Facing the Museum

Museums of anthropology have a complicated history. Once places that constructed hierarchies of humanity, museums today serve as centers for understanding the beauty, complexity and diversity of the world’s cultures.

“The story that the museum could tell, and whose telling would make its present function so much more powerful, is the story of the  representational practice exercised in this museum and in most museums of its kind. This is the story of the changing but still vital collusion between privilege and knowledge, possession and display, stereotyping and realism.”

              —Mieke Bal, Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis, 1996



Reading museum collections consists, in part, of re-collecting and rearranging these fragments of lived experience into a meaningful order. The collection tells a story, but its narrative possibilities are open-ended... The museum is a vast repository of the shards of history, fragments of a whole whose reconstruction is an interpretive gesture.

—Thomas Ross Miller and Barbara Mathe, “Drawing Shadows to   Stone,” 1997


These “ethnographical busts,” created at the turn of the 20th century, were retrieved from a dumpster at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and, figuratively, out of the rubbish bin of the history of anthropology. Museum artists produced more than five hundreds busts to show early anthropologists’ belief that humanity was composed of a number of fixed racial and ethnic groups that could be arranged hierarchically from the primitive to most highly evolved.

Why show them here? In bringing these busts out of the trash, we acknowledge the legacies of colonialism and racism in the anthropology museum. We also note the progress museums have made, and urge you to consider the challenges museums face in displaying the “other” in a respectful and non-objectifying way.


Lyman Lay

Lyman Lay was about 13 years old when this bust was made in 1897. He grew up on the Seneca Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in upstate New York. Caspar Mayer, the sculptor who made these busts, wrote to Franz Boas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, that he had selected individuals “as near full blood as there could be found on the reservation”—settling Euro-American ideas about race on Native peoples, a practice that would help to define some Eastern tribes out of existence.




Wesheba was 18 years old when American missionary Samuel Phillips Verner brought him from the Belgian Congo to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, where Caspar Mayer made this bust. He was one of about a dozen men in a display of Pygmies, one of dozens of races displayed at the Fair. Pygmies were considered the “lowest form of human development.” Ota Benga, another Pigmy whose cast was taken by Mayer, was later displayed in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo; after considerable controversy, he was allowed free.




Kario was from the island of Mindoro, in the Philippines. Twenty five years old when Mayer made a cast of his head, he was part of a very large display from the Philippines at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition intended to introduce the new United States colony and to show the “benefits” of American imperialism. Territorial governor William Howard Taft believed that display at the Fair would have “a very great influence in completing pacification.” He also hoped it would benefit Filipinos through Americanization; exhibiting the many tribes would demonstrate the need for a common language and American schools.



Minni Painted Horse

Minni Painted Horse, born in 1853, was probably part of Col. Fred Cummins’ Indian Congress at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. A combination Wild West show and ethnographic exhibition, the troupe travelled the country, and to Europe, putting on displays – and being put on display. The “Indian Congress” was at Coney Island in 1903. Museum anthropologists visited, photographed Mrs. Painted Horse and several others, and made the plaster cast from which this bust was created. Haffenreffer educators painted the bust in the 1980s to make it look more realistic.



Unknown Yakut man

This bust was created from photographs taken on the American Museum of Natural History’s Jesup Expedition to Alaska and Siberia (1897-1902), which sought the origins of Native Americans, and to record traditional cultures. Expedition scientists measured and photographed hundreds of Native peoples. Artists at the museum used these information to make busts, which were then used for statistical analysis, display, and for the heads of museum mannequins.


Franz Boas, the scientist in charge of the expedition, increasingly came to question the concept of fixed physical racial characteristics. He put more emphasis on language and culture. His work established a relativistic view of human equality, disproving the idea of racial hierarchies. Boas displayed objects in settings to show the culture of a group of people, not evolutionary fantasies.


These masks, like so many artifacts in the museum, represent identity, tradition, creativity, and community. They suggest individual and group identity, as well as religious and spiritual beliefs.  They show communities defining themselves through material culture and performance. They introduce the museum as well. We have chosen artifacts that represent some of the ways that objects enter the collections: archaeology, contracts with artists, ethnographic field collecting, and by purchase and generous gift.

Cashinahua gourd mask, munti xetaya

Abriu made this mask in 1968 for Bimitudu, both members of the Cashinahua tribe living in Samwiunan, an Amazonian rainforest village in eastern Peru. Cashinahua men carve masks from gourds, decorating them with monkey teeth, armadillo plates, feathers, hair, paint and seeds to represent male and female mythological figures. Masked performances often highlight conflicts within the Cashinahua community. Through verbal exchanges, one masked figure expresses the community’s judgment on the issue, causing the other to retreat in shame and the parties engaged in conflict to resolve their difficulties.


After this mask was used in a ritual it was given to Kenneth Kensinger, an American anthropologist, who in turn donated it—along with an extensive collection—to the Haffenreffer Museum. His notes, based on decades of fieldwork, help us to understand the mask in its context.


Kom royal mask

This mask depicts a king, or Fon, of the Kingdom of Kom, now part of the Republic of Cameroon. It represents the ideal of kingship at its most benevolent. Beads and metal attachments reflect the wealth and beauty of the king’s court. Its benevolent smile represents the king’s pleasure; its wide eyes, his ability to observe his entire kingdom; its smooth contours and rich color, the health of the king himself. These masks are worn in ceremonies celebrating the power of the royal court. They are portraits of kingship.


This mask was donated to the Haffenreffer Museum by Burton and Junis Roberts Marcus, collectors who acquired it from a dealer in African art. As a result, we do not know the name of the artist who carved it, the king who commissioned it, or exactly how old it is. Anthropological scholarship allows us to understand aspects of its use, but leaves much unknown.


Haida raven portrait mask

Reg Davidson (born 1954), a world-renowned Haida artist, carved this mask in 1995. As an artist, he strives to retain the simplicity and style of the Haida “old masters, ”carvers of the earlier 20th and late 19th century who innovated within traditional styles. This mask represents Raven, the mythical ancestor of one of the two divisions into which all Haida families are grouped. In Haida mythology. A trickster, Raven sometimes appears as a human pulling off his skin to show his bird-like form within, or as a raven that transforms into a human. On this mask, Davidson uses paint, carved surfaces, and down to reference these transformations.

The Haffenreffer Museum purchased this mask in 1995 from a Vancouver gallery that represented Davidson. Acquisitions like this allow the museum to celebrate the continuity and vitality of indigenous communities and the creativity of indigenous artists, globally.


Architectural fragment of a Maya ruler, possibly Kan Bahlam II

The facial features of this portrait suggest it depicts K’inich (King) Kan Bahlam II, who ruled the Maya city of Palenque from AD 684-702. Similar stucco masks of Kan Bahlam adorn the upper façade of Temple 14, a structure he commissioned and completed in A.D. 692. Depictions of Maya rulers, especially those of the city of Palenque, capture not only their physical features but also details of regalia, gestures, and actions that record their activities as rulers—much like European portraits.


This stucco portrait entered the international art market before 1970 and was donated to the Haffenreffer Museum by Paul A. Cohen in 2002. Stephen Houston, Mesoamerican archaeologist in Brown’s department of anthropology, identified the portrait as Kan Bahlam II on the basis of iconographic comparisons to better-documented portraits with dated hieroglyphic texts.