Museums: Archiving History or Robbing Cultures?

Upon entering Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies, one is taken aback by the indifference of humanity’s place in the planet’s history and the grandeur of the creatures that once walked the earth. A day spent in New York’s Metropolitan Museum brings guests of all ages closer to the artists of the world. Santa Fe’s Folk Art Museum takes visitors to nearly every country through exhibits that blend crafts with history in a diverse and colorful mosaic. Clearly, museums are exciting hubs, full of history, science, art and the many places these subjects overlap.

There are many reasons to encourage museums, most obvious of which is community outreach and education. Sara Van Arsde, executive director at the Orange County Museum of Regional History, explained to The Guardian in March that the special part of museums is “seeing how a program or an exhibit changed the life of an individual, having someone who has viewed an exhibit that is ‘controversial’ or ‘painful’ say: ‘Thank you for doing this,’ seeing how children are transformed by their museum experience.”

Statistically, the impacts of museums on education are impressive. In 2012, 19.3 million school groups attended Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) affiliated museums alone. Over 80 percent of UK teachers believed museums have had a positive impact on their students’ learning. In 2011, over 96,000 students were served by Montana museums and historic sites.

The positive impact on communities doesn’t end there. These institutions can serve as archives – which is especially important in event of political turmoil or war. On top of that, they have a huge economic benefit to communities. In 2011, Montana drew in 1.23 million visitors to our museums and directly accounted for $5.8 million in revenue. This doesn’t include the $24 million visitors spent on goods and services. In the same year, museums across the U.S. employed 400,000 Americans and ranked among the top three family vacation destinations. The outreach programs, volunteer opportunities and economic gains which museums create in the community cannot be overlooked.

It is easy, wrapped up in the ideals of community education and economic growth, to overlook what should be our first question: where do the items in the exhibits come from? And who, exactly, owns them?

Some may say that the museum owning the items means public owns them, but is that truly the case? As noted above, museums can turn large profits. This money may go into education or acquiring new exhibits, but the fact remains that museums are the ones that profit from the items they exhibit and they, through their board, decide where that profit goes. Although a museum may pay for its artifacts, they may not be the ones most worthy of owning them. Museums are in positions of economic power and privilege, dominating their markets, making it impossible for the culture or community an object came from to compete with them economically. This control can create situations where the descendants of the object’s original owner have no way of claiming the object as their own and have no say in what has been done to it.


Maybe the best examples of this conflict in the U.S. come from the thousands of cases of stolen Native American objects, even skeletons, currently archived and displayed in museums. Archeologists and historians of the mid to late 1900s, many of whom believed they were actually preserving tribal cultures, located, excavated and cleaned out tribal burial sites. This practice went legally unchallenged, though many tribes fought to protect their artifacts and ancestors, until 1990 when the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act (NAGPRA) was passed. This act not only protected the sacred sites and remains of Native peoples it also required the return of artifacts and remains to tribes.

After the passing of the NAGPRA, the remains of 32,000 individuals have been returned to the tribes, as well as 700,000 funeral objects. Who was hoarding these artifacts? None other than major museums such as the Smithsonian, as well as the universities which worked with them. Today, conflict between researchers, museums and tribes continue as tribes work to regain their stolen ancestors and artifacts and institutions fight to continue their research and revenue creation.

Looking at each object in a museum with a critical eye raises many questions. How did it get here? Who owned it? Why is it not that person’s anymore? More often than not, we see museums taking credit for objects and practices which are not their own. Furthermore, they often display ancient artifacts without the context of the complex cultures from which they originated or the current realities they face. This practice runs the risk of keeping the cultures these object originate in, be them Salish, Celtic, Malian, or Tibetan, in an imagined past where viewers can swoon over craftsmanship or age of bones while ignoring the struggles, the cultural and racial inequality the communities today may face.

In light of this, might it be better to have people display their own culture and history? Anthropology may be the study of people, but it can no longer justify their dehumanization or exclusion. Museums are great educational and economic forces, but they still run the risk of both these things if museum boards are not diversified and objects are not returned to their rightful owners.