ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Makers of meanings and repositories of knowledge museums in the post-colonial era

Contact convenor: Ian Fairweather

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 2460

Panel abstract

In our unequivocally post-colonial world, traditional understandings of museums are currently undergoing a process of transformation in their attempts to become more inclusive for the majority of people. This panel will explore the colonial legacy, with which postcolonial museums must engage, and the ambiguities and tensions of the postcolonial situation itself. It will focus on the ways that museums might strike a balance, between emphasising the distinctiveness of difference without marginalizing or essentialising it, and may even empower communities in processes of sustainable development that take account of their heritages and knowledge systems. The papers will seek to place museums and the wider heritage industry in their postcolonial contexts as important vehicles for the production of postcolonial subjects. They will highlight the relationship between museums, nation states, and international communities as well their broader significance in the context of current debates about the politics of memory in post-colonial societies and the emerging political and economic conditions under which museums are increasingly forced to operate.

An important theme will be the ways that shifts in exhibition practice and representational strategies relate to the post-colonial ‘memory industry’ and national discourses on democratic ‘openness’, monument-building and historical revisionism, but the analysis of museums and their collections will not be restricted to the study of culturally-constructed 'meanings', for museums are repositories of precisely the kinds of knowledge that can transcend discursive formulations. The panel seeks to do more than highlight the importance of museums in reproducing the narratives of national cultural identities. It will focus on the ways in which museums can subvert or even challenge dominant narratives, and in so doing bridge the gaps between communities and negotiate tensions in the ways that diverse groups represent themselves and are represented to others. It will also bring to light the challenges faced by the postcolonial museum in an increasingly multicultural and globalised world.

Session 1 – Difference, distinctiveness and museum displays


Dr I. S. Fairweather, University of Manchester

Godly monuments: marketing culture and remembering the past in Osogbo, Nigeria

Dr. Peter Probst, African Studies Centre University of Bayreuth

Some forty years ago, the Yoruba town of Osogbo in Southwest Nigeria became the centre of a vibrant art scene. Celebrated as the symbol of a postcolonial renaissance of Yoruba art and culture, the city and its artists received world wide attention. As a result in the 1970s the Nigerian government decided to establish a national museum in Osogbo devoted to maintain and protect one the biggest attraction of Osogbo: the image works in the grove of the Yoruba goddess Osun, the local guardian deity of Osogbo. Today these shrines and sculptures, which were once shaped by the Austrian born artist Susanne Wenger and her local collaborators in an effort to conserve the ritual landscape of Osogbo by the means of art constitute a vehement debate about their meaning. While adherents of traditional Yoruba religion in Osogbo do use the popularity of the "monuments" to claim political rights based upon the history of the deities represented by the image works, the museum as well as the palace to which the museum is attached downplay the religious dimension of the grove and advertise it as a tourist attraction. By focusing on the main actors involved, the paper investigates this struggle for meaning in a highly fragmented postcolonial setting. 

Colonial photographs and post-colonial histories: Collaborative research with the Kainai Nation, Canada

Dr. Laura Peers, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford & Dr. Alison Brown, Kainai Photo History Project.

In 1925 Beatrice Blackwood, of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, visited the Kainai Nation, Canada, and took a series of anthropometric photographic portraits.  These have recently been used in a visual repatriation project and have become a focus for recovering historical and cultural knowledge, and for providing narratives of community strength and resistance usually omitted from mainstream historical and anthropological interpretations. The colonial contexts of these images have become the catalyst for a project in which negotiation and articulation of the research methodology itself has become crucial in effecting challenges to the meaning of photographs and in developing new ways of thinking about historic materials and relationships between museums and overseas source communities. The project has prompted the PRM and the Kainai to develop ways of working and project outcomes which serve the needs of both. Outcomes include a community-based exhibition of the images and a scholarly book on the research findings, their shaping by community input and the collaborative framework of the project, and their implications for the role of museums in disseminating cultural information to multiple audiences. The presentation will provide an overview of the pragmatic, methodological, and theoretical dynamics involved in the project, and the project’s implications for the PRM and for the museum profession.

Brazilian railway museums - making connections

Martin Cooper, Institute of Railway Studies, University of York/National Railway Museum

For much of the twentieth century museums in Brazil have displayed the memorabilia of the country's elite in grand former colonial buildings of the major cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. These spaces and artefacts have broadly been used to convey messages of modernity and nationhood. Public heritage, especially since 1930, has been almost exclusively under the control of the state, but since the mid 1970s there has emerged a new form of museum that attempts to tell a local, rather than a national, history. This paper examines how one section of this new style of museum, the museum of railway history is coming to terms with the past and attempting to find an audience. The history of the railways in Brazil is potentially a richly contested area, and up to twenty museums of railway history have recently opened many of them in former goods-yards and train stations. It asks questions about the creation and financing of these museums as well as the memories on display. In particular, Cooper is concerned with the way visitors appear to be creating their own discourses by using these spaces and landscapes to connect to a personal, rather than a national, past.


'Wherever we are, we are Here': memory, healing and justice in the District Six Museum

Natalia Shunmugan, University of Oxford

The District Six Museum in Cape Town, created in 1989 by the ex-residents of that area who were forcibly removed from their homes by the apartheid government, challenges mainstream museum practices and illuminates the current debate in anthropology and museum literature. It provides a space where visitors, ex-residents and other interested parties can dialogue among themselves or with museum staff, about issues the museum is dealing with, as well as exhibitions. This museum shows that if museums really want to encourage discussion and dialogue between themselves and their audiences, they have to change their policies and strategies. Often budgets, personnel problems, time and other difficulties are cited as justifications for not being able to change their modus operandi. But the District Six museum will show that all of the above are superfluous arguments if museums are serious about engaging in dialogue and going beyond their traditional functions of education or reinforcing a particular ideology. This paper proposes the District Six museum as a vehicle for analysis of the theoretical debates in museum anthropology. Issues around curatorial authority and reflexivity are explored, and how voice, representation and identity are linked to history.

Multi-layered narratives, clashes of narratives and a sense of belonging: Jewish museums in Italy

David Clark, London Metropolitan University

Meanings generated by museum displays are plural, operate at many levels and in complex ways. Discourse theory offers the opportunity of examining the complex interplay of all the elements on display within a museum or exhibition, whilst still placing such an analysis within a wider social context. Museum narratives are multi-layered and this paper draws on research in 4 Jewish museums in Italy, to examine some of the interplay between these different levels of narratives and the way they sought to construct the subject positioning of Jews. While all four museums seek to present cultural diversity and Jewishness in a positive light Clark suggests that such attempts were more successful in community-led museums than in the state-run museum. He examines the combination of factors and circumstances involved in constructing the different museum narratives particularly the clash between textual and visual narrative within the same museum and the overlap and complementarity between spatial and performative narrative in the community-led museums. He concludes that, textual, visual, performative and spatial narratives in any given museum operate in very distinctive ways that, at times, may coincide and overlap with each other, and at other times may contradict, challenge or even subvert other aspects of the museum narrative.


General discussion

Session 2 – Representing the postcolonial


Dr I. S. Fairweather, University of Manchester

Presenting change: time and exhibition in the ethnographic museum

Dr Fiona Kerlogue, Horniman Museum

Negotiating a role for the Museum in the postcolonial era is fraught with difficulties in a climate of changing ideas about the nature of audiences and source communities and the relationships of these groups with the Museums which act as custodians and exhibitors of the artefacts in their care. The time parameters in which museums operate present a major challenge in that items in collections inevitably catch and are caught by the moment of collection, though within the Museum they perform in a different (in time and space) political, social and ethical context. This paper aims to examine the strategies employed in the new Centenary Gallery at the Horniman Museum, which opened in June 2002 with the aim of reflecting upon the history of collecting anthropological items at the Museum in the hundred years since it became public. The resulting exhibition sets up discourses, which, while appearing to solve some of the problems faced by ethnographic exhibitions, at the same time raise other issues of concern. The paper thus presents a case study, which may suggest broader questions about the exhibition of ethnography. 

The relational museum

Dr Sandra Dudley et alia, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The Pitt Rivers Museum’s ESRC-funded research project (2002-5), ‘The Relational Museum’, is exploring the colonial, anthropological and other relations making up the Museum’s collections and the Museum as an institution, up to the end of 1945. The project is working within two intersecting outlines, one geographically defined and one revolving around individual collectors. The principal pragmatics and theoretical foci, are the relations and networks that embed and are embodied by museum objects and collections. This paper sets out some of the project’s findings, situating them within a wider theoretical framework. It argues that through a better understanding of ethnographic museums’ pasts, some traditional notions of the role of ethnographic museums in the present and future, are transformed.  Understanding the museum’s past particularly in the context of colonial, ‘scientific’, academic and professional rationales and networks, allows us not only better to understand the museum per se, but also to (re)define and (re)negotiate future relations with ‘originating communities’. As a result, the multi-vocality and (virtual) multi-sitedness of the museum is enhanced.

‘Nga rakau a te pakeha’, Maori cultural mobilisation, anthropology and museums

Dr Amiria Henare, University of Cambridge

This paper examines New Zealand Maori involvement in the discipline of anthropology and museums from the early twentieth-century to the present. It traces the way that Maori anthropologists took up nga rakau a te pakeha (the weapons of Europeans) alongside their maoritanga (Maori ways) in the service of cultural mobilisation. These initiatives, along with more recent projects generated international interest and contributed to the formation of present-day government policies proclaiming a ‘partnership’ between Maori and pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent), famously enshrined in the ‘bicultural’ Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum. Despite these successes, cultural initiatives, in which anthropology played a role have lately been undermined by contemporary scholars as instances of ‘creative cultural invention’. Although articulating a strident response to these arguments when they were first aired in public, Maori anthropologists have since been noticeably quiet in ethnographic discussions of their own culture. The museum sector is one area in which Maori participation has continued to grow, however, and this paper seeks to investigate why anthropology, which was regarded as useful by Maori for much of the twentieth century, should have fallen from favour, while museums are increasingly regarded as sites which may be used to further Maori cultural and political ends.

Transforming heritage and museums in post-apartheid South Africa: the impact of processes of policy formulation and new legislation

Gerard Corsane, University of Newcastle

In post-apartheid South Africa the traditional understandings of heritage and museums have been challenged with respect to how meaning making, heritage construction and knowledge production have been conducted in the colonial past. In a series of processes of transformation, new approaches to heritage management and museum action have begun to take shape and develop in South Africa. Central to all of this have been the processes of policy formulation and new legislation that have provided the impetus for change.

The aim of this paper will be to briefly chart some of the processes of policy formulation and the subsequent new legislation that have begun to affect the ways in which South African heritage and museums are being re-configured in a post-colonial era. The outcomes of these processes and the actual content of the resultant legislation will then be considered in terms of the foundation that they lay for the empowerment of communities to become more involved within the processes of sustainable development and the preservation and representation of their heritages at all levels. In particular, this foundation will be discussed in terms of how existing bodies have been altered, or new ones have been established (or at least proposed) in order to bring about the desired changes. Finally, the paper will engage with the questions: Has this been the best way forward? Does it provide a useful model?

Extra-European collections at contemporary Portuguese anthropological museums

Ana Delicado, Instituto de Ciencias Sociais, University of Lisbon

This paper aims to discuss the representation of non-European collections in contemporary anthropological museums and its relation to the practice and statute of anthropological science. It is centred on the Portuguese case, since it presents several interesting specificities: a colonialism that lasted till the mid-seventies, the construction of a ‘special relation’ between Portugal and former colonies (the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries), the late development of anthropology (before the seventies there was only one degree course in anthropology, and with a strong colonial content), and the existence of only a few anthropological museums with extra-European collections. By focusing on three case studies: a national museum, a university museum, and a local museum. The paper raises the questions of which representation of former colonial peoples do Portuguese anthropological museums offer; what roles do these museums play in contemporary Portuguese anthropology (central or peripheral, training and research or merely expositional) and what kind of research is promoted by these museums (fieldwork, study of collections, gathering of new objects). It also considers the kind of participation allowed to the represented communities (collaboration with extra-European anthropologists, outreach activities with the immigrant population) and the significance of post-colonial issues in Portuguese anthropological research.