The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Twelfth - Yet More Stuffed and Diorama'ed Stuff!

Dr Babs Boter, Stuffing and Showing: A Reading of/on the Museum of Natural History

In 'Telling, Showing, Showing Off' Mieke Bal analysed the responses of audience to the American Museum of Natural History. In it, she claims that the display, the framing of the natural history specimens of taxidermy, and cultural dioramas is problematic, for it offers a denial of death, violence, and time. In Time and the Other, Fabian claims that the world outwith the West is temporally distanced, depersonalised. By comparing Bal's analysis with The Catcher in the Rye, Simone De Beauvoir's Travel Diaries, and Peronne and Constance Arntzenius American Journies, she hopes to problematise the relationship of the display of the natural history specimen, with the narratives written about them.

Sallinger's Holden highlights the materiality, the sensoriality and material being of the space as one of fakeness - but a fakeness in which he takes pleasure. He acknowledges the space and the dioramas as highly constructed. Unlike Bal's child, he is not tricked into thinking the display is real, and hints at the museal tendancy to fix the Other in a differentiated temporal space which eradicates individual identity and history. Holden claims, however, that these figures are not anonymous to him - he refers specifically to an Innuit witchdoctor as a he. So whilst he is not fooled by the museum's representative and theatrical work, this does not prevent him from engaging with them.

In 1947, in L'Amerique au jour le jour, Simone de Beauvoir portrays her disturbance at the juxtaposition of reality and representation which she encounters with significantly less pleasure than Holden. When she saw a diorama of Indians, she felt initially as though they were stuffed objects themselves, moved back in time - a staging of America's presentation of history, a material allusion to a text no longer available to us, in Susan Stewart's terms.

These material illusions appear in the account of the Arntzenius sisters, in trips which covered almost six years, exploring the wildlife and human life of North America through camping tours to seek the American, idealised past. Part of their project was the collection of artefacts, but they were very poor and played the banjo or trained dogs to make money. Often, then, they were unable to afford certain artefacts. They did, however, manage to associate themselves with professional expeditions at particular points, one of which was intended to develop the collection and knowledge of the Milwaukee Museum. Making images, to record and trap images, and sometimes staging photographs, was lamented by the sisters as a sacrifice of those animals, which the sisters personified. Their feminist, subjective account is a strong contrast to the 'masculine,' scientific representation and objectification of animals. Both, however, can be interpreted as a form of appropriation, of sacrifice - for all present the animals in a particular frame of meaning.

Mieke Bal, however, encourages the visitor to go to the museum to be happy - to look, but also to join the movement which critiques the racist, sexist dialogues which permeate the museum and its modes of display. We can do this by encouraging subjectivity, but carefully, by realising that this is not a form of analysis which frees the object - rather, it tends to create its own, equally real, if mutable frame.

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