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 . 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 .
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.
 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.