Displaying Ethnographic Objects

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.” [1]

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).” [2]  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. [3]

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.” [4]  In reality the objects “provoked (called forth, brought to voice) ongoing stories of struggle.” [5]

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.” [6]

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.” [7]  When objects are seen this way, they become tools for “active collaboration and a sharing of authority.” [8]

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.” [9]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] Ibid, 86.

[3] Ibid, 79.

[4] Clifford, James, “Museums as Contact Zones,” Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 188.

[5] Ibid, 193.

[6] Ibid, 192.

[7] Ibid, 194.

[8] Ibid, 210,

[9] Ibid, 213.

9 thoughts on “Displaying Ethnographic Objects

  1. I am very interested in the question of how to best display ethnographic objects. Although removing objects from their cultural context is certainly a dated and ineffective approach, I do think many museums have expanded on and improved Boas’s approach. I have seen several strong object-driven exhibits that use objects as a catalyst to explore intersections between different indigenous cultures. Using objects for purposes of comparison, rather than simply understanding, is an especially effective teaching tool for children. This comparative tactic also puts objects, and the memories, histories, similarities and differences they invoke, in the center of a museum-led dialogue between different cultural groups.

    I also appreciate your points about

  2. I saw a lot of value in Boas’s observation of the three purposes of museums: entertainment, instruction, and research. It is follows the natural path of how most people come to study a topic in-depth. First and foremost, something must trigger an interest in the topic from which a person then learns about the subject and comes to desire further knowledge through research.

    Combining Boas’s enthusiasm for the visitor experience with Clifford’s idea of a “contact zone” outlines a methodology that can help create relationships of understanding and thought. Some institutions have already tried such an approach, like the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s planning was a collaborative process that focused on giving native groups a voice in telling their past, their present, and their hopes for the future. Future work in the field should continue to address some of the conflicts between community “experience” and curatorial “authority” to create a truly collaborative and thought-provoking experience.

    1. I agree with you. Boas was ahead of his time in many ways. The way he understood that audiences come to a museum for different reasons is different from most of his contemporaries. Furthermore, he strove to entertain and teach the general audience.

      Unfortunately, I do think he was held back by the mindset of his time. Boas was not very optimistic about the public’s ability to learn. If a museum today designed its exhibits with the idea that the public only wants to be entertained, and probably couldn’t learn anyways, the museum would fail.

      Museum professionals today use many of Boas ideas, but are careful to remember that the audience’s views are as important as the museum’s. This is where the idea of shared authority and belief in the audience’s abilities is incorporated into modern exhibits.

  3. I think you’re definitely onto something with this business about ethnographic objects not having their own “story,” per se. As Boas, Einstein, and I’ve said, it’s all relative, baby! And it seems like the question of who decides how to interpret objects is the ultimate and most exciting challenge that we deal with in the museum world. While we may not have figured out all the answers, viewing museums as “contact zones,” where we forsake fixed opinions in favor of conversation and relationship-building, is a step in the right direction. I usually bypass the ethnographic exhibits at AMNH for the dinosaurs or the giant whale, but next time I’m there I’ll take you up on your challenge of trying to reconcile all the different voices associated with the ethnographic objects.

    1. Isn’t an evolving story still a story, though? I think it’s not that they don’t have their own story, but rather that those stories change over time. For example, an tool or useful object brought into a museum setting undergoes a change in story from work to representation, but both of those are stories. For the Tlingit elders, the objects inspired stories, even if the stories were not directly about the object. Thus the artifacts are both part of an evolution of purpose and the inspiration points for other stories.

  4. Creating contact zones from shared authority among museum professionals and community stakeholders is great. But imagine what a strong impact contact zones among visitors could make. Picture two kids from completely different cultural backgrounds grappling with the meaning of the same object. How might we facilitate the creation of contact zones among visitors within the gallery (or digital) space?

    1. I definitely agree with you, and I think the million dollar question here is how to create contact between people with different interests and backgrounds. In his creation of the “life scenes” in various parts of the museum, I think Boas was, in his own way, creating a type of common experience for visitors, thus maybe creating an opening for people to communicate with each other.

      What I didn’t necessarily like, however, was Boas’s division with museum artifacts into two categories-those for the general populace and those for scholars or people with deeper interests. While it may have decreased the amount of actual exhibit-making necessary, I think that his divisions could also decrease the amount of interest of general visitors, because the exhibits created for them were almost dumbed down to a certain degree, something I at least would find annoying, and a definite turn-off to that museum.

    2. I think you are quite right. Creating a contact zone between museum staff and community leaders almost seems easy compared to the challenge of fostering dialogue amongst visitors. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum seems to do this with its “Tenement Talks”. I wonder how this dialogic learning method could be transferred to an anthropology museum? The fact is that getting strangers to talk to one another is hard, and it will take some creative thinking to get people talking in a gallery space.

  5. I think that putting the museum staff and the community leaders and the audience together in a more ethnographic museum would be really interesting. Doing a Tenement Talk would be great too, just to hear the ideas and conceptions on cultural objects. Potentially controversial, but interesting. I think that what the AMNH has done puts an interesting look at the cultural objects of their groups besides the strict art on natural history focus that most Native American objects are exhibited by emphasizing the meaning of the objects within that culture from the group themselves. I don’t think this would take away from visitor experience, but perhaps encourage visitors to visit other museums and compare their presentations of the information.

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