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“Facing the Museum,” Completed!

by on February 14, 2012

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I’ve written about Faces – now called “Facing the Museum” several times on this blog. It started with the discover of several century-old “ethnographic busts” in the attic of the museum’s Collection Research Center, became more interesting as we teased out the stories of the busts, and then expanded into an overview of the history, challenges, and potentials of the anthropology museum.

You can see the script of the show here.

And here’s the blurb we’re using for PR:

 “Facing the Museum” mines the collections of the Haffenreffer to consider research, collecting, and display in the anthropology museum. A set of “ethnographic busts” created by the American Museum of Natural History around 1900 raises questions about the historical role of anthropology in constructing hierarchies of humanity. (Here, they are presented not as “racial types” but as individuals.) A grouping of masks from around the world lets cultural groups speak for themselves, and suggests some of the ways that the museum documents the diversity of humanity today.

And here’s the twitter version:

#tweetyourexhibit  “Facing the Museum” mines the collections of the Haffenreffer to consider research, collecting, and display in the anthropology museum.

A slightly longer synopsis:

FIve ethnographic busts, suggesting some of the ways that anthropologists and others thought about the peoples of the world in the earliest days of the modern anthropology museum. The staff of the American Museum of Natural History created some of these busts based on ethnographic research (the Yakut); others were created at the 1904 St. Louis exposition (Pigmy, and FIlipino), on Indian reservations (Seneca), and at a wild west show (Sioux). We’ve reinterpreted these, based on research in the AMNH archives (thanks, Lyra!) to highlight the actual people; to treat them as individuals, not examples of racial types.

Four masks. Masks are ways that groups perform their identities, a good contrast to the busts, where outside scientists put groups into hierarchies. We’ve used masks as part of our logo, for just this reason. We chose masks to tell the story of how artifacts enter the museum. We have examples of archaeology (Mayan), ethnographic field collecting (Cashinaua), purchase from contemporary artists (Haida), and purchase on the open market (Kom). We’re considering adding one more, to feature Brown student collecting.

Two quotes:

The story that the museum could tell, and whose telling would make its present function so much more powerful, is the story of the representational practice exercised in this museum and in most museums of its kind. This is the story of the changing but still vital collusion between privilege and knowledge, possession and display, stereotyping and realism.”

—Mieke Bal, Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis, 1996

Reading museum collections consists, in part, of re-collecting and rearranging these fragments of lived experience into a meaningful order. The collection tells a story, but its narrative possibilities are open-ended… The museum is a vast repository of the shards of history, fragments of a whole whose reconstruction is an interpretive gesture.

—Thomas Ross Miller and Barbara Mathe, “Drawing Shadows to   Stone,” 1997

Some thoughts on the exhibition, now that it’s done:

High concept. I like high concept exhibitions. A lot; they’re my specialty. Big ideas: the history and meaning of the museum in 20 square feet! It’s probably asking for failure, really. But worth a try, especially at a university museums.

Explaining the museum. Anthropology museums need to explain themselves. Anthropology as a field spends a lot of time explaining itself, and considering its roots, and anthropology museums needs to do the same. The basic idea – us collecting them – requires nuance to be acceptable. This many not be the perfect exhibit to do that – perhaps it’s trying to do too many other things at the same time – but there needs to be some kind of explanation of the nature of the museum, of what we do.

Too many objects, too many stories. Always my weakness. And perhaps especially so, in a pet project of the director; no one can say no. Perhaps one mask and one ethnographic bust would have been enough? That would give us the big picture, get folks thinking. It would leave out the secondary stories, of anthropological work and collecting. Would have been easier, too. Leave out the personal stories, and the collecting stories? Important, but perhaps in another show. But I was impatient to get this out on the floor, and there’s no easy place for another introduction.

Design. Working with designers is important. Here the limited space available pushed us to a narrow bit of design – we weren’t able to take the designers’ advice as much as we should have. But the notion of setting off the bust and face at either end in an oval, and putting the main label outside the case, where it can’t be missed – that’s design thinking that I would never have imagined.

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From → Collections, Exhibits

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