Hall of Northwest Coast Indians
Curated by Franz Boas
American Museum of Natural History, New York

The German anthropologist Franz Boas is known for his founding role in American Anthropology, especially his articulation of such influential concepts as cultural relativism, diffusion, and historical particularism. But his curatorial contributions and professional disagreements at the American Museum of Natural History from 1896–1907 are overlooked and worthy of further consideration, especially considering their belonging to the fertile and fraught “museum era” that still has combustive and vast infrastructural influence in regard to inherited ideas of philanthropic rhetoric, curatorial intentionality, ethnographic display, and museum education and research paradigms.

While significant changes have been made to the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians since it opened under Boas’s aegis, a remarkable amount of his initial presentation and curatorial framing remains. Whereas conventional didactics usually pin down an image or object, making it perform in stasis as an embedded illustration or representative configuration within a specific historical progression, the social situations of the Boasian exhibition occur en media res, repeated and altered through different narrativizing permutations and implied power relations, placing the viewer/student in the midst of a social fray that operates on both functional and symbolic levels. Demanding active interpretation, the exhibits posit differences and distinctions across and within various native cultures so that affinities arise comparatively, and elicit competing, revisable, participatory interpretations. The mixed format, research-based exhibition department that Boas envisioned, wherein more accessible exhibitions and expert-oriented displays would play off and inform each other, lies dormant here, a case study to be re-activated and learned from.

––Fionn Meade

Published in The Exhibitionist, Issue 9 (March 2014)
Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated