Ethnology Museums: New Challenges and New Directions

By Turgeon, Laurier; Dubuc, Elise | Ethnologies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Ethnology Museums: New Challenges and New Directions


Turgeon, Laurier, Dubuc, Elise, Ethnologies


Ethnology museums are developing and spreading at a striking rate in Quebec and in the test of Canada, in First World countries as well as in the Third World. In Canada, the number of museums has increased considerably over the last 30 years. There are currently over 1,300 museums in the country visited by some 26 million people annually. The temples of post-modern times, museums pop up as churches once did in our 19th century cities and countryside. States, provinces, regions, cities and even the smallest towns want a museum to call their own in the hope that it will help enhance their historical memory, negotiate new alliances and affirm their identity, in short, secure their existence in the world. Justas in another era a village or an urban neighborhood without a church was marginal in a community of believers, today a population without a museum is deprived of the sense of cultural belonging created by a public place. In other words, existing beyond the reaches of tourist-inspired cultural awareness is tantamount to existing without recognition. In response to this social demand, governments create subsidy programs to fund the growing number of museums, and universities develop training programs in museology to provide the needed skilled labor. More and more often, ethnology students are turning to museums as a principal outlet on the job market. How can this dizzying growth of museums be explained? What is the meaning of the institution's importance in the new political economy of our post-modern and post-colonial world?

This generally positive assessment should not conceal the serious problems that ethnology museums are currently experiencing. Curators warn of the difficulties that lie ahead. Some wonder whether ethnology museums have already seen their golden age and whether they will not disappear altogether (Halpin and Ames 1999; Hudson 1991). Others think that ethnology museums have become simply places of memory, void of meaning and out of sync with their initial mission; therefore it would be better to burn them all down (Galinier and Molinie 1998; Gonseth, Hainard and Kaehr 2002; Jamin 1998). This is especially the case for ethnology museums of the old colonial powers of Europe -- France, England, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal -- which sought to solidify and reinforce links with their colonies. With the decline of colonialism, these institutions have become simple warehouses for collections of assorted objects stripped of all representational power and remain of little interest to anyone. On the other hand, museums in countries born of colonization -- nations where heirs of the colonizers and the colonized still live side by side -- suffer the ill effects of there being too many contending interests and the negative impact of disputes of all kinds. In Canada, as in the United States and Australia, Aboriginal peoples call the authority of museums into question, demanding a say in the presentation of native objects, and sometimes the repatriation of their collections (Jones 1996; Mauze 2001; Parezo 1998; Peers 2000; Simpson 1996; Dubuc 2002). In these "new" countries, members of so-called cultural communities also want access to museums in order to be recognized and appreciated within the heart of the nation. How can the discourse of the colonizer and the colonized or the viewpoint of the ethnographer and the "ethnographed" coexist in one space? In our increasingly pluralistic societies, how can national museums bring together the inevitably divergent interests of the different groups that make up the nation?

Not all ethnographic museums are cast from the same mould. The great diversity of their missions, and of their challenges, must be acknowledged. A first distinction can be made between institutions that are often labelled ethnology museums, containing collections derived from colonized peoples and treating their subjects as the "Distant Other," and those popular culture museums concerned with the "Near Other" of regional or national cultures.

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