Friday, January 04, 2013


Recently, I was asked to read and comment on Bailey at the Museum by Harry Bliss. Here's the cover:*

Bailey is the dog shown on the cover. In the story, he tags along on a school field trip to a natural history museum.

Let's start by noting why we go to museums.

We go to them to learn something. Museum personnel work pretty hard at making their exhibits educational. They want you to leave the museum knowing more about something than you knew when you walked in. (Though there is much to say about the problems of having Indigenous peoples in natural history museums with the dinosaurs and animals, I'm focusing this post on the idea of a museum and Bliss's presentation of a museum in his picture book. If you want to give some time to my previous post on museums and Indians, see Syd Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur.)

Do we, as readers, walk away from the museum in Bailey at the Museum knowing more than we did when we turned the first page?

Bliss is an illustrator for The New Yorker and has also done illustrations for a handful of children's books. He grew up in upper state New York. I'm wondering if the museum Bailey goes to is the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

In Bailey at the Museum, Mr. Snyder (the museum guide) takes the class through the museum.

Among the first exhibits Bailey sees are the ones of dinosaurs. On one page, Bailey climbs up on the T Rex and starts gnawing on its tail. To make sure he doesn't get in trouble after that, a museum security guard is assigned to accompany Bailey for the rest of the visit. From the dinosaur exhibit, the class has lunch and then moves to the Stone Age exhibit and a mural of evolution.

The next pages are about Indians.

On the page with the totem pole, Bailey looks at the pole and sees a likeness of himself. Totem poles generally represent history and stories. The Sealaska Heritage Institute has a page about totem poles. If you follow the link you'll see several wolves, but no dogs.

I'm uneasy about Bliss playing with someone's culture by inserting Bailey in that totem pole. Most people probably see it as amusing, but it gives me pause and it makes me wonder about the totem pole Bliss used as his model for this page. Was there a wolf on that pole? I'm guessing that the museum curator has a lot of information in that exhibit... like the name of the tribe with whom the totem poles originate. What tribe did the totem pole Bliss used as a model originate with? Bliss doesn't say. Surely the museum shared that info... but Bliss chose not to include it in his book.

Here's my scan of the next page:

Nothing on the page tells us what tribe this page is about. Notice the use of "were" instead of "are" in the information the museum guide says? I can imagine a museum guide saying "were" instead of "are." If Bliss heard a guide say that, he did not have to repeat that error. He could have used present tense instead, don't you think?

There is a teepee on the next page. All we see of Bailey is his tail sticking out the door of the teepee. As with the totem pole and the dream catcher, Bliss doesn't tell us anything about the tribe this tipi originated from.

As the field trip draws to a close, the security guard gives Bailey a gift that turns out to be a dreamcatcher and an information sheet "About your Dream Catcher" that says "The Sioux belie" (the rest of the words are hidden by Bailey's leg. Finally! Something tribally specific! Part of me wishes Bliss had included tribally specific information on each page... Would it have interrupted his story to insert just another word or two on those pages to tell his readers who these items originate with?

But even if he did include that tribally specific information, he's just using Native cultures as decorations and props for his story about Bailey. Some find the story amusing. I find it insensitive, and, it also negates what museums are trying to do with their exhibits. As such, I do not recommend Bailey at the Museum.

*Image credit: Pinterest


Anonymous said...

This book is for very young children, too young to digest specific tribes, no? Seems to me the book does a nice job of introducing young minds to Native cultures

Heather Munn said...

I would think young kids would be told specifically whether a person was French or German, American or Canadian, whether they were old enough to truly understand the differences or not, simply because the teller knows the difference. Why should it be different with Native tribes? The problem is that mainstream U.S. culture is stuck on the notion that Indians "were" basically all the same, and the book reflects that.

Anonymous said...

Seems like you're being overly critical here - it's a sweet book and in my opinion, showcases Native American culture, true, the book doesn't communicate the different tribes, but perhaps the author intended to NOT plant the seed of our Pointing out the differences

Anonymous said...

Moreover, why can't the adult reading the book further explain the various tribes? Does the book have to do everything here? Again, this book feels like a nice start to a further dialogue for the kids - education that involves the young and old. Don't be so quick to judge, that's how stereotypes get started...

Anonymous said...

Other anonymous, would you say that the book should show European culture in this same way? Is it "pointing out differences" to mention, say, that French people and German people speak different languages and have different majority religions, or that the Romans and the Norse had different gods, or that none of these people live today like they did 500 years ago?

Why do you think the onus should be on the parent reading - assuming that this book is being read by a parent and not an independent reader in the first place! - to fill in the gaps? Many parents like to read when reading, not stop every few sentences to say where the author got things wrong.