anthropology

How museums today reflect an ethnological shift away from societal hierarchy

Author’s note: This post is the second part of a series discussing ideas from Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. To read the first post, click here.


Museums—Torchlit hallways. Beautiful sculptures. Timeless artifacts. What’s not to love? From yellowing journals from the 16th century to dinosaur bones from the Mesozoic Era, historical artifacts not only give us a view into the past but allow us to reconstruct what once was. Preserving them is ever more important in a world of constantly-changing culture. As eternal guardians of art, culture, and science, these buildings are piecemeal in how we, as a society, perceive the past. Therefore, ensuring that it is portrayed accurately accurately is of utmost importance. In this post, we’ll investigate the evolution of museums to the cultural booths they are today.

Some time ago, the way anthropologists constructed museums was clouded by Eurocentric perspectives, in the end resulting in the misrepresentation of other cultures. A prevalent theory among anthropologists was that there was a natural evolution of societies from primitive hunter-gatherer ways to modern, contemporary ones.

The first stage of society, they said, was savagery: nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers that shared little resemblance to our society today. As these groups lived before the Neolithic Revolution, food was scarce, and most of their daily lives were devoted to little but fulfilling the needs of survival. Framing these societies as “savage” was problematic, as it portrayed them as simple groups that deserved a combination of fear and pity from Europeans. However, they were certainly more complex than initially given credit for. With cultural rituals, tools, and familial structures, native tribes did hold resemblance to our society today.

The next stage in societal evolution, it was said, was barbarism. As primitive groups began to adopt sedentary lifestyles due to agriculture, they were one step above their “savage” counterparts. As agriculture provided a stable food source, there was a shift away from farmers and a progression toward social stratification and job diversification. Anthropologists concluded that such groups were the next stage of the ‘natural progression’ toward European and Western society.

A prehistoric rock painting of animals after domestication, which allowed them to be used for farming.

Finally, when a society became modern enough—had a organized government, a working economy, and a contemporary culture—it was considered a civilization. Although native groups were in fact complex civilizations with their own values, beliefs, and culture traits, these aspects were lost upon European anthropologists who did not care to understand them; ethnologists believed that their own society was an advanced civilization, whereas others were simply inferior. To scholars at the time, it was clear that there was a natural order among societies, and European and Western societies were at the top of this hierarchy.

This Eurocentric framing justified colonialism and native genocide under the reasoning that natives were destined to be inferior to the white settlers. Clearly, it was problematic to assume that societies—just like species—would evolve from lesser to greater stages that defined their value.

Yet, at the time, the field of cultural anthropology was in full support this belief. Due to this scholarly support, when museum curators organized collections, they used the same three-tier system of classification, from savagery to civilization, to categorize artifacts. For instance, bone tools from savage societies would be found in one section, and primitive artworks from barbaric groups would all be grouped together. Such categorizations implied that bone tools, although varied in their different tribal origins, were all used the same way. This confounding became even more of an issue for cultural artifacts, such as paintings and sculptures, which were unique among tribal groups. While an Egyptian depiction of the Sun may have been a reference to their god Ra, the same Sun may have represented the six-month Arctic day to Eskimos in the Arctic. This common rule held true for all cultural artifacts: Objects represented different ideas to different cultures, so it was not possible to decode their meaning without first understanding the society they came from.

A collection of Eskimo artifacts from the 19th century.

Rather than being presented in constructed evolutionary processes, museums should present cultural artifacts in the context of the society they originated from. For example, artifacts from the First Peoples would hold one group of exhibits, whereas those of the Aboriginal Australians would be separate. This would not only inform the public accurately about history, but also avoid the Eurocentric assumptions about cultural evolution. Franz Boas and his group of anthropologists ardently pursued this novel perspective on culture. Despite meeting opposition from scholars, their work in the end resulted in the museums of today—those that curate artifacts to share the wonders of the past with the people of today, not spread a colonial narrative.

Although this shift in ethnology occurred decades ago, the ideas pursued by anthropologists then have a significant presence in our culture, politics, and society today. Current events relating to immigration, foreign aid, and wars all call into question our understanding of how we perceive ourselves and each other. Will our society choose to delineate into superior and inferior groups? Or, will people choose to treat each other as simply people, understanding of differences yet cognizant of a greater human spirit uniting us? Likely, both schools of thought will always be present in our society to some degree—but hopefully, actively discussing concepts of cultural anthropology can progress our world toward the latter.


Further reading:

Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. Routledge, 2009.

Herle, Anita. “Anthropology Museums and Museum Anthropology.” Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 17 July 2019, www.anthroencyclopedia.com/entry/anthropology-museums-and-museum-anthropology.

King, Charles. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Doubleday, 2019.

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