A Busman’s Holiday, and a Rant


This was the “good” exhibit in the entryway with stickers on it.

If you don’t know, a busman’s holiday is when you do the same thing on your day off that you would normally do for work: the busman drives people around for work, and he might drive his family somewhere for a holiday. Archaeologists also tend to take our work with us on holiday, for three reasons –

First, I love my work.

Second, when I go places, there are often archaeological things to see there and I want to see them!

Third, I want to show my son things I find interesting, and a lot of those things are in museums.

So yeah, that’s what I’ve been on: a busman’s holiday.

Saturday we got up early and drove three hours from Providence to NYC, parked the car and walked down the West Side to the American Museum of Natural History. We took our time and saw the sights, including a stop into Zabar’s to show my son, who had never been there before. We bought cheese and chocolate rugelach. Munching rugelach, we proceeded to the museum.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 2.45.25 PMThings went great at first. We saw the enormous blue whale, which was the main reason my son had wanted to go to the museum, and the dinosaur skeletons, all very cool. We were pleased to see that the museum had a plaque in the dinosaur room bravely attributing global warming to “technology”.*

*Though it would have been nice if it specified which technology.

We were also delighted by the diorama in the big entryway. It was the old racist diorama of Peter Stuyvesant accepting tribute from the local Native people, but they had pasted transparent stickers all over it explaining what was racist and what had actually happened, what the diorama ought to be showing. It seemed like Native people had probably been involved.

IMG_2988So we proceeded into more galleries. We hit Birds, and then Primates – good, good, though it seems oddly less essential in a world where you can look all this stuff up on the internet from home – and then turned the corner and we were in Eastern Woodlands Indians – what what?

I mean, I knew it had been there when I was a child in the 1970s, but somehow I had assumed it had been changed sometime decades ago. But no. Dioramas of stuffed birds, dioramas of stuffed monkeys, then dioramas of people of color (they’re not stuffed, though my son was almost prepared to believe they were actual stuffed people.)

IMG_3006And what dioramas – they’ve got the same old labels up that must have been written in the 1920s? 1950s? describing the “crude carvings” of the Native people, and generally how sad their lives were before white people came and brought them civilization.

We thought maybe we’d find the same apologetic stickers on these cases that we had seen downstairs, or at least some sort of note of apology. But no, there was no indication that anyone had noticed anything wrong up here.

IMG_3004By this time we had agreed that the mission was to photograph the exhibit to share with you, so we moved through it photographing mostly the labels. Though I hadn’t forgotten I also have a book to write, so I was also photographing Native baskets and tools some of the time, to help the illustrator with the book.

Is this a double standard? Can I ethically use the information and condemn it at the same time? That’s a pretty common question for archaeologists… Here I think it’s okay to use the *objects* as models – they’re real Native objects – it’s not their fault they’re locked into these awful cases.

I just really loved this sacred stick from Polynesia. I don’t know anything really about it, because no labels, but it’s so wonderful I wanted to share it anyway.

The racism of the exhibit hampered its usefulness for the book, anyway, because none of the exhibits had dates on them. Apparently the curators wanted us to think Native people lived in a sort of dreamtime, where nothing ever changed. Older objects were mixed with newer ones without any notice.

And what happened to Native people when Europeans arrived? Apparently “The transition from a nomadic hunting culture to full participation in a modern industrial society has been difficult.” (!)

We hoped maybe there would be apologetic stickers on these cases too, but there were not – we were tempted to come back with some and stick them up ourselves…

IMG_3048In the end, we did see some great star maps in the Polynesian section. They were made of interlocking wooden sticks, with cowrie shells used to mark significant stars.

Paddling a canoe at night, you held these maps up over your head and aligned them with the stars, and then used them to set your route. I suppose ancient Polynesian sailors probably also took a lot of busman’s holidays.

Apologies if you already saw a bunch of this on my twitter: I want to encourage people to take an interest in this issue, and maybe if there’s enough interest, the American Museum of Natural History (@AMNH on Twitter) will reach out to us and let us know how we can help them change this. So let them know how you feel! 

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