Museum Anthropology

Alaka Wali, Rosa Cabrera and Jennifer Anderson

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:
Museum Anthropology

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  • Anthropology
  • Human Evolution
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology


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The field of museum anthropology predates the institutionalization of anthropology as an academic discipline in universities. The formation of collections from as early as the 17th century spurred the study of the cultures that produced the objects destined for display. Early on, anthropology collections were integrated either into national museums (e.g., the British Museum), museums of “folk culture,” or, especially in the United States, natural history museums. The first major anthropology and archaeology museum was the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, founded in 1866. Eventually, the collections became the foundation for research and documentation of the lifeways, material circumstances, and human ecology of diverse cultures. For more than a century, anthropologists situated in museums curated the collections by documenting them through catalogues and publications and by creating public displays. However, after the 1970s, museum anthropology became more research oriented, moving beyond collections-based documentation to an emphasis on field research. Simultaneously, it became more difficult to acquire objects because of diminishing resources and international and national policies on cultural patrimony. In the 1980s, a growing critique of the representation of cultures began to emerge from outside the museum walls. The critiques concerned the ahistorical, evolutionary-oriented display of non-European cultures, and the lack of inclusion of “first voice” (the perspective of the peoples themselves). The authority of the curator was questioned, as were the colonialist perspectives that museum displays embodied. Critiques came from academically situated scholars as well as from the communities whose cultures were represented in museum displays. The response from within the museum has been transformative. Curators developed new forms of representation, more attuned to contemporary theory, and they began to collaborate with communities to include their perspectives. Studies of material culture and human ecology continue to dominate museum anthropology, but they are very diverse and cover a huge geographical terrain. Interest has also revived in material-culture studies outside of museums, and we have included some sampling of this work here. Museum-based education programs and publications oriented toward the general public cover the classic four fields of anthropology. Museums of specific cultural groups or heritage-based museums may not always include anthropologists on staff; however, their work represents an important contribution to the understanding of the role of culture and ethnicity in social life. “Eco-museums,” museums dedicated to a single place or a single cultural heritage, represent an important trend of this kind.

Article.  7952 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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