sensory, material, & digital anthropology

A summary review of the Museum Ethnographers Conference 2014: Collections, Collaborations and Communities

A summary review of the Museum Ethnographers Conference 2014: Collections, Collaborations and Communities

Every year the Museum Ethnographers Group holds a two-day conference to explore an important theme within the discipline of museum ethnography. This year the University of Aberdeen gave home to ‘Collections, Collaborations and Communities’, offering up a range of papers, speaking to the theme in many different ways, considering both source communities and local communities, and also museum communities. The conference was organised around three main themes: ‘collections and source communities’, ‘museums as collaborating communities’, and ‘participative re-interpretation of collections’.

‘Collections and source communities’

Astrid Knight gave a great start to the conference, sharing with us her research into the way knowledge is constructed, structured, and shared amongst the Inuit. Knight’s work, focussed around a collections of late 18th century-early 19th century models and miniatures, revealed the discord between ‘knowledge’ within the Inuit and EuroAmerican museum contexts. Her paper showed us that collaboration with communities will not always achieve expected outcomes, and raised an interesting question that would continue to resonate throughout the two days: what happens when knowledge gained through collaboration ‘doesn’t fit’ into a museum system of knowledge?

Tobias Sperlich moved this session of the conference forward, reflecting on the historic interactions between the local Indigenous community and one particular settler, ‘Dunk the Druggist’, in Fort Quapelle, Canada. Dunk is said to have accepted objects from the local community in exchange for medicines and other goods at his pharmacy, which were later donated to the local museum.  This local museum holding these objects reflects the historic relationships, whilst also impacting on museum-community relationships today.

Magda Buchczyk closed this session focussing on source communities, discussing her research into Romanian ceramics at the Horniman Museum. Buchczyk is conducting fieldwork amongst donors and/or their families, as well as contemporary craft communities in Romania, drawing on the insight of experienced practitioners to expand understanding of the collections.

‘Museums as collaborating communities’

This session involved a real range of papers, offering insights into how museums are creating communities within museums, between museums, and between museums and communities.

Phillip Schorch opened the afternoon with a thought-provoking conceptual paper, unpacking what is meant by ‘community’, and where and how is meaning made? Schorch considered how curators play an important role in assembling communities and in making meaning through their mediation between material culture and communities.

Eve Haddow then gave an update on the Pacific Collections Review, demonstrating the power of museums working together as a community, exchanging knowledge and sharing expertise.

During this session, we also heard from Pauline van der Zee, sharing the experiences of the ‘taboo of colonialism’ in Belgium. Curators of ethnographic collections that are increasingly at risk of being hidden within other collections are working to collaborate with each other, and with local diaspora communities, in order to support their field.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is important within museums, both in understanding of objects as well as supporting relationships created with other communities. This session also offered refreshing perspectives from other disciplines. June Jones,Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Ethics at University of Birmingham, spoke of the repatriation of five Maori skills from her department, and the legacy of this important moment in their relationship with the Maori community. Lace Brogden offered an insight from a curriculum theorist, speaking of her work supporting teachers to use ethnographic collections to teach First Nations history. Katie Smith, an artist, then spoke of her dynamic self-funded project, the Moveable Museum.  The Moveable Museum started off online, as Smith crowdsourced both people and objects to be involved, and then took this collection out on tour in a Caravan.

This session ended with another interesting take on the theme of community; Sarah Brown and Keiko Higashi spoke about the application of ‘community philosophy’ within the Powell-Cotton Museum, which was used to shift ways of working within the Museum, and create a stronger sense of community amongst staff.

 ‘Participative re-interpretation of collections’

Christopher McHugh started the second day of the conference by reflecting on his research into the collections of George Brown and relationships McHugh developed with the local community in Osaka to support the interpretation of the collections.

I then followed this with my own presentation, reflecting on how collaboration offers gains for both museums and the communities in which objects are now embedded, and allows us to revisit how we think of objects and what they can do for people. I focussed my reflections on the Talking Objects programme which I manage at the British Museum.

Artist and art theorist, Alana Jelinek, finished the session with strong ideas about the role of art in museum-community relations and meaning making. She spoke of the danger of the instrumentalisation of art within institutions, asserting that there is potential in relational art in which meaning is made in dialogue with audiences and objects. Alana’s claim that there is a misplaced assumption that art is a universal language sparked a bit of a debate amongst delegates: do audiences need to be supported to ‘read’ art? Or are we reifying a Western way of engaging with art?

As any good conference does, ‘Collections, Collaborations and Communities’ provoked many questions throughout:

  • How can we revisit museums, collections, and their potential to impact on people’s lives when looking through the lens of relationships and people?
  • What is the role of objects in creating, enacting, or maintaining relationships? Is it the relationships that hold meaning, rather than the object itself?
  • What is the role of curators (and the museum as a whole) in mediating culture, and mediating relationships?
  • What do we mean by ‘community’? No community is homogenous. Communities are fluid and changing.  Are communities assembled through the practices of others?
  • What is the nature of collaboration? What are the expected outcomes vs real outcomes? What assumptions are made about impacts on communities? How do the structures of museum vs community conflict or align?
  • How can museums embed multiple narratives and multiple voices, and share authority?

Museums do not exist in isolation, and are part of, and accountable to, many different communities. There is no perfect formula for working with and responding to communities, and there are challenges in the past, present, and future relationships that museums and their collections represent, create, and maintain. There may be tensions between the aims and expectations of different parties, or a misalignment of understandings and conceptualisations. Collaboration requires museums to relinquish a certain amount of control and share authority with others, which can be difficult to navigate. As Ali Clark noted in her update of the Pacific Presences project, objects are complex relational assemblages. The museum itself can be seen as a complex relational object. The potential of this work, in the sharing of knowledge, making collections relevant to others, and bringing different voices together to unlock the potential of collections, is exciting and important, and will continue to be so in the future of ethnographic museums.

To find out more about the Museum Ethnographer’s Group, look here.


One comment on “A summary review of the Museum Ethnographers Conference 2014: Collections, Collaborations and Communities

  1. Pingback: Debating collaboration and museum communities | AMUSEUM

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