Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

Published September 16, 2018

How does it feel when you arrive. What’s your first emotional response? Please note that monumental sculpture at the Central Park West entrance. Write down what you see. Right there…don’t think about it, don’t put it off

The walk down Central Park WEST from 81st street smelled sickly-sweet from the nuts-for-nuts and hotdog stands, and now that I’m in front of AMNH in a sweater on a 80 degree day, I would very much like to be inside. I’ve been to this spot dozens if not hundreds of times – have seen this statue dozens if not hundreds of times – and have ignored it almost every time. It hurts to look up as the white facade of the building gleams on this bright sunny day, and I have to squint to look at the statue. I see Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, with two men walking besides him. To TR’s right, an African man with a rifle in his right hand. To TR’s left, a Native American man dressed in traditional clothing. On the facade of the building, I realize that the words inscribed are describing TR: ranchman, scholar, explorer, conservationist, etc. Between these words are animals in bas-relief. I don’t know a great deal about TR’s presidency or politics, but only his mythos as an explorer and adventurer, and I can’t help but feel disappointed that he is right in the center of this display in extremely poor taste. Through my own ignorance, I have retained this idea that TR – being primarily concerned with nature – had remained apart from the ugly ideas seemingly espoused by this statue: that white men can lead ‘natives’ towards some salvation.

Wander for about a while. Note what catches your eye. Write it down.

I took one flight of stairs and ended up on the third floor – how did that happen? I later realized that the entrance on CPW leads to the 2nd floor.

Up on the 4th floor, I quickly realize I am going backwards through the Vertebrate exhibit. I realize this is somewhat my fault. Having seen a sign pointed in another direction, I choose to move towards a room I recognized and avoid the Dino-store. That said, many other people are going the wrong way with me…

It is hard to figure out which description goes to which artifact – find all of the corresponding numbers.

I love the small magnifying glasses in front of the smaller skeletons / artifacts. This effect is exciting and fun for me every time I see one.

The water fountain is broken. I am thirsty. So is a urinal.

The video narrated by Merryl Streep in the vertebrate exhibit is actually quite informative and entertaining, despite the extremely dated graphics. It does make me realize that whereas many older educational videos were created by a video producer who sought out and interviewed experts in the field, many educational Youtube videos today are produced by the experts themselves. This seems to be particularly true in niche fields (boat-building, other woodworking or craft videos), which otherwise are not targets for producers. This direct creation by the subject experts, rather than video experts, results in a certain style: occasionally poorly shot or edited, but focussing on what the subject expert sees as important, rather than an outside producer.

There is a mouse running around! Exciting!

Robotic Triceratops skull is not working.

Then imagine it’s actually a museum of the history of exhibit design. The first major exhibit is still on view ( Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, 1896). As a history you can notice changes in a society’s biases, politics, assumptions of truths. Check out this site to get an overview of the history.

Pick one of the older cultural/anthropology halls. How would you update them without changing the exhibits. They are landmarked.

Much of the copy in the Eastern Woodlands and Plains Indians exhibit fails to tell the story of native life by describing everything in relation to European influence. While most way-of-life descriptions begin with, “before / after contact with the Europeans…”, the extent to which European influence is acknowledged rarely extends beyond the introduction of iron pots and other household devices. In those rare cases where negative European influence is mentioned, it is often written in a passive voice, as though it were an inevitable byproduct of an otherwise necessary step toward progress.

As such, I am having a tough time stringing together a broader sense of society among Native Americans from the exhibit. While there are pieces of great beauty and complexity present, obviously the work of people able to dedicate time and effort towards art, this understanding is not reflected in the text. It seems that the broad range of tribes whose artifacts and art works are presented are seen as a single subject in this exhibit and yet there is little acknowledgement of inter-tribal relations, trade, war, etc.

(On a small technical note, I have trouble reading the top of the copy without sticking my face right up to the glass. I am 6’2” in height, and the top of the cabinets cuts of the top of the copy for me.)

In trying to reexamine this exhibit – how it could be updated without substantively changing the artifacts or layout – I want to focus on reaching the child who asked his guardian (about the Native Americans), “…but could they talk?” It was an innocent question and an obvious one that points to the heart of why this exhibit failed. This exhibit presents Native American culture as wholly unrelated to (our) Western culture and Native American people as not being a part of ‘us.’

In the next room, I heard a video in which Margaret Mead says, “I was interested in one’s temperament and how that affects how one represents a culture.” By rewriting the copy from the perspective of someone who does not fundamentally see Native American culture and people as ‘other’ – ideally Native American people involved in the preservation and teaching of their cultural heritage – the exhibit would present a more nuanced understanding of the artifacts within it.