The “Man in Africa Hall” at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) opened on June 8, 1968, after seven years of preparation. Colin Turnbull, hired in 1959 as the Museum’s first curator of African Ethnology, was tasked with curating the third iteration of an anthropology exhibit focused on Africa. By the time the Hall opened, Turnbull had already become a public figure with the 1961 publication of the popular book, The Forest People, based on his fieldwork with the Mbuti in the Congo, followed two years later by The Lonely African.
Many readers and reviewers saw both books as timely critiques of materialism, colonialism, Western technology and racism. The Economist titled its review of The Forest People “Garden of Eden?” while a Florida newspaper’s headline read: “Escape Space Age Via Ancient Past.” The scholarly reception of Turnbull’s work was much more varied and often critical; like Margaret Mead, his senior colleague at the museum, Turnbull used his position to shape broader public discourse. In this objective, he was successful in his time; he captured at least some of the public’s imagination with his descriptions of the Mbuti, although many of his scholarly contemporaries severely critiqued his romanticized portrayal.
In Turnbull’s texts, American and European audiences were exposed to progressive, anti-colonial rhetoric that was both a critique of their homelands and an evocation of an idealized Africa. Turnbull diagnosed what he perceived as pathologies endemic to modern Western society — hyperindividualism, excessive resource consumption and disconnection from means of survival and production — and portrayed them as the cause of most of Africa’s ills at the precipice of the era of decolonization. This broadly dualistic approach to communicating African cultural history to Western publics would inform Turnbull’s work over the course of his career, particularly in his vision of “Man in Africa” at the AMNH.
While the balance of interdepartmental collaboration has since shifted, in the mid- 20th century, exhibitions at the AMNH were largely created according to the vision of a curator and a designer, in this case Henry Gardiner. An editor, volunteers and staff in the exhibition department assisted the lead personnel over the life of the project, with some input from outside consultants. Most of the more than 1,500 objects in the Hall were drawn from the AMNH collection, although some were acquired specifically for the exhibition from colleagues and donors, as well as on trips that Turnbull and Joseph Towles, Turnbull’s African-American partner of nearly 30 years, took to Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, the Congo and Sudan. Towles also acquired objects for the “Slavery in America” corridor, a section of the Hall that meant a lot to Turnbull and Towles but, according to Turnbull, met some resistance from the museum administration.
The Hall opened to critical acclaim in the general press. Commentators picked up on the celebration of social institutions and “tradition” and its divergence from the tribe/style paradigm that had become the approach in art museum exhibitions at the time . Ebony magazine featured an article that aptly summarized the range of compliment and critique first conferred upon the Hall:
The hall suggests an African village, and includes three life-like dioramas, and despite some criticism of its emphasis on small tribal life at the expense of ancient African empires and present-day nation-states, it is considered a significant contribution to the Afro-Americans’ quest for identity and of educational value to the nation as a whole. 
Despite this initial warm reception, the Hall holds a fraught position in the history of museum exhibitions about African culture . Since its opening, it has changed little despite repeated proposals made by Turnbull’s successor and the co-author of this paper, Enid Schildkrout , to revise the exhibit in its entirety. Minor changes were made over time: the name became “Hall of African People”; the color-coded carpeting corresponding to different environments (forest, savannah, desert, river valleys) was replaced by a mono-chromatic mauve carpet; a faded collage of photographs that represented “modern Africa” was replaced by a map; a large graphic on the distribution of races in Africa was replaced with a display on African prehistory and rock art; and a case on Christianity in Ethiopia was replaced by one on Nubia. But on the whole, the exhibition today remains very much as it was in 1968, to the frustration of many people both inside and outside the museum.
Colin Turnbull (1924–1994) came from an upper-class English family; he attended elite boarding schools and Magdalen College, Oxford. After serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during World War II, he traveled to India on a study grant for a master’s degree in Indian religion and philosophy, where he was interested in and deeply a effected by Hinduism. His first foray into Africa came at the conclusion of his studies at Banaras Hindu University, when he made his way back to the United Kingdom, through Central Africa, with an American friend he made in India, Newton Beal.
Patrick Putnam and his wife, Anne Eisner, had set up a home and visitor center at Epulu in the Belgian Congo; Turnbull met Putnam in the Ituri forest in 1957. Turnbull first encountered the Mbuti at Epulu, and then came to the AMNH through an introduction from the Putnams . When he was hired in 1959, Turnbull had not completed his Ph.D . He finished in 1964 under E. E. Evans-Pritchard, one of the leaders in British social anthropology at the time. Turnbull’s thesis was based on fieldwork he did among the Mbuti while he was employed at the museum. He was deeply influenced by Evans-Pritchard’s work among the Nuer and his emphasis on how social institutions fit together into coherent social structures. This approach pervades both the African Hall and Turnbull’s approach to classifying objects in the ethnology collection .
From his days at Oxford, if not before, Turnbull was deeply committed to social justice causes. At Oxford, he founded an anti-colonial student society and demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa. Although he did not directly participate in anti-racist activism in the United States, he was definitely sympathetic to the cause of U.S. civil rights. In part because of his relationship with Towles, the effects of racism, as well as homophobia, framed his perspective on life here. Although they remained implicit, these broader sociopolitical inclinations shaped the Hall as much as his experiences at Oxford and in the Congo with the Mbuti.
Building “Man in Africa”
The task of creating a permanent exhibition that was intended to represent both the past and the present of a continent undergoing critical political transitions was daunting in the 1960s, as it is today. The fact that the struggle for independence in African countries was still unfolding was both a challenge and an opportunity for Turnbull. His approach was to focus on enduring traditions that he believed could be harnessed to help Africa overcome its colonial bonds. In the same vein, he wanted to provide rich examples of the material cultural heritage that might inspire African-Americans with a justifiable sense of pride — a phrase he used often — in their African heritage.
The AMNH administration saw the new African Hall as a permanent installation, or at least one that would last for many decades and take its place beside the Northwest Coast Hall (opened in 1920) and other ethnographic exhibits that drew on the museum’s collections. As in other Halls, the institutional goal was to show how humans adapted to varied environments and created enduring (or alas, in its view, disappearing) cultures that were reflected in the museum’s collections. From this perspective, independence movements, wars, national boundaries or current fashions might be newsworthy, but unlike culture and tradition, they were transient and thus not appropriate topics for the permanent exhibits to which the museum was committed.
Turnbull was well aware of the varied audiences to whom the Hall was addressed and he knew that White and Black audiences might interpret the Hall’s messages differently. He formed an advisory committee that included diverse stakeholders, including some Africans working at the United Nations, members of the Howard University New York City Alumni Club, practitioners at a Yoruba Temple in Harlem, the Olatunji Center for African Culture and representatives of local anthropology departments and art galleries. But most revealing of his attitude was an overtly political article he co-authored with Towles in the museum’s Natural History Magazine. In “The White Problem in America,” which appeared in the same month as the press release for the Hall opening, they asserted: “The racial problem in our country concerns both blacks and whites, but its cause, and the only hope for a peaceful solution, lies mainly in the hands of whites, and in that sense, it is finally their problem.”
The rhetoric laid out in “The White Problem in America” is useful for understanding the Hall. In both the article and the exhibit, the underlying narrative is constructed around the tense racial politics of the 1960s. “The White Problem in America” sought to introduce White America to its own privilege while simultaneously affirming the dignity of African Americans struggling with maintaining a sense of self throughout deep cycles of deprivation, bias and hostility. This dualistic agenda meant that the challenge in the Hall was to create an exhibit that White audiences would encounter receptively, while also subtly rebuking them insofar as they might be identified with European colonialists and American slave traders.
Although it is difficult to follow a singular narrative in the Hall, partly because of its design and the overwhelming profusion of around 1,500 objects, some of the underlying themes Turnbull hoped to instill can be gleaned from the label texts and from his book, Man in Africa . These ideas can be summarized as follows:
• People are an inseparable part of nature, and African cultures develop as adaptations to their various environments — the major African ecological zones being desert, savanna grasslands, forest and river valleys.
• There is a unity of tradition and culture across the continent due in part to histories of migration.
• African-Americans continue to access and build upon these shared traditions despite the disruption of the slave trade and slavery.
• African societies face existential threats from foreign influences, including those emanating from colonialism, industrialization and the spread of Islam and Christianity.
A decision was made during initial planning not to start with the collections but rather to approach the exhibition from a conceptual plan and later fill the exhibit cases with objects. The basic approach was ecological, and the rectangular space was divided into color-coded zones, each devoted to one of the four environments. Three life-size dioramas — Mbuti men on a hunt in the Ituri forest; Pokot men and boys in the Kenyan grasslands taking blood from a living cow for nourishment; and Berber men and women in the Sahara breaking down their camp at dawn — were created with the same attention to verisimilitude as the museum’s famous animal dioramas. Using life-size mannequins wearing clothing (albeit scant in the case of the Mbuti and Pokot) collected from communities local to the setting of the diorama, each diorama represented an assemblage of activities in a specific place and time of day. The dioramas were placed in round, free-standing structures meant to evoke African dwellings. Although all represent outdoor scenes, the three cases have simulated thatched roofs so that from the third-floor balcony above the gallery, there is the semblance of a generic African village. These stereotypical thatched huts are the only reference to traditional architecture in the Hall, reinforcing the highly misleading message that Africans live in harmony with nature and have never built houses, towns and cities.
The Mbuti diorama, in particular, gave Turnbull the opportunity to express his strong feelings about their society. In an unpublished 2001 Harvard master’s thesis, Christopher Kirscho described Turnbull as “a man not feeling native to anywhere, his life was simultaneously a pilgrimage in search of a better world and a crusade on humanity’s behalf. When he found a piece of that better world in the Ituri forest, he transported it straight to the American Museum.” The idyllic coexistence of Mbuti people with each other and their environment, as Turnbull saw it, presented a sharp juxtaposition with the ecological destruction and lonely individualism of both their agriculturalist neighbors and Western civilization: materialism, private property, nuclear families, lack of self-sufficiency, organized political authority, inequality and alienation from nature. While many scholars who have worked in the Ituri have taken exception to a number of Turnbull’s characterizations of the Mbuti and their neighbors, many visitors were familiar with his serene vision by the time the Hall opened. Over time, however, this resonance has faded, and visitors are left with a very different impression of the meaning of this diorama.
The three dioramas are the centerpieces of the Hall, but they are surrounded by exhibition cases filled with objects grouped thematically, with case titles such as Water, Social Control, Beauty, Hunting, Games, Initiation, Kingdoms, Belief, Music. The themes crosscut cultures in Africa, and most of the displays mix objects from diverse localities. The object labels state the English name of the object and the group with which it is associated, for example, “Mask: Lozi.”
A three-dimensional model of colored sticks and balls at one of the two main entrances to the Hall is an abstract representation of social organization and culture based on the structural-functionalist paradigm that Turnbull drew upon from his days at Oxford. This model is meant to help visitors understand African society and culture as a set of organized adaptations to the environment realized through four intersecting spheres of activity: family, politics, economy and religion. Next to this abstract model of social structure is a genealogical chart of a patrilineage, which Turnbull presented as the generic African model for familial and political relations, although in the associated label he pointed out that there were varied kinship structures in Africa.
At the other entrance to the Hall, adjacent to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, there is a case showing tools that are attributed to early hunters and gatherers. When the Hall opened, there was a large map showing “races of Africa” on the opposite wall. This was replaced in the 1970s by a display of early rock art. In the same entryway, there is a reproduction of a map from George Peter Murdoch’s 1959 book, Africa: Its People and their Culture History. The map has been colored in to show the four environmental zones that corresponded to the color-coded carpet and case interiors. The map does not show colonially constructed nation-states but is covered with the names of many ethnic groups. The tribal names on Murdoch’s map correspond to data from the Human Relations Area Files with which Murdoch worked, but do not correspond to the labels in the hall.
Four large vitrines in the Forest section of the Hall labeled “initiation” contain fully costumed mannequins of masquerade figures from Liberia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Democratic Republic of Congo. This installation was completed with the help of Tswana Rayon, a Liberian consultant who, in a gesture of timely cultural accuracy, added sneakers to the feet of one of the mannequins. Yet it is revealing that over the years, this case has been the subject of complaints from visitors who say that the sneakers seem out of place and inauthentic, preventing, as one visitor wrote, the figure from being in contact with “mother earth.” This response in itself reveals the extent to which Turnbull’s construct of “tradition” was successful — or not, depending on one’s point of view.
Consciously trying to get away from the trophy style of display of previous AMNH halls, Turnbull also eschewed the idea of selecting objects for aesthetic reasons. In his view, art museums valued objects for reasons that had no relevance to the African craftsmen who had made them, and it was the role of the natural history museum to show the function of the objects for those who made and used them. While Turnbull had some association with New York art dealers (some of whom contributed objects to the Hall), he was generally disdainful of what he saw as collectors’ self-serving interest in “Primitive Art.” As a result of this strongly held belief, however, Turnbull was unable to use the aesthetic qualities of the objects to highlight the accomplishments of African artists or to showcase the museum’s best objects.
A case containing one of the finest objects in the AMNH collection, a Luba sculpture of a woman holding a divination bowl, is a good example of Turnbull’s approach. The label copy for this case is about the similarity between the rim design carved on the bowl held by the woman and the rim on an “ancient” potsherd from a nearby locality. Aside from the fact that the archeological context of this sherd has never been ascertained, and it could be contemporaneous with the Luba figure rather than “ancient,” the text in the case asserts that these two objects — the divination sculpture and the shard — show the continuity of tradition over millennia. The magnificent Luba bowl figure sits on the floor of the case well below eye level, while the undated shards are featured at eye level. Nothing is said about the importance of divination or the place of such sculptures in Luba society, not to mention the aesthetic qualities of this object.
Despite his reliance on the “ethnographic present,” Turnbull was committed to including a section on slavery and the Diaspora and another on ancient Egypt. In part, these were responses to his commitment to African-American emancipation and pressure from his advisors. Both of these exhibits, located on distinct corridors set off from the main exhibit hall, reflected Turnbull’s engagement with the thinking of African and African-American scholars and writers such as Leopold Senghor and W.E.B du Bois, as well as proponents of Pan Africanism, Afrocentrism, Negritude and Authenticité then current in President Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Turnbull encouraged Joseph Towles to lead the development of the sections on slavery and the Diaspora. The original plans for the hall, according to surviving records and an architectural schematic from 1963, called for a larger slavery section than was implemented in the final version of the hall. According to a letter to John A. Morsell, Assistant Executive Director of the NAACP, Turnbull and Towles also wanted to feature sections on, as they termed it, “Internal” and “External” slavery. In his book Man in Africa, Turnbull makes clear that he sees “internal” (African) slavery as relatively benign, in contrast to the export trade. In the final iteration of the Hall, “internal” slavery is omitted and the Diaspora section appears in two parts. On one side of the corridor, there are artifacts relating to the slave trade. On the other, retentions and survivals of African culture are featured with artifacts from Surinam, South Carolina and New York City.
Another side corridor features a model of an Egyptian tomb, one of the few cases beyond the slavery trade display that invoke history rather than timeless tradition. Placing Egypt in the African Hall was an important statement in the 1960s, foreshadowing the emphasis on Egypt that became part of the Afrocentric movement in the two decades following the opening of the Hall.
What Happened to Modern Africa?
Some of Turnbull’s notes suggest that at one time there was to be a section on “Modern Africa” called “The Two Worlds,” which would have included a display about apartheid in South Africa. However, when the Hall opened, the only reference to “modern Africa” consisted of a photo collage of scenes of “modernity,” including modernist concrete buildings in African cities, university students in Western clothing, an image of a government assembly meeting, probably from Ghana, and Africans in a Christian church. With the exception of the Berber diorama and the masquerade costumes, this display was the only reference in the Hall to the fact that Africans actually wore clothing in the 1960s or, with the exception of the model of Egyptian tomb walls, had any form of architecture.
Turnbull’s approach to history and change becomes clear in the somewhat apologetic-sounding wording of the press release that the museum issued for the Hall’s opening: “Although the hall emphasizes the great traditions of Africa’s past, it also extends to the present. Near one of the hall’s two entrances, a series of photographs points out, in Dr. Turnbull’s words, ‘that Africa isn’t a tribal jungle.’ This section stresses the problems of social change, and the effect of change on tradition.” By the 1970s, this mural was so shabby that it was replaced by the only large map of Africa in the Hall.
Opposite the modernity collage, a case titled “Foreign Influence” shows the main thrust of Turnbull’s attitude toward modernity. This case contains objects relating to Islam and Christianity. Rather than celebrating the ability of Africans to creatively absorb and reinterpret foreign influences, the text presents these objects as corruptions of African traditional forms. Nowhere did Turnbull see fit to feature the creative hybridity that characterized Africa in the 1960s, such as can be seen in the photographs from that very period by Seidu Keita or Malik Sidibe from Mali, or in Congolese painting from the same epoch. In Turnbull’s view, modernity and foreign influence were the results of colonial domination and a continual threat to African tradition(s).
From today’s vantage point, it appears that Turnbull’s prioritization of tradition led to serious problems that persist in the Hall today. With Joe Towles’ support, he succeeded in addressing history in the Slavery and Diaspora sections. But he clearly had a more difficult time dealing with continental political and cultural changes. This may have been because of the volatility of the decolonization period or perhaps because of his abiding affection for what he perceived as traditional ideals (or idyllic traditions), starting with his time with the Mbuti. There is a sense of nostalgia but also a resolute vagueness that pervades the Hall’s text, making it unclear which traditions featured in the hall had already been discontinued and which continued to be active forms of expressive and material culture in their communities. On the other hand, the focus on tradition and heritage, with the inexorable reversion to a conjured ethnographic present, made sense in the context of the museum’s grand plan that this would be a “permanent” Hall.
In the end, it is clear that the concept of tradition enshrined in the Hall, in part by the use of the ethnographic present in both label copy and displays , was part of a political agenda to instill pride in people of African descent and respect in others. However, Turnbull’s and the museum’s good intentions to create a lasting monument to African, Pan-African and Diaspora culture are not clearly discernible to 21st century visitors or to academics. When it opened, the press echoed and eagerly acknowledged the museum’s intention of celebrating African culture and fostering cross-cultural understanding. Over time, however, the Hall has come under sharp criticism by scholars, the public and some museum staff.
One obvious problem is that it is impossible to make a static exhibit about human culture that has enduring relevance. A further issue is the context of the natural history museum itself. At the time the African Hall was designed, the issue of conservation may have been seen as a common theme that linked the African Mammal Hall with an ethnographic exhibit that focused on the relationship between people and their environment. This was subverted, however, by the exhibit methodologies of the period, in particular the use of dioramas that suggested an equivalency between mounted animals and life-size models of people. While today there is new thinking in the AMNH about how future exhibits might approach the relationship between humans and the environment, the adjacency of the African Peoples Hall to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals remains problematic.
In the end, the overall message of the Man in Africa Hall was that at the moment of decolonization, African and African-American people had to make a choice between surviving by preserving traditions that came from the pre-colonial past or succumbing to the deadly pitfalls of Western civilization. But Turnbull’s binary worldview, coming from deeply personal convictions, was projected onto a stage that was unstable, despite the fact that the monumentality of the AMNH as an institution gave the Hall a semblance of permanence. The world has moved on, as have museum audiences and the people depicted in the Hall. The messages Turnbull meant to convey in the late 1960s are read very differently today. Attempting to project timelessness, the Hall has ended up seeming anachronistic at best.
1. Letter from Colin Turnbull to Myrtle Glascoe, Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, March 22, 1989, addressing aspects of the processing of Turnbull and Towles’ personal and professional archive, donated by Turnbull before his death in 1994 and, at his insistence, referred to as “The Joseph A. Towles Archive.”
2. Sannka Knox, “Exhibition on Man in Africa is Opening,” The New York Times, June 5, 1968.
3. “Tracing Black Heritage: New York Museum Opens Hall of Man in Africa,” Ebony, November 1968.
4. Christopher Michael Kirshho , From Man in Africa to Africa Peoples Hall: An Exhibit’s Trajectory through the Changing Mores of Science and Society, 1968–2001 (thesis presented to the Department of History of Science in partial fulfillment for an Honors Degree in History and Science, Harvard University, March 2001); Martin and Harding (2017).
5. Enid Schildkrout, Ph.D. (Curator Emerita, AMNH) was the African Ethnology Curator from 1973 to 2005.
6. Through common Harvard connections, Patrick Putnam knew Harry Shapiro, who at the time was Chair of the Anthropology Department. Putnam’s wife, Anne Eisner, a New York artist, volunteered at the Museum cataloging the objects the Putnams had donated.
7. Roy Richard Grinker, In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
8. Enid Schildkrout, “Art as Evidence: A History of the American Museum of Natural History African Ethnology Collection,” In Art/Artifact, ed. A. Danto, S. Vogel, et. al. (New York: The Center for African Art, 1988) 153–160.
9. The book was published seven years after the Hall opened; it essentially consists of labels from the Hall, notes Turnbull assembled while working on the hall and interstitial text.
10. Turnbull grappled with the challenges of verb tense consistency throughout the hall. In revisions on label copy evident in archival documents, there are often changes either directly in verb tense, or more broadly by shifting historical frames and increasingly avoiding using specific dates, particularly for archeological content.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Mark, Joan. 1995. The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Martin, Emily and Susan Harding. “Anthropology Now and Then in the American Museum of Natu- ral History: An Alternative Museum.” Anthropology Now, 9, no. 2 (2017): 1–13.
Schildkrout, Enid. “Modernism and Ethnology in the Ituri: Anne Eisner, Colin Turnbull, and the Mbuti.” In Images of Congo, Anne Eisner’s Art and Ethnography, 1946–1958, edited by Christie McDonald, 53–70. Milan: 5 Continents, 2005.
Towles, Joseph, and Colin M. Turnbull. “The White Problem in America.” Natural History, June–July 1968.
Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.
———. The Lonely African. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
———. Man in Africa. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Enid Schildkrout, Ph.D. (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge) is Curator Emerita at the American Museum of Natural History and also served as Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Museum for African Art (2005-2011). She has done extensive fieldwork in West Africa, curated numerous exhibitions, and worked for many years on the Congo collection at the American Museum of Natural History.
Jacklyn Grace Lacey is curatorial associate of African and Pacific Ethnology in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. As a medical anthropologist, she has done fieldwork in Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, Morocco, and Samoa and as a museum educator, she mentors in the AMNH Science Research Mentorship Program (SRMP) as well as a writes curriculum and teaches in the Lang and ASP educational initiatives at AMNH.