The Fair brought the world to Chicago. Unfortunately, even people from around the world were put on exhibit—they lived in reconstructed villages throughout the Fair to demonstrate “traditional” life for visitors.
While these exhibits gave visitors a chance to learn about other cultures, Native peoples were portrayed as “primitive,” reinforcing a central message of the Fair: the Western world was the most advanced civilization.
Offensive by today’s standards, the Fair’s approach reflected late 19th-century theories of anthropology—the study of humans and their cultures. In 1893, a leading theory classified cultures as “savage,” “barbarian,” or “civilized,” according to the tools those cultures used.
However, Franz Boas, a pioneer of the field, helped shift the approach. After the Fair, he advocated data-driven studies rather than ranking cultures from most to least civilized. Boas was assistant chief of the Fair’s anthropology department and later became the new Museum’s first anthropology curator.
Today, the Museum partners with cultural groups around the world to collect, study, and record the diversity of our world. Co-curating collections give Native peoples a voice in the interpretation of their own cultural objects.