Anthropology of Museums… and Anthropology.



Anthropology has always been a hotly contested subject. Subject to generalizations and laced with biased opinions that permeate future theoretical thought, anthropology has proven to be a flawed, if not dangerous discipline. Especially throughout its origins, theories on race and culture clashed and went unresolved for decades. Even today, academics are debunking, tweaking, and creating new methods and theories in an attempt to justify the practice. By looking at the transitions and trying to deduce their meanings, can we complete an anthropology of anthropology? What about an anthropology of museums? Or perhaps an anthropology of ourselves in the future?


Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.


As evidenced by an examination of Boas and early anthropologists in America through Ira Jacknis’s article “Franz Boas and Exhibits: On the Limitations of the Museum Method of Anthropology”, contentions involving the discipline flourished within the context of the museum world. Boas himself acknowledged the faults in the way anthropologists and curators conducted research and organized collections [1]. However, this was a time where solely the elite and powerful of America contributed and dispersed information to the public, and we now discredit such practices as resulting from ethnocentric thought and misinterpretation of other cultures. Here is where some may argue that early anthropology failed. But did it?


I argue that for these predecesors and contempories of Boas—including the revolutionary man himself—they did anthropology in the only way that they understood: through their own observations and current scientific thought. We acknowledge now that anthropology inherently involves subjective observations despite the attempt to be objective. So, maybe the ethnographic and sociocultural exhibits during this time are flawed and biased, and have resulted in unjust interpretations of so-called “exotic” and “primitive” cultures.  Now we are left with memories of a time where even in science paternalism and racism were practiced. This in itself has taught us about the elite white culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how they viewed other cultures and exhibited their dominance. In a way, the exhibits are the material culture of those who created, funded, and patronized them. Thus, we are left with an anthropological record.


Boas and his students, such as Margaret Mead and Alfred Kroeber, were the transitional phase of anthropology, namely cultural anthropology. Instead of relying upon documents and materials that facilitated armchair ethnography, these modern anthropologists did intensive fieldwork to identify and try to understand the meaning behind cultures. The fact that museums organized collections based upon current cultural evolutionary thought, in addition to the failure of Boas’s exhibits to meet his superiors’ expectations of being entertaining and accessible to a general audience, led to his abdication from the museum setting, as well as the decling presence of the field of anthropology within such institutions. We are, however, left with images and documents of his material culture in the form tribal arrangements of collections through his life groups at the American Museum, which shows a transition in not only anthropological thought but museum methods [2].


Boas’s legacy exists primarily throughout the university sphere due to his students and the inherent characteristics of anthropology, but also can be observed within the museum world and how exhibits are organized today by cultural contexts. The debate over anthropological and museum methods is not over; just as cultures change so does theory. With contemporary exhibitions leaning towards multiple group collaboration in order to give people from different cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds voices, museums have a chance to interpret collections and cultures in a more accurate and insightful way. This is not to say that museums and their exhibits are done evolving, nor will they ever be. I find it interesting to think about how our museums’ exhibitions (i.e. our material culture) are analyzed and what deductions are made about our society in the future.


[1] Ira Jacknis, “Franz Boas and Exhibits: On the Limitation of the Museum Method of Anthropology” in Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture, edited by George W. Stocking, Jr. (Wisconsin, 1985), 77.

[2] Ibid, 79.


10 thoughts on “Anthropology of Museums… and Anthropology.

  1. I am intrigued by your last comment. How would the future view the exhibits of today? I think that we can learn a lot about how people understood themselves and others through the way they display their objects. Will the future think our exhibits reflect a technology obsessed culture?

    I think the future may be able to learn about themselves, as we do today when we reflect on past views. The past and its way of looking at the world has shaped the way we understand our history and ourselves. In the museums, the way objects are interpreted are a result of the way we have changed the way we view the world.

    1. I also found this last idea interesting. Would anthropology and museums be where we are today without the influence of Boas and subsequent researchers? Those early discussions amongst anthropologists about how to group artifacts seem to replicate discussions today: what characteristics are most important to prioritize within an exhibition? However I like to think that these decisions are much more nuanced today, as a curator may choose different groupings for different exhibitions to support the overall theme and message of the scholarly work.

    2. I often wonder about this as well. Will people in the future see the cultural assumptions we use in our exhibits as being just as backwards as the assumptions that guided exhibits during Boaz’s time? I hope not, as I would like to think that we are progressing towards a more inclusive and sensitive model for museums. However, I would not be surprised if I were completely wrong.

      I think this question shows the importance of being kind to our predecessors in the museum field. Without the work of Boaz, we would not be where we are now. Hopefully, future museum professionals will recognize us as having good intentions, even if our worldview becomes outdated, which it surely will.

  2. I agree with your assertion that we must view these anthropologists as products of their time and that, although their methods and exhibits may not be acceptable by today’s standards, we can learn from them by viewing them as a type of material culture in their own right. However, I have to say that I think this article was as much about a imperious trailblazer unwilling to settle for anything less than complete creative and intellectual control over his museum department as it was about different ways of conducting anthropological research. I was a bit taken aback to see the author suggest that Boas’ departure from AMNH marked the beginning of the end of the “museum era” of anthropology. Maybe I’m reading a little too much into the workplace drama, but it just seemed to me that the power struggle between Boas and his superiors was the main reason for his bitter break with AMNH and, subsequently, museum anthropology. I’m surprised that this seemingly singular event had that large of an effect on the field of anthropology.

    1. I would tend to agree. While I saw some very nice overlap between Boas’s efforts and Clifford’s conception of “contact zones,” I believe Boas’s work exhibited a tendency towards his own curatorial “authority”. In the end I believe this not only hindered his workplace relationship, but also the ability of the exhibits to be truly collaborative.

  3. The ideas of Boas’s academic legacy and museums being a product of their time had me thinking about Boas’s three purposes for museums. We constantly discuss incorporating entertainment and instruction (and by extension, public service) into museums, but what about research? Museums produce scholarly work, host academic conferences, and provide resources for scholars. But the trend to educate and inspire laymen almost pushes scholarship into a corner. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic that museums have this public focus (Am I a product of my time? Alas, that’s a whole other topic to discuss). But has scholarship been marginalized in today’s museum?

    1. I wonder the same thing…While I am a major advocate for educating general museum visitors and trying to cultivate interest in the world around them, I have to wonder what this even means. Should we be doing everything in our power to try and make people care about the information and stories we present, or should we instead make information available to interested parties who may have had difficulty obtaining that information otherwise? Is it worth it to try and make people care when many of them will walk away after walking through, not caring much more than they did before?

      I know this probably sounds negative, and in no way do I think that museums should stop appealing to the general public, but the level of intellectual material should not be decreased in order to try to get more people in the doors. Museums are a form of entertainment, but it must not be forgotten that they are also places for thought, learning, and contact–they are a specially chosen type of entertainment for museum-goers, they are essentially choosing to visit because they know they can learn something from the experience.

      1. I agree with both of your comments. In my experience, scholarly research is one of the first things that museums cut in difficult economic times. Simply put, if you were a museum director, would you rather lay off your Director of Education or your Curator of a Highly-Specialized Field when you have five other curators doing specialized work? Although many museums try to remain connected to the scholarly communities that relate to their connections; symposiums, conventions and publications are expensive and often cut in favor of programs that are less scholarly, but appeal to more of the general public. Research and scholarship are often seen as too much expensive for too little benefit.

  4. I really think the question of how museum educators, exhibit designers and curators balance the entertainment versus education portion of museums is one of the important issues that we face today as museum professionals. I don’t think so much that scholarship and research should be marginalized but we need to somehow work outside of the museum walls to get that extra information to our viewers. Whether that means working closer with teachers, using distance learning and technology or even incorporating other fields of study (adding Anthropology back into the equation) to grab our audience’s attention. I think museums should continue that scholarship because we are still viewed as having that authority and its still expected of our audience, despite their desire for “entertainment.”

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