Annotating Colonialism Recent Exhibit Interventions in Historic Cultural (Mis)Representation at the American Museum of Natural History

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Leonie Treier


This exhibition review essay compares three recent interventions into historic cultural representations at the American Museum of Natural History: the Digital Totem that was placed in the Northwest Coast Hall in 2016 to partially modernize its content, the 2018 reconsideration of the Old New York Diorama, which attempts to correct its stereotypical representations of Native North American peoples, and the 2019 exhibition Addressing the Statue providing context for the Theodore Roosevelt statue. Paying attention to visual and textual strategies, I characterize these three interventions as temporary annotations to what have been remarkably static, long-term cultural representations. I argue that, through these annotations, the museum acknowledges the misrepresentations but does not resolve them. The case studies show varying degrees of critical historical reflection expressing the complexities of negotiating different approaches and agendas to engaging with the museum’s past. I also comment on the pervasiveness of a digital aesthetics in all three projects, even though only the Digital Totem was produced as a digital, interactive intervention into the museum space. The invocation of a digital design vocabulary enhances the impression of annotation.


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