Council for Museum Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: From its heyday in the 19th century to the present, the acquisition of collections by anthropological museums has taken things treated as not intended to produce knowledge and placed them in institutional settings where their capacity to create understanding is understood to be activated by disciplinary procedures of experts. Yet all these things were created and assembled in the first instance by local people whose collecting and curation activities often had other aims, and used other procedures, to produce different forms of knowledge. Researchers today returning to collections are finding new ways to remember what the institutional museum forgot. This session provides case studies, drawing on archival and community research, to achieve this goal.
Museum collecting has been richly documented through receipts, letters, field notes, catalogue records, and publications. The potential exists to read such documents against the grain, not simply as evidence of the way scientists came to places and recognized the potential for knowledge embodied in things local people did not appreciate, but as evidence for the local and indigenous practices of collecting, curating, and employing the same things as material for producing knowledges. Museum researchers can work with source communities today to gain more understanding of how objects removed to museums were assembled, circulated, and experienced.
Remembering these histories often results in understanding better how dependent the scholars credited in museum records and publications were on others for not only the interpretation of specific things, but even the recognition that certain kinds of things had potential interest as sources of historical and cultural understanding. In the best case scenario, we can begin to recognize alternative ways of making sense of, experiencing, understanding, and interpreting things, through practices that sometimes draw on ways of knowing, from the aesthetic to the sensory, in modes ranging from the poetic to the narrative, that have been marginalized in disciplinary discourses that prize analytic distance.
Participants in this session explore case studies in which local collecting and curation has been overwritten by subsequent absorption of collections into institutionalized museums, demonstrating the power of contemporary research to recall what has been forgotten.