Marta Filipová

How to display humans. Notes on decolonising a museum

Marta Filipová

How to display humans. Notes on decolonising a museum

In museum practice, ‘decolonising’ has become a household term. Or, at least, it should have done. Many institutions have already tried to revisit their collections and displays in order to make them inclusive, unoffensive and sufficiently aware of their own historic legacies.

The Viennese Weltmuseum, for example, has now included interventions into its permanent display in the form of explanatory notes on different objects and their acquisition. (fig. 1) The V&A Dundee incorporated a special section in its Scottish Design Galleries in which it recognises that Scotland, too, benefited from the slave trade and colonisation in terms of retrieval of natural resources, ideas or workforce.

Weltmuseum Wien (Author’s photograph)

Such revisiting and rethinking is often uncomfortable and complex, and easy or simple solutions are scarce. In the USA, many museums have also been consciously uncovering its painful legacies that have had direct implications in the present. The Field Museum in Chicago is an example of how a large institution deals with decolonisation, and it is the main subject of this short discussion.  It has recently reinstalled two sections of its vast collection, and illustrate two different approaches to colonial pasts, which are worth looking at in more detail here.

The Field Museum, Chicago (Sea Cow, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence)

The Field Museum

Opened in 1894, the Field Museum and its collection grew out of many exhibits of the World Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893. This was the first world’s fair to feature an Anthropology pavilion, and it also included an amusement park with ‘live exhibits’ in ‘ethnic’ villages. The artifacts of the Museum were purchased by Marshall Field, a Chicago-based entrepreneur and department stores owner. Since 1921, the Museum has been located in a grand, neo-classical building of 146,000m2 designed by the architect Peirce Anderson of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. It followed the ambitious urban designs and plans of the main Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham.

From the very onset, the museum’s researchers ventured around the world to collect artifacts to fill the collections of zoology, geology, botany and anthropology. The last area has proved the most controversial as, indeed, the collectors extracted objects without permission or awareness of local communities. They subsequently place them in a social and cultural hierarchy constructed by the Museum, as it was its role to display world cultures and educate visitors about them. Not only the Field Museum but many other such institutions clearly posited cultures in a division of them and us, the displayed against the onlookers.

Today, the museum is very much aware of this inheritance and the need to address it. For several years now, the collection has been revisited and rethought, especially in order to decentre the hierarchy established by the very placement of the artistic, cultural and religious artefacts, historic and contemporary, in an anthropology museum. It has done this by reconsidering not only the ways the Museum posited the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world, but also the ways it displayed the various cultures and peoples of North America. While the first has be reassessed by means of the reinstallation of a series of statues by the female sculptor Malvina Hoffman from the 1930s depicting human races, the second has been addressed by the introduction of a new Native America hall.

The Field Museum, The Native Truths exhibit (Author’s photograph)

Races of Mankind

Malvina Hoffman’s group of 104 sculptures was commissioned in the late 1920s by Stanley Field, the then director of the Museum, to portray the different racial types of the world. They were exhibited in the Museum’s Hall of the Races of Mankind.

Malvina Hoffman, view of The Races of Mankind (Author’s photograph)

The original aim was to show human progress with the white race as the pinnacle, supplemented by the wish to capture the ‘primitive man, … disappearing due to progress, in a permanent medium of bronze sculpture.’[1] Hoffman, who trained with Auguste Rodin and Ivan Meštrović, created the sculptures on the basis of her own research in situ, which included measurements of different physical features of her models, like height or skull size. Occasionally, she used photographs of anthropologists as her inspiration or additional sources.

The sculptures of full-size bodies and busts made very clear divisions of racial categories split into three main ones: the white, the negro and the mongoloid racial stock, as they were called at the time. They included for instance a Native American, a Japanese man, a Sudanese and an Inuit woman.[2] Apart from them, there was also an example of a ‘man of the white stock,’ using the terminology of the time. Based on a classical statue, the young, muscular man is naked with his arms raised.  The figure was to represent the Nordic type, even though the model was an Italian professional bodybuilder and dancer living in Brooklyn, Tony Satsone. 

Malvina Hoffman, Man of the White Stock (Tony Satsone), sculpture, around 1930 (Author’s photograph)

Hoffman’s rendering of the various types sometimes included showing them with iconic features that may be seen as typical of them – the individuals would hold tools, wear jewellery or culturally-specific hairstyles. As such, she used both anthropological and ethnographic approaches to visualising racial types in a combination of physical features with cultural and social manifestations. And there was also the artistic licence as, according to the sculptor, bronze made the sculptures more attractive than the originally planned wax and plaster.[3]

The exhibit was on display in the Field Museum until 1966, when it was put away and mostly forgotten. A couple of years ago, the sculptures started undergoing restoration and some of them were exhibited with new interpretations. The racist framing given to the series in the 1930s is again acknowledged and explained. The individual sculptures are described not only by ethnic origin but also, where possible, by names found in personal letters, journals other works. They now also expose stereotypes held about the figures. The statue of a central African young woman depicted with one raised arm, for example, was believed to be dancing as a marker of her alleged primitiveness. The photograph on which the sculpture was based, and which is shown with the exhibit, however, reveals the woman to be standing on a tennis court talking to friend, possibly demonstrating a tennis stroke.

Hoffman’s series is testimony to the simplistic categorisation of people of the interwar period. Contextualised and provided with critical commentary, some of the sculptures are now back on display as part of the Museum’s attempt to review its own past. What, however, could be pushed further here is the role of sculpture in normalising racial stereotypes. As an artistic medium, sculpture has helped to create a sense of realism and truth and in the service of anthropology was instrumental in creating racial categories and hierarchies.

Native Truths

A different approach has been adopted by the Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories installation on the indigenous people of America. It is conceived as a self-contained space that can be entered from either the main hall of the Museum or from the more conventional display of indigenous artifacts in cabinets.

The Native Truths display, The Field Museum (Author’s photograph)

The entire exhibit starts bleakly with an account of institutional racism experienced in a hospital by a young man and his ways of coping through music. The exhibit then continues with more stories, those of repatriation, modern art and design, traditional craft, ideas of sovereignty, and collecting practices surrounded by contextual information and objects. Their selection kept to four or five items in each display case focuses on explaining their role, function or destiny in interactive panels below. Some objects are also present through a holographic image to highlight the fact they were returned to the original owners.

The journey ends with a humorous take on the stereotypes about Native Americans in a contemporary TV show, Reservation Dogs, which has cast Native American actors as the main characters and was developed by an all-indigenous team of creators.

View of the exhibition with Reservation Dogs (Author’s photograph)

Gender diversity is also acknowledged and so are contemporary shifts in traditional ways of living and worship. Here, visitors can enter what was originally a reconstruction of a Pawnee earth lodge, in which people lived until the 19th century. The ‘original’ set up is still visible in one half of the lodge, while the other half is shown as it is used today, with picnic chairs, sports clothes and fast food.

Pawnee earth lodge, (Author’s photograph)

The items are no longer conceived as extraordinary museum objects but as parts of everyday culture and this has been demonstrated on other objects too. The Can Shakers exhibit, for example, points to the necessary replacement of traditional materials like turtle shells used as rattles. When they became unavailable, tomato cans could play a similar role in the dances. The inclusion of such contemporary objects is important for the realisation that indigenous cultures are not located in a vacuum but constantly develop.

Can Shakers made by Clifford Little Bear (Author’s photograph)

Like the Malvina Hoffman exhibit, unpicking myths and stereotypes in this installation reveals the complexities of the perceptions built around Native Americans, which reflects what is happening outside the museum space. For example in Germany, the fictional Apache chief Winnetou has recently become a source of heated debate. As a creation of the German writer Karl May, the adventures of Winnetou were turned into a popular TV series in the 1960s, filmed in what was then Yugoslavia, with a French actor in the lead role. Recently, the 2022 German film The Young Chief Winnetou, using on May’s characters, was criticised for furthering the same old stereotypes and using non-native cast. Two books based on the film were pulled by their German publisher to avoid causing offence. As it is, the European (as well as Northern American) view of Native Americans is still mostly romanticised on the basis of such novels and films depicting them as noble warriors and heroic figures such as Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. In the USA, the experience is indeed different. For instance, the main institution centred around Native American heritage, The National Museum of the American Indian, with branches in Washington DC and New York City, is run mostly by individuals of indigenous origin and looks at the culture in a highly self-reflective way. While its aim is to provide a fuller picture of the people, it also acknowledges that Native Americans often contributed to the stereotypification of their culture, helping to create the America of today. While some Native Americans support the cinematic and literary romanticism, one of the curators of the National Museum of indigenous origin, Paul Chaat Smith, reminds us, that Native Americans are indeed like any other Americans who may even vote Republicans and Trump. ‘We’re messy. We’re complicated. We’re human.’[4]

In the Field Museum, Native Americans also admit that their contemporary lives have changed and today they go to the museum to learn about their own culture and ancestors, just like anyone else comes to learn about them.

Quotation from a student, The Field Museum (Author’s photograph)

‘Us’ and ‘them’ finally merges, with Native Americans being not only visitors but also active creators of the exhibition ideological content and recipients. And while before the re-installation, the Museum depicted Native American (and many other) cultures frozen in time, the current display shows a living organism constantly developing and having a voice that is involved in putting the exhibit together.


There are, indeed, many ways of dealing with colonial heritage, from a complete removal to its exhaustive contextualisation. In the Field Museum, they decided the way forward was not exclusion or cancelation of uncomfortable objects, whether they are sculptures, objects, and events. Instead, they try to tackle them by showing the complexity in which the respective artifacts or phenomena have existed. This works better in the Native Truths exhibit, which highlights the crucial role that can be played by museums, whether of anthropology, design or art, in debunking myths and stereotypes of any kind, and where traditional divisions between the exhibit, the curator, and the viewer are disrupted in favour of blending the categories.

[1] Berthold Laufer, ‘Hall of the Races of Mankind,’ 1931, 3, quoted in Tracy Teslow, Constructing Race The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 84.

[2] Teslow, Constructing Race, 78.

[3] Teslow, Constructing Race, 83.

[4] Mark Leviton, ‘Our Fellow Americans. Paul Chaat Smith on the Complex Truth of Native American History,’ The Sun Magazine,