Kristin Otto

Date of Award


Document Type


First Advisor

Matthew Oware

Second Advisor

Tavy Aherne

Third Advisor

Rebecca Upton


In this paper, I will analyze how museum exhibitions use material culture to construct and present a narrative about Africa. Exhibiting material culture reflects the power, authority, and ideology of the exhibitor, sometimes at the expense of the displayed culture’s agency in representation. Museums have a particularly infamous history of distorting African cultures in exhibits, often validating racist ideologies. Consequently, zealous museum critics have begun to question the relevance of museums in the future public education. The public, however, continues to visit museums and experience exhibits featuring African objects. Based on the challenges and controversies museums exhibiting African objects face today, I will explore how current museum exhibitions in the Midwest display African objects, and by extension how African cultures are constructed and represented in selected exhibits, used as case studies. DePauw University’s Emison Ethnographic Arts Gallery, Indiana University Art Museum’s Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art and “Majestic African Textiles”, and the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Africa” offer diverse approaches to display, the African object, and narratives about African cultures and arts. Drawing from James Clifford, I argue that it is impossible for museums such as these to holistically represent African cultures. However, a critical gaze “reading” these exhibitions reveals the strengths and areas for improvement in the museums’ constructed narratives.


Honor Scholar thesis