Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future

By Lawson, Barbara; Bouquet, Mary | Anthropologica, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future


Lawson, Barbara, Bouquet, Mary, Anthropologica


Mary Bouquet (ed.), New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001, xiv +240 pages.

Reviewer: Barbara Lawson

Redpath Museum, McGill University

Following decades of marginalization and neglect, museums have become sites of critical interest for many anthropologists and other social scientists engaged in studies of institutional life, exhibitions, and material culture. Museum anthropology made its debut in the latter half of the 19th century; its period of greatest influence coinciding with the establishment of the university as anthropology's institutional setting in the 1890s. With the fieldwork revolution of the early 20th century, museums declined as places for academic anthropology, reaching an all-time low by mid-century.

Academic Anthropology and the Museum examines the current period of renewal and re-invention, which began gathering momentum almost twenty years ago. Editor Mary Bouquet (Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam) has already gained scholarly attention with theoretical writings on museums and material culture (2000a, b). The need for a sampling of recent museum-related work by anthropologists was apparent to Bouquet who had just set up a course on cultural anthropology and museology at Utrecht University. The editor suggests that her own Netherlands-based experience and the European-focus in most of the articles provide a useful alternative to anthropology's almost exclusive preoccupation with the Anglo-American tradition. Not mentioned by Bouquet, but also significant, is that one of the few works focussing on museum anthropology to emerge immediately before the museum boom, From Field-case to Show-case edited by W.R. van Gulik, et al. (1980), was also Netherlands-based. Thus the present volume serves as a useful benchmark for those interested in assessing theoretical, pedagogical and praxiological developments over the past 20 years.

In addition to her own introduction and essay, Bouquet has assembled contributions from 12 anthropologists. Among them, the names of Michael Ames and Jeanne Cannizzo will be familiar to readers of Anthropologica. The contributors, mostly associated with European universities, represent varied levels of museum involvement--some having experience as curators or directors and contributors to the development of museological theory, others more theoretically oriented with limited "field" experience. The sites under investigation, such as the Smithsonian, Alert Bay's U'mista Centre, and northern Australia's Melville and Bathurst islands, comprise a broader geography than the academic affiliations of the contributors. The 12 essays are intended to provide a cross section of the many different types of anthropological work now being undertaken in museums; they are grouped as an introduction and the five sections discussed below.

(1) "Anthropological encounters with the post-colonial museum" addresses the complexity of cultural relations during and after the colonial period and how these are embodied in museum artifacts. Saunders' contribution examines Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa (the Koninklijk Museum, Tervuren) and the U'mista Centre (Alert Bay, British Columbia) and finds these geographically and historically disparate locales similar as representations of pseudoscientific culture (termed pseudo-Boasian in the case of the U'mista Centre). Both institutions are found to link centre and periphery, but in opposite directions. Although the essay is often insightful, this reader was vexed by it's frequent lapses into jargon-laden obscurity. Relations of scientific production and centre/periphery oppositions are further explored in Porto's consideration of museum photography as print-colonialism in Portugal and Angola, and Venbrux's look at the pre-museum history of anthropologist Baldwin Spencer's collecting of Tiwi artifacts on Melville and Bathurst islands.

A methodological framework, which sees museums anew from the critical stance of the social scientist, is the basis for both sections (2) "Ethnographic museums and ethnographic museology 'at home' " and (3) "Science museums as an ethnographic challenge. …

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