Rethinking Evolution in the Museum

Envisioning African Origins

By Monique Scott

© 2008 – Routledge

194 pages

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Paperback: 9780415405409
pub: 2007-11-15
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Hardback: 9780415405393
pub: 2007-11-15
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About the Book

Rethinking Evolution in the Museum explores the ways diverse natural history museum audiences imagine their evolutionary heritage. In particular, the book considers how the meanings constructed by audiences of museum exhibitions are a product of dynamic interplay between museum iconography and powerful images museum visitors bring with them to the museum. In doing so, the book illustrates how the preconceived images held by museum audiences about anthropology, Africa, and the museum itself strongly impact the human origins exhibition experience.

Although museological theory has come increasingly to recognize that museum audiences ‘make meaning’ in exhibitions, or make their own complex interpretations of museum exhibitions, few scholars have explicitly asked how. Rethinking Evolution in the Museum, however, provides a rare window into visitor perceptions at four world-class museums—the Natural History Museum and Horniman Museum in London, the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Through rigorous and novel mixed methods (quantitative and qualitative) covering nearly 500 museum visitors, this innovative study shows that audiences of human origins exhibitions interpret evolution exhibitions through a profoundly complex convergence of personal, political, intellectual, emotional and cultural interpretive strategies.

This book also reveals that natural history museum visitors often respond to museum exhibitions similarly because they use common cultural tools picked up from globalized popular media circulating outside of the museum. One tool of particular interest is the notion that human evolution has proceeded linearly from a bestial African prehistory to a civilized European present. Despite critical growths in anthropological science and museum displays, the outdated Victorian progress motif lingers persistently in popular media and the popular imagination. Rethinking Evolution in the Museum sheds light on our relationship with natural history museums and will be crucial to those people interested in understanding the connection between the visitor, the museum and media culture outside of the museum context.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1. Up From Africa 2. Evolving into the Familiar 3. Revisiting Victorian Progress 4. Envisioning Our Evolutionary Beginnings 5. Envisioning Our Evolutionary Destinies 6. The Black Counter-Narrative 7. ‘Out of Africa’ in Kenya Postscript: the big picture

About the Author

Monique Scott is a physical anthropologist with a specialty in museum education. She currently serves as an evolutionary content specialist for the American Museum of Natural History’s education department.

About the Series

Museum Meanings

Museums have undergone enormous changes in recent decades; an ongoing process of renewal and transformation bringing with it changes in priority, practice and role as well as new expectations, philosophies, imperatives and tensions that continue to attract attention from those working in, and drawing upon, wide ranging disciplines.

Museum Meanings presents new research that explores diverse aspects of the shifting social, cultural and political significance of museums and their agency beyond, as well as within, the cultural sphere. Interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and international perspectives and empirical investigation are brought to bear on the exploration of museums’ relationships with their various publics (and analysis of the ways in which museums shape – and are shaped by – such interactions).

Theoretical perspectives might be drawn from anthropology, cultural studies, art and art history, learning and communication, media studies, architecture and design and material culture studies amongst others. Museums are understood very broadly – to include art galleries, historic sites and other cultural heritage institutions – as are their relationships with diverse constituencies.

The focus on the relationship of the museum to its publics shifts the emphasis from objects and collections and the study of museums as text, to studies grounded in the analysis of bodies and sites; identities and communities; ethics, moralities and politics.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / General
HISTORY / Reference