(P096)
Humanism in the Anthropology Museum?
Location Brunei Gallery - B202
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 13:30
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Sarah Byrne (Horniman Museum) email
  • Robert Storrie (Horniman Museum) email
  • Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp (University of Cambridge) email

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Short abstract

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?

Long abstract

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?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The Good Crisis: How Transient Identity Saves Modern Museums

Author: George Mentore (University of Virginia) email

Short abstract

None

Long abstract

Let us first agree to consider the so-called "crisis of identity" as a good rather than a bad thing. A good thing because it simultaneously exposes and offers to deliberation the longstanding anthropological conclusion about identities being transient and subject to change. So, far from accepting museums as troubled by their possession of an essential identity -- having to do with "an imperial science of collecting and curating," let us instead argue that this besieged identity provides us with a much-desired opportunity to re-present museums as new shared signs of existence. This paper will be arguing for such new meanings from the ontological rather than epistemological position of humanistic anthropology. It will propose that the new identities be reformed with and be about the creative expression of felt human experience on a par with (and certainly not less than) human knowledge.

Making Meaning in Museums: The Value of a "Talk Story" Approach

Author: Rowan Gard (University of St Andrews) email

Short abstract

The Hawaiian proverb a'ohe pau ka 'ike i ka hālau ho'okahi wisely notes that not all knowledge is learned in just one school. This paper argues that a collaborative and community focused approach offers anthropology museums an authentic and bold future.

Long abstract

The Hawaiian proverb a'ohe pau ka 'ike i ka hālau ho'okahi wisely notes that not all knowledge is learned in just one school. Throughout my museum career, that has included a number of institutions, ranging from the Bishop Museum—The Hawai'i State Museum of Natural and Cultural History—to the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, I have found tremendous value in "talking story." The Hawaiian word 'ōlelo, translates as language and spoken word, and is often used in conjunction with the idea of "talking story," where in the modern Hawaiian context of the word it is understood to mean dialogue, discussion and to share one's knowledge. The 'ōlelo form of leadership and teaching has offered me a great deal in and out of a museum setting, and I would urge all those concerned with the "crises of identity" at the heart of many museums today, to consider its virtues in greater depth as we rightly move to embrace greater humanism in anthropology museums.

World in rather than archives out: reuniting fieldwork with the anthropology museum

Authors: Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp (University of Cambridge) email
Sarah Byrne (Horniman Museum) email

Short abstract

This paper suggests a realignment of the archive and the field within the anthropology museum. We explore humanistic anthropology, with its holistic treatment of human experience, emphasis on cultural narratives and varied fieldwork outputs, as a framework for doing so.

Long abstract

Each morning at 10am, rows of eager children's eyes can be seen twinkling at the doorway of the Horniman Museum, eagerly awaiting their visit. In an era of fake news and fast assumptions what has the discipline of anthropology to offer these children as well as our very many other visitors?

Once intimately connected, the disconnect between anthropology and the field, and its museums and archives, has arguably had implications for both sides in their ability to communicate effectively and creatively to a non-specialist public. Whilst anthropology sometimes struggles to translate the complexity of contemporary human experience (is this the right term?), museums often struggle to locate the contemporary in their archives from the past.

This paper suggests a realignment of the archive and the field within the anthropology museum. We explore humanistic anthropology, with its holistic treatment of human experience, emphasis on cultural narratives and varied fieldwork outputs, as a framework for doing so. The Horniman has a long history of working with anthropologists in the field; in this paper we unpack some of these relationships to rethink the anthropology museum as a dynamic and responsive space. One that moves us away from a preoccupation of archival reflexivity to a recognition that the museum is a continued space in-flux, akin to anthropology's many changing field-sites.

Making communities at the end of the world: doing what we can, with what we have.

Author: Robert Storrie (Horniman Museum) email

Short abstract

What can we do with an anthropology museum to make the world a better place? We can tell stories that remind us we are always stronger together than apart.

Long abstract

Anthropology museums can tell stories that remind us that human beings are strong only because they love and care for each other, protecting one another and surviving together.

At the Horniman Museum we are opening a new anthropology gallery that celebrates human creativity, imagination and adaptability, which will offer a resource for our community to encounter other ways of understanding and being in the world. The new gallery is informed by a humanist anthropology which focusses on the lived experience of the individual, immersed in their cultural and material context. This approach emphasises the defining human qualities of love, compassion and empathy with the hope that recognition of shared human experience evokes compassion for others, and a tolerance for other ways of being.

By showing other ways of being we hope our visitors will question the things that go without saying; the stories that define what is true and real. Rather than consuming stories of violence, hierarchy and fear we can draw on the narratives of other cultures to begin to collaboratively create and control our own world-making.

My hope, in the face of terrifying uncertainty for the future of our society, is that we can describe a world where humans are defined by generosity, compassion and mutual respect, and contribute to the work of building communities that resist fear, loneliness and alienation.

On the virtues of universities, libraries, and museums

Author: Carlos D. Londono Sulkin (University of Regina) email

Short abstract

This paper extrapolates from anthropological research on the semiotic, and therefore material and temporal, character of moralities. On this basis, it relativizes the histories, purposes, and outcomes of universities, museums, and libraries, and reframes their virtues in a pragmatic fashion.

Long abstract

This paper extrapolates from anthropological research on moralities as semiotic processes, by definition material and temporal. The point of departure is that qualitative distinctions of worth shape human understandings, practices, and sensibilities, and that these distinctions are enabled by dynamic systems of symbolic forms and associations. Symbols are material forms—perceptible matters such as images, sounds (including speech), sensations, smells, objects—that "mean something" because people associate them in various ways with other forms. The symbolic deployments that constitute moralities are citations, that is, historical and contingent reproductions. They simultaneously effect the imperfect transmission of cultural forms in time and provide persons with subjectivity-constituting or subjectivity-shaping pictures of what kinds of subject they are, can be, and should aspire to be. Viewing institutions such as universities, museums, and libraries from this perspective, this paper relativizes their histories, purposes, and outcomes, and generates doubt about their teleologies; however, it also offers an opportunity to frame their virtues in a pragmatic fashion.

Margaret Mead's Museum Humanism

Author: Tony Crook (University of St. Andrews) email

Short abstract

Margaret Mead's vision for a public serving humanistic anthropology developed in a museum context. Mead was always concerned with the biggest questions and became future looking. This paper revisits her late career, public roles and humanist vision that arose when breaking out from anthropology.

Long abstract

Margaret Mead was based in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History from 1926 up until her death in 1978. Throughout an extended and deliberately diverse career, Mead experimented with textual, photographic and curatorial representation, and had become adept at positioning anthropology in public facing, inter-disciplinary and extra-academy contexts. By the time humanistic anthropology was formalized in the mid-1970s, Mead had anticipated and confronted many of the challenges that anthropology would later face, had fashioned an answer to the question of anthropology's relevance and had worked through the implications of human individualism in the context of global culture and ecological endangerment. Mead was always ahead of her time and towards the end of her life became future looking, and had in many ways long since left anthropology behind. Having grown up on the cultural relativism of Boaz and Benedict, Mead considered traditional markers of division entirely redundant and was instead searching for something that all of humanity might share equally - such as the 'future' or the 'atmosphere' - and put forward her own humanist vision at the pioneering climate change conference which she organized in 1975. Whilst Mead provides an enduring example of museum-based humanism, this paper revisits the defining concerns of her late career, alongside the public roles and humanist vision that arose from breaking out from anthropology. Mead's answers to her own questions hold future relevance for re-thinking humanism in the anthropology museum.

UNESCO as a Museum

Author: H Kwon (Trinity College, University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

None

Long abstract

UNESCO might be understood as the ultimate humanist museological experiment; an organisation that strives for universal peace through the collection, ordering and archiving of human culture. Like the anthropology of humanism, the organisation rests on a central paradox of both cultural plurality and universal ethics, sharing its early history with the development of modern anthropology. This paper explores how UNESCO's physical spaces, such as its head office in Paris, may be understood in museological terms. Its main assembly hall is both a space for the collection and display of objects, such as an artefact (what artefact?) from the North-West Coast, as well as meeting space for delegates. This paper will examine this space, focusing on how the post-World War II ideals of international peace based on principles of cultural plurality are manifested in it, and what the implications of this are for thinking about the potential for humanism to play a more prominent role in the anthropology museum.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.