Time for the West to talk to the rest

Making Representations
May 21, 1999

At dawn on June 24 last year, in a ritual similar to that enacted at the opening of a newly built meeting house, Maori elders bestowed a blessing on the British Museum's first exhibition devoted to the history of the arts and culture of the Maori people. A week later, an equally striking exhibition, "Torres Strait Islanders", opened at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Present at the opening were Terance Whap and Ron Day, chairmen respectively of Mabuiag and Mer, the two islands which became the focus of the 1898 Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait, whose centenary is marked by this exhibition. Both men are direct descendants of those who acted as local assistants to Alfred Cort Haddon and W. H. R Rivers, leaders of a project that irrevocably changed the practice of anthropology.

The sustained and sensitive collaborations that made these two displays possible exemplify the significant changes that have taken place in the ways museums with colonial collections conduct their relationships with the descendants of those from whom their artefacts were acquired. This is the subject of Moira Simpson's well-documented volume, neatly titled Making Representations .

Simpson traces the changes in museums' roles in the US as the civil rights movement impinged increasingly on cultural institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1969, the Smithsonian Institute had set up the first neighbourhood museum in Anacosta, shortly followed by a similar project at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1972, at its meeting in Chile, the International Council of Museums changed its definition of the museum to emphasise its role in the service of society. And one of the consequences of the United States's official recognition of cultural diversity at the time of its 1976 bicentennial, was to provide funds for immigrant and indigenous communities, which could be channelled into community museums. The number of Native American museums grew from a handful in the 1960s to more than 200 in the 1990s. This pattern was mirrored in other former white settler colonies - Canada, Australia and New Zealand - establishing community museums' position in the museum world.

In parallel, "traditional" museums themselves sought collaborations and involvement with the communities. Both success stories and causes célèbres such as the Royal Ontario Museum's exhibition, "Into the Heart of Africa", had a major impact on the debate within the profession. A series of key conferences, and their associated publications, provided contexts for analysis, debate, a sharing of experience, occasional self-flagellation and incentive to change. Increasingly, museums have adopted more inclusive practices, allowing communities to participate in the process of cultural representation, and communities themselves have developed their own styles of museum to satisfy cultural needs.

But this book is not simply an historical account. it aims to be a practical handbook for professional museum and heritage workers, providing case studies of "good" and "bad" practice. The third part addresses issues which the author herself confesses to be "one of the most contentious and difficult areas of museum management" - questions of repatriation of cultural treasures and human remains. As she points out, these complex and always emotive questions often represent a clash of world views - western concern with scientific rationality, the preservation of physical evidence and the aim of improving universal understanding alongside indigenous beliefs that assert that knowledge and access to artefacts may be restricted by rights, status and initiation. Simpson documents both examples of conflict and cases of negotiation between indigenous peoples, anthropologists, museum curators and professional organisations.

Sadly, the authorial voice tends to move uncomfortably between that of historian to that of advocate. The book covers North America, Australia and New Zealand well, but gives little space to developments in Britain, and makes virtually no reference to museums in other former colonial territories. It is undeniable that in the geographical areas that are the main focus of the author's research, the presence of indigenous communities within the dominant white community has brought issues of representation much more sharply into focus at an early stage. To take on the world is beyond the scope of one volume, but it is a pity that the survey of opinion and activity in the UK is restricted.

The worlds of those who care for collections of objects acquired in colonial situations are now, more than ever, inextricably interconnected with those of the peoples whose ancestors made and used them. All these worlds are changing, enriched by new relationships, new voices, new languages and new knowledges, and with them new tensions and conflicts. In this sense Simpson's argument that such museums can no longer be solely "artefact focused" is undoubtedly correct.

Deborah Swallow is chief curator, Indian and South-east Asian department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era

Author - Moira Simpson
ISBN - 0 415 06788 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00
Pages - 294

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