species, its near relatives, its earlier forms and everything they have ever done or do. It is pretty all inclusive! Basically, anthropology is divided into four divisions: physical anthropology. ethnology, archaeology and linguistics. Anthropologists are usually interested in one or two of these areas, although the general field tends to be holistic.
Physical anthropology deals with people as biological organisms. It examines biologically, prehistoric people and current populations. It looks at the methods and processes involved in evolution. It also examines non-human primates.
The study of language is an important part of anthropology. both on a practical and theoretical level. Linguists look at the structure of language, making a clear distinction between language and speech. Language is in effect the rules for speaking-something like grammar; whereas speech is what people say, as a res'1\lt of the rules they know. Anthropology is particularly interested in language since many (anthropologists believe that language reflects much of the way that people conceptualize the world.
Ethnology deals with culture. Thlt concept of "culture" is the basis of cultural anthropology and a precise definition seems to be well out of reach. Most anthropologists intuit what the term means, and it has been befined as "shared learned behavior"; "patterns of behavior", "rules for behavior" and other phrases which imply that it is not specifically the behavior that is under analysis, but the shared rules that people have that tell them how to behave. It is sometimes easier to conceptualize this differece by thinking of this difference as like the one that exists between language and speech. Culture is to language as behavior is to speech.
Recently, the concept of the "symbol" has become crucial in anthropology, and the idea that humans are unique in their ability to symbolize has been hotly debated. Many current anthropologists feel that culture needs to be defined in terms of "symbol systems".
. Archaeology is basically interested in the same things as ethnology except that its tech- niques are necessarily different, because ethnologists are able to talk to the people they study whereas archaeologists are dealing with no longer existent cultures.
Culture vs Material Culture
Early anthropologists, especially archaeologists were interested in material culture, or objects made by members of cultures. As the defi~itions of "culture" changed, material culture became more a result of culture rather than a part of it. In effct, the rules Jor producing an object are considered culture; the object produced is not.
The Nature of Museums
The vast majority of museums are concerned with exhibiting objects. In a sense, this leads to problems for anthropologists whose major interest is in culture, symbols and theore- tical concepts. How can these be exhibit ?
Needless to say, there are major museums in the world like the American Museum of Natural History which have anthropological collections. These museums have exhibition problems which differ from those of art museums, in that much of what they exhibit is not "art". ~t may be animals, skeletons, gems or the heavens in terms of a planetarium. Whatever the exhibits are, they are clearly not art objects. None the less, it is interesting to note that many rocks, for example, are put on the same kind of revolving platforms that often hold statuettes, and the rock may be lit with the same kind of spotlighting used on art objects. Of course, there are many other kinds of exhibits too.
Mammalian departments often exhibit mounted animals as part of their exhibits. These too may be exhibited almost as if they are works of art, although far less often than the gems are. They may also, along with the geologists put charts and maps on the walls in addition to the actual specimens exhibited.
An interesting comparison can be made here between museum and zoos, which may be seen as very similar institutions, once one has broken clear of the idea that museums are "places to exhibit art". The difference between the exhibits in a Natural History museum and a zoo is quite minimal in many respects. The basic difference is that in the zoo the animals are alive and in the museum they are not. One of the major advantages of the zoo is that one can see the movement and other life behaviors of the animals clearly. Unfortunately, most zoos have not seen fit to take advantage of this aspect of their exhibits and manY zoos seem content to put the animal in a cage with a label saying its Linnean name and its geographic distribution. Museums have done much more to explain and demonstrate even going so far as to incorporate film loops to show many of the life functions without actually having to have the animals there. It may be that zoos should consider their position as "live museums" more closely and look more carefully at their exhibition techniques.
Anthropology and Museums
Physical anthropologists, being interested in many biological aspects of human (and near 8", human) life are very tightly tied to the practices of mammalogists in museums. In physical anthropology, the exhibition practices have been involved in exhibiting primates and humans as part of an evolutionary continuum and placing mounted non-human primates and actual human skeletons in cases for closer scrutiny.
Cultural anthropologists are beset with a very different set of problems. Largely they have always been involved with the exhibition of material culture. In a sense, in this respect they have moved further from the main thrust of anthropology which has been more and more interested in symbolism and social structure. Part of the reason for this is that the larger museums tend to be rather conservative-and with good reason. First of all, many early studies were archaeological and there the major date is artifact. As pointed out earlier, that is not true with the later developed field of ethnology.
Another factor is that a major museum exhibit may last more than 70 years. It can not be built around a currently faddish topic, because to do so could leave it with an exhibit that is outdated within a decade of it installation. Also important is the idea that the material arti£acts of a culture have value and i£ it were not for museums where would those be ?
If we examine museum exhibits we £ind many objects such as masks and ornaments displayed as works 0£ art. One 0£ the major problems here is that the casual viewer brings to these objects two ideas (a) that whatever is displayed in a speci£ic format IS a work of art and (b) that works of art are evaluated or appreciated by the same values held by that society. The ef£ect 0£ this is that many objects which are not regarded in the culture in which they were made, become "works of art". The second effect is that the differences in the aesthetics of the di£ferent cultures is lost, since simply hanging a mask on a wall and lighting it dramatically does nothing to either show the contexts in which that mask is viewed in the society, nor does it tell the viewer anything about the aesthetics or feelings that the people who made the mask bring with them when they see the mask.
.A second approach taken my many museums is to exhibit a variety of artifacts from neighboring groups to show their similarities and di£ferences. For example, a museum may put 6 or 7 arrows on a wall made by different American Indians all living say on the Plains. One might find one arrow £rom the Comanche, one from the Cheyenne, one £rom the Teton Dakota, one from the Kiowa, one from the Kiowa Apache and one from the Black£oot. The visitor is generally le£t to conclude what this means. Are the arrows to be taken as works of art or is there some other purpose in placing them on the wall ?
It might be informative to indicate why such di£ferences existed-what ef£ect they had on the animals shot. It was, for example, very important to American army doctors to be able to recognize the arrows of the di£ferent tribes from the feathered end, because it gave them infor- mation about what the other end was like, This would be important in trying to extract the arrow from a wounded soldier.
The idea of reconstructed villages has given a new lease to some aspects of museums. The idea of reconstructing an old town or village has been quite popular. In America, Plimoth Plantation, (a replica of the early pilgrim settlement); Williamsburg (a town in the 1700's) and Mystic Seaport (a reconstructed whaling village from the 1800's) among others have been quite success£ul. New York City's South Stket Seaport which tries to depict the history of an area once famous for being a major center of commerce also appears to have become a commercial success a£ter its recent renovation. Japan's "Meiji Mura" is a similar example.
These villages o£ten employ local residents and dress them in the costumes of the appro- priate period. The people are usually given some training in the historical period and give small lectures and invite visitors to ask questions. Activities 0£ the period may also be carried out there. These reconstructed villages, like the zoos, give an entirely new dimension to the nature of the exhibitions. The ability of people to interact with "members" of the community as well as seeing many of the practical everyday problems lends a new dimension to their appreciation of the materials. Even a contemporary carpenter looking at a carpenter's tools from 200 years ago may not be sure how they were used, or what problems were generated by their use. The actual attempts by people to use these tools often opens up serious academic questions about what people actually did with them.
Up until now, the idea presented is that anthropology has been involved in the presentation of material culture and in this it has been presented in a manner fairly consistent with the methods used in presenting works of art. There has been at least a hint that perhaps a more interesting and informative way of presenting materials might be needed that would allow museums to maintain their contact with main stream theoretical anthropology and yet stress the ,way in which material goods are vital.
Yet in all these approaches, the museum is not yet in exhibiting "anthropology". but pieces of specific cultures. Remember, anthropology is not data, but like all disciplines, a specific way or ways of looking at the data. The question raised now is whether or not anthro- pological concepts can be "displayed" through the exhibits. Once we approach the problem w~ere the focus of the exhibit is on concept, rather than artifact, then the theoretical aspects of the discipline become more sharply focused. In effect, the material culture becomes the medium through which symbols and theoretical concepts can be displayed.
First of all it is necessary for anthropologists to think about the nature of the theory and the implication in the daily life of the people to whom the theory is applicable. Consider just two anthropological theories and examine the problems and possibilities: cultural relativism and Ithe Sapir Whorf hypothesis.
Cultural relativism is an approach or theory that holds that cultures have to be seen in terms of themselves, and that using ones own culture as a poi'lt of evaluation (ethnocentrism) is not productive.
Many students seem to interpret this theory relative to moral relativism. In fact, the .: anthropologist may start off by discussing whether or not people should be upset that a culture practices polygamy (marrying many spouses). This is relatively neutrll in the U. S. so students usually can feel some annoyance that earlier Americans condemned people from other societies for this practice. However, other students will ask if anthropologists are supposed to be as tolerant of Hitler and Nazi Germany ( or more currently, South Africa).
The problem here is one of whether the anthropologist is trying to understand the system or pass judgment on it. Cultural relativism says nothing about passing judgment about the practices, only that one needs to see how those practices integrate with the rest of the society if one is to understand it.
Can an exhibit be developed in which concepts like "cultural relativism" and/or "ethnocentrism" can be used as an organizing principle? I don't plan to develop such an exhibit in the context of this paper, but I will at least say that it has been done and can be done probably in many different ways.
Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and Ethnosience
Similarly the Sapir Whorf hypothesis which holds that there is a relationship language and the perception of the world might make an interesting exhibit. But how to show such a concept? Again it is exactly in this area that museology, especially as it relates to anthropology needs to make its strides.
An exhibit of plants or animals might be constructed which shows some culture's perception of the plant or animal world (ethnobotany and ethnozoology) and its implications for the culture. For example, one might consider an exhibit which indicates a Buddhist culture's conception of the animal world and its relationship to food preparation. By using the language to show the conceptual categories, it would be possible to construct a museum exhibit of a theorerical position on language.
The Defference in Exhibition Techniques
Basically, the point then is, that the techniques of exhibition in anthropological museums are intrinsically different than that used in art museums. That major difference is that the material in an anthropological museum needs to be exhibited in a theoretical framework rather than just as a piece of art.
Specific Ethical and Potentially Legal Problems
There are serious ethical and moral problems which are particular to anthropological museums, which are often caught in the double bind of having to worry about the visitors' reaction to the exhibit as well as the native's reaction. In recent years there have been a number of examples of natives taking offence at specific museum exhibits. Sometimes it has been over such things as to whether or not the museum should be allowed to show religious artifacts which for example, may be normally hidden from the view of women and uninitiated males.
Another question that has been raised by natives has to do with returning artifacts in museums to the cultures from whence they came. They argue that the artifacts are a part of their cultural history and should be displayed where members of the culture that produced them can see them.
Far more complex and far reaching problems are involved in the display of actual human skeletal material. Several peoples in the world have expressed anger over the fact that there are museums which are exhibiting the actual skeletal remains of their ancestors which were exhumed during archaeological excavations. In one case, the actual skeleton exhibited belonged to a known person who had specifically stated she did not want to end up in a museum somewhere.
Museums as Cultural Artifacts
There is no doubt that Americans, for example are becoming increasingly sensitive to topics that are current. These sensitivities tend to affect exhibition problems as well. Not long ago a major American museum opened an exhibit with a standard chart showing human evolution, At the top of the chart were all the current primates including humans. The humans were represented by a drawing of what was probably a white male. Many people objected saying; this was done to indicate that white males were the ultimate product of human evolution, thereby degrading women and minorities. I raised this question with two of my classes. One class was given the description of the chart with the "white male" on it and asked if it were racist and sexist. They all agreed it was. It made white males superior. The next class was given a description in which the figure on the chart was a black female. The class was again asked if the chart was racist and sexist. Again they agreed holding that it made women and blacks look like they were closer to the other animals. The question becomes one of whether the sexism is in the chart or in the mind of the beholder.
In either case, it allows us to raise two interesting museum problems. The first of these is whether one should consider such questions as how will the exhibit be taken by the public and should it be modified if the public will find it offensive. The next part of that question was whether it could modified without damage to the scientific concept in the exhibit (i. e. instead of a drawing of a human) could a mirror be substituted so that each visitor would see their own face there.
All of the problems that have been raised in recent years as to the rights and responsibi. lities of educational institutions apply to museums. In this respect, they are accountable for the accuracy of the data presented. This means being quite clear on what is factual, what is gene- rally believed and what is a specific theory. In a sense, the long terms exhibits of major museums have a problem in this respect, since theory is very likely to change dramatically in 70 or more years. So in fact, is general belief. Anthropological exhibits that were prepared in' the early 20th century are, in a sense, almost unintelligible to today's anthropologists, except as artifacts of a time long ago. This should in no way be taken as a disparaging comment on older exhibits. It rather should be taken as a demonstration of the point that there are extremely difficult problems involved in trying to display more than an artifact as art, especially in a major museum with exhibits that remain for many many years.
It is important to note that anthropological museums differ significantly in having several added responsibilities over art museums. First, they must try to present largely .materia\~ culture in a theoretical framework, rather than simply as art objects. Second, unlike art mus~. urns, they have a problem of dealing with scientific accuracy. In addition, they have many ethical and moral problems which only occur sporadically in other museums.