Museums Should Publicly Address Racism in their Histories

July 28, 2020 | 12:54 pm
Photo: CC/Wally Gobetz.
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

In June 2020, the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced that it had asked the City of New York to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that stands at its entrance. A small step in the necessary decolonization of this museum and the rest of the museum world. The announcement came in the wake of the rapid growth of the Black Lives Matter movement after the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others, when racist monuments throughout the country and in Europe came under attack and several were toppled by protestors. Many cities and universities have been looking anew at who is memorialized in their public spaces, and taking action to remove statues or re-name buildings named for racist scientists like Louis Agassiz and David Starr Jordan. Many museums are too.

The Theodore Roosevelt statue at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: Wikimediacommons/edwardhblake.

The statue at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has been the subject of protests for decades, most recently by the activists of the Monuments Removal Brigade and Decolonize This Place. Commissioned in 1925 and unveiled in 1940, the statue shows Roosevelt mounted on a horse, towering above and slightly forward from, a walking Native American to his right and a Black African, eyes down, to his left, both seemingly bearing Roosevelt’s rifles like servants. It is a clearly racist representation of white superiority and a celebration of colonialism, two causes that Roosevelt did much to advance. In 2019, the museum tried to tackle this highly problematic statue by creating a special exhibit, “Addressing the Statue” which explored the issues of symbolism and representation. The eventual decision to request removal of the statue seems inevitable in hindsight, with the Museum’s attempt to explain and contextualize the statue proving to be an inadequate response to criticism.

AMNH has generally been slow in its response to growing calls for the decolonization of museums. Unlike Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, for example, its website does not yet even include an acknowledgement of being built on traditional Native American lands settled by white colonizers. Other museums, such as the San Diego Museum of Man are implementing ambitious plans for decolonisation, including hiring a director of decolonization, instituting a policy of not displaying human remains without the consent of descendent communities, and comprehesively working to change the language used in exhibits and marketing.

AMNH has not properly publicly addressed its difficult history with scientific racism and colonial practices. Collections were amassed through museum-sponsored expeditions all over the world during a period of intense colonial expansion and consolidation from the 1880s through the 1930s. Anthropological collecting was often highly competitive in the US and AMNH was in competition with the Columbian Museum (now the Field Museum) in Chicago, among others. “At the present time they have at least 27 [totem] poles and we have 23 in Chicago” wrote the Columbian’s director George Dorsey in 1897, “I do not like to have the difference in number remain against us.”

Anthropologists Emily Martin and Susan Harding have noted that AMNH’s cultural halls, most of which have not been updated since the 1960s or ’70s present a view of non-western societies that ignores or erases the colonial contexts of the material and cultures on display. In a 2016 article in Anthropology Now, they say, “the institution continues to work within an ahistorical salvage paradigm of so-called disappearing primitive cultures that both obscures its colonial history and re-inscribes it for five million visitors each year. Half of them are children”.

Cultures frozen in time

The creation of the Hall of African Peoples in 1968 – which has hardly been altered in the 50 years since – epitomized the romanticization of African villagers frozen in time, supposedly in harmony with their environments, whilst failing to recognize either the great African civilizations of the past or post-colonial history and modernization. As Monique Scott, Director of Museum Studies at Bryn Mawr College, wrote in Anthropology News in 2019, “Egyptian pyramids are elevated to the MET [Metropolitan Museum of Art] across Central Park to share space with other great civilizations; but sub-Saharan African people are confined to the “Heart of Darkness” jungles and plains, alongside the great African animals…Museum representations of Africa and anthropological representations of Black bodies matter, because Black lives matter.”

One hall which is finally undergoing a major revision and restoration is the century-old Northwest Coast Hall. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of Northwestern North American Native art and artifacts. Its expeditions to Washington, British Columbia (BC) and Siberia studied Indigenous customs, sometimes misunderstanding or misinterpreting them and acquired artifacts, including by buying and stealing human remains.

Who do the collections belong to?

Yuquot whalers’ shrine, Vancouver Island, 1904. Photo: George Hunt.

In 1904 Kwakiutl-English ethnologist George Hunt, collecting for AMNH’s Franz Boas, obtained an extraordinary centuries-old whalers’ shrine from Yuquot on Vancouver Island, BC. It consists of 92 carved wooden figures of people and animals, several human skulls and a basic wooden shelter. Access was only for chiefs and the shrine is believed to have been used for cleansing rituals in preparation for whaling expeditions. The shrine was purchased under shady circumstances in 1904 and taken from Nuu-chah-nulth land in British Columbia when the local people were away seal-hunting. The shrine was never exhibited at AMNH and remains in storage. Since 1983, First Nation elders have been advocating for the shrine’s return to Yuquot. In 2018 AMNH curator Stephen Whitely told the Globe and Mail  “We know that that’s a sensitive item and we continue to be open to discussions about that with the Nuu-chah-nulth, with the Muchalaht”. This response is typical of museums internationally with the negotiating power of possession and is being used to slow down or negate calls for the repatriation of everything from the Elgin Marbles to the Benin Bronzes. AMNH does, however, remain active in negotiating some returns and hundreds of human remains have been repatriated to Indigenous communities, including to the Haida and Tseycum nations and to Māori descendent communities in New Zealand.

Carl Akeley, gorillas & the racist roots of wildlife conservation

Carl Akeley (center) with the body of one of five mountain gorillas shot in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1921 for display in the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: AMNH.

AMNH was at the forefront of the creation of lifelike dioramas in its regional animal halls in the early 20thcentury, not least through the work of taxidermist and sculptor Carl Akeley. The animals displayed were generally acquired through hunting expeditions in European colonies. Akeley himself killed hundreds of animals on Field Museum and AMNH trips to Africa (Akeley Gorilla photo), including 5 gorillas in 1921, four of which are on display today. Akeley has been credited with helping create the world’s first gorilla preserve in the Virunga Mountains of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) whis now a UNESCO World Heritage site but there was a strong element of racism and the search for the evolutionary “missing link” in his African expedition of 1921 according to University of Nebraska historian Jeannette Eileen Jones.

Akeley himself regarded Africans as “savage” and irrational and as the cousins of gorillas rather than the equal of whites. To conserve dwindling gorilla populations, he advocated for “reservations” equating the threatened great apes to the “disappearing” Native American tribes in the U.S. At a time of colonial exploitation of Congo and other African nations, the “great white hunter” Akeley, who typically traveled with 40 or so African bearers, trackers and workers, helped create and perpetuate the paternalistic view that only white colonialists could protect and save threatened species. A worldview in which much of today’s wildlife conservation movement has its roots.

Henry Fairfield Osborn’s 25 years of supporting eugenics at AMNH

It is difficult to find any substantive discussion on AMNH’s website of the racist and colonialist views and practices that shaped the collection of artifacts and display designs that millions of 20th and 21st century schoolchildren and tourists have absorbed there. Using the search term “eugenics” reveals nothing relevant, certainly not the museum’s hosting of the 2nd and 3rd International Eugenics conferences in 1921 and 1932 respectively (photo of conference exhibition), during the 25 years of Henry Fairfield Osborn’s directorship. In 1918, Osborn, whose bust is still on display at the museum, had also been a founder of the eugenics-promoting Galton Society along with Madison Grant and Charles Davenport (founder of the Eugenics Record Office). Search the AMNH website for Osborn himself and again you will be out of luck unless you only want read of his contributions to paleontology. Osborn hosted and presided over the 2nd International Eugenics Conference and he was an enthusiastic supporter of race-based immigration restrictions and forced sterilization programs. He visited Germany in the 1930s to see how their eugenic sterilization laws worked and in 1934 wrote a series of letters in which he expressed his admiration for the Hindenberg-Hitler government and its “bright future”, admitting that his views were “not shared by the majority of my countrymen”.

Glass slide depicting the evolutionary progression from “fish to man”, with an Indigenous Australian depicted as a “rung below” the idealized white man. Photo: AMNH.

Osborn believed that whites, specifically those of the Nordic “race” – who were courageous, war-like and hardy – were superior to all others. He thought that “Negroids” had been kept in a state of “arrested brain development” likely because “at the Equator the quest for food is very easy and requires relatively little intelligence.” In a 1926 article in Natural History magazine he wrote that “the standard of intelligence of the average adult Negro is similar to that of the 11 year-old youth of the species Homo sapiens”. All views with no scientific basis whatever.

When his friend, AMNH trustee, Madison Grant published two extraordinarily racist books in 1916 and 1933, Osborn provided gushingly enthusiastic introductions. The first book, “Passing of the Great Race” described white superiority over “negroids, mongoloids and Mediterraneans” and was translated into German in 1925. According to evidence at the Nuremberg trial of Hitler’s personal physician Karl Brandt, the book was Hitler’s “bible”. In it Grant wrote that “mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Seventeen years later when Grant published “The Conquest of a Continent or the Expansion of Races in America,” the New York Times’ book review noted that Osborn “has taken the greatest pleasure in endorsing a book, which, whatever its historic or scientific merits, is about the most uncompromising and aggressive plea for the maintenance of a Nordic and Protestant America, racially and nationally pure and undefiled, that has ever found its way into print”. The book advocated purging “alien elements” in America, banning mixed marriages and implementing racially-based barriers and quotas for immigration. Osborn’s introduction called for protecting a “precious heritage which we should not impair or dilute.” Osborn and Grant’s views were reinforced by a 1932 exhibit at the museum – “ The Face from Fish to Man” – which placed a sculpted head of an Indigenous Australian between an ape and “modern” man (represented by a Greek sculpture of Adonis). The display could not have been clearer in promoting the idea of the superiority of the white race.

Coming to terms with history

Like all natural history museums found in the 19th century, AMNH needs to fully come to terms with its historic entanglements with colonialism and racism. This it has been slow to do, especially in regard to its long period under Henry Fairfield Osborn’s leadership when the museum actively promoted white supremacist views through its exhibits, dioramas, murals, science and collecting, as well as by hosting two international eugenics conferences and exhibitions.

Participants at the 3rd International Eugenics Congress at the American Museum of Natural History, August 1932. Photo source: Exhibiting eugenics: response and resistance to a hidden history, Brave & Sylva, 2007.

Despite the wave of decolonization policies and practices that has spilled through the museum world globally in recent years, AMNH has appeared slow to adapt and reluctant to discuss the more problematiuc elements of its history. The 2019 exhibit on the Roosevelt statue and a recent re-interpretation of a diorama depicting an imagined meeting between 17th century Dutch colonists and Indigenous Lenape people have been small steps in the right direction. Meanwhile AMNH’s annual Margaret Mead Film Festival has offered a valuable perspective on decolonization of anthropology which is not yet evident in the exhibits of its culture halls.  It is to be hoped that the reorganization of the Northwest Coast Hall and engagement and involvement of the Indigenous peoples whose cultural knowledge, stories, artifacts and art were bought, stolen and appropriated by outsiders, will also contribute to the museum’s decolonization process.

However, for now, decades-old dioramas continue to reinforce paternalistic colonial tropes, negotiations about repatriation of sacred and stolen artifacts are slow and the Museum is not publicly engaging with its role in the American eugenics movement. This  iconic and important scientific and educational institution is in danger of being held up as an example of the broader failure of the museum world to comprehensively embrace decolonization at a structural level.