Accepted paper:

“Object lessons” at the British Museum’s African Galleries


Mischa Twitchin (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

How does the organisation of the British Museum’s African Galleries offer “object lessons” for considering the potentials and limitations of a cosmo-optimal re-visioning of its collections, addressing questions of agency and citizenship for the future?

Paper long abstract:

In 1881, Tylor proposed that what he called “object lessons in the development of culture” would help prepare students “to visit intelligently the British Museum Collection”. What are the possibilities of such “intelligent visiting” today, with respect to the display of artefacts that Neil MacGregor recently called “documents of Euro-African contact”? How does the organisation of the African Galleries offer “object lessons” for considering the potentials and limitations of a (so-called) “post-colonial” re-visioning of their collections? How does the distribution (or segregation) of what are separately identified as ethnographic, historical, and contemporary objects perhaps obscure a “cosmo-optimal” view there? How do such questions suggest alternative readings of what is now supposed to evidence “world culture”, rather than the museum’s own ethnographical history of display? Addressing what Gilroy calls “Britain’s racial conscience”, how might we see the “evidence” of this ethnographic legacy in cosmo-potential terms? How might transversal approaches to material claims of “British” possession fracture the supposed universalism of the Museum, founded upon others’ cultural dispossession? How does dialogue with diaspora communities become manifest through changed conceptions of these objects’ agency? Finally, what might be the implications of the Galleries’ dedication to Henry Moore for a possible re-visioning of the relations between ethnography and art, in which the “contemporary” is perhaps not as cosmo-optimal as the curators clearly wish? How might we envision the cosmo-optimal as a new mode of museum enchantment, renewing object lessons of “European” citizenship for the future?

panel P089
Re-visioning material anthropological legacies for cosmo-optimal futures