Bryony Onciul
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Community engagement, Indigenous heritage and the complex figure of the curator
Foe, facilitator, friend or forsaken?
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Curation is increasingly recognised as a profession of high standing which requires extensive higher education. However, the proliferation of community engagement since the 1980s has placed new pressures and expectations on curators, thus complicating their role. This is particularly evident in the case of ethnographic curators working with indigenous communities. This chapter explores these issues by considering the ways in which working with Blackfoot First Nations communities have affected the role and work of curators at three key museums, two in Canada and one in the UK. Historically museums, and de facto their curators, were often seen as an enemy by many Indigenous communities as they appeared as a physical manifestation of colonialism. The historical practice of collecting sacred cultural material, and even the bones and bodies of Indigenous people, have made museums synonymous with sites of death, both physical and cultural. Yet, nowadays they also present an exceptional resource and opportunity to revive and reinvigorate precolonial cultural knowledge and practice through their collections. Consequently, curators often find themselves in the dubious position of being both potential foe and ally. This is complicated further when curators work cross-culturally and try to embrace both Indigenous and Western ways of working, as this chapter explores. It has been argued that curators have moved from the position of ‘expert’ to that of ‘facilitator’ but this oversimplifies the complexities of voice, accountability and power in the representation of culture. There is a need for a more nuanced understandings of the pressures that community engagement places on the role of curatorship, especially in this current time of increasing expectations on engagement and decreasing resources to support museological work.

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Museums and the future of curatorship


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