I didn't really know what to expect from the MNH when I told Lori that I would go with her. I remembered liking the Smithsonian's version of the MNH when my grandparents took me as a child... I remember that it was my favorite museum of all the Smithsonian museums we visited. This makes perfect sense, since I am an animal lover to the extreme and fascinated by all things zoological. But... an MNH is not a zoo...
Lori was looking forward to seeing the dinosaur bones, and truth be told, there were some spectacular skeletons/fossils of dinos there. Like this one in the atrium.
|Doesn't Lori look terrified as she runs away from the ferocious T-rex?|
|There were young people all over the museum sketching fossils/skeletons/taxidermied animals. I liked this kid's hat. I asked if I could photo him and his sketching. He seemed to like that.|
The thing is, I grew up with National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution and the belief that museums were/are super concentrated centers of learning, providing profound experiences of nature, of culture, of history for the masses. It's how I've always understood museums. So why was I so uncomfortable viewing the dioramas of African mammals and the taxidermied birds, butterflies, and aquaculture pinned to the walls of the MNH? Not to mention the portions of the museum dedicated to a historic understanding of indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa... which I didn't even stop to contemplate for fear the frustration would be too great to bear.
A year ago I was taking my first formal foray into the world of Gender and Global studies... an area of study that I was warned would seriously rock my world, and it did. I am a big fan of getting the bigger picture, of seeing the world through another's perspective where I can. The courses I took last year stretched me to the maximum potential, and I was pleased to find myself flexible, to learn, to absorb, to open my mind and incorporate others' perspectives as well as prune my own understanding of the world.
One thing I have learned is that history is bloated by the perspective it is told from... that science is as objective as the motivation for learning behind it... and that the white man's colonization of and extermination of the inhabitants of the "New World" runs deeper than I had previously been taught to imagine.
How does this relate to museums? Museums came about around the "Age of Discovery," during a time when the largely white "Western" world was asserting its dominance over the globe. The explorers claimed discovery of and then named in their own language a myriad of lands, animals, plants, and peoples. Never mind the fact that the people that the explorers (MY ancestors) named already had names for themselves, for their lands, and for the animals and plants that inhabited them.
The best way to display how much of the world these explorers and the nations they represented had discovered and claimed was to collect specimens in museums... animals, plants, insects, rock formations, and people and their possessions were taken from their original context and displayed to others who, not understanding anything about the original context of these specimens, came to be amazed by the strangeness, the foreignness of the savages and their savage world.
As I viewed the animals in their displays, all I could think about was the fact that these were once alive, some of them well preserved from an era when exploitation of peoples and over-hunting of populations, which we now have laws to prevent, were common practices. Ill gotten gains and a sad way to gain knowledge. How much can you actually learn about a gemsbok from a diorama anyhow?
My sadness and discomfort were set in the context of the history of colonization and exploitation of populations, but there were also reminders that we continue to over-hunt/fish/mine/deforest the world, sucking it dry of its resources, taking advantage of the people who live in areas where those resources (including the right to create representations of their culture in whatever way we see fit to benefit us) are which we will have at all costs and sell for an exorbitant value.
I fully recognize that museums do a lot of good for public knowledge and awareness and, on the whole I am not against them... I just felt hyper aware that my innocent perspective from my youth of museums as these pinnacles of knowledge and culture was no longer how I view them anymore... and began wondering where the current dialog on the ability of museums to metamorphose into more perceptive and accurate portrayals of their subjects takes place. I know I have one friend who will hopefully comment to shed some light on this topic. I hope that there are others that will dialog with me as well.