Reassembling ethnographic museum collections

Harrison, Rodney (2013). Reassembling ethnographic museum collections. In: Harrison, Rodney; Byrne, Sarah and Clarke, Anne eds. Reassembling the Collection: Ethnographic Museums and Indigenous Agency. Santa Fe: SAR Press, pp. 3–36.



This volume addresses fundamental questions about the nature, value, and efficacy of museum collections in a postcolonial world and the agency of indigenous people in their production. The book’s primary focus lies with those objects that, by way of their specific histories, have been defined as “ethnographic”; however, the question of the contexts in which things are defined as “art” as opposed to “artifact” (e.g., Clifford 1988, 1997; Danto 1988; Putnam 1991; Marcus and Myers 1995; Gell 1998; Thomas 1999b; Myers 2001) also constitutes a key concern. The book is most appropriately situated within the context of various postcolonial critiques of the role of museums and museum collections in the politics of indigenous representation (e.g., Clifford 1988, 1995; O’Hanlon 1993; Greenfield 1996; Lidchi 1997; Barringer and Flynn 1998; Russell 2001; Karp and Lavine 1991; Fforde, Hubert, and Turnbull 2002; Kramer 2006; Cuno 2008; Lonetree and Cobb 2008; Sleeper-Smith 2009) and as a reaction to the perception that indigenous people had little or no agency in the processes that were responsible for the genesis of ethnographic museum collections (largely a phenomenon of the exercising of asymmetrical colonial power relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Although we see this book as a product of that literature and its accompanying themes, what sets it apart from much of the current literature is that it makes a significant attempt to move beyond the concerns of the politics of representation, which have tended to dominate critical museum studies (Macdonald 2011), to consider the affective qualities of things alongside their representational role in the museum. Similarly, in considering the complex material and social interactions of things, people, and institutions that constitute ethnographic collections, we attempt to move beyond the observation that indigenous people and ethnographic objects had (and continue to have) agency, to consider how concepts of agency and indigeneity need to be reconfigured in the light of their study within the context of the museum. In doing so, the volume develops a series of new concepts and considers their application to historical and contemporary engagements between ethnographic museums and the various individuals and communities who were and are involved in their production. These themes have profound implications not only for understanding the ongoing processes that have formed museum collections in the past and present but also for developing new and innovative curatorial practices in the future. Key concepts include the idea of museums as meshworks and as material and social assemblages; the ways in which the application of an archaeological sensibility might inform approaches to understanding the past and present relationships between people, “things,” and institutions in relation to museums; and the curatorial responsibility that arises from a reconsideration of the nature of museum “objects.”

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