Artifacts as Expressions of Society and Culture: Subversive Genealogy and the Value of History

In “Artifacts as Expressions of Society and Culture…” Leone and Little raise questions about the accuracy of history that does not examine itself. They suggest Peale and Nicholson’s work in post-Revolutionary War America, purported to be legitimate histories, were essentially “myths” seeking to justify the social hierarchy as predestined, and control the newly independent population, using the weight of science and government. Both intended to visually instruct others how their world came to be and how to be model citizens in it, without the public questioning anything. Whether they were successful is unknown but Peale’s work in ordering human and natural objects set the standard for natural history museums and Nicholson’s Maryland State House remained unchanged for over two centuries. Yet Peale’s problematic categorizations demeaned certain races and would be used against museums in repatriation efforts as these “genealogies” proved museums could not be trusted with native artifacts. Manipulating perspective, the state house emphasized church and state authority, encouraging citizens to be watchful of themselves and their neighbors. Historians, the authors conclude, must be willing to reevaluate earlier peers’ work rather than readily accept the status quo.


This week’s essays consider the importance of seeing history/information with a critical eye and gaining fresh perspectives. Leone and Little argue we must be able to honestly assess our own past and its preservation. Despite their recaps, however, it was often unclear what they were trying to say. In “Technology…” Isaac maintains that the overuse of media to tell the story of Native Americans led to the messenger – technology – becoming the message and the objects little more than window dressing. Yet I appreciate the museum’s focus on people, not things. They resisted interpreting objects and shaping our vision of the culture. As opposed to Peale’s myth-making, NMAI invited close observation of their process (thereby implying criticism of past gatekeepers, i.e., historians, museums and society. Rader and Cain analyzed the fundamental redesign of natural history and science museums in the twentieth century. I imagine moving away from taxidermy to live, hands-on collections (e.g., The Exploratorium) likely resulted in more meaningful encounters with scientific subjects that inspired many STEM careers. In “Thinking through Art”, Burchenal and Grohe’s SPP program opens young students’ eyes, encouraging them to look at and discuss artworks that interest them. In addition to improving students’ critical thinking skills, this program creates ease with the unfamiliar, removing barriers that traditionally cause people to avoid museums. Greater self-confidence will surely follow, resulting in a lifelong relationship for these students with museums and learning, a positive outcome for society in general.


When does technology in museums become “too much”? What role do generational differences play in deciding whether to make heavier use of modern storytelling devices?

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