Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Like What We Were

Many thanks to my colleague, James Bryant, who posted a link on NHCOLL-L to this splendidly Pooterish article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author is one Thomas H. Benton; "Thomas H. Benton," apparently, is the pen name of one William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College MI. (As an aside, I don't get why you would write an article under a pen name, then tell your readers your real name. Doesn't that defeat the point? Or is it like me saying, "hi, this is Chris, but today I'm writing in my Chuck persona?") Benton/Pannapacker's thesis is that some time in the past natural history museums lost their way - reading between the lines, this seems to have a lot to do with letting children in to run around the place with a lack of "decorum;" as with most things that are bad for you, this began in the 1960s. Damn those Baby Boomers!

I'm being a little unfair, because it's a better article than that. After starting unpromisingly with one of those thumbnail sketches of "man in a cluttered office full of interesting things" that serves as the lazy writer's shorthand for the eccentricities of museum life, Benton goes on to explain that such places as this office "are the accidental accumulations of time, rather than the clean, uniform, and often deadening spaces created by committees governed by the orthodoxies of a narrowly defined mission." Crikey, you can tell he works in the humanities, can't you? I feel obliged to note that they are also places where irreplaceable specimens get lost for generations, armies of cockroaches breed, and fires start in trashcans.

After this, we meander through some warm fuzzy reminiscences of Benton's youthful dalliances in various natural history museums, before finally getting to the meat of his argument. "At some point, apparently back in the 60s, natural-history museums began to focus on attracting children; it made sense for demographic reasons allied to the educational imperatives of the Cold War." Silly me - there was I, thinking that we wanted to use natural history to inspire and awaken their interest in science. Now I realize that we were just slaves to our educational imperatives. Anyway, it seems that grown-ups don't come and visit our museums any more. "Could you imagine a sharply dressed couple walking through a natural-history museum, making sophisticated remarks about the archaeology of knowledge and the frisson of old and new epistemologies?" ponders Benton. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept openly at his vision of what we have lost.

Anyway, the good thing about this article is that Benton does actually make some concrete suggestions about what natural museums should be doing about this. I'm not going to go through these point by point; you can go read them yourself. Some are reasonable; some describe things that museums are already doing; some are provocative; and some are just plain daft ("teach the conflicts"? - oh please, Thomas, you sound like a warm-up act for Kirk Cameron). So I'll just pick a couple of his ideas that I think are worth looking at in more detail.

First, Benton thinks museums should "stop being ashamed of dead animals." What is it with these social historian types? They're obsessed with taxidermy - my wife and I used to joke that the only time that natural history museums turned up in Museums Journal was when someone (and it was never a natural history curator) tried to turn taxidermied specimens into the front line of the culture wars. This happened every couple of years, regular as clockwork. I'd hate to break it to these guys, but the main reason museums take taxidermy off display is that it's really, really bad taxidermy - for every masterpiece like a Carl Akeley or Perry Wilson diorama, there are a hundred sausage-shaped monstrosities with bulging glass eyes and straw sprouting from their seams.

Second, Benton is not a fan of anthropology in natural history museums. "Apart from prehistoric human evolution—a branch of the history of primates—avoid anthropology, which has often led to ill-considered displays of indigenous cultures that are offensive and rightly scare away potential supporters." He's not the first to make this point and there is a case to be made that it is intrinsically offensive to display non-western cultural objects alongside animals in a natural history museum, rather than in a museum of art or ethnography.

The counter argument, of course, is that museum displays exist to share the museum's collections with the widest possible audience (or at least, they should do) and that, like it or not, many natural history museums have extensive and important collections of human artifacts. You could also argue that humans are part of the natural world and that our culture is an integral part of the biology of our species.

Then there is the historical angle. Elsewhere in his article, Benton argues forcefully that museums should not "sacrifice" their history and, like it or not, museums have an unenviable history as promoters of scientific racism in the 19th and 20th Centuries. If you want to read more about this, I'd suggest taking a look at "The Race Gallery" (1995), Marek Kohn's masterly overview of racial science. Forget futile attempts to engage with the creationists - here indeed is a "conflict" worth teaching.


  1. I am not ashamed to admit that I laughed openly at what you have written. What a great post!

  2. Thank you, Larry! Of course, I feel a bit of a fraud because barely a day goes by when I don't wande my collections making sophisticated remarks about the archaeology of knowledge and the frisson of old and new epistemologies. Uusally to myself.