The Natural History Museum (cue conflicted feminist science music)

Ok, so The Natural History Museum (cue conflicted music). You’re all like: Please. No. Not my natural history museum. FOR THE LOVE OF DEITY X, LEAVE ME SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO. You’re like: put the natural history museum down and. back. away. slowly. And I’m like: what? I can’t hear you because: racism. And sexism. And problematics. Obviously, we could also discuss how they’re sometimes rather dusty, but I will leave this issue for the more fastidious of you to take up. Also, you can see my booby post if you want to read more about my natural history museum experiences.

So, here I will “‘fess up” as all the kids are saying these days. I secretly (though, not surprisingly, my secret is now out) love natural history museums. I LOVE THEM. I want to proclaim my love for them whilst jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch. I love evolution and I love learning about how various species are related to each other surprisingly closely (or distantly! you never know!) so much that I sometimes want to have a name changing party with a natural history museum and we could both change our last names to NaturalHistoryMuseumAnders*.

Wow. Can I use ppt like a boss or what?!

Wow. Can I use ppt like a boss or what?! This is obviously a lifelike drawing of a natural history museum. If you think it’s a bit skewed then I guess our friendship is over.

I think one of the first major natural history museums I went to was in New York in my emerging adulthood years (emerging adulthood is like a real thing these days). It may have been called “American History of Natural History.” That’s not the most unlikely title, but don’t quote me on it. Somehow the website doesn’t look at all familiar, but my brain might have emptied out on that. Anyway, I remember a fascination and enjoyment, but also a sort of sickening sensation deep deep down that I couldn’t actually push deep enough. Because I got all the animals and plants and stuff. Obv. very cool. But why the indigenous people from around the world stuck in those life-sized dioramas? At the time, I didn’t know. I did know I was long intrigued by the notion of human evolution and race (I even did a independent study project on scientific racism in high school. Yay ISPs!) and also that it felt like something awry was going on, but I didn’t know what. Or at least I didn’t know how to articulate that what.

Fast forward a few years and I’m at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, on the UBC campus (crazily enough). I’m feeling that fascination and the same sickening sensation deep in my tummy. This time I don’t really push it down at all and sort of look at it. This is a museum of anthropology. It also has a lot of cultural items from First Nations communities. What makes First Nations synonymous with anthropology? Or is it indigeneity that is synonymous? And why is this museum of anthropology so similar to the natural history museum I was at? Is natural history the same thing as anthropology?? What about the First Nations people in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada? This doesn’t feel like their museum. I feel like this feels problematic. I still don’t really know what it is, though, or how to articulate that what.

Fast forward a few years (again) and I’m having lunch with a new colleague at my new job. Joseph Gone is a faculty member who studies the interfaces and problematics of conventional clinical psychology, indigenous healing practices, and cultural psychology among American Indian/Native American communities. Joe and I are talking about various things, including Vancouver, and the UBC Museum of Anthropology comes up. I remember that, in the conversation, I’m sort of – very awkwardly – trying to articulate my discomfort with the Museum and realizing that Joe is the first person I’ve spoken to about this (other than my partner) who isn’t surprised by my sentiments. I ask him if he’s ever been there (the UBC Museum), and Joe tells me in frank terms: no;  and explains how those museums are problematic representations and appropriations of Indigenous cultures so he doesn’t like to go into them. It’s the first time I’ve heard it articulated (that what, finally!) and I remember being taken aback, to hear my deep deep down feelings that had risen to the surface be articulated so clearly. Firstly, because: wow, when people know stuff! Secondly, because: snap, when people know stuff you’re trying to know about and they make sense of things you haven’t! Thirdly, because: OMG it’s so much worse than I had really understood, now that I understand it, and I feel sort of sick for not realizing that on my own.

Fast forward some more years (apparently my life is one blur of fast forwards between natural history museum visits) and I have a kid. We go to our local natural history museum all the time because, as I’ve mentioned, I love it and my kids loves animals and especially birds (there are a lot of stuffed birds there). And I’m a scientist and I want to support that (stuffed animals that aren’t polyester. and science). But, there are a few rooms up there, sort of off the main path, that have Native American stuff. Like a big canoe you can climb in! Who’s canoe is it, though? The Native Americans! Which is not to say that a specific nation isn’t listed; it probably is, though I can’t say for sure. But what I mean is: who made it? who used it? weren’t they actual people? Contemporary cultural objects in other museums often have a record of the European or (white) North American individuals associated with them. Is it because folks are trying to say that indigenous cultures are less individualistic or because they’re communicating (consciously or not) that indigenous cultures don’t quite have individuals in them, the way, you know, contemporary cultures of people do. Aren’t indigenous peoples people? Are they not contemporary? What are they doing in this natural history museum anyway, that only otherwise has Things Of The Earth? To be fair, there are no dioramas so there’s that, I guess.

What’s so problematic about the natural history museum for a feminist scientist? Unfortunately, lots of things. I bet a lot of people have written very smart books and dissertations on this exact issue (indigeneity and the natural history museum) and my ignorance and social location are keeping me from knowing them (if you know, please do share!). Here’s a very random list of things I’ve thought about in my spare time while being at natural history museums and feeling guilty about being there (I am wide! I contain multitudes!) that seem relevant to feminist science:

  1. The representation of indigeneity as somehow closer to nature than other cultures are. Like, honestly, I’m not a huge fan of nature/culture divides, but if the only cultures being represented in the natural history museum are indigenous cultures, that’s kind of like shouting: indigenous people are more natural! And therefore less cultural! Because this isn’t the cultural history museum! Go see the Europeans and their candelabras elsewhere!
  2. The representation of indigeneity as somehow an earlier stage of evolution, and therefore more natural. That is a scary and all-too-common proposition. All people – all things! – are equally evolved at any one point in time. That’s like the basic point of evolution, right??
  3. Indigenous peoples are somehow more like animals than people from other cultures. I mean, put some indigenous people in the room next to vultures and wolves, but keep the Europeans in another museum, and it’s hard not to get the message. Like, there’s animals, indigenes (read savages much?), and people.  When you look up indigenes (which I just did because: computer), the definition (the is literally “a person or thing that is indigenous or native” or “an indigenous person, animal, or thing; native.” Um: uh-oh. Um: I’m uncomfortable even articulating the racism and problematics of putting this all together.
  4. Indigeneity belongs under the scientific gaze. When we go to Natural History Museums, we’re going to learn about science. They’re trying to teach us to look at things like scientists look at things. They’re trying to teach us what scientists look at, and what are proper topics for science. Awesome, right? But, how is it that indigenous folks are somehow more scientific matter than other peoples? Yikes, yikes, yikes-a-rooksy (to use the sophisticated song that gets sung in my house around oopsies). Another way to put it: subjectivity could be thought of as one of the defining human characteristics; what are natural history museums saying about indigenous people when the closest thing to subjectivity they have is being a scientific subject under the scientific gaze?
  5. Indigenous people are more biological and simple. This is really a sub-argument of many of the above. Kim TallBear has published fascinating scholarship about notions of indigeneity and genetics (e.g., what is an acceptable origin story? why genetics but not oral culture? what happens when communities are defined by blood? &etc.) and one of her examples is how one personalized genetics company sells their product, in part, by superimposing their product over indigenous people learning about their heritage. It’s kind of like: even an indigenous person can find their heritage! Even though they’re so origin-ic themselves! And also, it’s kind of like: this will make a fantastic juxtaposition as genetic technologies are obviously in a world apart from indigenous technologies, because: why? One of TallBear’s articles is called DNA, Blood, and Racializing the Tribed and another is called Narratives of Race and IndigeneityI highly recommend both – they’re very accessible for scientists.
  6. Indigenous peoples’ technologies are somehow more earthy/simple/evolutionary/natural than other technologies. All cultures have technologies, yet most people see indigenous technologies as somehow natural – which is a not surprising outcome of only indigenous technologies being represented in a natural history museum.
  7. The historic preoccupations of natural history museums with collecting “oddities”. What made things oddities? Obviously, their oddness. But is a thing odd because of something intrinsic to itself or the viewer of it? Familiar things seem less odd; newer things seem stranger, odder. Sometimes kids ask me why I have spots all over my arms (I call them freckles, myself) but in certain parts of the world that’s hard to imagine happening. So what’s ‘odd’ depends on what’s ‘normal’. And what’s normal depends on the culture of the person looking at things. There are so many examples of indigenous peoples being presented within a natural history framework as evolutionary oddities that I’m actually uncomfortable re-presenting them and perpetuating their objectification, othering, and exoticization. So, suffice it to say that when the only people presented alongside a saber-toothed tiger (can you believe what something so crazy looks like?!) are indigenous peoples, it doesn’t take a critical theory expert to see the oddification going on. And, yes, I just made up that word, oddification. Why notski?

Obviously, I could go on. I mean, I’m only at #7 and just getting started. But you’ve probably got your own critiques and concerns, and I don’t want to hog the mike (mic?) any more. But, I do want to comment on one more thing (I’M A MIC HOGGER, SO WHAT?!). This is the point where someone throws up their hands and is like: why do you even go to natural history museums if you hate them so much?! Why not just stay away!? There are a lot of answers to that. First, is that I love science, and I love natural history museums. Of course I’m going to critique them because I care. It’s like milkshakes (exactly like milkshakes, OBVIOUSLY): I want each milkshake to be the best milkshake it can be. Second, if feminist scientists didn’t go into places that were problematic, where would they go? It’s not like the world is a feminist place outside natural history museums. Also, how would those places become unproblematic (or at least less) without people who care enough to critique? Third, um, you know when you yell at the referee for making a bad call? Why don’t you just stop watching sports?! How are critiques based in concerns about power and social justice somehow less valid? Maybe the problem is, in actuality, just how valid they are, and what that means for us.


*I can make this joke because I did have a name changing party because I did change my name to a mix of my last name and my partner’s last name.

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