A Paradigm Shift in African Cultural Exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History



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As the National Museum, the Smithsonian Institution echoes American identity and promotes U.S. values. In a 1999 article, From Dioramas to Dialogics: A Century of Exhibiting African at the Smithsonian, anthropology curator, Mary Jo Arnoldi stated that the 1967 Cultures of Africa exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History was outdated the day it opened. I examine how curators’ reluctance to abandon 19th century evolution theories for this 1967 exhibition, may have reflected one side of a cultural discourse over race that has been ongoing for most of the century. African hall displays that came before and after the 1967 installation are analyzed with coeval developments in African exhibitions outside the Smithsonian. Changes in American mainstream thought about race may be indicated in a paradigm shift in museum narratives, for the 1997 African Voices exhibition, as Africans are finally allowed to tell their own story.



African Cultural Exhibits