Council for Museum Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Under the post-colonial paradigm, anthropology, ethnography, and natural history museums are addressing the colonial legacies of their collections, displays, and roles in the construction and scientific popularisation of anthropological knowledge. This paper explores the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH) strategy to ‘edit’ its “Old New York” diorama, occurring at a time when the institution is receiving critical attention for its plans of renovating Boas' Northwest Coast Hall. Instead of dis-mantling the diorama, the AMNH has ‘added’ contextual information around the glass case of the otherwise stereotypical construction of an early encounter between the Lenape people and the Dutch colonists. In this attempt to create awareness, by adding information, and in acknowledging that the diorama is impoverished as a meaning-making mechanism, the museum attempts a visual history of anthropology.
This paper focuses on how the reworking of this diorama functions as a means of “contemporary decolonial popularisation.” By this I mean a “settler institutional move to innocence” to reconcile historical guilt, remain dominant in discourse, and react to external pressure to address historical injustices to ensure institutional futurity. This paper pays attention to the visual analysis of the diorama, the interplay between the visual and textual, and critically examines the success or otherwise of this strategy in creating transparency and decolonising traditional, anthropological museum displays. Drawing on interviews, I argue that this case study can be considered indicative of the AMNH's greater institutional will or commitment to critically engage with its colonial histories on a structural level.