In the Natural History Museum in New York is a diorama that has two shots at telling history, emphasising the fluidity of historiography. It’s an unexpected display in a nation that seems to have a very strong idea of its historical story, with legends of the founding fathers and the war of independence and the civil war circulating ad infinitum. This is a culture that celebrates success. And yet, here is evidence in prime position of this great national institution that states: we got this wrong.
This diorama was made in 1939. It’s a beautiful thing, huge and well crafted with models blending into a painted background. It shows the legend of Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant meeting leaders of the first nations. Coming from New Zealand, where it is part of our national identity to examine and challenge ‘founding’ stories, this sort of glorified dominant white man image immediately raises my hackles. Here Stuyvesant stands, well costumed with a clean white bib and flanked by an armed soldier, his hand out to receive tribute from a scantily clothed native. In the background, bare-breasted women pass, heads down and carrying burdens. Urgh.
What place has this image in a museum in 2022? But looking closer, I see there are notes painted on the glass.
‘The Lenape would have dressed up for an important meeting’, one note states. ‘But here they are wearing very little clothing – a cliched way to show Native people. In reality, these diplomats would have worn fine fur robes with adornments signifying their important role as leaders. The faces of the Lenape men appear almost the same, as though they had no individual identities.‘
Another note explains: ‘These Lenape women are shown as subservient and only engaged in physical labor – and they would not have been dressed in this way. In reality, women in Lenape society, both in the past and today, hold leadership roles, are knowledge keepers and help maintain cultural continuity. The female sachem (leader) Mamanuchqua was active in treaty negotiations during the mid-1600s.‘
There are more notes, explaining that although Peter Stuyvesant is named, Oratamin, leader of the Hackensack people, is not. Also noted is the power imbalance between the large Dutch ships and the small canoes, ‘also vital to trade: they made it possible to access trade items found much further inland.’
The explanatory plaque to accompany this revisited diorama explains the point is to “add a diversity of voices and perspectives to the Museum’s displays.”
They could have removed the diorama altogether, of course. Its blatantly one-sided colonial view is dated and offensive. It might have been restored to a more balanced view, with the suggested changes put in place; a equal meeting with fair representation on both sides. This does feel like half a correction; a director’s notes of changes to make in the future. But somehow this original piece, with the problems explained, works symbolically as a record of the way we look at history. This is where we were. This is where we are. This is where we are going. Perhaps, if I visit again, New York will have moved on again to show a diorama of and by the Lenape people in their own territory, with their own story of the history of this island.
History is moving on.