I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Anthropology and Museums

We went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Saturday. The primary purpose of the visit was dinosaurs--the barosaurus was a big hit, I guess something so big is pretty fascinating to someone very small. We also visited the solar system, and the cosmic pathway was another big hit, though more for running up an down a big spiral than anything else.

What I noticed most was along our path between dinos and space...the various halls showing human cultures, which unfortunately haven't changed in years. The dinosaur halls seemed relatively recently updated (I am pretty sure I would have learned a few new things if I hadn't been going through at a 4-year old's pace). And Rose Center for Earth and Space received a lot of attention when it opened, both because it is a wonderful exhibit wing, and because when it opened it did not include Pluto as a planet (several years before the International Astronomical Union declassification).

Anyway, to cross the museum we walked through the hall of African Peoples. Great artifacts, but to me these older exhibits still come across as "what interesting foreign people, look how different they are." And they live far away too.

I realize that politics and money play a great deal into which exhibits get updated, and anthropology often doesn't figure high into either one. But to me it is unfortunate that there isn't more public education around a holistic view of humanity. We have enough of a natural (human) tendency to emphasize otherness, I'd rather fight against that.

I also realize it begs the question of how else to exhibit the great collections museums like AMNH have. In the spirit of being holistic, why not exhibits around basic human activities, that could then show the variations across time and cultures, as well as similarities? Of course spirituality and pilgrimage jumped to my mind first, but I know I am biased in that regard having done my own research in that area. What about shelter, or food and sustenance? Art and decorations?

Ah well when I make my fortune I guess I can endow museum exhibits, huh?

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