Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
At the beginning of her lecture in Kohlberg’s Scheuer room last Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Monique Scott recalled eavesdropping on a conversation between a mother and her young son in front of a Homo erectus exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. Gazing at the ape-like features of early man, the boy asked his mother, “Why don’t we look like that anymore?” To which his mother replied, “Because we left Africa.”
“Pause for effect,” said Dr. Scott, after sharing her anecdote.
In her talk, titled “Scientific Storytelling: Race, Evolution and Identity in the Natural History Museum,” Dr. Scott spoke of the research she performed for her new book Evolution in the Museum: Envisioning African Origins, which dissects Kenyan, British and American perceptions of human evolution in museum exhibits. She also discussed the intellectual path she took to this area of interest. For Dr. Scott, understanding the relationship between human history exhibits and the cultural influences different visitors bring to the museum is crucial to understanding how society as a whole understands its origins.
“What happens when museum visitors encounter this provocative representation of human origin in museums?” asked Dr. Scott. “What tools do they use to understand them? How do they bring these tools to the museum?” Both the history of perceptions of human origin and contemporary culture are “fundamental to how museum visitors understand human origin exhibits,” said Dr. Scott, as this “cross pollination between museums and other forms of culturation” leads visitors to construct their own narratives of human history.
In the light of colonialism and the birth of Darwinism, Western society has generally held the notion of Africa as the “cradle of humanity” and Europe as the “finishing school.” “Africa’s distinction as the cradle of humanity has come somewhat as a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Scott, as this has also led to perceptions of Africans as an inferior and bestial people which have persisted through history.
Through the nineteenth century, artists created “fantastic images of ancestral Africa,” in which they tended to distort images of “ape-men” and Africans to resemble one another. These artistic portrayals of Africans as “evolutionary spectacles” eventually crept into museums, as museums became more fundamental to informing patrons about human history at the turn of the twentieth century.
On the whole, these “Victorian notions of human origins” perpetuate the notion of a linear trajectory of human evolution, as does the iconic “ladder of progress” image, which shows a monkey in line behind a series of hominids, and eventually a human. According to Dr. Scott, this image “vastly distorts the complexity of human evolutionary arguments and evolutionary relationships and exists often at variance with current evolutionary scholarship.” Even though evolutionary history is much more than this iconic linear progression, museums and popular culture alike “consolidate the [evolutionary] narrative to the beginning and the end.”
“To some modern museum visitors, linear […] timelines can remain satisfying due to their simplicity and homocentrism,” said Dr. Scott, suggesting that they “serve primarily to comfort visitors in their own identity.”
“Images of Africans as bestial or inferior are not resigned to history,” she went on to say. “The stigmatization of African peoples as bestial and apelike has left pervasive political and psychological residues throughout much of the world, including Africa itself.” Dr. Scott cited vernacular slurs, both subtle and blatant, that are often used to refer to Africans and African-American lifestyle, such as “porch monkey” and “jungle monkeys” – all of which derive from the perception of African peoples as bestial and ape-like. Even Obama has not escaped this insinuation, as evident in Dr. Scott’s Google search of “Obama” and “primate,” which resulted in countless pictures of apes with Obama’s face Photo-shopped onto them.
Dr. Scott then spoke about the research she performed to explore the ways visitors explore museum exhibits and construct evolutionary images at four different museums. The museums where she performed her case studies were the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Natural History Museum and the Horniman Museum in London, England, and the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya.
At each of these museums, Dr. Scott conducted interviews and formed focus groups consisting of different age groups and ethnic and cultural backgrounds. She found the interviews to be incredibly complex, nuanced, and informative, no matter which individual she spoke with.
“Visitor perceptions are often heavily shaped by what they bring with them, a dizzying kaleidoscope of meaning, from popular culture […] to religious beliefs,” said Dr. Scott. “Museum audiences are more than just audiences of museums, they participate in wider cultures and institutions and practices.” But underneath these many diverse and often contradictory opinions, she still found the fundamental driving force to be the linear trajectory of human evolution that has been imprinted in cultural memory.
Dr. Scott found television and popular media to be a powerful influence on how visitors absorbed exhibits. One visitor, when asked if he thought of ape-men as ancestors, responded by recalling a TV show that showed an African tribe that lives “primitively, and they reckon that more or less every human being is related to that tribe […], Europeans and everyone have this common link to this tribe that obviously hasn’t gone anywhere.” One woman said, “When you think of the Masai, it makes you think maybe the Garden of Eden is in Africa.” However, a visitor at the Natural History Museum in London, recalling current news coverage on Africa said that “Africa’s status as a third world country far overshadows its role in human evolution.”
Visitors also brought community lenses with them to museums, and this was especially true of those who identified with their African heritage. African nationals displayed some pride in this representation of their heritage and talked more readily about it.
One woman said, “[the ape-men] represent our forefathers […] The first man was a black man.” Some visitors even subverted the progress narrative that places black men at the bottom rung and white men at the top, proposing that “white men are actually more primitive than black men.”
In the end, many of these interviews display narratives of human history that are created from culture rather than from an actual understanding of evolution itself. When asked how museum exhibits ought to be redesigned to be less “linear,” Dr. Scott said, “You have to complicate the so-called ‘end’ to the [evolutionary] story.” Ultimately, it falls to museums to help its visitors to discern between the cultural narratives and evolutionary history when constructing the history of human heritage.
Photos by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette