Order of Multitudes

Rethinking Exhibitions and Reimagining Museums with Monique R. Scott

Dr. Monique Renee Scott is an anthropologist who directs the Museum Studies Program at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia. She is the author of Rethinking Evolution in the Museum: Envisioning African Origins (Routledge, 2007), a book based on her Ph.D. research at Yale University. The book examines how diverse museum visitors make meaning of race and culture in museums, particularly representations of early humans and human evolution, Africa, and people of African descent. Before going to Bryn Mawr, she worked for over a decade at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In addition to her teaching, she is currently on the curatorial team responsible for the renovation of the Penn Museum’s African galleries. We talked about representations of race in dioramas, challenging the supposed objectivity of museums, and balancing intellectual critiques with practical curatorial experience.

Sarah Pickman: In your book Rethinking Evolution in the Museum, you examined how visitors to natural history museums interpret exhibits on human evolution, based on what they see on display and the preconceived ideas they bring to a museum visit. How did you first become interested in researching this phenomenon?

Monique Scott: I was always a passionate scientist and physical anthropologist before becoming a museum anthropologist, an anthropologist who studies museums. When I was an undergrad at Vassar College, my thesis was in genetics, and during college, I worked at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) every summer beginning in my sophomore year in 1993, doing summer research with curator Robert DeSalle in genetics. That’s when I started to get interested in museums as a way of communicating scientific information. The shift to questioning how people understand museum exhibits was a combination of being at Yale and taking classes in physical anthropology, where I started to become interested in the history of race science and my time working at the American Museum of Natural History over the summers. I became increasingly interested in the ways the histories of evolutionary race science were still implicated in the current dioramas and exhibitions at the AMNH.

I wanted to be a scientist, and I wanted to do evolutionary genetics, but I felt really called as a Black woman scholar to investigate this particular history of Africa as a kind of primitive evolutionary spectacle and how it informs the present. The pivotal moment for me, which I discuss in my book, happened while I was working in the laboratories at the AMNH. I would often take breaks to walk through the galleries, and one day, in the then Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, I remember overhearing a white mother talking to her child in front of the diorama of what was then Homo erectus (now Homo ergaster). It shows a couple of ancient hominins on the African savannah over a million years ago, the male carving meat off of an animal carcass while the female wards off scavengers flying above. The white child asked her mother, “Why don’t we look like this anymore?” And the mom said, “Because we left Africa.” While there is a grain of truth to that for her, her statement also signified to me that she saw leaving Africa as a kind of mechanism for progress. It really struck me, and I wanted to go deeper into how people were confronting these visual representations of human origins, these artistic reconstructions that were speculative on some levels but were also shaping people’s identity and how they thought of themselves. As a Black woman physical anthropologist, I was in a field where historically, I was the subject of study and not the person doing the studying, so it really shifted my framework. Fortunately, I had an incredible advisor, the late Andrew Hill, who fully encouraged me in shifting my study to the history of physical anthropology and museums (after proving myself with top honors for my qualifying exams in the various scientific fields of physical anthropology).

Sarah Pickman: You argue that even in the twenty-first century, museums, and popular culture and education more broadly, reinforce older ideas of human progress that are underpinned by racist hierarchies. Can you talk a bit about what this argument means in terms of museum displays?

Monique Scott: My original research is now almost fifteen years old, but the reason that book stays with me today is because I see how much the evolutionary narratives I explored that reduce African peoples to primitive, bestial evolutionary spectacle continue to affect popular culture and public policies, including discrimination and police violence today. The museum is one piece of the larger cultural matrix of institutions disseminating information about race, but as a scientific authority, the museum – and particularly museums of natural history – are seen as objective purveyors of truth. In 2021 museums still play a very powerful role in mediating between the science of physical anthropology, the science of cultural anthropology, and the public. I’ve argued that the public and the museum are co-constructing knowledge about who we are and where we come from, both from the “scientific” exhibitions they confront in museums as well as informed by persistent popular images and folklore of Black people as evolutionary (biologically, culturally, intellectually) inferior to white people.  And change comes slowly: when you walk into a place like the American Museum of Natural History, and you see the words “Truth,” “Knowledge,” and “Vision” carved in stone above the entrance as you walk in, the message you are meant to absorb is that inside the museum is an objective scientific story of humanity. However regarding Africa, it’s a very teleological color-coded progression through the Hall of African peoples where modern African humans are still embedded in “nature” in the cultural halls; and represented as the beginning and not the end in visual reconstructions and dioramas of human origins. At the AMNH in particular, their displays of African peoples and early human evolution are seen by millions of schoolchildren, including BIPOC schoolchildren, every year; children who are internalizing this experience of the African dioramas.. And that is terribly disconcerting to me as Black anthropologist.

Sarah Pickman: You also conducted interviews with museum visitors – people like the mother at the AMNH you described earlier – to understand how they were interpreting these dioramas. 

Monique Scott: There are a few reasons why I wanted to do visitor studies as part of my dissertation work. While I of course read critiques of museums and science from amazing scholars like Donna Haraway, I wanted to also talk with visitors and collect quantitative and qualitative data on how visitors actually experienced galleries and exhibitions. I did not want to presume that my exhibition critiques reigned true. It was important for me to talk one-on-one with museum visitors, because those conversations encouraged visitors to reflect on their origins stories, once they received from a seemingly objective, scientific institution and ones they received throughout their lifetimes.

I talked to visitors at four institutions: the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum in London, the Horniman Museum in London, and the National Museums of Kenya, conducting surveys of at least one hundred people at each museum. It was also important for me to experiment with interviewing people inside and outside of the museums – sometimes in cafés or parks, for example – and I got different responses based on whether or not our conversation was situated in the museum; and whether or not I presented myself as someone with a tag identifying me as a member of the particular museum’s staff, or as a Yale Ph.D. student, or tagless as as a woman of color asking questions about identity. All of these things really mattered in collecting data and I was keen to explore the confounding variables of visitor responses.. Particularly at the National Museums of Kenya, by breaking some of the rules of the pretense of objectivity and sharing with Black Kenyan visitors more of my own identity and interests in museums, it was shocking how much that mattered in terms of people feeling like they could open up to me and share.

Sarah Pickman: You’ve had an extensive career working in museums, and now you teach future museum professionals at Bryn Mawr. Have your experiences working museums shaped your scholarship, or has your scholarship shaped your teaching?

Monique Scott: Being both a museum professional and a teaching academic is absolutely what I want to do, and I couldn’t do one without the other. I created this museum studies program at Bryn Mawr and we take a kind of unique approach to museum studies, which is very much about the role of museums in society and about museums and social activism, museums and race. Of course I teach about the history of museums and students practice the conventions of museum studies, such as writing labels and catalog entries. However, because of my work, my interests, and who I am as a Black woman scholar, my classes are always embedded with politics. But it’s important to share that I don’t want my students just to critique museums; I want students to create exhibition proposals and research collections and create new catalogue entries so that they have the skill sets to create change. I always tell students it’s easier to critique than to construct.

In addition to teaching at Bryn Mawr, it’s been really important for me to be actively working in museums. After coming to Bryn Mawr in 2015, I became involved in an African exhibition developing at the Penn Museum as part of the curatorial team. As I share with students, we can have all of these idealistic imaginings of what we can do in a museum exhibition on Africa in terms of looking at the history of race politics, colonialism and slavery. But when working on an exhibition team, you realize that actually translating those weighty politics into displays is incredibly (though productively) challenging, and I want students to know that as well.

Sarah Pickman: Recently, many museum professionals and scholars have called for museums to decolonize, acknowledge their racist, imperialist histories to their viewers, and rework the messages they tell their visitors. But many museums also have very outdated displays that (for logistical and bureaucratic reasons) are hard or slow to change. How can museum professionals grapple with this challenge? Have you seen any strategies in museums that you think have worked particularly well?

Monique Scott: Yes, this is something I’ve come to know from working at a few different types of museums, including some large ones like the AMNH where things do move very slowly. On the other hand I also worked at places like the Yale Peabody Museum, as a graduate student; its smaller size means that more people – including curators, educators, and exhibition designers – can all sit around the table together more frequently and talk about how to develop content for an exhibition.. I’ve seen this work really successfully at the Penn Museum too, where a good number of people were able to gather in a single room for weekly curatorial meetings about the Africa exhibition. No matter the age and size of the museum, when more people can be at the table to collaborate on the outcome of the exhibition, it’s going to make it a more successful exhibition.

Another thing that is crucial is community engagement. One of the museums I’ve always admired is the Horniman Museum in London, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to include them in my study for my book. Seeing their exhibition on Africa in the early 2000s blew my mind. I’d never seen an Africa exhibition like that, in the way they worked so closely with the Black and Asian communities surrounding the museum and reached out to Black communities to bring their Africa exhibit to life and tell alternative narratives.. I ended up doing part of postdoctoral fellowship there and conducting visitor research for my study. Their work continued to amaze me. The Horniman’s team seems to still do really progressive work, like launching a robust program to cultivate community knowledge on the cultural objects in their collections.

Lead curator Tukufu Zuberi in the Africa Galleries at the Penn Museum. Photo credits: Eric Sucar. https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/contemporary-art-penn-museum-africa-sculpture

Sarah Pickman: You are part of the team that oversaw the reinstallation of the African galleries at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Can you speak a bit about this project?

Monique Scott: The title of the exhibition is “From Maker to Museum.” From the beginning, the lead curator Tukufu Zuberi wanted to investigate and surface the colonial politics of collecting. We did not want these politics to overwhelm the exhibition because it’s an exhibition in part for local schoolchildren, and it has to be accessible to them. But we did question and explore the history of each object and how it got to the Penn Museum. We wanted to bring the history of the collections and history of African colonialism into the exhibition. And that was a research charge I took up with gusto. We didn’t include our archival findings on every label, but it is interspersed throughout the exhibition. In the interactive media parts of the exhibit, you can read journal entries from explorers and anthropologists from the early 1900s, see photographs that were collected in the early 1900s, and so on so that you can trace those histories of the objects in rich and complicated ways. The other amazing thing the exhibit does is to merge contemporary African art and historic artifacts, which troubles that concept of art versus artifact. It does this in ways that divorce artifacts from conventional anthropological tropes and categories, like “Objects of War,” “Jewelry and Adornment,” and the like. Instead, this exhibit focuses on the makers and the creators, the artists.

I’m proud of what we’ve done under Zuberi’s vision; I think we achieved something that I never thought a conventional, iconic old anthropology museum could do. Obviously there’s never going to be an Africa exhibition that gets everything right: how do you sum up a whole continent in an exhibition space? Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve also looked at a lot of exhibitions on Africa, and I think this one at the Penn Museum is doing some revolutionary things that might hopefully change how other curators choose to approach how they present cultural objects (and their life histories) on display in the future.