Anthropology in the Art Museum 
David Odo (Harvard Art Museums)
Shalini Le Gall (Colby College Museum of Art)
British Museum - Sackler A
Saturday 2 June, 11:00-12:30 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel considers the implications for museum practice and the teaching of anthropology, art history, and associated disciplines, of increased anthropological interventions in the museum and art museum challenges to anthropological thinking.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists have historically considered 'ethnographic' art to be a resource for their research and teaching, but definitions of what constitutes ethnographic--and indeed art--have not remained fixed. Some art museum collections have grown to encompass cultures of art previously considered the domain of anthropology museums. And many art museums, particularly in academic settings, now openly welcome anthropological work within their spaces, which has proven to be mutually enriching and challenging to art museums and anthropologists alike.

In this panel, we will discuss the emerging role of anthropology in the art museum, exploring what anthropology and art museums can contribute to each other's practice and thinking. We welcome papers that consider:

-Art collections as a resource for anthropologists

-Art museum ethnography

-Teaching anthropology (any field) in the art museum

-Material culture in art museums

-Object-based research in the art museum

-Anthropology of the creative arts

-Subjectivity and the role of the artist and/or artisan

-Ethical questions related to art museums

-Communities represented within (or outside of) art museums

-Anthropological analyses of the institutional practices of art museums

We also invite proposals that explore the exchange of ideas between anthropology and art museums, changing notions of the "public" in light of diversifying populations, and attempts to reconcile complex institutional histories.

Accepted papers:


Aaron Miller (Mount Holyoke College)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum's evolving engagement with Native American material culture and communities through examples of changing exhibition strategies and direct collaborations with Native artists and scholars.

Paper long abstract:

The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum (MHCAM) (founded in 1876) and the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum (1932) together form a teaching museum that embraces its collection of more than 24,000 objects of art and material culture. This collection includes everything from ancient hominid tools to Andy Warhol's Sitting Bull. In the last decade, as MHCAM transitioned from a more traditional art gallery to a teaching museum, the mission has evolved to embrace this breadth, particularly material from North American Indigenous communities.

The deep holdings of Native American material culture requires consultation with origin communities concerning grave materials and sacred objects (1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). Compliance with the legislation brought the opportunity and desire to engage with appropriate Native materials through exhibition, community collaboration, and in classroom settings. This new strategy has prompted curatorial conversations on the inclusion of Native art in art museums rather than natural history collections, ideas related to "authenticity" and objects made for the market, art versus craft, and the visibility of contemporary Native American artists on the market and in museums.

MHCAM is directly engaging with Indigenous communities in an effort to create a more inclusive and more socially responsible museum. This approach is leading to both meaningful changes in the curatorial process and what visitors encounter in the permanent and special exhibition galleries. This paper will discuss various forms of engagement focused on decolonizing the Museum through community consultation on exhibition strategies and working with Native artists and guest curators.


Enke Huang (University College of London )

Paper short abstract:

In response to the emerging applications of anthropological work at public art museums in the 21st century, this paper re-assesses the changing meanings assigned to the notions of 'participation', 'public' and 'institutional critique' at the conjunction of anthropology theories and museum practices.

Paper long abstract:

The concept of 'participation' as the anthropological tradition has been designated as a methodological necessity for anthropologists to gain knowledge through intimate involvement with their subjects.But 'participation' in the arts often mentioned after the 'social turn' or 'participatory turn' since the early 1990s has been constructed with intentions to facilitate the idea of institutional critique and the empowerment of the public, as opposed to the one-to-one relationship of interactivity between artists and art institutions. In recent years museums have developed more socially engaged or informed approaches with their audience through interdisciplinary research and programming with anthropologists. It seems pertinent to ask how may the new exchanges be conceptualised and whether the often-discussed notions of 'participation', 'public' and 'institutional critique' are actually descriptive of the conceptual entanglements behind the desired partnership. This paper investigates if the current recruitment of anthropology at art museums is helpful to increase social inclusion and its accompanying risk of internalisation and instutionalisation of the historical institutional critique that used to be conducted by artists. To respond, the author examines the role of ethnography research in 1)understanding the institution's diversifying notion of the public 2)negotiating museum practices and policies on audience engagement and 3)questioning the value of institutional criticism, through discussing two case studies of hers, a one-month exploratory ethnography on Chinese visitors for and at the British Museum in 2017 and a 10-week public learning programme at Tate Modern in 2016.


Julia Binter (Zentralarchiv Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Paper short abstract:

This paper takes the exhibition "The Blind Spot" (2017) at the Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany, as a starting point to discuss the potentials and challenges of transdisciplinary curatorship at the intersection of anthropology, art history and postcolonial theory.

Paper long abstract:

What are the potentials and challenges of transdisciplinary curatorship? What kind of new methodologies and collaborative approaches can we develop at the intersection of anthropology and art history? In this paper I take my own curatorial practice as an anthropologist in an art museum, i.e. the exhibition "The Blind Spot. Bremen, Colonialism and Art" (2017) at the Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany, as a starting point to address these questions from a postcolonial perspective. The exhibition looked at colonial trade and patronage as well as histories of collecting and display and brought the European artworks of the Kunsthalle's collection in dialogue with historical and contemporary art from Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific. The exhibition sought to translate postcolonial imperatives such as the analysis of historical and contemporary power relations and the politics of aesthetics and gaze into a sensible and sensitive museum space. It also sought to create a space for various, sometimes even contradictory voices and perspectives, inviting students from the University of Bremen and members of the Africa Network Bremen to share their expertise on the colonial past and the postcolonial present. Hence, it employed and adapted various methodologies which had been developed in ethnographic museum settings, such as the "sharing of collections" (Buijs et al. 2010), as well as by postcolonial activists and academics. This paper discusses the potentials and challenges of mediating and translating these different perspectives, histories and disciplines. It furthermore discusses the ways in which visitors engaged with and challenged these translations.


Adrian Van Allen (Musée du quai Branly)

Paper short abstract:

Tracing the material, semiotic, historical and technological connections between Amazonian featherwork objects in Parisian museums, my ethnographic research examines the shifting ontologies of museum objects as they transition between religious artifact, art object, and cultural heritage site.

Paper long abstract:

Objects tell complex narratives, through their creation, circulation, and the connections they embody between people, places, materials, and interests. An Amazonian featherwork object, such as a Tupinambá cape of scarlet ibis feathers (Musée du Quai Branly, N.71.1917.3.83) tells a specific narrative of colonial encounter, as traced through its creation in the 16th century, to display in royal cabinets of curiosity, to its contemporary conservation in an ethnographic museum as a valuable site of cultural heritage and craft practice. This paper traces the material, semiotic, historical and technological connections between a group of Amazonian featherwork objects—capes and headdresses crafted from birds—now housed in Parisian museums. My ethnographic research within the Musée du Quai Branly examines the shifting ontologies of museum objects as they transition between religious artifact, art object, and cultural heritage site. Bird skins, feathers and cotton fiber were assembled into objects that signified power and authority as religious artifacts, then as exotic art, and finally as embodiments of cultural heritage—with each iteration carrying different kinds of meaning, value, and potential use. These categories are now being challenged yet again, I argue, as museum collections emerge as valuable sites for wider audiences to reconstruct ecological and cultural pasts—from indigenous communities interested in historic weaving techniques to biodiversity conservationists collecting genetic samples from feathers. Examining how value-as-meaning is created through changing material practices of conservation, I explore the unstable ontological status of these featherwork objects as they move between collections, contexts, and imagined futures uses.