Redefinition of Ethnographic Collections The Museum Inside-Out

Hendrick Fourmile, member of the Gimuy Walubara Yidindji, holds a traditional smoking ceremony at the Museum Five Continents during the ceremony to return the remains of an indigenous Australian.
A traditional smoking ceremony of the indigenous peoples of Australia | Photo (detail): Matthias Balk © picture alliance

Are ethnological museums in the global North simply hoards of colonial loot, as some critics have claimed since the latter part of the twentieth century? As a reaction to this accusation, museum curators such as Professor Nicholas Thomas, the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Cambridge have increasingly shown a different face of museum work: close, creative cooperation and dialogue with representatives of the societies of origin.

By Eliphas Nyamogo

During a Lucian Scherman lecture held at the Museum Fünf Kontinente on 21st March 2019 Professor Thomas explained in detail the new role ethnographic museums ought to play today and the potential impact of collaborations between museums and other research institutions in the West and those in the former colonies with regard to creating more awareness about the collections in question and how to deal with questions of ownership and access.

Professor Thomas is one of the leading researchers who trace the multiple interdependencies between object, human being and culture in their full spectrum. In the midst of numerous divergent views on cultural objects held in Western ethnographic museums and with reference to the Savoy-Sarr report, he emphasizes the importance of constructive cooperation and dialogue with communities rightfully laying claim to the objects: "Cooperation with the people whose ancestors created things that we encounter today with amazement, respect and attention."

He expresses the central theme of the aforementioned lecture as follows:

“From the late twentieth century onward, ethnographic museums were challenged - some critics considered them just as stores of colonial loot. Curators responded by reinventing their practice, seeking to work more collaboratively and inclusively, in dialogue with the cultures they represented. This lecture argues that the museum should be conceived, not only as a building, a precinct, an exhibition venue, or an institution, but as a live network, generative of new travels and exchanges, that is inherently contentious yet also powerfully creative.”

In an interview with the Goethe-Institut Professor Thomas also addressed issues such as the importance of provenance research, restitution, the Savoy-Sarr report as well as the role of museums in promoting education, development and global cohesion.

You can watch the whole interview here:

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