American Museum of Natural History: my child’s perspective

Today I am sharing a co-authored post. My eight year old daughter and I review our recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We’ve visited museums together in many countries, and she usually enjoys them. She had a very negative reaction to the AMNH, and although I was surprised, she had some fair points. This post begins with her critique, and I follow this with thoughts of my own.

Her Critique

I did not like the museum because in the animal area all the animals were stuffed and lots of them were from Africa and many are endangered so it is really upsetting, they also had lots of Giraffes and they are nearly extinct .

Just to think that if they had not killed those animals all those years ago we might have more of a population than we have now.

Display of lions in the Hall of Mammals

In the Central America part it is unclear how they got these artefacts so therefore some of them might have been taken from there home town were they were worshiped

Outside the museum on the top of the building there are three words, Knowledge, Truth and Vision. That last word vision they did not have any vision.

There is a statue outside the building of Theodore Roosevelt and one Native American and one African. It gives the museum a sense of racism because Roosevelt is on a horse and they are not so it shows that people think white people are more important than people of colour which is not true.

“Statue: American Museum of Natural History”by Can Pac Swire is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It was so dark [in the museum] I could hardly see, it could have been a bit brighter.

Also there could have been more people in each room who could tell everybody what things meant and show them who people were.

I liked the time line of space it really showed how long ago the big bang really was.

My critique

I want to start by saying that I have problems of my own with this museum, particularly in relation to the inclusion of cultural material in a natural history museum. However, I took her to the museum not having voiced these concerns, thinking she would enjoy it (and I certainly wouldn’t have spent that kind of money on something she’d end up hating).

I explained to her that the animals displayed had been there for many decades, and that most natural history museums have ‘stuffed animals’. We discussed her points about how inappropriate it feels to look at these in a time where the world is facing a mass extinction event, and where many of those animals displayed are at risk. The darkness of the Hall of Mammals certainly added to her negative reaction. Just last week I was at the Natural History Museum in London for a work meeting, and I noticed the freshly painted and well-lit displays of birds, which certainly felt less old-fashioned and less sinister. So better lighting, some additional information boards discussing present habitat pressures, conservation status and global efforts to tackle problems would go a long way to improving that exhibit.

In cultural rooms, I found the mixture of archaeological material culture and ethnographic displays in the different galleries problematic. I was extremely disappointed to find in the Hall of African Peoples a mixture of pre-sapiens Stone Age artefacts and recent cultural objects. My husband remarked that the darkness of this room contributed to it feeling like it represented colonialist perspectives of non-European cultures.

In all ‘World Museums’ there are objects that many would consider to be stolen, and so when my daughter asked me where the artefacts in the Central American Hall came from, I had to admit that it was unclear in the displays how these objects were acquired. Even children can be conscious of the ethics behind museum collections. We have to continue to confront the history behind how these came to be in such museums and strongly consider repatriation.

There is currently a temporary exhibition about the Roosevelt statue at the entrance. We looked briefly at this, and she watched part of the video. I thought it was interesting – given the fact that the museum is reflecting on the statue and the connotations of racism – that her takeaway from the exhibition is that the statue should be taken down. That exhibition was the best part of my experience, because it demonstrates progression at the museum and helped me think about different perspectives. The retention of problematic statues in public spaces is an ongoing argument, and perhaps explanatory plaques alongside the statue would make the exploration of its issues more prominent (and more importantly free!) to anyone passing and entering the museum.

I was surprised by how much a child could pick up about the messages museums send about the past and present, as I’m certain I had no such conscious thoughts myself when visiting that museum at her age. I expect that curators working on renovations at the museum (many areas are currently shut) are well aware of these issues. However, it is striking that of the areas we visited, the displays and underlying attitudes remain old-fashioned and out of touch. The human past and present needs to be contextualised in more respectful and conscientious ways, and museums also have a role in confronting present-day crises in the natural world. Natural history museums are in a particularly privileged position to tackle such issues, and I hope that ongoing renovation projects will reflect this.

Further Reading: What does it mean to decolonize a museum? By Elisa Schoenberger

In London, Natural History Museums Confront Their Colonial Histories By Sabrina Imbler

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