29 July 2013

‘The Future of Ethnographic Museums’, a conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Keble College, Oxford, 19-21 July 2013

Delegates mingle at a wine reception held in the Pitt Rivers Museum on the Friday evening before James Clifford's keynote lecture

Delegates have a tour of the special exhibition 'Visiting with the Ancestors: The Blackfoot shirts project' with exhibition curator, Laura Peers.

A conference review

This recent conference held at the University of Oxford and Pitt Rivers Museum brought together a stellar cast of speakers including James Clifford, Sharon McDonald, Wayne Modest, Nicholas Thomas, Ruth Phillips and Annie E Coombes to explore the challenges facing ethnographic museums in the 21st century. The conference was one of the outputs of a research project, RIME, which secured European funding to bring together ten ethnographic museums from across Europe to ‘rethink the place and role of ethnography museums in a political environment which has undergone radical change’, ‘enhance knowledge of the collections’ and ‘initiate new collaboration’ amongst other things.

James Clifford delivers his keynote lecture.

Challenges addressed included the rise of the right in Europe and the impact of right-wing politics on ethnographic museums: Wayne Modest in particular described recent events at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, which was forced almost to the point of closure by Party for Freedom (PVV) members who view its transparent discussion of the impact of Dutch colonialism as advocating a form of ‘self-hate’. There were the inevitable struggles and shifts around terminology which reveal what Clifford described as ‘the push and pull of local, national, international forces’. Clifford reported that the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Canada, was recently rebranded to become ‘MOA – a place of world arts + cultures’ partly to facilitate new engagements with the city’s diasporic communities, many of whom object to the implications of primitivism suggested by the term ‘anthropology’. Ruth Phillips told us about the successful efforts of Canada’s right-wing Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore, to rename and repurpose the Canadian Museum of Civilisation as the Canadian Museum of History and we also heard that Vienna’s Museum für Völkerkunde, following a 25 million euro grant for the completion of its redevelopment, will reopen in 2016 as the Weltmuseum Wien (‘World Museum Vienna’). Other speakers challenged terms such as ‘source community’ (‘is the West not also a source for ethnographic objects?’ asked Modest) and ‘Indigenous’ versus ‘First Nations’ (Phillips noted how many First Nations people are finding it politically useful to align themselves with other Indigenous communities).

Delegates are greeted by Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Michael O'Hanlon.

Geographical shifts were also evident, one example being the Humboldt Forum, a huge initiative on Berlin’s Museum Island which will involve the relocation of (some of) the city’s ethnographic collections from a museum building in the suburb of Dahlem to the city centre. Historical examples such as the absorption of the collections of the Musée de l'Homme into the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, and the Museum of Mankind into the British Museum, London, were also acknowledged. While there was much discussion about wider political desires to see world cultures at the centre there was also recognition by many speakers of the value of museum practice being conducted at the margins. Annie E Coombes, in particular, presented compelling evidence of the efficacy of the Lari Memorial Peace Museum, near Nairobi, Kenya, which despite its limited resources (one room and a linked educational programme), was doing much to offer peace and reconciliation to a community beleaguered by the effects of both historical and recent conflict. A paper by Clare Harris on the Tibet Album suggested how work by ethnographic museums could use digital technologies to move beyond geography. She showed how images from a large collection of photographs taken by British colonial officers in the period 1920-1950 digitised and made available online by the Pitt Rivers Museum had been taken up by members of the exiled Tibetan community and deployed in ways not possible or even imagined by the museum. One discomforting outcome had been the use of some of these images in Chinese government propaganda which sought to denounce the photographed Tibetan subjects. Harris noted that, while objects ‘dislodged’ from their archival source through digital technologies are vulnerable to ‘radically different regimes of truth telling’, the use of these technologies is likely to be a hallmark of the future ethnographic museum.

Kavita Singh gives her thought provoking and insightful lecture.

Kavita Singh and Clare Harris take questions from the floor.

A key paper by Kavita Singh offered much evidence to support her assertion that ‘The Future of the Museum is Ethnographic’. She described the increasing appetite of the western contemporary art market for non-western artists, often via trends which reflect opening of new global markets, most recently in Eastern Europe, China and now Africa (interesting, then, to reflect on the Tate Modern’s current showing of Meschac Gaba’s The Museum of Contemporary African Art). Through this process artists become ethnographic informants and ‘survivors’ of communities in crisis. Singh noted that while the increasing application of the white cube gallery aesthetic to non-western objects suggests a ‘museological seal of approval’ for the cultural products of others, the urge to contextualise then finds release by museums through the increasing use of audio guides and pod casts. These she described as the ‘diorama of our times’. Singh also highlighted how, in contrast, some communities are resisting the reification of collections of relevance to themselves as ‘art’ and calling for the return of cultural specificity and greater ethical attention. What happens, she asked, when museum attentiveness to the concerns of source communities is applied to majority populations? Lastly she highlighted the explosion of new museums outside the west – in China, Singapore and the Middle East. While these new museums might appear to mimic traditional forms, their new contexts inevitably change their meaning. Indeed, she suggested, it might be that, in these new environments, the museum becomes the artefact itself. If so, what might the appropriation of this European artefact by non-European nations tell us about the forces of globalisation?

The conference was peppered with acknowledgements of the challenges faced by ethnographic museums in terms of balancing the desires of different stakeholders, be they politicians (whom one speaker suggested museums could fruitfully target as ‘non-users’), long-standing indigenous community partners or members of new, local, diasporic constituencies. Less attention was given to museum visitors bar James Clifford’s observation that there have been few in-depth ethnographic studies of this group. Clifford did point to one such report conducted by the Musée du quai Branly but noted that its conclusions offered a ‘lucid uncertainty’. For UK museums the success of any museum project will be – at least partly – judged by the number of people who engaged with it, as visitors, users or participants, so the absence of a close attention to the visitors and users of our organisations was surprising. Possibly this was partly the result of the majority of presenters being academics rather than museum practitioners but it is nevertheless important to be reminded that ‘we’ are not the target audiences of our institutions.

It is the privilege of academic conferences to problematise rather than problem-solve and ‘The Future of Ethnographic Museums’ raised many issues which remain unresolved. Nevertheless the chance to have these issues so compellingly presented by scholars who have forged careers in addressing them, was much valued as, too, was the opportunity to do along so our European counterparts who constituted a large part of the delegation. Discussion of the importance of museum ethnography at the ‘margins’ underscored the absence of many MEG members working in local authority, independent or otherwise chronically-underfunded organisations who could not have afforded the high conference fees (although a number of us who were able to attend owe thanks to a bursary scheme offered by Oxford Aspire). In the context of the toll of budget cuts and museum closures reported on an almost daily basis by the Museums Association it might be that such discussions, while engaging, remain academic.

Delegates explore the Pitt Rivers Museum by torchlight.

Helen Mears
Keeper of World Art
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove