Meet at 10 A.M. outside the French National Museum of Natural History to analyze the Grand Gallery of Evolution. The specific address we will meet at is 36 Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, 75005 Paris. Here, we will engage in our first on-site analysis and document representations of race in tangible things that are on view and historical and controversial exhibits that are represented abstractly.
- *Mary Jo Arnoldi, “From the Diorama to the Dialogic: A Century of Exhibiting Africa at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History,” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 39 (155/156), 1999, 701-726.
- Clifton C. Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton University Press, 2009). Read chapter 6 with extra care and attention.
- Susan Goldberg, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It,” featured in “The Race Issue” by National Geographic, March 2018.
- Elizabeth Kolbert, “There is No Scientific Evidence for Race: It’s a Made Up Label” featured in “The Race Issue” by National Geographic, March 2018.
Guided Reading Questions for Classroom Discussion
What do you think this book title is arguing historically? A ghost story? A biography? What does that mean?
- How did Sara get her full name? What does her name mean?
How does Sara’s slave status or independence change depending on her geographic location?
- What are the limitations of the archive and historical sources the authors have to rely on to tell this story? What else do you wish you could know about this history? Where could we go find those answers? What sources would we need to find?
How can this exceptional or atypical story about a woman’s unusual enslavement and forced transportation to Europe and England reveal widespread commonalities about scientific racism and the study of black bodies during the time of slavery in Europe in the nineteenth century? What is universal in this story?
- How does Sara first get to London? Was it coerced or of her own consent? What is her experience there? How is it different from her life in the Cape?
- What skills does Sara have? What language does she speak?
- Who is Sara’s family?
Sara’s fame corresponded with a confluence of major changes in mass society in the nineteenth century: printed technology, daily newspapers, urbanization, the commercialization of entertainment, and the institutionalization of science and museums. What historical development do you feel had the greatest role in shaping this sensation?
- What was the entertainment scene like in London around 1810?
- Who was Cuvier, what did he study, and why was he interested in Sara?
- Sara was considered an “ideal savage” in her time because of her anatomy. What do you think about her in this cultural moment where butt implants and surgical modification are rampant and celebrated on reality TV and Instagram? How is this exhibition different or similar? How can we think about Sara in the context of the #MeToo movement? In relation to the testimonies given by the American Olympic gymnastics team about abuse, they experienced from medical professionals?
- How does your understanding of this story change while physically standing at the site of her exhibition and examinations?
Grand Gallery of Evolution Class Activity
Analyzing a Gallery or Exhibit
- How is the exhibit organized? What types of objects are on display?
- Thinking about Mary Jo Arnoldi’s overview of how the Smithsonian represented Africa, take a moment to characterize the display style we are seeing. Focus on the architectural design elements: the wall color, the font style, the lighting, the sounds you hear, if there are or are not physical barriers between you and the artifacts you are looking at. How do these elements shape the way you experience this exhibit? Do you feel like you are in control or are you being controlled? How does this display and the way the objects are placed together influence how you see and think about the objects as a collection?
- Is the gallery introduced by ‘wall text’? If so, what is the relationship between all of these texts? Do they give enough information? Too little? Too much? Do you have an idea of who wrote the text or who is making the written argument?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the takeaway for the viewer primarily aesthetic or is the gallery aiming at something else? Is there a ‘Big Idea’ behind this gallery? If so, what is it?
- Find the room with the dodo bird. What is this room arguing about the role of visual print culture and scientific discovery? What was the significance of the dodo?
- Discuss how objects circulated around the Atlantic world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How did this shape the way knowledge about culture was created?
- How did prevailing ideas about race shape the way that museums like the Smithsonian portrayed people from cultures outside of white, European-descended Americans? How is a similar history reflected in the Grand Gallerie (opened in 1994, contemporary with Arnoldi’s reinstallation of the Smithsonian NMNH African exhibits)?
- How does a museum’s audience shape the way exhibits are conceived and/or changed over time? How might you reflect upon this as you begin thinking about your walking tours?
- What must you be mindful of as you create your own historical pathways through Paris?
- Thinking about the National Geographic articles — why are we spending our first day in Paris at this strange museum?
Option 1: Reflecting on your readings and your experience at the museum, what is the difference between a Natural History Museum and a Fine Arts Museum?
Option 2: Select one of the questions above and answer it in-depth. Be sure to cite your work and quotations.