The Museum of Us: The Archive of Humans | Sage Park
A couple of weekends ago, I visited the Museum of Us at Balboa Park, toured by Morgan Owen as part of a partnership with House of Korea. Though I had been to this museum before, being able to go through a guided tour gave me such a different perspective.
The tour opened with Owen stating that Balboa park first opened in 1915 as part of the Panama-California exposition. The museum had always been an anthropology museum, although its intention and exhibitions had greatly changed throughout its time. The Kumeyaay nation was displaced as a result of Balboa Park and the museums, so their new efforts had been to decolonize the museum as much as possible. With this, the new main goal of this museum has been to highlight the stories of different types of people through their newer exhibitions. These exhibits include “Hostile Terrain 94”, “Maya Peoples”, “Race: Are we so different?”, and “Post Secret.”
Hostile Terrain 94
This exhibition came to creation with the partnership between the Museum of Us and the Undocumented Migrant Project. Arguably one of the more emotion-invoking exhibits, “Hostile Terrain 94” centers around the immigration policies set in 1994. The United States border patrol created enforcement laws (“Prevention through Deterrence”) to discourage undocumented people from trying to cross the border. However, as a result, migrants would cross through more dangerous terrains like the Sonoran Desert. Out of the 6 million that have attempted this journey, over 3200 have died.
The exhibit itself showcased a variety of different features but the two that stuck out to me the most were the interactive map with real, handwritten toe tags of some of the people who passed away trying to cross the desert, items used by these immigrants that have been found in the desert (toothbrushes, shoes, clothes). As a visitor, these exhibitions added a humanlike breath to the experience. It truly enforced that these were real people who struggled and died, and not just a statistic. I also particularly enjoyed that it was placed at the very front of the museum, so it allows for as many people entering the museum to be educated as possible.
Though this exhibit has been in the museum since its opening, throughout the years it has vastly updated. Mainly though, the exhibit serves to celebrate the Mayan culture and rekindle the Mayan spirit. All of the artwork seen in this exhibit was done by the Mayan community and was developed with the help of Mayan consultants to honor the generations of Mayan people and their stories. This means everything on display for this exhibit was handled with permission from the Maya people in the correct Mayan way. Upon entering the museum, one of the first things you see is the Mayan stones, done and replicated by actual Mayan people. A giant mural done by Mayan artist Alicia Maria Su catches your eye as well, which illustrates the Mayan culture and traditions beautifully woven into the past, present, and future generations of Mayan people.
Race: Are we so different?
This was one of the main highlights of the museum. It centers around the fact that in the end, race is a changing social construct that humans have made for themselves, and underneath all the different skin colors, we are all the same. Instead of the typical philosophical view of race, this exhibit showcases the more scientific and historic sides of it. The study of melanin, human nature, and biology explains the origins of race and segregation, and redlining history is also featured within the exhibition. What caught my eye, in particular, was that different members of the community submitted what race means to them, instead of just being presented with their name, age, and racial category.
An extension of this exhibit was “Inter+FACE”, which features three busts on display. Originally in 1915, when the museum first opened, these busts were displayed as nothing but their age, name, and race. Their stories were not featured and they were used to uphold whiteness. Later, newer portraits were taken of people from different communities to tell their stories and add humanity to what would otherwise just be a statistic, which goes into the museum’s goal to decolonize it as much as possible.
After volunteering at the Suicide Hotline, Frank Warren realized that secrets are the key to intimacy for humans, and the weight of words alone can connect anonymous individuals all around the world. This project became very popular, and now Warren receives millions of anonymous secrets every day and they are displayed as art collages to reflect the inner human mind and the burden that every day brings to us. Personally, this was my favorite exhibit, as I was able to read the thousands of secrets buried within the very people around me. The secrets varied vastly in intensity as well; some were highly relatable and funny while others were extremely heartbreaking and tear-inducing. There is no better way to dive deep into the psychology of human life than to read their secrets. You could also write your secrets on a postcard and mail them anonymously to Warren, who still comes back to the museum from time to time to read all of these secrets. The ability to release heavy secrets into a private setting, to be able to speak them to nobody brought immense comfort, and it made sense why this project was so successful.
Overall, my experience at the Museum of Us was a truly insightful one, and I believe that if you’ve gotten this far with reading this, you should pay a visit as well, and pay close attention to the stories of the people around you. It’s crazy how every day is different for 7 billion different people. Big thanks to my tour guide Morgan Owen again, because I couldn’t have written this article, nor would I have learned this much without her.