New interpretation on the glass of the 1936 Old New York diorama, which depicts a scene between the colonial Dutch and the Lenape.

This 1660 encounter between Dutch and Lenape leaders was intended to celebrate the Dutch founders of “Old New York.” But the scene offers only stereotypical representations and ignores how complex and violent colonization was for Native people.

European ships, Native canoes

The numerous ships shown here communicate a sense of European power and wealth. Native people made enormous contributions and sacrifices to lay the foundation for colonial markets—and America itself. Yet this history is not always told. The small canoes were also vital to trade: they made it possible to access trade items found much further inland.

Women in the background

These Lenape women are shown as subservient and only engaged in physical labor—and they would not have been dressed this way. In reality, women in Lenape society, both in the past and today, hold leadership roles, are knowledge keepers and help maintain cultural continuity. The female sachem (leader) Mamanuchqua was active in treaty negotiations during the mid-1600s.

Pieter Stuyvesant

The Dutch leader Pieter Stuyvesant is shown in a position of power. Although this scene supposedly shows a peace negotiation, it depicts a one-way exchange. Stuyvesant’s hand is outstretched, demanding tribute, while the soldier behind him displays a gun.

Dutch windmill

Windmills are closely associated with Holland, and by including one in the scene, the designers wanted viewers to focus on the Dutch. The first windmills were used as lumber mills. Timber was important to the Lenape as well. Indeed, in the Munsee language, “Manhattan” means “the place where we get bows,” after hickory trees on the island with wood well-suited for making bows.

Who’s missing?

There are very few women shown in the scene, and others are missing as well. In 1660, Manhattan was home to immigrants from Holland, as well as France, England and other European countries. Jewish immigrants arrived from Brazil and elsewhere; enslaved and free Africans also lived in New Amsterdam.

Tobacco

The cultivation and production of tobacco is an agricultural technology developed by Native people. Among the Lenape, kwushahteew (tobacco) is used as a sacrament and given as a diplomatic gift.

Clothing

The Lenape would have dressed up for an important meeting. But here they are wearing very little clothing—a clichéd way to show Native people. In reality, these diplomats would have worn fine fur robes with adornments signifying their important role as leaders. The faces of the Lenape men appear almost the same, as though they had no individual identities.

Oratamin, sachem and diplomat

The original diorama label identified Stuyvesant but not Oratamin, a sachem (leader) of the Hackensack, a Munsee branch of the Lenape. Oratamin was a respected diplomat who conducted complex negotiations between Native groups and the Dutch newcomers. This scene does not show a true negotiation but rather subjects bringing tribute to a ruler.

Wampum

The casual presentation of this wampum belt, made from white and purple mollusk shells, does not fully capture the significance of wampum to the Lenape. The designs and colors of wampum belts have meaning, and record treaties, laws, important traditions and significant moments in history. Many Native nations throughout the Northeast used wampum

Colonialism and cultural representation

The American Museum of Natural History and all of New York City are on original Lenape territory. In an effort to acknowledge the ongoing impact of colonialism, as well as the urgent need to reconceive how diverse peoples and cultures are represented in the Museum, we have undertaken a series of initiatives in our cultural halls. These initiatives, including re-examination of this diorama, will add a diversity of voices and perspectives to the Museum’s displays.

Old New York Diorama

Part of Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.

Text labels on the glass of the Old New York diorama, a scene between the colonial Dutch and the Lenape, adds context and highlights misrepresentation New interpretation on the glass of the 1939 Old New York diorama, which depicts a scene between the colonial Dutch and the Lenape, includes context and highlights clichés and inaccuracies.
R. Mickens /© AMNH

This 1939 diorama depicts Dutch leader Peter Stuyvesant receiving a delegation of Lenape, including Oratamin, a sachem (leader) of the Munsee branch. But the depiction of the Lenape reflects common clichés and a fictional view of the past that ignores how complex and violent colonization was for Native people.

Large-scale labels added in 2018 offer a layer of context and highlight misrepresentations in this scene. For example, the Lenape are shown wearing very little clothing—a stereotypical depiction of Native people, and not how a delegation of diplomats would have dressed for an important meetingNew label copy describes the history of the Lenni-Lenape and includes a quote from a contemporary Lenape elder, in addition to offering a snapshot of where the Lenape, who were driven from their ancestral homeland, live today.