Indeed, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett glosses over the racist, colonial origins of such “scholarly” ethnographic frameworks, even when mentioning “savage” physiognomic portraiture (402), vaguely describing wax figures in a “Chinese exhibition” (402), or declaring that “it was not uncommon in the nineteenth century for a living human rarity to be booked into a variety of venues [such as zoos]” (403). In fact, her “Exhibiting Humans” centers mostly on cultural pageantry and never discusses ethnological expositions (also known as “human zoos”). Although Kirshenblatt-Gimblett concludes that “exhibitions, whether of objects or people, are displays of the artifacts of our disciplines” (434), I argue that the act of gazing at the Other – and its validation through academic disciplines and institutions – must be deconstructed as something false and problematic, rather than taken at face value as a valid mode of interpretation and education.
In his article “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Ken Yellis argues that – “There are many reasons to do exhibitions but only two really matter: you have a new story to tell or you have a new way of telling an old story. There may also be a third worthy reason in these amnesiac times: our culture has changed so dramatically that the memory of the story has been lost or hopelessly corrupted. … Museums can start being helpful in this process by becoming much clearer about what they think they are doing when they make an exhibition” (334). But are exhibitions the best way to present the new or re-present the old? Can museums ever hope to have a positive, radical impact on the (re)production of knowledge, no matter how transparent or well-intended they are? Objects cannot exist in situ and without contact – they can only exist in myriad contexts. Be they (un)used, abused or neglected, wielded or worshipped, permanent or ephemeral – they cannot be acquired and sequestered away by institutions for the sake of study. By containing material culture – and the history embedded within it – we limit our own understanding.