ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 4

Cosmopolitanism and Museums - Ian Fairweather

Room: CBA 0.007x40

Panel abstract

Museums, as the public institutions with which we are familiar, were established in most European nations as well as the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Impressive national museums, in particular, were the products of a gradual enlistment of the institutions and practices of ‘culture’ in the service of emergent nation states (Bennett, 1995, p.23). As houses for collections of exotica assembled from all over the colonised world, they can arguably be said to have always been cosmopolitan institutions, but the capacity of ethnographic objects to represent race and difference has implicated them in the construction of an exotic ‘other’ in contrast to which the ‘national cultures’ of the established nations could be produced (Coombes, 1994, p.2), Why then have museums continued to proliferate in the culturally diverse nations of the 21st century when the postcolonial breaking down of barriers and the inexorable processes of globalization and mass mediation have made the ideal of identification between the political nation state and a ‘national culture’ ever more problematic?

Rather than seeing museum collections as partial records of ‘other’ cultures we can more productively view them as “accurate records of the processes that created them” (Gosden and Knowles, 2001, p.57), that is, the complex web of social networks and power relations that produce particular museological interpretations of ‘the past’. As Cameron predicted almost twenty five years ago the museum space has come to be conceived as a ‘forum’ for debating multiple, contested pasts (Cameron 1972). Museums have lent themselves to the expression of narratives of migration and diaspora, displacement and exile as well as opening up a discursive space for the expression and representation of local and distinctive ways of life. This panel will seek to explore the tensions between these cosmopolitan possibilities of museums and their importance in the cultural projects of nation building as custodians of a ‘heritage’ that refers back to the apparently remote origins of the imagined community (Anderson 1983).

Crucial to this debate is the question of whether cosmopolitanism is really the privilege of elites, urbanites or those who physically traverse national boundaries or whether, as Ferguson has put it, cosmopolitanism is “less about being at home in the world than about seeking worldliness at home”. (Ferguson 1999 p.212). Furthermore, even for those who do travel, it is arguable that their cosmopolitanism is enabled through the nostalgic practice of recovering their own cultural roots. Thus the exhibition of ‘cultures’ in museums is not just about the proliferation of alternative histories. This panel will consider the ways that museums, and the wider heritage industry provide opportunities for cosmopolitan interactions that can express multiple, often conflicting, subjectivities engaging people in the kind of subjugation that Werbner sees as “a playful process, in which, people seek to transcend their marginality and open out subjective worlds of their own, some more deliberately hybrid than others” (Werbner 2002, p.20). It will do more than highlight the importance of museums in reproducing the narratives of national cultural identities, rather 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.

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London, Verso).
Bennett, T. (1995). The Birth of the museum: History, theory, politics. (London and New York, Routledge)).
Cameron, D. (1972). The museum a temple or a forum. In Journal of World History 14(1).
Coombes, A. (1994). Reinventing Africa: Museums, material culture and popular imagination. (New Haven and London, Yale University Press).
Ferguson, J. (1999) Expectations of Modernity – Myths and meanings of Urban life on the Zambian Copperbelt (London, University of California Press)
Gosden, C. & Knowles C. (2001) Collecting colonialism: Material culture and colonial change. (Oxford & New York, Berg).
Werbner, R.P. (2002) “Introduction” pp. 1-21 in Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa, ed R.P.Werbner. (London, Zed)


Ian Fairweather
University of Manchester


Manchester Museum: Gateway to the world?

Emma Katherine Poulter, Centre for Museology, School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester

The ethnography collections at the Manchester Museum comprise of over 18,000 objects which have travelled to Manchester from every continent. On the surface of things then, Manchester Museum’s collections appear to offer a gateway towards understanding world cultures. But what do we really learn about other cultures through the display of their objects in museums? As scholars such as Edward Said and Stuart Hall have shown, the display of non-western objects in the museum is never a neutral act which reflects the world as it is, but instead creates representations imbued with political meanings.

In this paper I will examine the extent to which the display and interpretation of the West African collections at the Manchester Museum, past and present, can be understood through the lens of cosmopolitanism. I will argue that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these collections were used in a way which was fundamentally anti-cosmopolitan. Instead of being used to overcome national prejudices by promoting understandings between cultures, I suggest that the West African collections were instead employed to reinforce and concretise differences between cultures in a way which restricted understandings.

However, much has changed within museum practice over the last few decades, resulting in museums beginning to embrace a multi-dimensional engagement with their public. An engagement in terms of non-western collections which seeks to establish a dialogue between cultures facilitated by objects. An approach which I will argue, sits more comfortably with cosmopolitan ideals, and one which I will investigate in the final section of this paper.

‘Never again’: ‘cosmopolitan’ Holocaust commemoration and display in Germany

Sharon Macdonald, University of Sheffield

The massive proliferation of numbers of Holocaust museums, memorials and other forms of commemoration in the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century has been seen as the ‘paradigmatic case’ of a ‘transition from national to cosmopolitan memory cultures’ (Levy and Sznaider 2002: 88, 87). The Holocaust, according to this account, has increasingly been decontextualised from its historical time and space, and, through processes of cultural mediation, turned into a universal and continually relevant ‘moral story of good against evil’ (ibid.: 98) whose central message is ‘never again’. This is seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘deterritorialization’ of memory and its replacement by more cosmopolitan forms of presenting history in the public sphere, and the growth of more cosmopolitan sensibilities among those consuming it.

This paper will seek to examine these claims and some of their implications by drawing, in particular, upon ethnographic fieldwork in Nuremberg, Germany. It will show that while there is a clear move by some of those involved in creating public history to represent the Nazi past in relation to universal moral categories (such as Human Rights) and through cosmopolitan material (especially artistic and architectural) forms, ‘deterritorialization’ in particular is contested and its politics ambivalent. So too, though in at least partially different ways, among those who visit Nazi sites. On the basis of this, the paper will consider different possible ways in which we might understand the relationship between ‘territory’/‘the local’ and ‘the cosmopolitan’, as well as some of the difficulties raised for the anthropologist’s moral and analytical self-positioning.

Levy, D. and N.Sznaider (2002) ‘Memory unbound. The Holocaust and the formation of cosmopolitan memory’, European Journal of Social Theory, 5(1): 87-106

‘Never Again’: ‘Genocidal’ Cosmopolitanism, Affective Citizenship and the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum

Nayanika Mookherjee, University of Lancaster

This paper seeks to explore the affective aesthetics of global citizenship that is generated through the cosmopolitan perceptions of ‘genocidal’ horrors in relation to tropes like ‘never again’, accounts of sexual violence during wars, engagement with war memorials and museums commemorating such atrocities. The search for juridical and moral justice linked to events of conflict and violence in the 20th and 21st Century is aptly captured by the phrase ‘never again’ first evoked in the context of the Holocaust and thereafter articulated in various instances of conflict. The paper examines the cosmopolitan moral and aesthetic orientations through which such tropes come to represent the horrors of the Bangladesh War of 1971 in the case of the Bangladesh Liberation War Museum. Established on the basis of a template of Holocaust Museums the paper hopes to highlight the cosmopolitan connections implicit in the accounts of sexual violence and the representation of atrocities in this museum. In the vein of an integrated cosmopolitan anthropology the paper seeks to interrogate through a study of exhibits and visitors to this museum, how links and identification with global ‘genocidal’ tropes arising from other instances of violent conflict – namely the Holocaust and Rwanda, alter the nature and character of national and cosmopolitan belongings in Bangladesh. Does cosmopolitan recognition and interdependence in such ‘genocidal’ horrors lead to the development of an affective, panhuman citizenship? What ethico-political implications does this have for engagements with instances of violence and conflict?

Reflecting legitimacy: the Museum of Witchcraft and pagan historiography

Helen Cornish. Goldsmiths College

The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, a harbour village on the North Cornwall coast, pulls in a healthy passing tourist trade. It also attracts a large number of pagan visitors from across Britain, and the `visitors comments' attest to visits from European, American and Australian pagans often in search for authentic roots. Variously, visitors see the museum as an authoritative source of knowledge, and custodians of heritage.

This paper will focus on the many British pagans who mobilise the source of heritage and history through the Museum, who use it help ground claims to a legitimate past in wider political debates (such as religious freedom and religious education). Conversely, the attention of a pagan audience helps the Museum to present itself as an authoritative institution. This dense relationship reveals rich and overlapping concerns that highlight some of the contested issues concerning current British pagan historiography. Of particular relevance are the museum exhibitions that serve to demonstrate continuity with a rural past, that rub alongside exhibits that reveal the construction of the contemporary pagan identity. This provides a rich illustration of the ways that cosmopolitan concerns are not isolated from wider contexts: exploring provincial or rural sites can illustrate significant connections and reveal complex relationships.

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