Representing (white) Man: The Problem with Museums

Gemmia Burden explores the problematic history of the relationship between museum practice, gender and race, and museums’ privileging of white men.

The recent appointment of Anthea M. Hartig as Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) was announced via the New York Times and Washington Post with the headline ‘Smithsonian names woman to top post at American History Museum’. As was pointed out on social media, the newspapers did not name her; in the announcement of her posting she remained nameless. Moreover, Hartig is not the first woman to head the NMAH. Claudia Kidwell served as acting director for a brief stint in 1979. (However, it should be noted that since 1846, no woman has served as CEO of the Smithsonian.)

While Hartig’s appointment is welcome and – as a highly educated white woman – might be expected to be uncontroversial, that it was even (botched) headline news reflects the complex historical imbrication between gender, colonialism and memory institutions.

Museums, especially those in settler colonies, have a long entanglement with expressions of masculinity and imperial claims to land. Borne out of impulses to collect and display the strange and exotic oddities of the natural and human world, contemporary museums as we know them today emerged at the confluence of imperialism and Linnaean taxonomies.

Aboriginal artefacts including boomerangs, nulla nulla and shields. Image via State Library of Queensland.

In colonial museums, collections were arranged around sets of experiences that centred white men. Natural science displays prioritised male species which were positioned in ways that heightened maleness. These sat alongside displays of Indigenous populations that highlighted the violent frontier, positioning them through the placement of their cultural materials, as relics of the past, and in turn, white men as victors.

My research has focused on colonial museums in Australia, analysing how they collected and displayed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural materials over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The stories found in these histories highlight not only the role of colonial museums in the colonial appropriation of land, but also the overt masculinity that underpinned their practices well into the twentieth century.

Museums in Settler Colonies

The scientific enthusiasm for classification and order in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries collided with European imperial endeavours, leading to the organisation of the natural world according to scientific rationality. The colonial context provided a seemingly endless laboratory of specimens – flora, fauna and unique environmental, geological and mineral surrounds to be identified, collected, categorised and displayed. Of course, in settler colonies, Indigenous people became part of this collection and categorisation: cultural materials were plundered, stolen, traded and purchased, with Indigenous bodies in particular being stolen and used in debates about race and humanity’ deep past.

Australian colonial museums emerged from this fascination with investigation and classification. With the earliest public museum established in the 1820s, by the late nineteenth century all the major capital cities in the six self-governing colonies were supporting a public  museum, which housed the ever-increasing collections being amassed by enthusiastic colonists, naturalists, antiquarians, government agents, armchair anthropologists and amateur scientists.

Historians have pointed to the gendered nature of amateur collecting, highlighting the link between collecting and the British tradition of hunting, that saw collecting emerge as an inherently ‘gentlemanly pursuit’. While women were engaging in scientific observation, collection and classification, this was done in domestic spaces, and recent scholarship is highlighting this private embodiment of women’s scientific endeavours as being performed, among other ways, through gardening and the production of albums.

Queensland Museum, circa 1879. Image via State Library of Queensland.

It was largely men whose collections found their way into the public spaces of colonial museum. Evidence from the Queensland and South Australian Museums shows it was overwhelmingly men who were channelling information and materials to the state institutions. Collecting networks established across the colonies drew on police, doctors, station managers, teachers and missionaries – many of these collectors were responsible for enacting the brutal dispossession of Indigenous populations. It was of course men who were the curators, official collectors and museum staff receiving the collections, materials and information; men analysing it, classifying it, interpreted and displayed it and for the visiting public. Women meanwhile were relegated to administrative duties. The first woman appointed to the Queensland Museum, for example, was stenographer Eileen Murphy in 1912.

Displaying Masculinity, Displaying Colonialism

Through museums, men (white men) became the ‘outcome of evolution’ and the ‘object of knowledge’. In colonial settings, displays were organised around representations of masculinity and appropriation of land. This relegated white women to passive visitors. While they were able to access the public space of the museum, scholars have shown that other parallel spaces existed to provide women with the same dialogical performances of instruction and social improvement, such as department stores, that men were to find in museums. The scant evidence of women’s attendance at the Queensland Museum, for example, suggests that while women frequented the Museum, there was concerns about their exposure to the exhibits.

It also relegated Indigenous people to the margins of history, positioning them as both inherently violent and naturally inferior. In Queensland early exhibits narrated specific stories of frontier violence, such as the Hornet Bank and Cullin-la-ringo massacres, before reinforcing narratives of a White Australia through displays that relegated Aboriginal people outside of present time. Material culture was displayed by typology, and these sat alongside ancestral remains that were narrated as examples of ‘stone age’ races. Weapons were particularly popular displays, serving a dual purpose of reflecting the assumed inherent violence of Indigenous populations, while providing a visual representation of social evolution. These were also objects that men were collecting from men, pointing perhaps to their dominance in anthropology collections and museum displays.

Museums Today

While museums today have a much broader collecting and pedagogic scope than their colonial counterparts, change is slow.  Most Australian museums have extensive policy frameworks for managing their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections, including repatriation policies. The American Museum of Natural History has deconstructed its dioramas, critiquing the narratives that stereotyped Indigenous People and marginalised women.

Yet contemporary museums continue to be informed by the colonial mindset. This can be found in the naming of collections after collectors, for example, or the inherently western idea of preserving for preservations sake. As Wiradjuri scholar Nathan Sentance reminds us, museums are not neutral spaces.

The appointment of woman in top job of a leading memory institution is a good start. However, there is a long way to go in unravelling decades of racialised hegemonic androcentrism that continues to influence museum practice today.


Gemmia Burden is an honorary research fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland. Her doctoral thesis explored the Queensland Museum’s collection and use of cultural items over the colonial and federation era. She currently works as a professional historian and cultural heritage consultant.

Follow Gemmia on Twitter @GemmiaBurden.

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