Accepted Paper:

Old stories, new voices: anthropology museums and contemporary Pacific art  

Author:

Sylvia Cockburn (University of East Anglia)

Paper short abstract:

In recent years, contemporary art has become a widespread tool for the decolonisation and reinterpretation of ethnographic collections. This paper discusses the possibilities and limitations of dialogues taking place between Pacific artists and anthropology museums in the UK and Australasia today.

Paper long abstract:

Museums and anthropology have a long, shared history. Yet in recent decades, the language and practice of anthropology have been called into question within museums, where the colonial legacies and classification of ethnographic collections have proved problematic in efforts to forge meaningful relationships with source communities. Collaborating with contemporary indigenous artists is one strategy increasingly being used by institutions wanting to promote new ways of engaging with museum spaces and collections. Artists today perform a number of roles in museums, from agents of intervention to cultural knowledge holders and expert practitioners. However, to date the full possibilities and limits of these engagements remain critically under-examined.

This paper is drawn from my research into recent collaborations that have taken place between contemporary Pacific artists and museums in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Using data gathered from interviews with artists, curators and other museum professionals, the paper examines how the nature of museum anthropology in these countries has changed in recent years, and how contemporary artists have become a prominent voice in the discussion of museum futures. I discuss several projects which demonstrate that while there is a strong desire by both artists and museum staff to engage in truly two-way conversations about the future of museums, a number of systemic barriers still inhibit community access and engagement. The paper asks the question: how can relationships between artists and museums help forge new understandings of museum anthropology in the 21st Century?

Panel P048
The Future of Anthropological Representation: Contemporary Art and/in the Ethnographic Museum