Separating Cultures in Opening the Vaults at the Field Museum

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On Friday, October 23, 2013, the Field Museum of Chicago launched its temporary exhibit Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair in their Holleb Exhibition Gallery on the first floor. To be clear, this post is not intended to be a journalistic review of that exhibit. If that is what you are looking for, I can only direct you to reviews by the Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson and the TimeOut Chicago reporter Jake Malooley. Instead, this post is intended to address a singular, structural assumption that other reporters have not fully discussed. This assumption is the strict and continued separation of Western civilization from other cultures—an intellectual separation that was embodied in the structure of the original Columbian Exposition of 1893, and reaffirmed one-hundred and twenty years later in the structure of Opening the Vaults.

Before addressing this assumption, the reader should first understand how Opening the Vaults is experienced. Visitors enter the exhibit by winding around a gray partition and into a small, square room. This room displays some basic information about the Columbian Exposition: a ledger of expenses, a map of the grounds, a blown-up poster of the Statue of the Republic, a timeline of events (from the publication of On the Origin of Species to the opening of the Field Museum in 1921), and a few exotic and practical artifacts, such as a heart-shaped coconut, the skeleton of a giant amphibian, and the original book of collections from the fair.

After leaving this introductory room, the visitor enters the giant, high-ceilinged hall in which the rest of the exhibit will take place. First, they will walk down the right side of the hall, and then they will turn the corner and walk down the left side of the hall, at the end of which, the gift shop awaits. All things considered, this space is both smaller and more basic than I had anticipated. Speaking of content, Opening the Vaults is separated into four distinct sections, indicated by overhanging banners. These sections are as follows:

          Appreciation and Preservation: Animals

          Demonstrating Natural Resources: Plants

          Understanding and Misunderstanding: Rocks & Fossils

          Displaying Other Cultures: Issues and Challenges

The first three sections of the exhibit, dedicated to non-human phenomena like animals, plants, and rocks, take up the entire right side of the giant hall. The final section, dedicated to displaying human cultures, takes up the entire left side of the hall. This separation could not be more conspicuous. The exhibit is like two halves of a single brain, with natural phenomena on the right side and human cultures on the left. But before critics praise the exhibition curators for devoting half of their floor space to the representation of non-Western cultures, they should also remember that this strict separation between Western science and “other” cultures is not exactly a progressive interpretation of the past. On the contrary, this separation was perhaps the foundational principle of the original exposition; it was built into its very structure.

Visitors to Opening the Vaults need only to study the map displayed in the entrance room to understand this strict separation. While the fairgrounds inside Jackson Park contained white, neoclassical buildings that were intended to represent the culmination of Western civilization—scientific buildings dedicated to fine arts, engineering, forestry, horticulture, transportation, and electricity—the fairgrounds outside the park were dedicated to displaying non-Western cultures. It was outside the fairgrounds, on the Midway Plaisance, that visitors beheld such attractions as the Hungarian National Orpheum, the Lapland Village, the Algerian and Tunisian Village, the Chinese Village and Theatre, Old Vienna, the German Village, the Turkish Village, and more. In a stroke of unparalleled symbolism, the Dahomey, West African Village was positioned directly across from an ostrich farm.

One result of the Columbian organizers maintaining a strict and superficial separation between cultures is the idea that natural science is the domain of Western culture. Visitors should contemplate the idea that plants, animals, and rocks are considered separate from non-Western cultures in the exhibit Opening the Vaults, just as disciplines like forestry, horticulture, and manufacturing were considered separate from non-Western peoples in the original Columbian Exposition. Also, as visitors to Opening the Vaults should notice that the right side of the great hall is rooted in individual, exceptional heroes of science. Visitors are encouraged to experience the story of plants, animals, and rocks through a specific taxidermist, anthropologist, geologist, and paleontologist. On the left side of the exhibit, however, visitors largely hear the stories of faceless, non-Western cultures.

Critics might argue that the relative obscurity of non-Western individuals is a consequence of our limited, historical knowledge, but the work of historians like Ian Tyrrell reminds us that reinforcing these imbalances often amounts to a confirmation of the narratives upon which they were originally based—narratives of American exceptionalism and triumphalism. Following this logic, there is likely to be more information about non-Western peoples at the Columbian Exposition than the American narrative would suggest. Also, the imaginative work put forth by the Native Americanist Daniel Richter, in his Facing East from Indian Country, emboldens historians to challenge the empirical restraints of historical sources, and recreate the individual experiences of non-Western participants at the fair in meaningful ways. Just because the Columbian Exposition happened in the past, does not necessarily mean that interpretations of the present have to remain bound to its limitations.

In returning to the gilded age, the American historian Robert Rydell, in his All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (1984), argues that “the idea of progress made manifest at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, in short, was presented along racial lines in an organization system devised by several eminent scientists.” By the time of the Columbian Exposition, seventeen years later, this pseud-scientific separation had reached a high-water mark of cultural expression. As the social and cultural historian Gale Bedermann discusses in her book Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1995), “The White City depicted the millennial advancement of white civilization, while the Midway Plaisance, in contrast, presented the undeveloped barbarism of uncivilized, dark races.” As Bedermann continues, “the Midway provided an implicit comparison between the White City’s self-controlled civilized manliness and the inferior manhood of dark-skinned primitive men…”

As the racial, exceptional, and gender-based analyses of historians like Robert Rydell, Ian Tyrrell, and Gale Bedermann have shown, the primary function of separating “other” cultures from the White City, as well as individual heroes from the unknown, was to construct a conscious and self-aggrandizing distinction. Western visitors could come to the fair and understand the extent of their civilization, modernity, and sophistication not just by visiting the domains of science inside Jackson Park, but by comparing those domains, and their respective heroes, to the massed and foreign cultures exhibited on the Midway. In a comparable way, visitors to Opening the Vaults are encouraged to understand the advancements of Western science generally, and the Field Museum specifically, in relation to representations of non-Western cultures.

I have tried to explain that a strict separation between non-Western cultures and Western science both existed in the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and continues to exist in the current exhibit Opening the Vaults; but why is this separation problematic? Why should we care? The problem is that separating “other” cultures from the narrative of Western science encourages people to think of the latter as something that developed in isolation, without influences and motivations from the rest of the world. This separation obscures the manifold ways in which Western, scientific discourse had utilized foreign cultures in order to define itself against them. But it also obscures the way in which Western, scientific discourse was built in partnership with non-Western peoples. For example, how can we properly understand the taxidermy of Carl Akeley without understanding the role that African guides played in helping scientists on their poaching excursions? Most importantly, the strict and continued separation between “other” cultures and Western science obscures the fact that Western civilization was based, at least in part, on self-conscious motivations that needed to be constantly justified.

In short, this post argues that intermingling Western and non-Western cultures fluidly in Opening the Vaults would more adequately reflect the historic relationships that characterize our past, not just direct connections between individuals like Akeley and their unnamed African accomplices, but more historic relationships between the institution of slavery and the rise of the American economy. In this case, as in the case of the Columbian Exposition, racialized notions of science were very much at play. While the current exhibit at the Field Museum displayed all cultures and peoples from the original exposition with attention, respect, and dignity, they did not seem to question the basic assumption that different cultures inhabit a space which is separate, both intellectually and physically. This seems to suggest that, while Western sensitivities about “other” cultures have matured since the Columbian Exposition, Western notions of inter-connectivity have not.

In closing, this post is about more than just Opening the Vaults. It is about how historians and curators deal with representing cultural space. Whether one group is trying to define itself through comparison, as in the case of the Columbian Exposition, or one group is trying to highlight other groups through isolation, as in the case of Opening the Vaults, can the practice of strict separation really be the most-creative way to represent the past? Is there a better way at hand?

What do you think?

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.