The related, transformatory processes of decolonisation, reconciliation and multiculturalism have radically altered both the theory and practice of museum ethnography. In a world of 7 billion people and innumerable cultures, what role can 21st century museum ethnography play?
From its inception in the late 19th century, museum ethnography operated largely within a cultural evolutionary paradigm that interpreted extra-European ethnographic objects, and the cultures from which they originated, as primitive, inferior and on the verge of extinction. Object-focused museum ethnographers acquired vast collections with which to construct typologies and cultural hierarchies. Objects were sometimes used to make astonishing and disturbing assumptions about complex cultures.
Such uncritical practice continued unabated until the disintegration of European empires, assertion of civil rights and mass transnational migration in the latter half of the 20th century. These led to the portrayal of extra-European cultures and the control of cultural patrimony being academically and politically contested. As a discipline, museum ethnography was forced to recognise these shifting socio-political paradigms and adjust its practice accordingly.
Through critical museology, repatriation and collaboration, museum ethnography has undergone rigorous reform. Museum ethnographers are now much more likely to openly and honestly acknowledge the colonial legacy of their predecessors, and to work closely with both source and diaspora communities, recognising the importance of both tangible and intangible culture. Even so, perhaps museum ethnography remains an anachronism. An increasing number of municipal culturally focused participatory spaces, often devoid of collections offer alternative attempts to contend with the cultural as an amorphous concept. In a world of 7 billion people and innumerable cultures, what role can 21st century museum ethnography play? Are colonial ethnographic collections still primarily triumphal reminders of an imperial past? Is more radical 'decolonisation' of the museum required?