How a visit to a museum made me question all human history

As I walked through the exhibits of the Museum of Natural History, one scene, in particular, caught my attention and had me thoroughly inspecting it. It was the diorama where a meeting between the Dutch and the Native Americans was depicted. The Dutch portrayed as heroic and superior, while Native Americans as uncivilized savages, almost like animals. This is an image that has been ingrained in my mind because of all the images from history books. And likely in the minds of many others, when thinking about the narrative of the Dutch colonization of what is now New York.

The reason I spent such a long time at this diorama was because the museum had started a project in 2018, where they reimagined their cultural dioramas to give a more accurate description of how the historic scene would have been in reality. How women of the Lenape society weren’t subservient, but actually would hold leadership roles and would therefore have been part of the negotiations. And how the Lenape leaders would have dressed very differently to show their status and signify their roles. As you can read in the pictures down below. 

After another museum visit to the National Museum of the Native Indian, I got reminded once again of the terrible things that happened on the grounds I was standing on. How colonizers enslaved, trafficked and massacred Native Americans and Africans all for their own benefit. But how was this the first time I realized that the whole story that gets told to this day is different?

Columbus Discovering America: Pure Fiction?

In the sixth chapter of his book, The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall recounts a story about his daughter’s education on Christopher Columbus. How he discovered America and is a great hero for the nation. The same story he and his parents got taught. However, Gottschall argues that this is far from the real story. He even goes as far as calling it fiction.

Columbus and his crew arrived in the Americas in 1492, where Indigenous peoples had been living in peace for thousands of years before Columbus ever set sail. Something I was made aware of while reading Gottschall’s chapter, is how Columbus in his writings already revealed his intentions and how he could easily “subjugate them with his 50 men and make them do whatever they want”. And then really went on doing that. And then still became the American hero. And to this day still is largely considered.

Gottschall argues that American history has been whitewashed and fictionalized to the point where it’s become a patriotic myth. The purpose of these myths is not to tell history accurately, but rather to create a narrative that unites a community. He writes: “These myths not only tell us that we are the good guys, but that we are the smartest, boldest, and best guys that ever were”. 

On a third museum visit, this time to the Brooklyn Museum, there was one painting that stuck with me that also contributed to this narrative. A painting where in the background Native Americans are depicted as savages, and in the foreground, white babies are depicted as angels in beautiful robes. This was when I had the realization that they were convinced that what they were doing was right. They believed they were superior to the Native Americans.

This myth was translated into writings, paintings and stories, which later became history lessons, movies, museums and leisure and tourism attractions, media we still consume to this day.

The Peaceable Kingdom – Edward Hicks

Description: In this Edenic scene inspired by a passage from the Book of Isaiah, Edward Hicks visualized the peaceful coexistence of God’s creatures, depicting animals and children in the right foreground along with a vignette in the background of William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. Hicks idealized the encounter between British colonists and Indigenous people, creating fictions of harmony. Ultimately, the Lenape were forced out of Pennsylvania owing to fraudulent land deals perpetrated by Penn’s sons.

The Reimagination of Our History

As a feminist with a TikTok addiction, I keep on learning about the historical inaccuracies that exist in our understanding of the world. For instance, the contributions of Hedy Lamarr to technology. She invented frequency hopping, which forms the basis of modern-day technologies such as GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi. As well as Rosalind Franklin, who discovered and described DNA. These women’s achievements were overshadowed by the media’s biased portrayal of their work.

While progress is being made through initiatives such as the one by the American Museum of Natural History, and through social platforms such as TikTok, we still have a long way to go to rewrite our history and tell the true story. We must take an active role in redefining our understanding of history and challenge the traditional narrative we have been taught in school and that persists in our culture.

Our history should not be a single story, told by the victors. There are thousands of untold stories that deserve recognition. We should take responsibility to rectify the wrongs of the past for future generations. We can do better.

For further reading, the Museum Association has a campaign focused on ‘Decolonizing Museums’ where they guide and support decolonization projects.

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