The Museum That Looks Back At Its Racist Past

We’ve rediscovered our love for Chicago over the last two years. Whether it’s a visit to see Hamilton, catch a Phil Collins concert or even just an excuse for Sharon to pick up another Tiki Mug from Three Dots and a Dash (note from Sharon: YYYYAAAASSSS!!!!), we’re always up for another visit. We asked you for what we should do in Chicago and one of the places we’d never visited until our last trip was the Field Museum.

Field Museum Sign

I already shared how we were able to visit for free since my employer is one of the major contributors to the museum. Now, most people who visit the Field Museum want to see the dinosaurs, including Sue, the T-Rex (who was in rehab when we visited. But we still saw some sweet dinos.)

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Other people might be more interested in learning about two of the other infamous residents of the Field, the Tsavo Lions.

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While seeing all of these things were great, there was one exhibit that we’re still talking about for months after our visit. It is a fascinating retrospective on how people’s opinions can change towards a topic in the timespan of a single lifetime.

We were walking along a back hallway of the massive Field Museum when we came across an exhibit featuring many bronze statues. We stopped by, mainly because there were benches and we wanted to sit, but when we started reading the descriptions, we were transfixed.

LOOKING AT OURSELVES: RETHINKING THE SCULPTURES OF MALVINA HOFFMAN

Here’s a description of the exhibit from the Field Museum’s Website:

In the early 1930s, the Field Museum commissioned sculptor Malvina Hoffman to create bronze sculptures for an exhibition called The Races of Mankind. Hoffman, who trained under Auguste Rodin, traveled to many parts of the world for an up-close look at the “racial types” her sculptures were meant to portray.

By the time the exhibition was deinstalled more than 30 years later, more than 10 million people had seen it—as well as its misguided message that human physical differences could be categorized into distinct “races.”

Today, 50 of Hoffman’s sculptures are back on display—with a new narrative—in Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman. This exhibition closely examines the nuance and beauty that defines the person and inspiration behind each sculpture.

Looking at Ourselves takes a hard look at the 1933 exhibition. More than 80 years later, our cultural and scientific notions of race have changed—but the consequences of racial ideologies persist.

This exhibit was a fascinating look back at how, only 80 years ago, it was the educated opinion that people of different races acted differently from one another because of some differences in their make up. It pulls no punches when talking of the exhibit, that was on display for more than three decades, where the sculptures were only identified by their area of origin, such as “Pueblo Woman”.

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Looking at the sculptures today, it is evident that the sculptor, Malvina Hoffman viewed these people as individuals. Her detail in crafting the over 100 sculptures for the exhibit is amazing. These are as much pieces of art as they are historical documents.

Many of the sculptures are busts of people from all over the world.

 

There are also several full body sculptures, as well:

 

If you had any doubts about how the curators felt, they put everything right on the table, literally. This interactive exhibit tells the difference in how the sculptures were presented in the 1930’s vs. how we think of them today.

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It was somewhat shocking to see someone point out the blatant racism of our past and how we found scientific explanations to justify our beliefs and actions. The museum didn’t try to whitewash history since the original exhibit was funded by Stanley Field, the president of the museum.

I was sad to see that for the 30 minutes or so that we wandered around, reading the plaques, looking at the sculptures and pondering how far we’ve come (and how much further we have to go) that we were the ONLY ONES who were in the entire exhibit. I mean, we stumbled upon it by wandering around the museum but it was a totally captivating look at everything from race, science, museum curation and art. I hope that more people get to see this exhibit since it does the one thing that museums are truly made for, it makes you think and examine your own actions.

How will people look at the things we believe 80 years from now?  Will they shake their heads at us and say, “How could they be so ignorant?” I hope not but I’m not so sure. At least I have hope from the sculptor who was the only one who met all of these people. Three decades after the museum put her sculptures on display, she seemed to understand that all of these people were individuals, not examples of races to be separated from each other.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

Cover Photo from the Field Museum Website

 

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