What’s Wrong With This Diorama? You Can Read All About It

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from The New York Times,

On the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History, a diorama depicts an imagined 17th-century meeting between Dutch settlers and the Lenape, an Indigenous tribe inhabiting New Amsterdam, now New York City. It was intended to show a diplomatic negotiation between the two groups, but the portrayal tells a different story.

The scene takes place in what is now known as the Battery, with ships on the horizon. The tribesmen wear loincloths, and their heads are adorned with feathers. A few Lenape women can be seen in the background, undressed to the waist, in skirts that brush the ground. They keep their heads down, dutiful. In front of a windmill are two fully clothed Dutchmen, one of them resting a rifle on his shoulder. The other, Peter Stuyvesant, colonial governor of New Netherland, is graciously extending his hand, waiting to receive offerings brought by the Lenape.

Critics have said the diorama depicts cultural hierarchy, not a cultural exchange. Museum officials said they had been aware of these implications for a while, and now they have addressed them.

The narrative, created in 1939, is filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation, said Bradley Pecore, a visual historian of Menominee and Stockbridge Munsee descent. “These stereotypes are problematic, and they’re still very powerful. They shape the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.”

The changes come after three years of protests by members of Decolonize This Place, a movement urging institutions to acknowledge the struggles of Indigenous peoples, and other groups asking the museum to change demeaning displays.

“There’s no question that the controversies around the memorial quickened our attention,” said Lisa Gugenheim, a senior vice president for strategic planning at the museum.

Among the group’s requests was the removal of the statue in front of the museum showing Roosevelt on his horse, and the formation of an independent commission that would assess cultural representations across the museum.

Reassessing representations is, in part, the purpose of a current $14.5 million reconstruction of the Northwest Coast Hall, set to reopen next year. Showcasing Indigenous artifacts collected on an expedition, the gallery presented them as belonging to cultures stuck in time, immune to historical change. The updated exhibition will include contemporary practices and the lives of present-day descendants, and will contextualize the artifacts presented.

Ms. Gugenheim said that amending the Stuyvesant diorama, as opposed to removing it, created the opportunity for dialogue. “We’re revealing the making of the cake and not just the end of the process,” she said. “We’re inviting visitors to imagine themselves, why did we feel the need to update it? And of course that applies to teachers and kids, too.”

Another visitor, Alana Steinberg, said her experience was enhanced this way. “It’s interesting,” she said, “to see how cultural knowledge has changed over time.”

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