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What not to collect?

Post-connoisseurial dystopia and the profusion of things

Sharon Macdonald and Jennie Morgan

A key – some might even say the key – curatorial role is to decide what to collect. What, that is, should be preserved for the future? In this chapter, we present ethnographic research with curators of contemporary everyday life. As we show, these curators struggle with a profusion of things, stories and information that could potentially be collected. Moreover, they widely report the struggle to be intensifying. Exploring their perceptions and what these mean in practice in their work, we argue that while neo-liberal and especially austerity politics has an important role in intensifying their sense of anxiety, their experience cannot be reduced to this. On the contrary, their intimation of dystopia is as much a function of other – in some ways utopian – aspirations and politics, as well as of a relativisation of value. These all contribute to transforming the nature of curatorship more widely.

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Walking the fine line

From Samoa with Love? at the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich

Hilke Thode-Arora

This chapter explores the conceptual planning, organisation and reception of the exhibition From Samoa with Love? Samoan Travellers in Germany, 1895–1911 at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich, 2014. It does so by taking into consideration competing obligations among the Samoan descendants and community, the responses of mainstream museum visitors in Munich with no prior knowledge of fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way) and the expectations of the Bavarian government, who strictly controlled costs but wanted large audiences. Museums are not as free to create, or as powerful, as is often assumed by outsiders and critics. Being the curator responsible for this exhibition meant juggling positions, demands and interests in a setting affected by Samoan perspectives and claims, German audiences’ pre-knowledge and viewing habits, structural constraints imposed by the Bavarian museum administration system, and even the Foreign Office and diplomatic agendas. For the curator, trying to meet these contradictory demands and reconciling them with her own academic and ethical ideas of curatorship indeed meant walking a fine line.

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Vilsoni Hereniko

Although I am a strong advocate for access to collections in museums and although I see new technologies as a necessary part of this goal, I do not think that technology and its associated impacts and benefits should be the end goal. Rather, they should exist collaboratively with physical museums that mirror the robust developments in digital technology. The physical museum needs to be transformed so that their material collections can stimulate cultural production by living artists and cultural practitioners. This juxtaposition of the past and the present, the dead and the living, ensures that museums remain vibrant and vital spaces for the multicultural communities around them.

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James Clifford

The museum is an inventive, globally and locally translated form, no longer anchored to its modern origins in Europe. Contemporary curatorial work, in these excessive times of decolonisation and globalisation, by engaging with discrepant temporalities – not resisting, or homogenising, their inescapable friction – has the potential to open up common-sense, ‘given’ histories. It does so under serious constraints – a push and pull of material forces and ideological legacies it cannot evade. This chapter explores the ‘times’ of the curator, in terms of both these times we live in, in which curatorial theory and practice seem to be ever-present, and a sense of the curator’s task as enmeshed in multiple, overlapping, sometimes conflicting times. It is concerned primarily with the later, the discrepant temporalities, or perhaps that should be ‘histories’, or even ‘futures’, that are integral to the task of the curator today. In contrast to the history of museum curating, curatorial work in recent years has been transformed by the re-emergence of indigenous cultures in former settler colonies which suggest the decentring of the West. Drawing on research in the USA, Canada and the Pacific Islands, and analysing several diverse case studies and examples, the chapter explores examples of ‘indigenous curating’, that is to say, working with things and relations in transforming times. In doing so, it contributes to a world-wide debate, which this book is part of, about museums and the future of curatorship.

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Thinking and working through difference

Remaking the ethnographic museum in the global contemporary

Viv Golding and Wayne Modest

This ambitious chapter draws on a range of voices to examine what the ethnographic museum is and what it can be for the benefit of diverse audiences around the world. Taking their 2013 publication Museum and Communities: Curators, Collections: Collaborations as a starting point, the authors critically consider their own work internationally, for example with ICOM (The International Council of Museums) and ICOM Namibia, as well as at everyday level with local communities, such as youth groups in Europe. Against increasing fear of difference, and movements to the right in world politics, they foreground the values of human rights, artist collaborations and the development of feminist pedagogy in museum work. Theoretically, the chapter unpacks the notions of the ‘human’, the ‘cosmopolitan’ and the inextricable relation between theory and practice that can underpin collaborative activities in museums of ethnography and world culture today.

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Swings and roundabouts

Pluralism and the politics of change in Canada’s national museums

Ruth B. Phillips

If you are standing on the shores of the Ottawa River looking at the Canadian Museum of History, the national library and archives and other national repositories of Aboriginal heritage, you might well despair at the comprehensive losses of curatorial expertise, programmes of research and will to work collaboratively with Aboriginal people which befell these institutions under the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Looking harder, however, neither the shifting political ideologies nor the era of financial constraint that began with the global financial crisis of 2008 seems to have thrown processes of decolonisation and pluralist representation that began to take root in Canada during the 1990s into reverse. Two exhibition projects that unfolded during that same period provide evidence that the changes in historical consciousness of settler–Indigenous relationships and the acceptance of cultural pluralism have provided a counterweight to the intentions of a right-wing government to restore old historical narratives. This chapter discusses them as evidence of this deep and, seemingly, irreversible shift in Canadian public’s expectations of museum representation. The first involved plans for the new exhibition of Canadian history being developed for the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation in 2017, specifically a fishing boat named the Nishga Girl which was presented by a West-Coast First Nation to mark the successful resolution of its land claim. The second is the Sakahàn exhibition of global indigenous art shown in 2013 at the National Gallery of Canada and which marked a notable departure from its past scope. While utopia has by no means been achieved, neither, surprisingly, was dystopia realised during the years of conservative reaction.

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Nicholas Thomas

This speculative comment considers the potential worth of raising questions that appear simple but may be rewardingly complex. It asks whether routine aspects of curatorial work, such as captioning objects and juxtaposing them in displays, may not have more suggestive dimensions than has been recognised previously. It asks what the implications of a conception of ‘the museum as method’ might have for current approaches to public exhibition.

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Joining the club

A Tongan ‘akau in New England

Ivan Gaskell

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.

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He alo ā he alo / kanohi ki te kanohi / face to face

Curatorial bodies, encounters and relations

Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, Moana Nepia and Philipp Schorch

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.

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The figure of the kaitiaki

Learning from Māori curatorship pastand present

Conal McCarthy, Arapata Hakiwai and Philipp Schorch

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.