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Anthropology in the Museum Context A Practicum Report

Project Outline

I did not have a specific project focus during my time at the Museum, instead a myriad of activities were undertaken, enabling me to experience many aspects of anthropological work in the museum context. This included the unpacking and registering of objects, making membership cards for the Museum Society, and assisting with the relocation of ancestral remains to another Museum site, including attending an aboriginal smoking ceremony. Due to the multifaceted nature of the work undertaken, I have chosen to focus on three key aspects of my time in the museum, which I think highlight the benefits, challenges, and responsibilities of practising anthropology in the museum context. The significance of the Museum collections themselves, the respect for traditional Indigenous culture embodies through the conduct and policies of the Museum as an institution, and the complex anthropological issues that were raised during an aboriginal smoking ceremony.

Applied anthropology generally, and applied anthropology in the museum in particular: An Overview

Applied anthropology has much to contribute in addressing complex social and cultural problems, which often involve a dynamic intersection of the discursive interests of key stakeholders involved in a particular context. Podolefsky argues that a fundamental benefit anthropological analysis can bring to a particular problem, is the often unacknowledged recognition that the foundation of all issues lies in complex social and cultural phenomena. All problems are social and cultural problems, and as such the anthropologist is arguably best positioned to identify this complexity, and to tease out the key problematic intersections between disparate social and cultural processes. In such situations the anthropologist often assumes the role of mediator, negotiating between two or more heterogenous cultural contexts. However, applied anthropology is not without its difficulties, and the anthropologist is often engaged in a delicate tripartite balance: upholding often conflicting responsibilities towards their informants, the sponsor of their work, and the discipline of anthropology itself. An illustrative example is during Native Title consultation, where the anthropologist mediates between the rigid requirements and cultural modality of the legal system, the interests and culture of the indigenous Australian's lodging the claim, and the state government opposing the claim. At all times the anthropologist's priority must be to act ethically and with professional integrity.

Applied anthropologists in the museum context must also navigate this complex web of responsibilities in their work. A has been noted in much of the literature on contemporary applied anthropology in the museum, during the last 20 years a major paradigm shift has occurred in the relationship between museums, and the indigenous cultures of origin of the objects in anthropological museum collections. The role of the museum as an institution has evolved from being embroiled in the processes of colonisation, and exercising the power to represent indigenous culture, to a more dynamic role that in Australia includes cultural sensitivity to the traditional law of Indigenous Australian's in regards to the storage, exhibition and repatriation of artefacts. In 2008 the Museum published a report which gives examples and describes how this relationship should be maintained. The museum also has an Aboriginal Advisory Committee, which is consulted regarding the Museum's activities concerning indigenous artefacts, and the Museum's Collections Policy also stresses the need for collaboration with Aboriginal Australian's in managing the collections. During my time at the Museum, I noticed that much of the anthropological work involves acting as a mediator on the interface between the interests of the museum as an institution, and those of Indigenous Australians. This is integral to all aspects of work in the Museum, including organising the repatriation of human skeletal remains to Indigenous communities, organising exhibitions for public display, and in the maintenance and storage of objects.

Preserving Culture: The Museum Collections

All the activities I undertook were involved with the Museum's collections, including choosing and photographing objects for an exhibition in China, unpacking and registering objects, and assisting with the relocation of ancestral remains from on of the Museum's sites to another site. On my first day we had a meeting with a supplier to arrange for more cabinets to store the burgeoning collections' of the Museum. While registering and preparing items for storage, I learnt how to store items optimally. Maintaining the physical integrity of the objects is a key aspect of working in the Museum; items must not be exposed to to acid, such as that found in sticky tape, and temperature, humidity, and lighting must all be kept at optimal levels. Much of the work of an anthropologist in the Museum is concerned with the appropriate handling and treatment of physical objects in the collections.

To be continued shortly…


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