Museums & the Appropriation of Culture // Review
Pearce, Susan, Anthropologica
This outrageously priced book is the fourth annual volume in the international series, New Research in Museum Studies, edited by Susan Pearce, Director of the Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Each volume is solicited by a thematic call for papers in the preceding volume, although papers on unrelated topics are also included. Eileen Hoover-Greenhill, of the same department, edits a Reviews section in each issue, for which items are solicited rather than assigned. This is a "referred" [sic] publication, in that offered papers are submitted to members of an Editorial Committee in Britain and/or to other people for comment.
While papers in the series are supposed to be of a "high academic standard," and some of them are, they are also "intended to relate directly to matters of immediate museum concern" (p. 246), and therein lies a problem. Until very recently, the museological literature has been of the self-congratulatory, anecedotal and "from the trenches" variety. What the best papers in this series do is to add a critical, theoretical dimension to museological discourse that is sorely needed, especially insofar as non-museum academics (such as James Clifford, Donna Haraway, Mieke Bal and Carol Duncan) are writing devastating critiques of museum practice from outside the field.
The issue of appropriation itself is taken as a given. As Parker B. Potter, Jr. argues, "Museums, birds, and fish face the same choice; they can appropriate culture, fly and swim, or they can give up being museums, birds and fish" (p. 103). The questions for these authors is not whether to appropriate, which is seen as definitional to museums, but how to do it.
Three themes pervade the essays. The first is the shift from a positivistic presentation of "truths" to a recognition that both the past and museum exhibits are socially constructed, and subject to ongoing discourse and debate. …