I’m a white, non-heterosexual queer male person from Berlin, Germany. In most situations I like to be aware of with what eyes I’m looking at human and non-human bodies and with what body I encounter situations, pass through or inhabit places and architectures. Right now I’m entering the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is only minutes after the museum opened its doors and not too many people are here. I’m walking through the dimly lit mammal halls with their glowing dioramas. Each diorama hosts at least one animal that is staring at me, catching my gaze, holding it in communion. I feel immediate engagement. Each facing animal is very attentive, ready to flee at the intrusion of men, but ready also to hold forever the gaze of meeting. A fragile moment that feels very real. Like an actual encounter. The animal is on the verge to turn around to escape and for a tiny moment, I’m arrested in my movement, anxious to disturb the instant of meeting. Old sensations like the archaic tones of ‘men meet beast’ resonate in me on a deep level of bodily memory while I’m simultaneously aware of the cultural settings of the situation. Obtruding contexts, the fakeness of the exhibited nature, the thingness of the stuffed animal, the theatrical lights, the painted environment and my position as a human viewer inside a dark wooden paneled hall. I’m an audience member in a show that could be called Death Playing Aliveness. Like in a traditional theater setting I’m placed in the dark looking at a narrative unfolding on a brightly lit proscenium stage from where one of the actors breaks the fourth wall with his or her gaze into the audience. I understand the techniques of make-believe but still—for a blink of an eye—I’m caught unprepared, holding the illusion. I take a few steps towards one of the windows. Time on both sides of the glass has fallen out of continuity. The animal is frozen in a moment of supreme life, and I’m transfixed in surprise. In real life, no human could ever see a wild animal like this, and maybe more importantly, no wild animal would ever look at a human like this, eye to eye.
On display is a vision of nature, a brilliant but blunt interpretation of wilderness, the best producible at the time of the diorama’s inauguration in 1942. Following strict guidelines for the displays, the creators of what I’m looking at wanted to reproduce the habitat of the exhibited animal as truthfully as possible and so they removed foreground material, plants, sod, and trees from the exact site where the animal had been harvested, as they called the procedure of hunting a future exhibit. Images of land and nature where entire blocks of reality in the size of the dioramas are missing go through my head. Sky, vegetation, animals, and grounds removed, blind spots or empty cubes of missing world fragments are left behind in places scattered all over the world. A background painter for these dioramas traveled to all the original locations, putting up an easel in the Dakotas as well as in Florida, in the Andes, the rainforest on Sumatra and in Congo, all in the attempt to create real actuality in a display window in New York City. In other times and places before and after this period, it didn’t always matter from where the exhibited material came, even if it was collected on different continents or completely fabricated, as long as the story was told and the intended message delivered. And since the what of the story was changed or forged or even invented from scratch, how could the what of the story still be the same? And what if the story itself was already pure invention or at least broad interpretation of facts seen and construed in ways supporting the agenda of the interpreter, exhibiter, collector? All of which were and probably still are white males. Still standing in front of the buffalo diorama from 1942 I see a huge bull leading and protecting a few female buffaloes and their calves when in their actual life females and calves live together in herds up to fifty animals separated from the bulls that live rouge or in small groups together and join the females only for a few weeks in spring for mating or for the great seasonal migrations. What is enacted in this window is a suggestive story about male dominance and the normalization of the nuclear family, apart from the museum’s omnipresent lecture on white human dominance inventing and telling this story called Natural History. The dramatically spotlighted precious objects, the stuffed buffalos as well as the vast painted land evoke awestruck attention while the real and living creatures, as well as the real land, have been and are currently trampled and wasted with different attention and probably under an even more sweeping light. This buffaloes and the grass and soil they stand on are witnesses to their own appropriation, killing, and mutilation. In their death, they are forced to perform what is not their story but that of men. All things can behave like mirrors and I can see my heritage mirrored in this scene just like my own body is reflected in one of the buffalo’s huge black eyes.
A few steps further I have entered the Hall of the Eastern Woodland Indians and find myself facing an almost similar form of a display with at least one difference: the resemblances of members of varying Native North American peoples are not taxidermied. They are mannequins, realistically shaped, painted and dressed in authentic costumes, posing in arrested movements. Dancing dancer, nursing mother, aiming hunter, weaving women and playing children are forced to hold on to their gendered and ethnically cultural stereotyped activities for—what seems to be—eternity. In combination with each other and together with their appliances and surroundings in their window cases, they pose as if alive. The mannequins don’t offer me their gaze, they’re not holding mine, don’t make contact. They’re not looking out into the hall, seeking an encounter with me, the visitor on the other side of the glass. These mannequin Indians perform as if I was completely absent. I’m supposed to see them as if through a two-way mirror suggesting that I’m looking backward into a past where the actual people the mannequins resemble were still undisturbed, still original real authentic Indians. These installations support the idea of the authentic and hence propose that there is the inauthentic. The authentic Native Americans lived in a long-gone time and a different world and their material representation suggest their actual death. No marker provides ties to the living cultures of native people here in New York City and all over the Americas, much less to their actual struggles against enduring displacement, racism, expropriation of land and cultural appropriation.
It is Wednesday and now it’s close to noon and kids are running through the dim hallways, screaming ecstatically, stopping for moments in front of the lit windows, dragging each other from one display to the next, taking short notes and then rush further to another display. Some are sitting in corners, filling out forms. Others gather in front of a window trying to catch a glimpse under the skirt of one of the mannequins to see if they can spot genitals. Here and there staff members perform little procedures, reenactments of everyday routines from Native American lives. How to hold bow and arrow, how to play the drum, how to grind corn, how to embroider beads. What is enacted inside the glass boxes and elucidated in text and illustrations on their backdrops is reenacted in short loops by members of the museum staff outside.
In front of a diorama with a group of figures 'dancing', I overhear a conversation between two young girls: “Are these Indians real stuffed people”? “No, they’re not dead. They’re just frozen”. A plausible question if one has followed the architectural directive of the museum: being channeled from hall to hall, surrounded by taxidermy and fake nature the entire time being here, it seems possible to end up with real stuffed people. Especially if they are displayed in the exact same manner birds and mammals where before. One of the first displays I saw upon entering the Hall of the Eastern Woodland Indians consisted of a number of naturalistically built fake human heads sticking out of the wall, displaying different hairstyles, headdresses, hats and headbands, repeating the manner in which, a few halls earlier, the isolated stuffed heads of numerous birds stuck out of the wall to elucidate the varying sizes and shapes of their beaks. What is it that I’m looking at? How am I supposed to know what is dead and what is frozen in such a puzzling accumulation of things and times and places; authentic, real, exemplary, replicated and forged. Thanks to these children I remember to have read about a stuffed man called El Negro, the body of a spear-carrying, nineteenth-century Kalahari aboriginal, who was stolen from a freshly dug grave in southern Africa and stuffed with hay and sawdust by two Spanish scientist brothers in 1888. El Negro was on display in a museum in Banyoles, a town 70 miles north-east of Barcelona starting in 1916 and was, only after international pressure on the occasion of the 2000 Football World Cup held in Spain, finally sent to Botswana to be buried. The body, after almost one hundred years on display—in which it received many coats of dark brown paint, several new pairs of glass eyes and changing sets of costumes to cover its progressing decay—didn’t even look like a real human anymore and yet it was, in fact, a straw filled corps with the actual skin and the actual skull of a human behind a lacquered face. What are the levels of death and killing that make such a museum and collection possible? Does a mannequin need to be covered in real human skin to be a dead human or is it enough to know that its face was modeled after a plaster cast that was taken from real human captives several decades ago as part of an ethnographic survey in a prison-like educational institution for young Native American men? Is it enough to be represented as a vanished race to be tinged with the taste of genocidal death as a living descendant? How does my uncommented being placed as a voyeuristic bystander make me complicit in their cultural and actual murder?
I walk back and forth, from the Eastern Woodland Indians to the Plains Indians, into the Hall Of Pacific Peoples, downstairs to the South American Peoples, crossing through the Birds of the World into the Hall of Asian Peoples, further down into the North American Forest, crossing Biodiversity and the Hall of Ocean Life, further, leaving the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians, walking back upstairs again visiting the African Peoples, further up, pass the American Birds and the Primates to reenter the Hall of the Woodland Indians. This museum, producing so many different narratives and realities, simultaneously veiling and celebrating countless deaths and robbery delivering perfect forgeries and lies, is a time machine, a device for fast traveling (around in the world in one afternoon), a tool for both, education and falsification. It is a center for omission and invention, a bank stacking more than 32 million specimens and artifacts and a temple to praise white privilege and to affirm the status quo. And it is a theater with a large repertoire of dramas, tragedies and some comedies performed with my participation simultaneously on uncountable stages with or without an audience, dramatically lit or in the dark.
I’m resting on a bench in front of a group of mannequins in their glass box. Now they don’t look like anything but plaster and wire, paint, fabric, and hair assembled in the shape of men. And now that I’m blissfully exhausted I can see these things as strange, wild and unfamiliar. The mannequin’s materiality becomes indistinguishable from that of a sculpture or a painting and so is their thingness just like that of an art object. Now they hold the power to fashion their own readings outside of being illustrative, ethnographic visuals, beyond the descriptive text they are employed to offer. At least temporarily and for me, they are capable to manipulate, change and even subvert their assigned roles to become bare thingness with an agency outside of representation. It is—I guess—with my a critical gaze only that I see them transform their performativity from politics of othering to those of subversion, resistance, and liberation, from language to tongue and/or lingo, back and forth. I’m aware that this transformation is influenced by the eyes I’m looking at things with, eyes I educate to also see what is there and not only what is shown to me.
I have to return to look at the buffalos one more time. Still grazing, still ruminating. Here we are. I’m the only visitor in this hall now. No matter where I turn, I’m watched. I’m both, the central character in the enactment of a fairy tale and the nucleus from where it has been spread out with uncounted colonial sweeping blows. I once heard somebody say that the gesture of collecting is a gesture of grasping with arms too short or too weak to actually reach or hold onto that which is desired to have or to understand or to be. Here I’m at both, a starting point and the end of a story about that loving gesture with which humans devour what they wish to be part of. As frustrating and painful all of this is, disturbing, revealing, human-centric and upfront racist, I’m very thankful that these dioramas still disclose their gruesome truth and have not been dismantled yet. Tomorrow I will return together with my fourteen-year-old son. These dioramas will be excellent tools and evidence in the attempt to think about and to discuss some of the complex relations between desire and conquest, representation and power. The eyes with which he’ll be looking at things still can be sharpened, the body he’ll be passing through or inhabit spaces and places with can still be sensitized to feel some of his privileges as the unmerited heritage they are and the responsibilities they need to become.
It is closing time. The early evening is mild and although it is only the end of February I can walk through Central Park with my coat open. Music resounds somewhere. And laughter. The Turtle Pond reflects some city lights. Two people in colorful cloths pass by on rollerblades.