Edward Rothstein: To Each His Own Museum, as Identity Goes on Display

Me! Me! Me! That is the cry, now often heard, as history is retold. Tell my story, in my way! Give me the attention I deserve! Haven’t you neglected me, blinded by your own perspectives? Now let history be told not by the victors but by people over whom it has trampled.

And why, after all, should it be any different? Isn’t that the cry made by most of us? We want to be acknowledged, given credit for our unique experiences. We want to tell our stories. We want to convert you from your own narrow views to our more capacious perspective.

I am exaggerating slightly — but only slightly. In recent years, I have been chronicling the evolution of the “identity museum” or “identity exhibition,” designed to affirm a particular group’s claims, outline its accomplishments, boost its pride and proclaim, “We must tell our own story!”

These cries have been made with varying degrees of urgency and justice. But in the last few weeks, with the opening of a highly tendentious exhibition about Muslim science at the New York Hall of Science in Queens and the unveiling of a highly ineffectual mishmash at the President’s House in Philadelphia, the identity exhibition has reached new lows.

In both cases, there is an accusation of injustice and an attempt to revise history. In the science show, the charge is muted and persistent, but the case is made only by distorting history and facts. At the Philadelphia site, many of the claims are fierce — and some just — but they too end up distorting history by demanding the sacrifice of other perspectives.

Of course, every recounting of past events has exaggerations and limitations. Even the great imperial museums of Vienna, London and Paris make an argument: they are meant to reflect the power and grandeur of their creators. Such museums are monuments, temples mythically recounting an empire’s origins, displaying its accomplishments, affirming its power and its encyclopedic grasp.

The placement of totem poles in classic museums of natural history, for example, is a consequence of 19th-century convictions, also imperial, that they were created by peoples who were closer to the natural world — part of natural history rather than the history of civilization.

To a certain extent, the identity museum is a polemical response to such museums. And revenge can be extreme. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington — a pioneering example of the genre — jettisons Western scholarship and tells its own story, leading one tribe to solemnly describe its earliest historical milestone: “Birds teach people to call for rain.”

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