Encountering Histories and Humanities at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian
Native American Studies
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This thesis identifies points of critique and concern for contemporary museum and cultural scholars which address the problems of external, ethnographic representations, the privileged use of material artifacts and formal histories, and the presumed objectivity and neutrality of museum institutions. It posits two current, local exhibitions as examples of how museum curators and theorists have reacted to the aforementioned concerns. The Hall of Human Origins, in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the Our Peoples exhibit, in the National Museum of the American Indian, represent different approaches to visitor inclusion, interaction, and identification with exhibit content. This thesis analyzes the Hall of Human Origins in conjunction with Roland Barthes' essay on the "Great Family of Man" photography exhibition, which illuminates the appeals to age, aesthetics, and "nature" that allow exhibits to universalize human experience and therefore erase differences and injustices in those experiences. Next, it suggests the Our Peoples exhibit as a different approach that aspires to create communal, collaborative representational authority, as well as to self-reflexively show the way in which authority and history are created by museums with texts and objects. Our Peoples demands active thought, rather than passive reception, from its visitors, and provides a critical model for visitors and scholars to interrogate other museums and cultural institutions. Therefore, Our Peoples represents a more ethical and pervasive way to destabilize the power that museums usually keep for themselves than the Hall of Human Origins' approach to include "everyone" in a singular, totalizing narrative of human history.
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