Are existing vocabularies and field-sites of the anthropology museum enough? How can we bring anthropology back into the museum? How might this change what our ambition for the anthropology museum is and could be?
Anthropology museums have recently been described as facing a crisis of identity. Whilst in the present the need for effective public communication of anthropologically informed cross-cultural understanding has perhaps never been greater, anthropology's museums often struggle to move beyond critiques of their pasts. These critiques focus in particular on collecting and curating as an imperial science; a search for objective truths about different people, communicated through the positioning and interpretation of their things. Responses to this debate have often sought alternative truths, looking to debates over politics of representation and the importance of self-determination in challenging Western museum narratives. This concern with cultural specificity and relativity has of course been a central debate within anthropology as a whole for several decades. In this panel, we focus on one strand of this debate, asking what humanistic anthropology in particular might have to offer to anthropology museums, as they seek different paths moving forward. The deep commitment to accessibility and shared humanity offered by this strand of anthropology aligns well with museums and their focus on public education. We also contend that humanism has important lessons for museums as they seek more creative and diverse modes of expression, transmission and communication through, for example, work with contemporary artists. Can bringing humanism into the museum help museums resolve their crisis, enabling them to play a more productive and effective role in contemporary society?