Digital companion to American Museum of Natural History exhibit, 2022

About this Project

Historically, ethnographic museums have used mannequins to teach their visitors about cultures from around the world. But today most museums find other ways to do this same work. Many think that mannequins cannot represent an entire race, culture or group of people; others are concerned that mannequins freeze cultures in time.

Dive into the unique backstories behind some of the mannequins still used in the dioramas in the Gardner D. Stout Hall of Asian Peoples, which opened in 1980 at the American Museum of Natural History. Find out how the dioramas were designed, the lifecasting process used to make mannequins and some of the problems they present, as you consider what makes a mannequin.

Discover the backstories …

Lifecasting Mannequins

The Lifecasting Process in the American Museum of Natural History’s Studio, 1984

AMNH, 1984

Some mannequins are modeled after real individuals using a process called lifecasting. The images above show the steps AMNH’s Department of Exhibition and Graphics used in 1984 to lifecast Chong-Hwa Lim and create a mannequin portraying an elegant Korean woman.

To fabricate a mold of her head and face, AMNH technicians first moisturized Mrs. Lim’s face and covered her head with a rubber cap. They then spread a molding material on top. Technicians wrapped her head in bandages to hold the material in place. Lim had to remain very still for up to 30 minutes while the mold dried. To Lim, everything was dark and muffled inside the drying mold. Once dry, technicians carefully removed the mold. From this mold, a cast of her head was made. Artists then sculpted adjustments and painted it realistically, transforming a cast into a lifelike mannequin head.

Historically, anthropologists made lifecasts in the field intending to capture racial data. Then, the process of casting an individual could be uncomfortable and scary. Some participants were coerced; others were persuaded and compensated. These field-made lifecasts were sometimes used to create museum mannequins.

As demonstrated in the photos above, models sometimes volunteered to help AMNH create realistic mannequins for ethnographic exhibits.

Is this a mannequin?

Mannequins come in many forms. Cast your vote on whether you think the photograph depicts a mannequin.

Why Can Mannequins Be Problematic?

The use of mannequins in ethnographic dioramas has been critiqued for many years. While curators work to design dioramas which depict cultures accurately, dioramas cannot show the breadth of a culture. Critics also point out that dioramas freeze communities in time and often do not represent peoples as they understand themselves; instead, they can create stereotypes.

How do you view the use of ethnographic mannequins?

Reconsidering this Scene was a direct effort to rethink the 1939 Old New York diorama. It adds further context and increases the accuracy of the scene.
[Photo credit] R. Mickens/AMNH.

AMNH’s Old New York diorama was designed in 1939 to depict a meeting between Dutch settlers and the Lenape in 1666. However, it represented cliched understandings of the Lenape people and ignored the violence and complexity of colonialism.

Recently, AMNH responded to criticisms of its Old New York diorama. The museum applied texts directly onto the diorama’s glass addressing inaccuracies in the scene and inviting visitors to reconsider the stories told by dioramas.

How does this diorama influence your perception of power dynamics between European settlers and Indigenous peoples?

Imagine you and your family on display as mannequins in a museum.

What would you be wearing and what would you be doing?
What would the label say about you?
What culture(s) might you represent?
How would you feel when visitors looked at the mannequins of your family?
Would you feel honored or uncomfortable?

The Exhibition

Facing the Mannequin can be seen next to the Chinese Wedding Diorama in the Gardner D. Stout Hall of Asian Peoples, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

The MA in Museum Anthropology, offered jointly by the Columbia Department of Anthropology and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), combines the strengths of a premier academic department of anthropology and an innovative museum department whose collections and archives span the history and geographic range of the discipline.

Students enrolled in the program for 2021–2022 curated and designed Facing the Mannequin, working with the professors David Harvey and Laurel Kendall. Students were introduced to exhibition design, from concept through production, by AMNH staff and other museum professionals.

To learn more about the Museum Anthropology program, click here.


American Museum of Natural History, Division of Anthropology Archives

American Museum of Natural History, Library Special Collections

American Museum of Natural History, The Hall of Asian Peoples Educator Guide.

Carneiro, Robert L. 2019. The Making of an Exhibit Hall: Bringing to Life Amazonian Indian Culture. Bloomington: IN: Authorhouse.

Cooks, Bridget R. and Jennifer J. Wagelie. 2021. Mannequins in Museums: Power and Resistance on Display. London and New York: Routledge.

Mori, Masahiro. 2012. “The Uncanny Valley.” IEEE Spectrum.

Sandberg, Mark B. 2003. Living Pictures, Missing Persons: Mannequins, Museums, and Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thanks to:

Curation, Writing, Exhibit Design
Annelisea Marie Brand
Kathryn Bruyneel
Emily Cai
Megan E. Carden
Wenqi Chen
Anisha Dias Bandaranaike
Emily Gomez
Barrett Hellmann
Chelsea Gabriela Hernandez-Garcia
Olivia Nicole Hwang
Tianyi Jiang
Katherine Katzer
Sophie Loyd
Qingquan Ma
Kara S. Pusateri
Symphony Andrea Scott
Sophia Sze Nga So
Kelsey Jane Talbot
Ava Valentino
Mingxia Yuan
Gennie Xiaojing Zhang
Lujia Zhang
Cece Qian Zhang

Laurel Kendall, Chair, Division of Anthropology and Curator, Asian Ethnographic Collections, AMNH. Adjunct Professor, Columbia University

David Harvey, Adjunct Professor, Columbia University. Former Senior Vice President of Exhibition, AMNH

Amanda Thompson

Jennie Dillon

Brett Peterson, Director of Media and Interactives, AMNH

AMNH Division of Anthropology
John Hansen, Collections Manager
Barry Landua, Systems Manager and Manager of Digital Imaging
Kristin Mable, Anthropology Archivist
Katherine Skaggs, Senior Scientific Specialist

AMNH Library
Rebecca Morgan, Special Collections Archivist

AMNH Exhibition
Lauri Halderman, Vice President of Exhibition
Dean Markosian, Director of Project Management
Melissa Posen, Senior Director of Exhibition and Exhibition Capital Projects
Sasha Nemecek, Director of Exhibition Interpretation

Columbia University
Marilyn Astwood, Graduate Secretary, Department of Anthropology
Brian Boyd, Director of Museum Anthropology
Michael Chin, Administrative Assistant, Department of Anthropology
Zoe Crossland, Professor of Anthropology and Director, Center for Archaeology
Jeanne N. Roche, Director of Academic Administration & Finance, Department of Anthropology
David Scott, Ruth and William Lubic Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology
Garen Tchopourian, Web Developer, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Special thanks to
Dr. Doranne Jacobson
Anahid Ordjanian
Arman Susan Ordjanian Elliott
Moira Sullivan Page
Eugene Hannah Park
Young-kyu Park

This project was made possible with the generous support of the Columbia University Department of Anthropology and in-kind support by the American Museum of Natural History.

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