Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ways of Seeing

It look something special to rouse me from my winter blog torpor, and it was this review by Ed Rothstein in yesterday's New York Times. It's a review of the new Natural History Museum of Utah, which opened in the fall of last year. The Museum looks like a splendid place and has finally provided me with a reason to visit Salt Lake City, but I'm not going to talk about it. Instead, I'm going to take my life in my hands and talk about something I know little or nothing about, which is anthropology in natural history museums. I was told once that bloggers are at their best when they are expressing passionate opinions on subjects where they are completely ignorant, so this post should be a corker.

In retrospect, alarm bells should have rung in the first paragraph of Rothstein's review, where he states that the focus of natural history museum "is not human history, measured in centuries, but natural history, measured in eons." He continues in the same vein - "And their subject is not a particular culture and its accomplishments, but a world that seems to stand beyond culture altogether. Natural history museums seek their ground in the earth itself." I was so excited that someone was writing a grown-up, arty review of a natural history museum (and so busy trying to figure out how I could lift these quotes into as many presentations and publications as possible) that I didn't stop to wonder where all this was going.

 I was still being swayed by oratory some paragraphs later, when Rothstein wrote that natural history museums have an "almost mythological function: forging the the scientific counterpart of the creation story, dramatizing and demonstrating the forces of the natural world from which culture has risen." (I am so stealing that one, by the way). If this review was a rollercoaster, then I was at the very top of it. Unfortunately, there's only one way to go from there.

What happened next was a bit like an experience I had in a bar a couple of years ago, when I was in a pleasant conversation with an apparently sane man about the ways in which science could contribute to society. Suddenly he started talking about the genetic basis of behavior and before I knew what was happening I was listening to a wild-eyed rant about improving humanity through a program of selective breeding. All the time I was thinking "Help! Help! I want to get off!"

To be fair to Ed Rothstein, that was not my reaction to his Times piece, although I did find my jaw steadily descending towards the floor. What the review had been leading up to was a consideration of the role of American Indian voices in the interpretation of their material culture as displayed by natural history museums; a perspective that Rothstein noted - with approval - was "refreshingly" absent from the Utah Museum's archaeology and anthropology exhibits. Not so for some of the other galleries, however. Stern disapproval is evident in the tone of Rothstein's writing when he gets to an exhibit called "Sky." Here, a "Western" astronomical star chart is contrasted with one used by the Navajo; there are - quelle horreur! - "suggestions of equivalence," and "homage both to 'indigenous knowledge' and 'Western science.'" The Navajo star chart has "far less information" than its Western equivalent, and shows less understanding of the stars than even 18th Century Western astronomy.

I can see Rothstein's point, of course. Natural history museums house collections of material accumulated to support scientific endeavor. When these museums exhibit this material they don't take a neutral position; they mirror the way in which researchers use the collection - treating specimens as evidence in support of scientific hypotheses about the nature of the planet and the things that live on it. In this way they differ from museums of art or culture, which can embrace multiple ways of understanding or "knowing." Science can accomodate conflicting hypotheses, but only when supported by evidence. For ethnographic material, the only way of seeing it is the way that science sees it - as evidence. If you take this position then American Indian commentary is irrelevant in a natural history museum because the evidence does not support their view of the world.

But there's another aspect to this. Museum exhibits - good ones, that is - should reflect the content of their collections and draw on them for material. Anthropological and archaeological collections are, as Rothstein says, as central to natural history museums as minerals or fossils. In his review, he rather delicately says that this is because American Indians and other "ancient cultures" were considered "closer to the natural world." But let's call a spade a spade. This material is housed in natural history collections because the creators of those collections thought that indigenous peoples were rather less than human. "Art" and "Culture" was confined to the Old Word - everyone else was just a few steps away from living up a tree.

What Rothstein is saying, in his review, is that the American Indian view of the world is less sophisticated - i.e. inferior - to our own. It's interesting that he references 18th Century knowledge, because his perspective on indigenous culture mirrors that of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who saw Native Americans as equals, but with an inferior society. George Washington believed that the role of the United States should be to "civilize" the Indians. We all know how that turned out.

In recent years, museums have responded to this tragic history by trying to be sensitive to the views of American Indians when housing or displaying their material culture. There are a wide range of approaches to this; including Indian perspectives on artifacts in exhibits; allowing tribal representatives to access collections and exhibits for religious purposes; removing sacred artifacts from exhibition and restricting access to them in the collections; and repatriation of specimens and human remains. There have been high profile conflicts, such as Kennewick Man, which have set scientists and the tribes at odds, but these are far outweighed by the many examples of positive engagement and dialogue that don't make the news.

At this point, you may be expecting me to end with the blogging equivalent of a group hug. But I thought it would be more fun to strike a discordant note. If natural history museums are going to be tolerant of other people's views when they diverge from the accepted scientific paradigm, and give those views space in the museum, shouldn't it be a level playing field? What about people from our own, Western culture, that have a different view of the origins of life on earth?

My friend Beth Merritt commented on this some weeks back (and when I can find the blog post I'll add a link) [thanks, Beth!] in the context of museums' oft-repeated desire to "engage with and serve" their communities. What happens when your views are completely out of step with a significant chunk of your community - if, for example, you are a museum of natural history in a Red State where the majority of the population do not accept evolution? Do you tackle this issue head-on, running the risk of - God forbid! - giving Equal Time to creationists and ID-ers? Or is your brave talk about "engaging" just a bunch of BS, cloaking a regular, old school, didactic approach to exhibit?


Has it really been 99 days? Roosevelt managed to pass the New Deal in 100 days. I couldn't manage a single blog post. I'd love to tell you that it was the result of something exciting; a life-threatening illness, major car crash, 3 months undercover work for the SIS in Kazakhstan. But no. I was just doing other stuff, and along the way I stopped blogging. Sorry.

Anyway, I'm back now. Except I'm going on vacation next weekend. For two weeks. Sorry. Again.