An update on “Facing the Museum”

An update on “Facing the Museum”

I’ve written before about the discovery of “ethnographic busts” in the museum’s collection, and about my plans to use them as an introduction to the Museum. The plan has been percolating, slowly, and it’s time for an update.

One reason things at museums take a long time is that it’s good policy to share drafts and get feedback on ideas. That’s especially true at a university museum. And the feedback on this exhibit has been strong.

Anthropologists – even those who are critical anthropologists – have resisted the idea of bringing the dark underside of early anthropology into the museum. And, in fact, the first draft of the script was somewhat heavy-handed. I’ve tried to be more balanced – while still being clear about acknowledging “the legacies of colonialism and racism in the anthropology museum.”

Students wanted me to play up the dumpster-diving aspects of collecting, which I did.

Some readers wanted fewer words. Others wanted more nuance.

Such is always the nature of exhibit script review.

I’ve kept with this exhibit because it seems to me that it’s essential for museums to be reflexive. They need to address their history and the history of museums, to make it clear that museums are not natural; they don’t have to be the way they are; that they are always working within and against their legacies. Again, that particularly true of university museums. The museum itself  – the idea of the museum itself – is as interesting and important as any particular object or story told in the museum. Maybe more so, but then, I’m a museum historian. I would think that.

“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

The current state of the exhibit script is here. It’s at the designer. Check back in a month or so for pictures of the exhibition.

One thought on “An update on “Facing the Museum”

  1. I’ve now worked on several exhibits that have dealt with these kinds of busts, and have even worked in several collections that have some of these busts, which were circulated so widely between museums.

    Most notably, in my own experience, artist Fred Wilson used some ethnography “type” busts in his exhibit So Much Trouble in the World–Believe it or Not! at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. You might find the exhibition catalogue helpful in your thinking about these busts, and in the meantime, a brief synopsis of the exhibition is available here:


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