Archaeology and Heritage

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Museums and the future of curatorship

Philipp Schorch and Conal McCarthy

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.

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Ian Wedde

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.

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Curating the uncommons

Taking care of difference in museums

Billie Lythberg, Wayne Ngata and Amiria Salmond

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.

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Curating relations between ‘us’ and ‘them’

The changing role of migration museums in Australia

Andrea Witcomb

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.

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Jette Sandahl

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.

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Concerning curatorial practice in ethnological museums

An epistemology of postcolonial debate

Larissa Förster and Friedrich von Bose

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.

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Bryony Onciul

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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Bronwyn Labrum

This chapter considers social history in a postcolonial contest. It specifically examines how the history of the majority culture in a post-settler society has been and might be curated. Using Aotearoa New Zealand as its case study, it considers the figure of the Pākehā (non-indigenous) curator in relation to, and also in contrast with, Indigenous collections and displays. What does a history curator look like in a post-settler society? Does the history curator continue the mutual asymmetry that has characterised relations and curatorial endeavours? Or is there a way to recognise cross-cultural material histories? In considering the development of history, and specifically social history, it suggests that a more useful concept is material history, rather than historical material cultures studies. The rest of the chapter ranges across a broad range of material history, including fashion and clothing, and design, to consider how contemporary museums deal with everyday life and its material aspects in museums, which are still to a large extent focused on discrete objects and forms of material culture, and which carry the burden of the historical development of their collections into a post-settler world.

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ćəsnaʔəm, the City before the City

Exhibiting pre-Indigenous belonging in Vancouver

Paul Tapsell

ćəsnaʔəm, the City before the City is a boundary-breaking exhibition that has successfully challenged the museum world to revisit who is the curator and who is the audience. This chapter provides an Indigenous-framed insight into kin accountability as (re)presented to the museum world from the local tribal/aboriginal community perspective of Musqueam. The exhibition was simultaneously displayed in three venues of the Vancouver city region, each providing multiple perspectives of the original inhabitants of a village named c̓əsnaʔəm more than five thousand years old. While the central city venue at the Museum of Vancouver was high-tech and pitched to an international museum visitor, the Museum of Anthropology exhibit was uniquely ephemeral, transient and aimed at shifting preconceived perceptions of what it means to be a modern aboriginal raised in a city established on thousands of years of unbroken occupation. The most challenging of the three exhibits was to be found in the Musqueam village Culture Centre. In this instance the art and treasures were displayed in a manner that required elders to provide interpretation and the audience is their own. Three exhibits, three boundary-breaking contact zones, one people, Musqueam.

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Anthony Alan Shelton

This chapter examines the politics, aspirations and antagonisms that grew out of the curatorial process underlying the exhibition The Potosí Principle (Madrid 2010, Berlin 2011, La Paz 2011), and compares them to other Andean exhibitions including Bolivian Worlds (London 1987) and Luminescence: The Silver of Peru (Vancouver 2012, Toronto 2013). The chapter questions the category of contemporary art and examines its avowed potential as radical critique and the claims that it and other exhibition strategies have marginalised Indigenous epistemologies and obfuscated historical agency. The implications of this conflict between Western and Indigenous curators and curatorial collectives on the right of self-expression and the freedom of interpretation and critique; associated ethical conundrums and the viability of epistemological pluralism will be clearly articulated as problems requiring serious museological attention.