Students Interogate the Peabody Dioramas

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Ann Wilkin asked if she could bring her two sections of Writing for Success students to the Peabody during summer session, July 2016. Ann said in her e-mail, “This week’s theme is ethics and responsibility, and I recall a particularly exciting experience another one of my classes had with you guys (possibly with you?) two years ago, as we discussed what it meant to put all kinds of artifacts of other cultures (particularly colonized cultures) in gallery spaces.”  She related too that her students had been reading Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” as well as excerpts from Susan Sontag’s 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Image of the Peabody's Pawtucket village diorama circa 500 years ago.
“A Pawtucket Village on the Merrimack River, 500 Years Ago,” diorama built by Guernsey-Pitman Studios of Cambridge, Mass., 1939.

As I reflected on what we could do I thought it might be interesting to have the students conduct their own critical reading of one of the Peabody’s dioramas. The Peabody houses two dioramas of American Indian life.  The oldest, built in the 1930s by the Guernsey-Pitman Studios, illustrates life at the Shattuck Farm site in Andover, Mass. circa 500 years ago.  The scene is a bustling village, with a variety of daily activities depicted, from the construction of a birch bark canoe to firing pottery.  We understand that the scene was heavily influenced by curator Fred Johnson’s ethnographic work in Canada.

Amy Lonetree, in her 2012 book Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, explains that “many critics have argued that this form of representation (dioramas) reinforces commonly held belief that Native cultures were static and unchanging and that they have since disappeared….” Further, an issue with many museum exhibits about American Indians is that they lack contemporary Native voices.

I asked the students to spend some time looking at the diorama and to do some writing—specifically to answer a few questions which we would then discuss.  The students wrote about the following:

Who are depicted?

When is the diorama depicting?

Whose perspective is shown?

What is shown?  What isn’t?

What are we supposed to understand by looking at the diorama—in other words, what’s the message?

Image of students looking at the Pawtucket diorama
Ann Wilkin’s students examine the Pawtucket diorama.

The answers to these questions were quite interesting, and as our conversation about the diorama unfolded we gained a greater appreciation of some of the inherent biases built into the exhibit.  Several students pointed out that there were a disproportionate number of men depicted and we discussed demographics and talked about why so few women and children were shown. The question of perspective was interesting and we noticed that it depended on whether one was standing or kneeling.  We also kept returning to the question about when was depicted.  Most students wrote that it was 500 years ago (after all, that’s what it says on the diorama’s title), but we talked about what was happening 500 years ago and also about how there are many ways to answer that questions—the time of year, the day, the time of day, etc.  We talked about how many “whens” seemed to be collapsed into one single moment and that it was unlikely all of these things would have happened at the same time.  One student ultimately observed that the diorama might say more about the archaeologists and artists that constructed the model than the Native people being depicted.

The exercise produced some interesting dialogue and gave us an opportunity to talk about contemporary American Indians in Massachusetts and exercise our critical thinking skills when confronted with a museum exhibition.

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