kApplying Anthropology: Another View of Museum Exhibit Development [Response]

By Kahn, Miriam | Anthropologica, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

kApplying Anthropology: Another View of Museum Exhibit Development [Response]


Kahn, Miriam, Anthropologica


As a long-standing member of the museum anthropology profession, I feel compelled to respond to Laura Jones' article, "Technologies of Interpretation: Design and Redesign of the Tahitian Marketplace at the Field Museum of Natural History" in Anthropologica (Jones, 1999). In the article, using her personal involvement with the Tahitian marketplace exhibit as a launching pad, Jones takes aim -- at museum anthropology as a profession, as well as at several museum and academic anthropologists who have written critically about the exhibit.

In the main body of the article, she submits her perspective on the development of the Tahitian marketplace recreation (according to Jones, an "exhibit ahead of its time" in having no curator, no artifacts, no labels, no explanations). The Tahitian marketplace is one section of a much larger exhibit, "Traveling the Pacific," which itself is one of three components (together with "Pacific Spirits" and "Ruatepupuke: A Maori Meeting House") that make up the Pacific Island exhibits at Chicago's Field Museum. After "Traveling the Pacific" opened to the public in 1989, the exhibit, and especially the Tahitian marketplace component, were the target of much criticism (although Jones often misreads critiques leveled at "Traveling the Pacific" as comments about the Tahitian marketplace). As a result of the criticisms, the Tahitian marketplace underwent various redesigns, first in the form of minor tinkering in 1991, and then in a more major fashion in 1994-95.

The article concludes with a list of lessons Jones learned from her museum experience. She calls for more innovation and risk taking; less conventional interpretive approaches; an abandonment of permanent installations and expensive renovations; greater use of new electronic media and technologies; the inclusion of a wider range of educators and artists in the exhibit design process; and, most importantly, a breakdown of elitist, classist, racist, colonialist, patronizing hierarchies of "expert" control over truth.

Jones correctly states that museum exhibits comprise a special genre of anthropological communication that allows for creative opportunities in the practice of applied anthropology. Her labeling of the exhibit process as applied anthropology is an insightful observation. She requests that exhibits be seen as the popular media they are, and not simply as another academic genre. Pursuing this argument, however, she encourages a greater separation of the popular from the academic, which raises serious concerns. Indeed, it is precisely because exhibits have important and unique qualities to contribute to the business of public education, and because they reach such a wide audience (according to a recent New York Times article [Tucker, 1999], Americans now visit museums more than they visit sports events), that exhibits need to present information in a manner that is accurate, sensitive and inclusive -- as well as fun.

Rather than drive a wedge deeper between the popular and the academic, why not bring these two modes of educating into closer, mutually beneficial dialogue? Popular venues for the dissemination of knowledge about people and cultures, and even about the profession of anthropology itself, appear in many other forms, such as popular literature, videos and films, and not only in museum exhibits. The concerns raised by Jones' recommendations ripple further afield and raise parallel concerns for these other genres as well.

One of the greatest measures of success of any educational enterprise is the way in which deeper, more accurate understandings are reached by a constant working back and forth between purely intellectual theories and the testing of these in the "real world." In other words, between what museum anthropologists theorize in their academic studies and what museum visitors see and do and think and feel when they move through an exhibit. The continual give-and-take between knowledge gained by academics and the need to present this to the public in accessible and interesting ways was exactly what first attracted me to the field of museum anthropology.

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