The American Museum of Supernatural History
By embracing indigenous superstitions, the West’s great science museums are abandoning their mission to educate and compromising their scientific integrity.
About the Author
Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University, a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy's Center for Academic Pluralism, and a National Association of Scholars board member. Elizabeth is the co-author (with James W. Springer) of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020). Find out more at her website, and follow her on X at @eweissunburied.
The integrity of science museums has been a subject of ongoing concern, primarily voiced by academics and journalists who have expressed apprehension over the undue influence exerted by corporate interests and religious pressures. For example, George Monbiot of the UK’s The Guardian, in April 2021, expressed dismay that the London Science Museum was accepting funding from Shell, alleging that this shaped certain elements of their climate change exhibit. Similarly, in 2006, Robert Pennock, writing in Museums & Social Issues highlighted a case where the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History initially supported a creationist film after receiving $16,000 for facility use. The Smithsonian later withdrew its support and refunded the money, following publicized claims by the filmmakers that the Smithsonian was open to Intelligent Design–a concept with an “aim to redefine science by allowing an appeal to supernatural beings and powers.”
This incident, reported in The New York Times, likely prompted the Smithsonian to reevaluate its sponsorship policies in a way that, according to Christián Samper, is “consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.” Pennock also cites the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History's refusal to show a film on volcanoes because it included references to evolution that contradicted biblical accounts of Creation.
Pennock emphasizes that science museums have a duty to uphold scientific integrity by maintaining loyalty to facts and evidence. He argues that science itself should be considered a stakeholder in these institutions, and those managing them have an “ethical duty to safeguard scientific integrity.” As educational centers, Pennock asserts that science museums also bear the responsibility of teachers.
In the past two decades, science institutions have faced challenges from another source: indigenous religions. Unlike Christian fundamentalist beliefs, these indigenous beliefs often receive enthusiastic support from academics, scholars, and mainstream media journalists. This support might stem from a desire to oppose Western civilization and align with the “victims” of modernity as part of an effort to “decolonize” museums. Alternatively, it may also be linked to a trend of virtue signaling, which has allowed the misconception that “indigenous knowledge is science” to take root in academic circles.
I recently reported on this trend in City Journal, discussing New York City’s American Museum of Natural History’s Northwest Coast Hall. One exhibit features a display case with a warning label about the “spiritually powerful” objects contained in the case. This exhibit blurs the line between fact and fiction by presenting creation myths as history. It also asserts that artifacts are imbued with spirits that release “mist” visible only to elders, implying that the objects should be repatriated.
What surprised me was the reaction in discussions with other scholars and in comments on the City Journal page. Many seemed to think these deviations from science were not a big deal. For example, one commentator said: “Let Native American [sic] have their day in the museum. I don’t see a huge amount of harm.” One colleague suggested this was merely to entertain urbanites, doubting that New York businessmen visiting the exhibits would ever convert to these animistic beliefs. However, the museum is intended to educate, with hundreds of thousands of impressionable schoolchildren passing through each year. More critically, presenting these religious myths as facts deviates from the museum’s mission: “To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.” They have completely abandoned scientific integrity.
A similar but less prominent example of this abandonment can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History–the same museum that faced the Intelligent Design film issue previously mentioned. In the temporary exhibit “Our Places: Connecting People and Nature,” there is a display case featuring a clan hat from Alaska. The accompanying information, titled “Restoring Connections, Building Relationships,” tells museumgoers that the hat on display is a replica of an original hat curated by the museum for 135 years. The original hat was too fragile to display, so Smithsonian staff collaborated with Kiks.ádi clan leader Ray Wilson from Sitka, Alaska, to recreate it. They used 3D-scans of the original hat and then “digitally repaired” the hat. Next, following the Tlingit cultural protocol, the Smithsonian staff made a new hat with wood, deer hide, sinew, and ermine skin. This replica of the original hat demonstrates how science and technology can aid in reconstructing historical artifacts.
However, in 2019, the Smithsonian and its indigenous collaborators conducted a Tlingit ceremony in Alaska to “put spirit into the new hat – making it a living sacred object (at.όow), just like the original.” This last action and its portrayal as factual is an abandonment of scientific integrity. The indigenous collaborators are equating religion and science in a manner not dissimilar to the Intelligent Design filmmakers, who also seek to redefine facts through appeals to the supernatural.
Some may still argue that such exhibits and their associated descriptions have little effect on the actual science conducted by museums or taught to children. However, I contend that these exhibits are just the tip of the iceberg. A deeper investigation into behind-the-scenes activities reveals how indigenous religious beliefs threaten scientific progress, mar the scientific environment, and lead to discriminatory practices. I will now provide some examples.
The Willamette Meteorite Agreement of 2000 resulted in the American Museum of Natural History “recognizing the spiritual relationship of the Grande Ronde Community to the Willamette Meteorite.” This agreement allows the tribe to perform ceremonies in the museum, celebrating this spiritual connection. Additionally, it forbade the museum from removing any part of the meteorite for trade with other museums, a practice once common for diversifying collections for exhibition and research. These scientific exchanges benefited both museumgoers and researchers. However, indigenous religious beliefs have restricted these practices. Moreover, the publicity and support for this agreement has led other museums to adopt similar practices. For instance, the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon handed over their piece of the meteorite to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
The negative influence of indigenous beliefs on science is also evident during tribal visits, such as when the Tohono O’odham Nation visited the American Museum of Natural History in 2021. During their visit, the tribe reviewed the items that were being curated, discussed the history of the collection, and “ritually cleansed ceremonial pieces” at the museum, which was closed to the public during the visit. Additionally, in November 2021, David Grignon, the tribal historic preservation officer from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, “ceremonially cleansed sacred items” in the museum’s Division of Anthropology “smudge room.” For a scientific museum to have a “smudge room” is akin to a chemistry lab having an alchemy room. Museum spaces should be dedicated to scientific research, curation, and exhibits–not to religious activities.
However, none of these examples are as shocking as the protocols established to curate so-called “objects of power.” These protocols were introduced at the 2021 annual joint conference of the American Institute for Conservation and the Society for Preservation of Natural History Collections. Developed in collaboration with Northwest Coast cultural advisors at the American Museum of Natural History, Amy Tjiong and colleagues outlined the necessary steps for curators and researchers when handling these “objects of power,” defined as objects “used in association with traditional/spiritual healers’ practice, sacred ceremonies, or warfare.” The new protocols include the need to “greet” the object and “explain” to it that permission has been granted from community representatives. The objects must also be clearly tagged, covered with “muslin,” and glass cabinets should be “covered with brown paper to prevent disturbance and unintentional encounters.” Lastly, bundles of “Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus, a shrub used to contain power)” should be hung in doorways and cabinets where these “objects of power” are stored.
To further promote the myths that surround these objects, museum staff decided to heed warnings by their indigenous partners. For instance, museum staff were told to “Be wary of any object that incorporates human hair.” This guidance influenced the handling of a Haida orca headdress: “Community members instructed the museum not to put this headdress on view. Museum professionals were warned that handling can be dangerous.” Consequently, this object is not currently on display.
Most absurdly, museum staff and indigenous partners debated over whether to display a whistle. According to Clyde Tallio from the Nuxalk Nation, “Whistles are so powerful they have caused intercultural conflicts.” Museum protocols explain that, “Nuxalk elders say whistles would not normally be on display, but instead are traditionally stored in boxes.” Because of this, Tallio advises that whistles should not be observed directly, but should instead be placed in closed boxes with an accompanying photo and text explaining its sacredness. However, museum staff decided to take extra precautions: one Nuxalk Kusiut whistle was “removed from display entirely, as it is a summoning tool for supernatural beings.”
Are museum staff actually buying into these beliefs, or are they appeasing their indigenous partners to continue curating and studying artifacts? The influence of repatriation ideology, movements, and laws, notably the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, are increasingly depleting museums and universities of Native American “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.”
Perhaps museum staffs know or suspect that if they don’t play along, their indigenous partners will suddenly demand everything back. Regardless of the reason, it seems difficult to trust any science coming from people who take seriously the concept that whistles can be used to summon “supernatural beings.”
Perhaps most offensively, they caution, “DO NOT APPROACH” objects of power “if you are feeling discomfort, i.e., if you are in a physically or emotionally vulnerable state (including menstruation and pregnancy).” This clearly sexist warning abandons science and implies that women, particularly during menstruation and pregnancy, are emotionally unstable and weak. Allowing religious beliefs to be taken seriously in a place of science hinders scientific progress, enables discrimination, obstructs the teaching of science to those who partner with museums, and casts considerable doubt on the quality and objectivity of the research coming out of these institutions.
Carl Sagan wrote a book promoting science, skepticism, and critical thinking titled “The Demon-Haunted World.” Museum staff might benefit from reading this book, recognizing that the “demons” mentioned in the title can’t be summoned with a whistle. Because they’re not real.
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