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Applied Anthropology And The Museum Context

The role of applied anthropologists has changed markedly in museum contexts over the last twenty years especially in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. As the museum, ethnographic ones at least, can be seen as the social and cultural institution of anthropology, this change is due to a number of intrinsically related paradigm shifts; in the discipline of anthropology itself, as well as evolving political climates, public opinion, increased criticism from anti-empiricists and the like; and finally but perhaps most significantly, due to mounting pressure from indigenous people across the globe who demand the right to `own` their cultures and exercise agency in the construction of representations of their cultures. Applied anthropologists’ role in museum contexts, and indeed the overarching role of the museum as an institution, increasingly involves collaboration indigenous counterparts in constructing exhibitions, and in some cases the museum anthropologist acts a facilitator between indigenous groups and the wider community, aiding these marginalised people in raising awareness of their culture from their own perspective and giving them a voice. In fact, the role of museum anthropologists is complex and multifaceted in the contemporary context, ranging from that of advocate, to preserver of heritage, to repatriating collections, to providing material to aid in legal processes such as Native Title claims, to giving indigenous artists a voice in majority culture. It seems that this major paradigm shift has resulted in museums that are no longer a social and cultural institution objectifying indigenous cultures from the perspective of the colonisers, but as a genuine tool for indigenous people to own and discover their pasts, identities, and cultures and project these into the wider society.

It’s necessary to engage the history of the ideology behind museum anthropology, and hence that of the museum as an institution itself, to give us a useful context within which to recognise these drastic changes in the discipline of museum anthropology in the last twenty years. Anthropology as a discipline actually emerged in museum contexts. The anthropology museum, like the discipline of anthropology itself, was born in the 1800’s, a time prolific with social Darwinism and cultural determinist thought, which resulted in indigenous peoples objectification by the colonisers in the museum context and being treated as `specimens’ by anthropologists and other professionals; these people of an `earlier evolutionary’ stage where to be comprehensively documented and large number of objects were to be collected for the common good of empirical science and natural history. A common perspective of curators, especially in Australia, such as that of Ronald Hamlyn-Harris who was the director of the Queensland Museum in the early 1900’s was that it was necessary to obtain as much information about the natives as possible before they became extinct. Although public opinion, legal systems, indigenous pressure and the discipline of anthropology itself in the second half of the 20th century had been developing in a way that juxtaposed this privilege of the anthropology museum to objectify and represent indigenous culture, it was not until the 1980’s that drastic change took place in anthropology in a museum context.

The `natives’ obviously did not become extinct and in the 1980’s, mounting pressure and criticism from academic anthropology, public sentiment, legal paradigms, other professions and indigenous people across the globe themselves lead to the role of applied anthologists in museum contexts involving more collaboration with, and advocacy on behalf of, indigenous communities as opposed to objectifying and representing their cultures. At the `Preserving our Heritage’ 1988 conference in Ottawa Canada between museum professional and indigenous representatives, Christopher McCormick the spokesperson for the Native Council of Canada commented in a manner symptomatic of indigenous sentiment worldwide; “We are talking about taking control over our own lives, our cultures, and most importantly, the interpretation of our cultures past and present…” As contemporary anthropologists acknowledging the dynamic theory of cultural production, we should be aware of the interrelatedness and dynamic relationship of all the processes that have lead to this paradigm shift for applied anthropology in museum contexts. As well as indigenous pressure, the traditional role of a museum as having exclusive right to represent indigenous culture has come under attack from a number of directions. Ames has long been a critic of traditional museum processes and brings the issue of museums representation and objectification of indigenous groups squarely into the paradigm of politics and power. “Representation is a political act. Sponsorship is a political act. Curation is a political act. Working in a museum is a political act”. Other arguments have centred on many ideas and come from many sources: that museums are products of and therefore perpetuating capitalism and colonisation, that museums and museum anthropologists should no longer have the sole privilege to represent indigenous cultures to the wider society, that indigenous people have had their culture appropriated by the hegemonic process of the colonisers and that the institution as a whole is based on notions of empirical science and illusory `ethnographic present´, ignoring aspects of post-modernism, cultural relativism and cultural production theory that are prevalent in contemporary anthropology.

A sign of the shift towards global public awareness of indigenous issues was in 1993, which was recognised as The International Year of Indigenous People. This was reflected in museum contexts in Australia, and therefore in the profession of museum anthropology, also in 1993 through the construction of a groundbreaking Museums Australia policy report concerning aboriginal cultural heritage titled Previous Possessions, New Obligations that was involved in “creating a new future respect for and cooperation with Indigenous Australians in relation to museums and galleries and their treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural heritage “. Overall this policy report paved the way for Australian aborigines to claim the representation of their culture in museum contexts. This was an important step in changing museum anthropologists roles concerning interaction with indigenous communities in Australia and was mirrored in Canada, the United States as well as internationally; the International Council of Museums in 1997 constructed recommendations in the form of a Museums and Cultural Diversity; Policy Statement which was partly concerned with building strong, reconciliatory, relationships with indigenous communities and enabling these people the right to have control over the representations of their cultures in museums. Indigenous voices had finally been heard and formal recognition of the rights of these people in museum context had been granted; the implications for applied anthropologists included increasing collaboration with indigenous communities and even assuming the role of advocate on behalf of these marginalised people.

To be continued shortly …


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