Museum exhibits have a purpose: they tell a story, they teach you something, and they make you think. Behind the scenes at a museum, people are working to help us learn and understand this story, but who should decide what we should learn from a museum?
This question becomes even more complicated when we consider the ethnographic objects of people who were traditionally marginalized by scientific racism, such as the people of the Northwest Coast Indian tribes.
In 1887, Franz Boas began to outline the way museums should display their ethnographic collections. Boas is considered the father of modern American Anthropology. His basis of study in science changed the way anthropologists examine the world. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Boas believed that ethnographic exhibits should tell the visitor that culture is “relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only as far as our civilization goes.” 
Boas used this ideology to organize his exhibits, particularly the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History. He believed that “if the underlying idea of the exhibit can be brought out with sufficient clearness, some great truths may be impressed upon (the audience).”  He organized the objects by a “tribal arrangement of collections,” not by object type, in order to teach the visitor the meaning of the object within that culture. 
Today, many museums strive to do just this in their exhibits. Curators aim to help the audience understand the importance of objects to their origin culture.
This goal is at the heart of the 1989 meetings of the staff of the Portland Museum of Art and the Tlinglit elders about the objects in their Northwest Coast Indian collection. The curators wanted to understand how the objects represented the culture of these tribes. Unlike Boas, they asked representatives from the culture marking a key difference between how museums approach objects now. However, it is what those present learned about these objects from the representatives is what is truly surprising and modern.
The museum professionals expected the elders to tell them about the objects, “for example: this is how the mask was used; it was made by so-and-so; this is its power in terms of the clan, our traditions.”  In reality the objects “provoked (called forth, brought to voice) ongoing stories of struggle.” 
Historian James Clifford argues that this experience is an example of when museums become contact zones. A contact zone is “a space in which people geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations.” 
Ethnographic objects in museums are objects that invoke “histories (memories, hopes, oral traditions)” and work as tools of the contact zone to “challenge and rework a relationship.”  When objects are seen this way, they become tools for “active collaboration and a sharing of authority.” 
Any time an object is used in a way that ignores its presence as a mutable object of a contact zone, it is subject to the dominant culture’s views. Clifford believes that if we ignore these objects’ status within a contact zone, we continue to perpetuate “culture-collecting strategies” that are a reflection of old world views of “dominance, hierarchy, resistance, and mobilization.” 
Maybe, in reality, ethnographic objects don’t have a story. They are continually changing because they reflect a continued story. Next time you find yourself at an ethnographic museum think about the story. What do the objects tell you? Are they just reflections of another culture, or are they a reflection of what happens when two cultures meet?
I challenge you to think about what the museum wants you to learn about that culture and think about what that might be saying about our own culture. We can learn more about contact zones and other cultures from the way we displayed these objects in the past and the way they are viewed by both cultures now.
 Jacknis, Ira, “Franz Boas and Exhibits: On the Limitations of the Museums Method of Anthropology,” Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture History of Anthropology, Volume 3, Ed. George W. Stocking, Jr (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 83.
 Ibid, 86.
 Ibid, 79.
 Clifford, James, “Museums as Contact Zones,” Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 188.
 Ibid, 193.
 Ibid, 192.
 Ibid, 194.
 Ibid, 210,
 Ibid, 213.