Anthropology Students Examine Ethics of Museum Curation

On any given weekday, New York City museums are crowded with students on field trips, browsing the collections of these venerable institutions. But this fall, Calhoun Upper Schoolers engaged in a different type of museum experience. Unlike the typical museumgoer, these students were learning to look beyond the surface of the exhibitions, and challenge the underpinnings of museum practice itself.

Upper School Anthropology Museum Trip

Upper School students in Meghan Chidsey’s Introduction to Anthropology course took trips to museums around the city to study anthropological exhibits and the ways in which indigenous cultures and materials are represented. As they stepped outside the classroom and into the halls of the museums, the students came face-to-face with the concepts they were studying in class, and learned more about the evolution of anthropological thought. In doing so, they also uncovered a complicated history, discovering the ways in which museum practice has often been shaped by societal biases.

Meghan created this curriculum after participating in a National Endowment for the Humanities grant through the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, which brought together well-respected anthropologists, educators, Native scholars and oral historians to study the history and culture of the Pueblo peoples in the American Southwest. “Working with descendent communities allowed me to really contend with the fraught relationship between archaeology and indigenous material knowledge and preservation,” she recalls. Indeed, Meghan’s students discovered that museums are rarely the apolitical institutions we assume them to be, but rather reflect systems of power and inequality embedded in our society.

For example, at the American Museum of Natural History, the class explored the Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians and the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples to compare and contrast the ways indigenous communities are represented. They analyzed how features such as the lighting, use of dioramas, or verb tense of the placards can send messages about cultures being “frozen in time.” They saw how even the physical placement of exhibitions – such as the choice to situate the Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians next to the Hall of Primates – reflects negative stereotypes borne from 19th and early 20th century social evolutionism, the concept that one culture is less evolved than another.

Given that anthropology is the study of humanity, I think all students can learn a great deal about power structures, cultural differences and social formation...These are things that will help them become more thoughtful, ethical and cross-culturally-aware citizens.

The students continued this critical analysis with visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of the American Indian. They broadened their understanding with in-class discussions and scholarly readings, many of which were written by indigenous scholars, such as Amy Lonetree’s book Decolonizing Museums and articles by Porter Swentzell. They also took a virtual visit to the Poeh Cultural Center in New Mexico, to see an example of a museum created, run and curated by descendent communities. Pushed to think critically, Upper School students were learning to ask hard questions, grapple with difficult histories, and ultimately challenge the societal norms around them.

Upper School Anthropology Field Trip

As the culmination of their study, students were asked to analyze the four museums they visited and propose changes to one. Some students chose to redesign the floor plans of the museums they visited: repositioning exhibitions, changing the lighting and rewriting the curatorial language to contextualize indigenous cultures and give them a voice. Another student chose to write a letter to one of the museums and challenge them to make changes; others made arguments through their projects in favor of repatriation of indigenous objects. It was clear from their final projects that these students’ perspectives had shifted in a fundamental way. “They started to ask questions of themselves — reflecting on things they never gave thought to before,” recalls Meghan. “They also started to walk around the museums with greater attention paid to whose knowledge was prioritized. . . They became more critical and reflective.”

As an extension of this curriculum, a group of Upper Schoolers will travel to the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado this summer, where they will study archaeological methods and ethics in partnership with professionals and indigenous advisors. By gaining hands-on experience in the field, these students will return to Calhoun as engaged scholars, equipped to continue wrestling with these issues in their own communities.

Not all of the students in Meghan’s class will go on to become the next generation of anthropologists, scholars or curators. But regardless of their future career paths, their experience in this course will have a long-lasting impact. “Given that anthropology is the study of humanity, I think all students can learn a great deal simply about power structures, cultural differences and social formation,” says Meghan. “These are things that will help them become more thoughtful, ethical and cross-culturally-aware citizens.”