Introduction: On the Giinaruaq Mask display plaque at the State Library Archive Museum, a quote from a Katmai descendant reads, “there were spirit masks…once they were used they were put away and you were not to touch them or bother them.” This quote, along with a comment from my group member’s observation that the descriptions were written in the past tense (when in fact these cultures are still very much alive), brought me to think about the politics of museums and the power of one’s own cultural biases.
WHAT’S IN A MUSEUM?
Audience: High School Social Studies Class – AK History or Sociology
Objective: Understanding cultural exoticism, perception vs reality
Estimated time: 1 hour – 1.5 hours
Essential question(s): How do we view other cultures? What is the purpose of a museum?
Materials: Museum visit, Crafts (if going with option 2 below), Random object
(15 min) Students have a discussion on the history of museums perhaps, or if on a field-trip, take time to peruse the galleries in small groups and report back to the class on any interesting findings. Preparation could include providing students a sheet of terminologies or features of a museum for students to consider (i.e. architecture, flow, style of display, etc…)
(30 min) Still trying to decide between a few different ideas:
1. Students are presented with an object with limited background knowledge, and will be asked to write their own museum description plaque for the object. This allows for students to recognize how their own background knowledge and cultural understanding shapes how they view an object that is unfamiliar to them. The style of their writing could be analyzed as well. Unfortunately, this option only presents a written project.
2. Students are given a museum description of an object, and will be asked to construct the object using any given materials (3D, 2D, digital, photography, etc…) This may also help students see how everyone interprets cultural values differently (maybe the description ‘spiritual use’ could produce a cross for one student whereas a sculpted footprint for another) I got this idea from Peter, who kept saying “work backwards,” in response to other proposals. The question for me, is, how do I connect the product back to the point of seeing how museums can become areas of political contention.
3. The most controversial and difficult option, bring in an individual who is dressed in the indigenous regalia of that region, and have them stand in the middle, with students on the outside observing the individual and writing a “museum description” on that person. This will make students very uncomfortable, which I think is important, but prepared in the wrong way, the assignment could be very offensive and inappropriate. I want students to see how the indigenous cultures are still very much alive, and subtly touch upon cultural exoticism.
(15 min) Students present their descriptions or their creations, analyze them, and explain to the group how they came to their conclusions.
I think the essential question of how one person views another culture, can be relevant to almost any historical context. Systemically speaking, we see an example of this in the existence of museums, but personally speaking, we see how individuals can come to exoticize or appropriate a culture not of their own. I want students to move beyond descriptions and media sources that tell us what to think, and seek the truth for themselves. Feedback would be much appreciated.
Image Source: http://www.chronicle.co.zw/europes-forgotten-history-from-human-zoos-to-human-trophies/