My husband and I recently visited the Field Museum in Chicago. Knowing we'd soon be leaving for Rwanda, we made a point of visiting the museum's Africa exhibit. Near the start of the exhibit, there was a room intended to equip people with basic knowledge of Africa, to challenge, if you will, our American ignorance regarding the rest of the world.
We walked up to one board entitled, “Can you name five African countries?”
Thanks to a college class and our (albeit) brief time in Africa, we could. However, we were rather dismayed when we opened the answer key and found it horribly outdated. Among other things, the Democratic Republic of Congo was still labeled Zaire.
We graciously excused this. This was, after all, a permanent museum exhibit that understandably reflects the world in the year in which it was installed.
But then we saw another display, this one entitled “Africa's many tongues”. Located near Rwanda we saw Tutsi and Hutu, two ethnic groups in Rwanda that are most assuredly not languages. In fact these two groups speak the very same language, Kinyarwandan, which was nowhere to be found on the board.
To put it bluntly, here in the world-renowned Field Museum was information that was not just outdated, but flat out wrong.
Such misinformation jumped out at me because just a few hours earlier, we'd gone through the Field Museum's special, temporary exhibit on the 1893 World's Fair held in Chicago. One of the overarching themes of this exhibit (intentional or not) was how anthropology has changed in the century since then.
For example, in 1893 people were actually put on exhibit to demonstrate “traditional” life to fairgoers in order to reinforce the central message that the Western world was the most advanced civilization. According to this exhibit, in the century since then, the museum has worked hard to cultivate partnerships with other cultures so that museum goers can learn about others not as objects, but rather as people who contribute valuably to our global society.
It's a nice idea, but certainly not one we saw reflected in an Africa exhibit filled with misinformation.
Misinformation propagates old stereotypes.
Misinformation objectifies people.
Misinformation subjugates people.
Ironically, however, misinformation also defies the notion that the Western world is the most advanced civilization. How can it be when we're the ones who are wrong?