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Foe, facilitator, friend or forsaken?

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.

in Curatopia
An epistemology of postcolonial debate

On the basis of our experience as editors of a debate on ethnographic museums in a German journal, we analyse the conditions and limits of the current debate on the ‘decolonisation’ of ethnographic museums in the German-speaking context. Strictly speaking, the German debate lags behind a bit in relation to the Anglophone debate, but in the face of the reorganisation of the Berlin ethnographic museum as the ‘Humboldt Forum’ it provides crucial insights into the epistemology of unfolding postcolonial debates. We diagnose certain pitfalls of this discussion, e.g. a tendency towards antagonisms and dichotomisation, an overemphasis on the topic of representation and on deconstructionist approaches, an underestimation of anthropology’s critical and self-reflexive potential and too narrow a focus on ethnographic collections. From our point of view, decolonisation must be a joint effort of all kinds of museum types – ethnographic museums, art museums and (natural) history museums as well as city museums, a museum genre being discussed with increased intensity these days. As a consequence, we suggest a more thorough reflection upon the positionality of speakers, but also upon the format, genre and media that facilitate or impede mutual understanding. Secondly, a multidisciplinary effort to decolonise museum modes of collecting, ordering, interpreting and displaying is needed, i.e. an effort which cross-cuts different museum types and genres. Thirdly, curators working towards this direction will inevitably have to deal with the problems of disciplinary boundary work and the underlying institutional and cultural-political logics. They eventually will have to work in cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional ways, in order to reassemble disparate collections and critically interrogate notions of ‘communities’ as entities with clear-cut boundaries. After all, in an environment of debate, an exhibition cannot any longer be understood as a means of conveying and popularising knowledge, but rather as a way of making an argument in 3D.

in Curatopia

Rooted in specific cases and in the author’s background of working across the colonial divides of museums in Europe and in Aotearoa New Zealand, this chapter explores the continued colonial and supremacist default position of ethnographic museum collections in Europe. Whereas in, for instance, Aotearoa New Zealand and the United States, a focused pressure by indigenous and other unrepresented and underrepresented communities has ensured legislative frameworks that recognise the expertise, authority and rights to self-representation of the people with an original cultural connection to the given objects, museums holding global collections in Europe are still working in an ethical void which permits a continued denial and disavowal of the implication of colonialism. Whiteness is, in James Baldwin’s term, a moral choice – and a choice still practised by museums, when they prefer token projects of diversity and the delegitimisation and marginalisation of alternative epistemologies and museological principles to a systematic process of self-reflection and decolonisation, which actively embraces present accountability for historic wrongs, and thereby enables the museum to address urgent, current global issues and conflicts.

in Curatopia
The changing role of migration museums in Australia

Australia’s first Migration Museum in Adelaide recognised from its inception in 1986 that representing migration history could not be done without acknowledging its intimate association with colonisation and the dispossession of indigenous people. Its first move, therefore, was to create a distinction between all migrants, a category that included British ‘settlers’, and Indigenous Australians. This was significant not only because it implicated colonisation within migration history but because it made all non-Indigenous Australians migrants. The move though, was not easy to establish, largely because, in the public imagination, migrants were the other to mainstream or ‘British Australia’. In the mid-1990s, however, it seemed to work as Australia was indeed seen as a country that was relatively successful in integrating various waves of migration into its historical narratives while valuing cultural diversity and recognising the prior occupation of the land by Aboriginal people. The ‘War on terror’, the arrival of asylum seekers and the threat of internal terrorist attacks, along with changes in immigration policy and a general climate of fear have changed that, and migration museums are now working to combat a new wave of racism. To do so, I argue, they have developed a new set of curatorial strategies that aim to facilitate an exploration of the complexity of contemporary forms of identity. This chapter provides a history of the development of curatorial strategies that have helped to change the ways in which relations between ‘us’ and ‘them’ have changed over the years in response to changes in the wider public discourse. My focus is on both collecting and display practices, from changes to what is collected and how it is displayed, to the changing role of personal stories, the relationship between curators and the communities they work with, and the role of exhibition design in structuring the visitor experience.

in Curatopia
Taking care of difference in museums

Current ontological critiques point to how discourses of diversity like multiculturalism help domesticate difference by making it fit into predetermined categories, such as those we are accustomed to thinking of as cultures. These ways of conceiving relations within and between groups of people – common to anthropology and museums, as well as to liberal democratic regimes of governance – assert that differences between peoples are relatively superficial in that our cultures overlay a fundamental and universal sameness. Museums showcasing cultural artefacts have thus helped domesticate difference by promoting world-making visions of (natural) unity in (cultural) diversity. Yet some artefacts exceed the categories designed to contain them; they oblige thought and handling beyond the usual requirements of curatorial practice. This chapter considers the challenges of ‘curating the uncommons’ in relation to work carried out by and with the Māori tribal arts management group Toi Hauiti and their ancestor figure, Paikea, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

in Curatopia
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Many of the chapters in this book engage with issues of time and temporality, either explicitly or indirectly. The linear or progressive time implied by the neologism ‘curatopia’ can and should be productively critiqued, not least in terms that recognise the infolded and paradoxical nature of the present – or ‘presence’ – in everyday life. What we understand phenomenologically, through immediate perception, may return later to haunt us and the objects around us as a folding-over of time. The curator deciding what to collect for the future, how to interpret it in the present and what it meant in its originary past, is also curating time – an intractable but dynamic project.

in Curatopia
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Museums and the future of curatorship

What is the future of curatorial practice? How can the relationships between Indigenous people in the Pacific, collections in Euro-American institutions and curatorial knowledge in museums globally be (re)conceptualised in reciprocal and symmetrical ways? Is there an ideal model, a ‘curatopia’, whether in the form of a utopia or dystopia, which can enable the reinvention of ethnographic museums and address their difficult colonial legacies? This volume addresses these questions by considering the current state of the play in curatorial practice, reviewing the different models and approaches operating in different museums, galleries and cultural organisations around the world, and debating the emerging concerns, challenges and opportunities. The subject areas range over native and tribal cultures, anthropology, art, history, migration and settler culture, among others. Topics covered include: contemporary curatorial theory, new museum trends, models and paradigms, the state of research and scholarship, the impact of new media and current issues such as curatorial leadership, collecting and collection access and use, exhibition development and community engagement. The volume is international in scope and covers three broad regions – Europe, North America and the Pacific. The contributors are leading and emerging scholars and practitioners in their respective fields, all of whom have worked in and with universities and museums, and are therefore perfectly placed to reshape the dialogue between academia and the professional museum world.

Learning from Māori curatorship pastand present

This volume argues that curatorship may be ‘recalled’ and remade through collaborative relationships with communities leading to experiments in curatorial theory and practice. What can museums of ethnography in the Americas and Europe learn from the experience of nations where distinctive forms of Indigenous museology are emerging and reshaping the conventions of curatorial practice? In addressing this question, this chapter draws on research by the authors, including interviews with Māori curators, museum professionals, academics and community leaders throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, exploring connections with the wider Pacific and the world. In doing so, it focuses on the ‘figure of the kaitiaki’, the Māori ‘guardian’, as a particular local development of the ‘figure of the curator’. It concludes that museums across the world can learn from Pacific experiments and become active agents in shaping cultural revival and future potentialities on a global scale.

in Curatopia
Curatorial bodies, encounters and relations

Throughout the Pacific, interpersonal encounters are characterised by a deep level of physical intimacy and engagement – from the honi/hongi, the face-to-face greeting, to the ha‘a/haka wero, acts of challenge that also serve as a celebratory acknowledgement of ancestral presences. In these physical exchanges, relationships are built, tended and tested through an embodied confirmation of values, practices and ethics. For museums holding Pacific collections, the importance of relationships, and their physicality, persists. The increasing acknowledgement of, and interaction with, communities of origin, whose works reside in museums throughout the world, is thereby not a new practice but the current stage of a continuum of relations that have ebbed and flowed over centuries. This chapter involves the interdisciplinary work of three scholars whose research, interests and collaborations coalesce around concepts of indigenous curatorial practice. Kahanu focuses on Bishop Museum’s E Kū ana ka paia exhibition (2010), which featured important Hawaiian temple images loaned from the British Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, as well as the Nā hulu ali‘i exhibition which gathered Hawaiian featherwork from around the world (2015/2016). She highlights how the Hawaiian practice of he alo ā he alo in cross-cultural contexts facilitated these exhibitions, thereby ultimately enabling extensive community engagement. Nepia discusses two recent programmes at the University of Hawai‘i, ARTspeak and the Binding and Looping: Transfer of Presence in Contemporary Pacific Art exhibition, as a means of examining how Pacific Island artists articulate contemporary creative practice, particularly as it relates to physical and bodily encounters. Schorch concludes the volume with a coda which historicises Curatopia and its underpinning relations and engagements he alo ā he alo / kanohi ki te kanohi / face to face.

in Curatopia
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A Tongan ‘akau in New England

This chapter examines the place of Oceanic clubs in New England collections. During the nineteenth century, they occupied an equivocal position in the New England mental repertory as indices of savage sophistication, and as souvenirs of colonial childhood or travel. Focusing on a Tongan ‘akau tau in the collection of the Chatham Historical Society on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, this chapter traces what can be known of its history as a highly regarded prestige gift item among New Englanders from the middle of the nineteenth century until its entry into the museum. As a thing that an early owner could alienate legitimately, its presence in Chatham is not unethical, yet it none the less imposes stewardship responsibilities – consultation with the originating community – that such a small institution is poorly placed to meet. This requires understanding and patience rather than disapprobation.

in Curatopia