Anthropological Traditions, Critical Theory and Museological Diversity 
Sachiko Kubota (Kobe University)
Anthony Shelton (University of British Columbia)
Kenji Yoshida (National Museum of Ethnology)
SOAS Senate House - S311
Saturday 2 June, 14:30-16:00, 16:30-18:00 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel will examine the motivation and operation, ideologies, policy and social situations of local people surrounding diverse anthropological and Ethnological museums in the world. We invite papers on these topics from comparative point of view.

Long Abstract

Recent years have focused on the diversity of Anthropological schools and their influence in constructing distinct variants of museum ethnography. Historically ethnographic discussion was largely dominated by Anglo centric anthropology. The committee on World Anthropologies of the American Anthropological Associations and the World Council of Anthropological Associations have attempted to acknowledge and correct this bias. Moreover in June 2017, the first conference on international museologies was held in Mexico City. In a similar vein, this panel will apply some of the insights developed in these meetings to discuss the diversity and differences of anthropological/ethnological museums including local and indigenous museums worldwide.

The Anthropological museums were built in many European countries in the early 19th century. They strongly reflected the colonial history. Whereas in other area, such as in Asia and Africa, anthropological museums were built in latter half of the 20th century, which clearly show the different social context of their establishment and also their distinct idea and social meanings.

The social background and the concept behind the establishment of the local and/or indigenous peoples museums are diverse and require further detailed research. Some were built from outside initiative to preserve local distinctive culture. While others were motivated by the commercial interest of local people. This panel will examine the comparative motivation and operation, ideologies, policy, attitude and social situations of local populations surrounding diverse museum models. By examining the museums comparatively, we will more easily facilitate an understanding of the widening cultural difference surrounding the world's museums.

Accepted papers:


Marzia Varutti (University of Oslo)

Paper short abstract:

Around the world indigenous communities are experimenting with integrating indigenous perspectives into curatorial work. What challenges and implications does this entail for museum theory and practice? I discuss this question through insights from my research in Taiwan and other countries.

Paper long abstract:

Around the world indigenous communities are engaged in projects aiming to display, protect and preserve indigenous cultural heritage; in so doing, they are often experimenting with integrating indigenous perspectives into curatorial work. These may express for instance specific local understandings of, and approaches to, the concept of heritage and the structures, policies and governance of heritage institutions; notions of what is considered valuable and worthy of being preserved and transmitted to future generations; approaches to display, and conservation methods.

Regrettably, many of these perspectives remain under-explored. This is in part due to the historical entanglement of museums in the colonial system, and the ensuing legacy of discriminatory practices of collection, display and interpretation of indigenous heritage. But in part, this is also the result of the persistent, largely unchallenged centrality of North-American and European disciplinary traditions (in anthropology, museum and heritage studies) and museological practices.

In this paper I will ponder this situation, and frame my reflection through the following questions:

What prevents museums from further opening up to multiple indigenous curatorial perspectives? What challenges and implications does this entail for museum practice? Is it possible to think of 'multiple museologies', and how is the very concept and field of museology reconfigured by that?

I will draw on current debates on the 'decolonization' and 'Indigenization' of museums, and on insights from my research among indigenous communities in Taiwan - and to a lesser extent Norway, Canada (British Columbia) and Belize - to illustrate, problematize, and begin to answer these questions.


Edward Moon-Little (Cambridge University )

Paper short abstract:

This paper reflects on church run ethnographic museums and the intentions of their curators in India's borderlands. My case studies are located in Northeast India, one of South Asia's most diverse regions: ethnically, linguistically, religiously.

Paper long abstract:

This paper reflects on church run ethnographic museums and the intentions of their curators in India's borderlands. My case studies are located in Northeast India, one of South Asia's most diverse regions: ethnically, linguistically, religiously. Local attempts to curate such diversity continue to draw on colonial aesthetics and vocabularies of caste, tribe, and race, developed under the Raj in the late 19th and early 20th century. In many cases the forms and the language used are identical. How do we interpret these colonial ethnographic tropes when deployed under the radically different intentions of contemporary curators? If we take the curator's' intentions seriously, much of the existing literature on colonial ethnographic museums in South Asia seems unfitting or perhaps even disingenuous, especially when rooted in heavily Foucauldian frameworks linking knowledge and power. In response, I propose a move away from the reliance on Foucault's early writings, on power and knowledge, in order to engage with Foucault's later writings on technologies of the self. I take up Foucault's arguments on becoming moral subjects to provide an alternative framework for analysing church patronage of museums.To this end I frame my analysis through the 'anthropology of the good' as outlined by Joel Robbins (2013). Lastly I offer some comments on other regional strategies of narrating indigeneity, particularly those that wish to naturalise tribal identities in a Hindu civilisation narrative.


Robbins, Joel. "Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, 3 (2013): 447-462.


Sachiko Kubota (Kobe University)

Paper short abstract:

In Australia, the relationship between museums and indigenous population has altered, which symbolically shows the change of Aboriginal situation. Whereas in Japan, the situation is very different. This paper will examine those differences to see how it was changed and why.

Paper long abstract:

In Australia, the relationship between museums and indigenous population has altered at the end of 20th century. It symbolically shows the change of Aboriginal situation in the country. I have conveyed a research among mainstream museums in Australia in the early 2000s and interviewed the curators concerning their indigenous exhibition. Until the 1990s, it was very rear to see Aboriginal curators, but the research showed that the situation was dramatically altered by 2000s. Also the planning procedure and the exhibition itself changed drastically. Most of the Aboriginal exhibition put large emphasis on the contemporarity of indigenous population. The drastic change was partly due to the centennial of federation. Around the turn of the century in Australia, the relationship between their indigenous populations has been regarded as a national issue and attracted wide public interest. The change of the museum shows this situation symbolically. And in the north, a few local museums which exhibit local Aboriginal items were originally built in 1970s. .And the nature of them have changed over the years. The historical diversion of local museums reflects the changes of indigenous situation in Australian society too. In this paper, I will give several case studies of mainstream and local museums to examine how the relationships between museums and indigenous peoples have changed in a concrete sense Compare to these, the relationship between museums and indigenous Japanese people are very different. In this paper, I will examine the differences to know the situation of Indigenous population in both countries.


Sakiko Kawabe (National Museum of Japanese History )

Paper short abstract:

Seeing collecting as a relationship between people and things, this paper traces biographies of collected objects in rural areas in Japan and tries to elucidate how everyday life objects turned into something collected and preserved by local people.

Paper long abstract:

Everyday life objects, such as tools, furniture, clothes or personal adornments, are collected and preserved in local sites although most of them are still discarded when no longer useful in everyday life. This collecting and preserving behavior can be explained as "conservatory processes" defined by an American archaeologist, Michael B. Schiffer, which occurs mainly when the major function of an object changes from a "techno-function" to a "socio- or ideo- function" (Schiffer 1987). Collecting is a universal phenomenon of relationship between people and things as it has been observed by many anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists.

What makes collections of everyday life heritage distinct is that they are collected as 'local heritage' or 'our culture' in local communities where people have used the objects as utilities in their individual lives. How does this transformation to a collectable object happen? What type of socio- or ideo- functions of the objects cause them to be collected?

This paper tries to trace biographies (from procurement, manufacture, use/reuse and discard to collection and preservation) of the collected objects in rural areas in Japan through observation and interviews with users, donors and collectors of the objects. As a result, it will elucidate human relations, people's idea on everyday life heritage and socio- or ideo- function of the objects as a background of local collection. Moreover, local people's ideas and activities show diverse collection and museum models in local sites, and reveal gaps between actual needs in the sites and current museum standards.


Laura Osorio Sunnucks (British Museum)
Anthony Shelton (University of British Columbia)

Paper short abstract:

This paper first critiques the approach to Latin American exhibitions that avoid the political contexts of their curatorial practice and subject, before discussing alternative practices currently being employed at MOA, UBC.

Paper long abstract:

Since its foundation in 1949, MOA has eschewed the idea of narrative neutrality and taken committed political positions on Indigenous issues, which frequently influence the content and style of its public exhibitions. It has provided a forum for Indigenous voices, and will hold its first community based triennial show this year. Over the past seven years, it has curated five major temporary exhibitions and hosted public programs and academic workshops and lectures on Iberia and Latin America. The heightened profile given to Latin American themes at MOA has coincided with a significant increase in Latino populations in British Columbia. That said, past exhibitions have been deemed by some to have avoided aspects of dependent market economies and the effects of the international division of labour on the production and circulation of popular culture and exhibition spectacles.

This presentation will examine the intimate and changing connections between politics and poetics through MOA's past exhibitions before focusing on a major current project, The Arts of Resistance. This exhibition attempts to challenge established genres of presentation by examining the links between colonial and contemporary political forces and different aspects of popular culture. The project is centred around contemporary artistic practices and has resulted in the acquisition of a number of objects directly from communities that have been subjected to violence and state sponsored terrorism. In this way, The Arts of Resistance counters current practices in the exhibition of ethnographic and folkloric art.