ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


The enlightening museum: anthropology, collecting, encounters

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.14
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Sandra Dudley (University of Leicester) email
Howard Morphy (Australian National University) email
Mail All Convenors


What effects do and did ethnographic collections have in Britain, now and in the past? How might established histories of museum anthropology and ethnographic collecting be rethought? What multiple agencies were involved in making collections? This panel addresses these and related questions.

Long Abstract

Museum anthropology and ethnographic collecting have histories deeply interwoven with the Enlightenment roots of anthropology as a whole and with the colonial endeavour. Indigenous artefacts collected in the colonies also had and continue to have significant effects on British museumgoers, undoing and reinforcing established beliefs, instigating wonder and enlightenment, and influencing wider intellectual trajectories, such as the Romantic movement. Yet these influences and effects, historical or contemporary, are complex and subtle.

Nonetheless, received accounts hide the multiple agencies - including that of indigenous peoples - involved in the creation and use of collections. Established histories also assume a rupture between the era dominated by museum anthropology and evolutionary theory, and the cultural relativism of the twentieth century. Not dissimilarly, tensions are often assumed between universalising, abstracting and progressive Enlightenment frameworks and more local, relativist, culture-based views.

From Hutcheson's critique of reductive, Lockeian empiricism onwards, however, the Scottish Enlightenment took a more particularist, historicist and realist approach to the complexities of humanity. In this spirit, this panel invites papers that consider, from a range of perspectives, the histories and/or past or present effects of ethnographic collections and museums. Considerations of multiple agency, revisions of received histories, examinations of contributions of ethnographic material culture to wider intellectual movements, assessments of encounters in the field or in the museum as moments of enlightenment and wonder, are all possible.

Discussant: Prof Sharon Macdonald

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


'I became in large measure Tibetanised': collecting and knowing Tibet in the Anglo-Tibetan borderlands

Author: Emma Martin (University of Manchester)  email


Charles Bell not only built a collection of Tibetan curios, but a lasting reputation as a Tibetan scholar. This paper will examine how he collected objects and knowledge, focusing on an elite group of Himalayan men who taught Bell how to know Tibet.

Long Abstract

Charles Bell (1870-1945), the diplomat, Tibetologist and collector, was one of the most recognizable names in Anglo-Tibetan relations. As a result there are now Charles Bell collections in many of the leading museum and archival collections in the UK. He was known not only as the friend of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, but as the author of some of the most well referenced books on Tibetan religion and culture.

Taking one of Bell's most well known comments on the transformative effect his postings to the Himalaya had on his life I will discuss how Charles Bell become 'Tibetanised'. I will do so using the post-colonial discourse that surrounds imperial travel writing and in particular the writings of Mary Louise Pratt and her seminal work, 'Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation', taking her borrowed anthropological term, I will read Bell's 'Tibetanisation' as a form of transculturation.

Specifically, this paper will map out Bell's Himalayan frames of reference, outlining the methods available to him for collecting and cataloguing Tibetan knowledge. What types of knowledge and how Bell accumulated it depended heavily on the men he tied himself to; the pre-existing and constantly evolving networks that operated across the Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau, what Pratt describes as a 'contact zone'. In this paper we will meet several highly cultured and educated men who were part of these Himalayan networks and by focusing on object connoisseurship and literary scholarship we will see for ourselves how and what Bell learned from these men.

Enlightening British ideas of Burma: Richard Carnac Temple's and James Henry Green's collections in the Pitt Rivers Museum

Author: Sandra Dudley (University of Leicester)  email


This paper explores the creation and use of collections. Examining artefacts collected by Richard Carnac Temple and James Henry Green, now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, it looks at the potentialities of the artefacts, and the effects of those potentialities, at particular historical moments.

Long Abstract

Richard Carnac Temple and James Henry Green were both military men, servants of the British empire and amateur anthropologists of considerable repute. Both also developed considerable affinity with the Burmese peoples amongst whom they worked. Their collections in the University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum (both are also represented by collections elsewhere) are separated by several decades, with Temple's dating from the era of evolutionary theory and Green's from the beginnings of a more culturally relativist age, yet there are many similarities in their approach. Both are inherently embedded within both the colonial endeavour and, to an extent, a universalising, abstracting, Enlightenment approach. And yet … their shared empathy for the people their collections represent indicates too a more particularist and local style in both their work.

This paper explores these commonalities - and some differences - in the collecting and collections of two colonial servants of different periods. It does so through a specific concentration on the role in the making and use of their collections, of the artefacts themselves. Why, where and how were certain objects acquired in the first place? What power did (and do) they appear to exert, upon whom? How might this be articulated? What indigenous agencies do they embody, and how are these enmeshed with place and other factors? These and related questions will be examined by focusing on particular artefacts at certain historical moments, both at collection and during later museum life.

Collecting a colony: the Sir William MacGregor Collection of British New Guinea

Author: Anna Edmundson (ANU)  email


This paper explores the formation of the Sir William MacGregor Collection of British New Guinea, with particular reference to how differential concepts of shared patrimony influenced its assembly and ongoing history.

Long Abstract

During his time as Administrator (later Lieutenant-Governor) of British New Guinea from 1888 to 1898, William MacGregor assembled a collection of over 10,000 ethnographic and natural history specimens on behalf of the colony. MacGregor’s collection represents the earliest attempt at systematic scientific collecting in Papua New Guinea and the first instance of an official museum collection assembled by a colonial government. From the outset, he conceived of this collection as the inalienable patrimony of the colony and its constituent subjects. A Scottish doctor by training, he had come to the position of Administrator after many years in the British Colonial Service, where he had formed strong opinions on the importance of collecting ethnological and other specimens ‘before it was too late’ (MacGregor 1895: 88). His career in the Service had been stimulated by an interest in making a contribution to science, stimulated by his Scottish medical education and informed by established Enlightenment traditions of scientific collecting. Within this tradition, objects collected on behalf of science were imbued with a special status; conceived of as objects of universal scientific patrimony. While housed in individual university and state museums, they were nonetheless held on behalf of all humankind. This paper explores the genesis of the MacGregor collection with particular reference to how differential concepts of shared patrimony—of clan, village, wantok, colony, nation state and universal science—affected its formation and influenced the multiple agents involved in its assemblage.

Historical Scottish museum collections of argillite carving: Haidas, the Hudson's Bay Company and trade and exchange on the northwest coast, 1830s-1860s

Author: Kaitlin McCormick (Brown University)  email


What multiple agencies contributed to the production, exchange and circulation of indigenous northwest coast ethnographic collections in the mid 19th century? This paper addresses this question through an examination of historical collections of Haida argillite carvings in three Scottish museums.

Long Abstract

This paper forwards ongoing PhD research into historical Scottish museum collections of Haida argillite carving. Argillite, a carbonaceous shale, has been quarried and carved for sale to outsiders by Haida artists since the 1820s; it is an ongoing tradition that reflects nearly two centuries of Haida agency in global economies, from the fur trade to the art market.

Collections at National Museums Scotland, the Perth Museum and the Aberdeen University Museums were acquired during the fur trade between Indigenous and Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) traders on North America's Northwest Coast. Many works in these collections - such as the exquisite argillite carving of the HBC's famous steamship "Beaver" - represent westerners, their work and material culture, showing how Haida artists participated in new economic opportunities while also documenting the intersection of cultures and the rapidly changing landscapes of the Northwest Coast.

This paper will present original historical research into how and in what contexts these collections circulated before they arrived at Scottish museums. What has emerged from research at the HBC Archives in particular, is a complex picture of the agencies of Haida traders and HBC employees/affiliates at particularly important sites of trade and exchange, including coastal forts and on ships like the well-travelled "Beaver." Scottish museum agencies will also be considered, given their calls to collect from far-flung "country" posts.

These argillite collections present fascinating opportunities to uncover and question the relationships between Scottish museums, and western and Indigenous fur traders in the mid-nineteenth century.

Colonial encounters, cross-cultural alliances and enlightenment: the foundation of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Author: Anita Herle (University of Cambridge)  email


Focusing on the founding ethnographic collections at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, this presentation explores the nuances of early colonial encounters with powerful Fijian chiefs as well as the impact of the new museum on the development of anthropology in Cambridge and beyond.

Long Abstract

The core founding ethnographic collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) University of Cambridge were assembled between 1875-1880 at Government House in Fiji, the residence of the first Governor Arthur Hamilton Gordon, the son of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen. The collections embody multiple agencies. Many of outstanding objects emerged from complex political alliances and at times intimate social relations that developed between chiefly Fijian families and members of the Governor's household. This presentation highlights the specificity of early colonial relations in Fiji that lead to the establishment of MAA and explores the intellectual and academic context of the new museum in the development of anthropology as a specialist discipline in Cambridge and beyond. Ongoing research on MAA's founding collections, as part of the exhibition project "Chiefs & Governors: Art and Power in Fiji" (2013-2014), has also demonstrated the vital role the collections continue to play in forging relationships between Fijian nationals, diasporic communities and varied museum audiences.

Engaging objects: emerging encounters between the British Museum and Australian indigenous communities

Author: John Carty (Australian National University)  email


This paper examines how the British Museum's Australian Aboriginal collections are being activated, and their history and meaning interpreted and challenged, through the process of developing two major Australian exhibitions.

Long Abstract

In 2015 the British Museum (BM) will host its first major survey of its Australian Aboriginal collections. This exhibition will be followed by an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia (NMA), wherein many of these materials will be returning to Australia for the first time. The British Museum is a complex site of symbolic (and often material) contestation in Australia. The display of these collections, whether in England or Australia, is laden with the tensions of ongoing and unsettled histories. As such the museums are collaborating on an expansive three-year community engagement process throughout source communities in Australia. This process, and the process of making these exhibitions, is being documented and informed by a collaborative research project entitled Engaging Objects, involving anthropologists, museum curators, Aboriginal artists and communities seeking to contribute to a cross-cultural 'ethnography of an exhibition'.

Through the Australian collections at the BM, and the comparative efforts to turn them into definitive exhibitions, the project (and this paper) looks at the 'culture' of museums, the practices of curatorship and the interpretation of material culture from Aboriginal as well as anthropological perspectives. The activation of these collections will also act as prisms for enduring anthropological questions of exchange: of what the original owners or creators of these materials understood of their exchange, what responsibilities and relationships these objects still index, and the extent to which museums and source communities today can productively re-engage and re-imagine the complex cultural interdependence such historical collections suggest and afford.

First Story Toronto: from collection to community to collections again

Authors: Cara Krmpotich (University of Toronto)  email
Heather Howard (Michigan State University)  email


This paper traces a collection from the Anglican Church to one of Canada’s oldest and largest urban aboriginal organizations. Reconnecting aboriginal seniors with this community collection has sparked interest in museums and encourages museums to explore notions of "access" and "source community".

Long Abstract

"First Story Toronto," a community organization dedicated to the aboriginal history of Toronto, Canada, is steward to a collection of items mostly made and collected during the 20th century. With origins in the Anglican Church Women's Association, the collection reflects a time where policies and actions of the state and churches internalized colonial processes within Canada. Yet the donation of the ACW's collection to a Native woman and housing advocate in 1976 also shows signs of counter-colonial actions. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, collections were amassed at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT): the ACW material, plus fine art, photographic and archival materials, oral history recordings, and additional craft items. First Story Toronto was co-founded in the 1990s by a Native historian and activist and an ethnohistorian (co-author Howard), who sought to develop history-focused programming at the NCCT that integrated the collections.

Recently, the collection has sparked interest in museum collections among seniors. Handling sessions with artifacts and "talking circles" initially designed to research the role of objects in collective memory and life history processes rekindled earlier programming goals: seniors teach and learn beadwork and quillwork skills, thoughtfully compare life experiences among urban aboriginal people, question history-making processes and confront challenges of teaching across generations. Visits to museum stores to handle collections and learn with curators came at the seniors' behest. As the group represents multiple First Nations and cultures, its museum visits continue to shape how "access" and "source communities" are approached by museums.

'The treasure of our collection': the disruptive wonder of the Yirrkala crayon drawings

Author: Howard Morphy (Australian National University)  email


Crayon drawings from Yirrkala collected in 1947 by Ronald Berndt were exhibited in 2013 at the AGNSW. Viewers found the drawings challenging in part because they appeared to be so contemporary. The disrupted viewing was the culmination of a process whereby Yolngu contemporary fine art became possible.

Long Abstract

In 1947 the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt made a collection of 365 crayon drawings on brown butchers paper from Yirrkala in Northern Australia. Although Ron Berndt saw the collection as one of his greatest achievements, for nearly 60 years the drawings remained largely unknown stored in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia. Recently they have gained in recognition. In 2006 the drawings were inscribed on the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World, and in December 2013 an exhibition of them opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Viewers found the drawings challenging in part because they appeared to be so contemporary. They were powerful aesthetic works that appeared to come from a developed artistic tradition. How was it they had not been recognised earlier?

I will consider why the crayon drawings disrupted people's expectations about Yolngu art. I will argue that the disruption is the culmination of a process whereby Yolngu contemporary fine art became a possible artefact. The recognition of the crayon drawings as art resulted from a collaborative value creation process, which from a Yolngu perspective, resulted in a widening recognition of what they understood was already there. The anthropologists who worked with Yolngu shared a similar sense of the aesthetic power of Yolngu cultural production and art became integral to their own relativistic project of cross-cultural translation. The recognition of the Yirrkala crayon drawings as art became a desirable outcome for both Yolngu and the anthropologists.

Museum stores, genetic junk, experimental art: conversations on a train

Author: Chris Dorsett (Northumbria University)  email


An artist meets geneticists on a train and falls into conversations about non-coding genes, a kind of ‘reserve collection’ known as 'junk' DNA. Audio-visual recordings of their discussions are used to explore the importance of archival material held off-display in British anthropological museums.

Long Abstract

The topic of this paper has its origins in the type of exhibition-making which resituates experimental art within collection-holding institutions such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. These activities juxtapose contemporary artworks and museum exhibits in order to rethink the construction of knowledge through the public display of objects. However, anthropology also generates knowledge through geographic dislocation and cultural difference. Thus the transient nature of travel, like an unexpected art encounter in a museum, repositions the durational understandings we gain through a lifetime of movement in and out of our museum environments. Paradoxically, the abiding 'thinglyness' of familiar anthropological collections may be best understood within the frame of mobility/body/technology relations, a field of research pioneered in science/technology studies (Latour, 2005), sociology (Urry, 2006), and human geography (Bissell, 2010). This proposition is explored by the author using audio-visual recordings made during train journeys with Volker Straub and David Elliott (Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle) as they commute to and from work. Across a moving carriage ideas are swapped about the presence of 'junk' in the human genome. It turns out that the relationship between active and inactive genes plays an important part in biological evolution. This paper compares the archival significance of DNA for scientists with the experimental value of ethnographic collections for artists, urging a reconsideration of the cultural value of storage, and proposing interdisciplinary approaches to 'enlightening museums' that use the capacity of travel to 'craft' new knowledge about the sedentary power of reserve collections (Watts, 2008).

Kaxuyana artifacts: memory and dialogue from ethnographic collections

Author: Adriana Russi Tavares de Mello (Universidade Federal Fluminense - UFF)  email


In Museums, Kaxuyana artifacts reveal other times. I discuss the dialogue between these Amerindian people and researchers about such objects. These people were almost decimated and abandoned their territory in 1968 (Lower Amazon/ Brazil). Since 2003 they returned there to value their culture.

Long Abstract

Today the Kaxuyana number 418 people. They were devastated by disease and reduced to 60 people in 1968, when they abandoned their territory at the Cachorro river to live far away with other Indigenous people at Tumucumac Park, in Brazil. In 2003, some Kaxuyana returned and resettled in the site of an old village. There, relatives of an important leader started a process of strengthening of their traditional culture. Among other actions, they rebuilt the tamiriki communal house, as well as started to make traditional artifacts that had been left aside when they moved to Tumucumac.

Here I discuss their experience of reassessing themselves over their territory, through a comparative approach between present-day artifacts and those in museums. The memories raised by the images of these artifacts provide an interesting exercise in knowledge exchange.

Sheltered in museums for some 80 years, in Europe these objects are at Nationalmuseet (Copenhagen/ Denmark), Kulturistorik Museum (Oslo/ Norway), British Museum (London/ England), Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg (Hamburg/ Germany), Moesgård (Aarhus/ Denmark). In Brazil the collections are mainly at National Museum (Rio de Janeiro) and Emilio Goeldi Museum (Belém).

Revealing other times, such objects hold memories of everyday life, rituals and festive moments. In this case, as in others, issues of material culture are articulated with cultural and political identity of this people recently returned to their territory. In this aspect, I intend to promote a multidisciplinary dialogue involving the Kaxuyana, curators and researchers, intersections between human experience and the world of material culture.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.