The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has its origins in the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where along with the display of industrial progress, there was the installation of an “educational amusement” which displayed colonized native peoples and Native Americans in simulated villages and thematic groupings (for a recent review of the fair, see Carolyn S Johnson’s article in American Anthropologist 2011, volume 4). The collections made for the exposition (under the supervision of Franz Boas) became the core of the museum’s collection when Marshall Field, a wealthy merchant and member of Chicago’s civic elite, purchased the objects and built the Field Museum that today continues to bear his family’s name. The museum opened in its current location in 1921 and was quickly established as a premiere Natural History museum, with four academic departments: anthropology, botany, geology and zoology. Field expeditions in the first half of the 20th century led to rapid growth of all the collections. From then until the 1970s, the collection strategy was driven by the prevailing theories of “salvage anthropology” and evolutionary anthropology. Salvage anthropology proposed that museum collections safeguard the material record of vanishing cultures of “primitive” (non-western) peoples—their art and the tools of everyday life. Evolutionary anthropology proposed that the material record of the past (through systematic archaeological excavation) would guide the understanding of human progress in distinct geographic regions (cf, the 2003 journal Fieldiana—Anthropology New Series #36, edited by Stephen Nash and Gary Feinman for a detailed discussion of FM collections history). As the discipline’s theoretical scope broadened and moved away from these perspectives, anthropology at the Museum also became more focused on field research and contributed especially to theory and method in archaeology.
In 1993, the museum, in its centennial year, established the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, first conceptualized by the anthropology curators. The center’s mission was to promote engaged anthropology, expanding beyond the museum’s walls to reach and collaborate with community-based organizations throughout the metropolitan region. The center has a core staff of applied anthropologists who conduct collaborative action research and implement programs that advance social change objectives in areas such as cultural diversity work, expanding arts access, environmental conservation, and mitigating climate change impact. In 2010, the center became part of the Environment, Culture and Conservation Division, dedicated to translating museum-based science into action for environmental conservation and improved quality of life.
Currently, the anthropology department, about 35 people—curators, conservators, registrars and collections staff, together with resident graduate students, maintains an active research profile and has taken collecting in new directions. Most visible, however, to AAA meeting participants will be the new direction in exhibition strategy. Throughout the 1990s to the present, the museum has experimented with updating its representational strategy, moving away slowly from colonialist and racist modes (although these are still evident in some untouched halls, such as the remnant exhibit of Native North America). The Africa hall, for example, renovated in 1993, begins with an immersion in urban Dakar, Senegal and ends with a display of slavery and life in the African Diaspora. The Ancient Americas exhibition, the most recent of the renovated halls, is not organized by culture area, but rather by themes that explore the dynamics of social processes as they unfolded on the two continents—domestication of plants, growth of polities and establishment of empires. Throughout, there are panels done in collaboration with indigenous organizations that demonstrate continuities between the past and the present.
During the time of this year’s AAA annual meeting, there will be two relevant temporary displays: (1) an exhibit of the objects collected for the World’s Columbian Exposition; and (2) an exhibit on continuities and disruptions of cultural identity co-curated by the author with Pawnee artist Walter “Bunky” Echo-Hawk. These two special exhibits, along with the permanent anthropology halls visibly frame the dramatic transformations in museum practice and speak to the potential for reaching broader audiences on the growing range of concerns that engage anthropologists. I hope many of you will find your way to the Field Museum (a pleasant walk from the Hilton or a short cab ride) during the meeting.