Mellon Collections Curator
Tang Teaching Museum
What does it mean to be on display? This question is one of many raised by Wendy Red Star’s Four Seasons series in which the artist wears her traditional Apsáalooke (Crow) elk-tooth dress in four overtly artificial installations. In putting herself in a diorama-style environment, Red Star further addresses habitat diorama portrayals of historic and contemporary Native life.
The first habitat diorama is typically credited to taxidermist, hunter, and sculptor Carl Akeley (1864–1926), who, in 1889, created a glass-enclosed three-by-four-by-two-foot scene of taxidermic muskrats in a marsh for the Milwaukee Public Museum.(1) Over the next few decades, such dioramas became staples of natural history museums as part of broader efforts to educate the “lower classes,” bring nature and faraway environments and animals to urban populaces, and inspire viewers to support preservation efforts. They typically include skillfully painted backgrounds, faux flora, and taxidermy. With intentions of scientific veracity, dioramas are important examples of artist-scientist collaborations, and today, many offer views of environments forever altered by human settlement and its effects.
Human civilizations, too, have been subjects for habitat dioramas. When dioramas featuring Native communities exist in the same museums that display taxidermy and dinosaur fossils, they evoke the dehumanization Native people face(d) by postcontact Europeans and US governmental powers. Further, that positioning of Native people as parallel to hunted and stuffed animals seeps into the subconscious of visitors—notably schoolchildren, tomorrow’s future decision makers.(2)
In 2006, Red Star visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where she sensed “that everything was dead”—until, that is, she came across artifacts of people she knew to be very much alive—those of her own Crow community.(3) Images and objects of Native people are found in natural history museums in part through imperialistic fluke: archaeologists looking for fossils happened upon Native artifacts and brought those findings back to their institutions. The European/ American ethnocentric view of Native people as “primitive” and “vanishing” compelled natural history museum curators to save these artifacts for their permanent collections. Further, throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, “exotic others” performed scenes of daily life in “living exhibitions” at world’s fairs and in museums—Native people, then, were already considered objects for display.(4) By placing herself in a diorama of her own creation, Red Star not only states that her community is alive, but also encourages viewers to recognize that despite whatever scientific veracity might exist, dioramas are artificial environments and artistic creations embedded with notions of imperialism and empire.