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On Saturday, March 4th I found myself walking towards the American Museum of Natural History. The last time I had been here to look at different halls was as a naïve and innocent child. While walking towards the museum I couldn’t help but notice the status on the main entrance.
It was of a man on a horse with two men on either side of the horse. The first thoughts to cross my mind was that the man seated on the horse with his back straight as if he emanated all the power in the world was a white man and the two men on the side were native Americans.
This was my first glimpse of racism in the museum. “Scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America” (AAA 1) is reflected in the statue that proudly stands in front of the museum.
Once I was in the museum I made my way to the 3rd floor, which held three cultural halls. As I walked towards that general area, I first came across the Eastern Woodlands Indians. I tried to look around in that hall but I was quickly bored of the way they presented the artifacts so I kept walking to the next hall which was the Plains Indian, except I did not realize that this was its own hall.
I didn’t even realize I had passed through the Plain Indians until I found my way to Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
That is when I decided my essay would compare Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples with its neighboring hall Plains Indians. The hall that I passed through without realizing I even walked through a whole different hall.
My experience in Margaret Mead’s hall was truly different. The sign that present Margaret Mead’s hall was a standing wall with an artifact and light shining down on the name of the hall and the artifact. Just from that emphasis I already knew that whatever was to come would be better presented and definitely more interesting.
Before entering the actual hall there was a smaller pathway that had images not displayed between huge class cabinets with nice printed descriptions behind it. Most importantly that pathway was all about Margaret Mead. It mentioned her life, what she wore, what she wrote, what she did, and her accomplishments.
It was revolved around Margaret Mead. This made me think back to something Bronislaw Malinowski stated about the “goal is [to] grasp the native’s point of view, his relations to life, to realise his vision of his world” (Malinowski, 25). My walk through the small pathway seemed to be all about Margaret Mead and her point of view. There was even a video about her work.
At first I completely ignored the video thinking it was irrelevant until I heard something along the lines of “a show – exhibit to NYC and all of the world”. I instantly thought white people privileges. In the end all the credits went to people with white names. I just found the video to be completely contradicted to the idea of trying to grasp things from the native’s point of view.
I was heavily disappointed in the video. It made me realize that race is truly something that “was a mode of classification linked specifically to peoples in the colonial situation” (AAA Statement on Race 2). When I walked through the doors that led to the hall. I was presented with a huge map, bright lighting, and music. The music was my favorite part because it was music from the regions presented in the hall.
The music played in the hall was Australia, male singers with sticks and didjeridoo in the Goulburn Island; Indonesia, Gamelan orchestra in Bali; Philippines, nose flutes, Hanunoo in Mindoro; Melanesia, male singers with slit gongs and conch-shell trumpets in Manus; and finally Polynesia-Micronesia, mixed chorus with slit gong in Fiji, male and female singers with drum in Hawaii, male singers in Maori, New Zealand, and Percussion ensemble in Cook Island.
As I walked through I noticed that this hall was divided by color. The colors were both appealing and bright which made the exhibit much more interesting. It felt as though I were walking from region to region.
I spent nearly an hour in the Margaret Mead Hall of the Pacific Peoples enjoying the artifacts that were spaced out and strategically placed behind glass so that it was appealing to the eye and not too overcrowded. Finally I walked out of that hall and looked down to check the map to see what other halls were nearby and that is when I realized that I had completely walked through the hall of Plains Indians. I took a look around slowly studying artifacts.
I wasn’t as interested or entertained as I was in the other hall. I instantly noticed that the lighting in this hall was significantly dimmer making it less appealing, there was no music just the buzzing of other museum visitors and there definitely wasn’t any color coordination going on. Everything was cluttered near each other. Unlike the previous hall everything was behind one class that ran along the wall. I wasn’t walking in and out of spaces or able to do a complete circle around a glass.
Unlike the previous hall there were no images and the artifacts weren’t strategically placed to avoid overcrowding and seem appealing. It was an eyesore. I hated this exhibit. Somewhere behind me, I heard a white boy joke with his friends about Sacajawea being here. The hall of the Plains Indian was one small room with the information all laid out near each other with no sense of organization. I was out of that hall within 15 minutes.
My experience in those two halls presented to me what reflexivity can look like and what racism looks like. The representation of each hall was significantly different due to the fact that Mead was in charge of one hall. That hall glorified her and she represented the cultures the way she wanted to.
Despite walking through and viewing the artifacts from those cultures I still had to wonder why those specific pieces were brought back and not others. Why did she choose one thing and not the other, why Melanesia had half a room while the others shared the other half? It all came down to the reflexivity displayed. This isn’t just about their cultures it was her reaction to the culture. I involuntarily may have been racist as well.
My assumption in the beginning of my journey in the museum that the Eastern Woodlands Indians was continued into the Plains Indians hall just proved that I myself bunched all native Americans into one group despite them being very different from one another. This led me back to Marvin Harris’ “Theories of Culture in Post Modern Times” where he stated that “Native Americans seemed to be racially similar, their cultures could be remarkably different (Harris 70).
Nonetheless both of these halls were put together by white people and were presented towards white people. Therefore, it lacks complete authenticity and missing huge parts of their culture. That is also another reason as to why some halls seemed more boring and were just passed through so one can get to another part of the museum.
As Talal Asad stated regarding social anthropology “its efforts were devoted to a description and analysis – carried out by Europeans, for a European audience of non-European societies dominated by European power” (Asad 15). These halls were just that meant for whites. Therefore, everything within those halls was placed so that it would intrigue and get the approval of the white audience whom they were created for.
Although anthropology truly is meant to study cultures it can also be bias and turn into taking whatever the person observing the culture takes and re-presents to the world. I was hated my experience in the museum because it just forced me to see the racism embedded within our society and it also showed me being complicit in the act as well. It lacked the voice of the natives whose culture was being left open to the visitors of the museum.
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