Culture Clash in Museum Exhibits

Steven Dubin’s “Displays of Power” delves into the ways museums affect the public’s view of sub and major cultures within their communities. As an anthropologist, the concepts were riveting, because museums have long been a bastion of cultural superiority. Reading about public backlash against museums whose exhibits question the greater culture (as with the “Enola Gay” exhibit attempt) or museums that attempt to display the “other” culture without consulting that culture( like “Harlem on My Mind”) gets to the very root of ethnocentric Western ideologies.

I interviewed Amy McKune, Director of Museum Collections at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, about her experiences and viewpoints on museums presenting controversial exhibits. While she has not been part of any exhibitions that have resulted in public backlash, she believes it is part of a museum’s role to present compelling exhibits, which sometimes become controversial. One of her points I found particularly compelling involves the way in which exhibits about Native culture are displayed. As Amy pointed out, some of the largest government museums still keep displays that are outdated and do not always reflect current thinking about standards of collections care.

I found her point particularly compelling in regards to public reaction. Museums have made a shift if trying to change outdated exhibits regarding Native cultures. But it seems odd to me that more outrage on the community’s is not directed at these outdated exhibits. It makes me wonder: is this due largely in part to how we are educated, or rather not educated, about Native cultures as a larger society?

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8 Responses to Culture Clash in Museum Exhibits

  1. sstrzepek says:

    I agree with the idea that the lack of outrage towards outdated exhibits stems from how we are educated in this country. In the public school systems, we learn about Native peoples as a part of the past, when in fact these cultures are alive and well today. I think that is important to consider.

  2. jehartman93 says:

    I’ve often wondered this myself! I think more outrage isn’t directed at outdated museum exhibits and their misrepresentative interpretation of indigenous life because these ethical debates are WAY more recent that we like to think that they are. NAGPRA was only enacted in 1990 and Give Me My Father’s Body was published only four years earlier in 1986. I think museums, and particularly powerful natural history museums that have been around a long time, would have to overhaul so much of their existing collections and interpretation materials in order to adhere to the new ethical standard that some are taking an “inch-by-inch” approach, which is BY NO MEANS an adequate excuse.

  3. shaual96 says:

    I think it definitely has to do with the [mis]education of the American public. As sstrzepek says, we’re taught that these cultures are a thing of the past, but many don’t know how to interpret these things now. I wonder how these outdated exhibit can or will cause controversy. What has to change? I think both the museum and the public’s perspective or else, nothing will change.

  4. peytonktracy says:

    I agree with everyone above, I think that a lot of it has to do with the miseducation of the American public in terms of how we are taught about cultures we are not directly exposed to. Maybe this is where the museum has to take a proactive role in filling in those gaps in the slow-to-change American education system, making sure we aim to inform ourselves as the professionals and present better exhibitions to tell the story in a better light. I feel like by having these discussions now, we are already better preparing ourselves to do just that.

  5. lucega96 says:

    Awesome post! I concur with what’s been said thus far. I think Amy’s point about why more visitors haven’t protested or noticed the inaccuracies speaks to a severe hole in the American education system. Additionally, your post made me think about the immense power museums hold. People are not empty vessels per say, but they do often take the “word” of the museum as an authority figure. When the museum’s content verifies the American education system the authority is doubled. Museums can fight complacency and acceptance of popular historical narratives by hosting controversial exhibits that encourage visitors to think about a topic in a new light.

  6. joshdtaylor says:

    It is a big issue museum face. I feel it is important for museums to bring ideas to the public while maintaining a new fresh exhibitions. However, controversy can come from anywhere form the public and it is important to keep that in mind while designing exhibits. This is great post and the issues it beings up a good a point. The education system has several holes in it and maybe it is time we fill them.

  7. corwhe56 says:

    James Luna is an artist and member of the Luiseno Native American Tribe in California. He performs an art piece where first he dresses in traditional Indian dress and asks “Take a Picture with a Real Indian.” Lots of people come to take a picture with him. Then he puts on modern clothes and asks the same question with significantly less people, if at all, wanting to take their picture with him. This performance demonstrates what everyone is discussing in this thread; the fact that society views Native Americans squarely in the past and forgets they have a culture and voice today.

  8. scalje70 says:

    I think outrage from the community stems from both the education we have been provided and the lack of it. The idea of change, or being told that the understanding we have lived by for so long is incorrect, is a little scary. People don’t always respond well to change, or to finding out that they weren’t taught correctly. It can cause questioning to occur about so many more things that we’ve been taught in society.

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