Since the mid-19th century, the distinction between art and ethnographic object has been a decisive factor in determining the nature of an exhibition and the approach to its objects. Following the systematic classification of the mid-nineteenth century, non-Western objects were often placed in the ethnographic displays of natural history and anthropology museums. Around the same time, some “artifacts” from Asia were classified as decorative arts. In the twentieth century, they migrated to art museums and formed “Islamic art’, “Asian art”, “primitive art”, and similar collections. In the late-twentieth century, anthropology museums and ethnographic displays received many criticisms for their representations of other cultures. In the past few decades, many museums have addressed the issue in various ways. One of the most common approaches is based on recategorizing the former ethnographic objects and presenting them as artworks. Yet, the effectiveness of this approach is subject to many debates. This paper discusses some differences between ethnographic/anthropological and art historical exhibitions in two prominent museums in New York City, the American Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in order to explore some similarities that underline these two seemingly opposite poles.
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