Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future

Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future

Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future

Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future

Synopsis

The museum boom, with its accompanying objectification and politicization of culture, finds its counterpart in the growing interest by social scientists in material culture, much of which is to be found in museums. Not surprisingly, anthropologists in particular are turning their attention again to museums, after decades of neglect, during which fieldwork became the hallmark of modern anthropology - so much so that the "social" and the "material" parted company so radically as to produce a kind of knowledge gap between historical collections and the intellectuals who might have benefitted from working on these material representations of culture. Moreover it was forgotten that museums do not only present the "pastness" of things. A great deal of what goes on in contemporary museums is literally about planning the shape of the future: making culture materialize involves mixing things from the past, taking into account current visions, and knowing that the scenes constructed will shape the perspectives of future generations. However, the (re-)invention of museum anthropology presents a series of challenges for academic teaching and research, as well as for the work of cultural production in contemporary museums - issues that are explored in this volume.

Mary Bouquet teaches Cultural Anthropology and Museum Studies at Utrecht University College. Her publications include Bringing It All Back Home to the Oslo University Ethnographic Museum, published by Scandinavian University Press (1996). See also her other publication with Berghahn Books: Science, Magic and Religion.

Excerpt

…The moderns suffer from the illness of historicism. They want to keep everything,
date everything, because they think they have definitively broken with their past. The
more they accumulate revolutions, the more they save; the more they capitalize, the
more they put on display in museums (Bruno Latour 1993a: 69).

The museum boom, with its accompanying objectification and politicisation of culture, finds its counterpart in expanding social scientific interest in the musealisation of culture. There is ample evidence that anthropologists are among those whose imaginations have been fired by the museum, over the past fifteen to twenty years. However, this current of anthropological interest in museums is fairly recent (see Ames 1992), and it is certainly not evenly distributed around the academic world. Away from the mainlands of museum anthropology, there are still remote islands that appear to be untouched by these developments (cf. Gerholm and Hannerz 1983). the (re-) invention of museum anthropology, by which I mean a renewal of interest – along different lines – after a period of neglect, presents a series of challenges for academic teaching and research, as well as for the work of cultural production in contemporary museums. Even if interdisciplinarity characterises much current academic interest in museums (see Svašek 1997), the specificity of contemporary anthropology’s stake deserves exploration.

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