Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic Collections

Advanced Seminar

September 26–30, 2010

Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic CollectionsReassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic CollectionsAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Sarah Byrne, Production Assistant, Institute of Historical Studies, University of London; Annie Clarke, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney; Rodney Harrison, Lecturer in Heritage Studies, Faculty of Arts, The Open University, London; and Robin Torrence, Principal Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, Australian Museum. Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic CollectionsAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Sarah Byrne, Production Assistant, Institute of Historical Studies, University of London; Annie Clarke, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney; Rodney Harrison, Lecturer in Heritage Studies, Faculty of Arts, The Open University, London; and Robin Torrence, Principal Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, Australian Museum.

Fundamental questions about the nature, value, and efficacy of museum collections in a postcolonial world and the agency of indigenous people in the production of collections were addressed by this advanced seminar. The seminar emerged out of an earlier conference session, “Unpacking the Collections: Museums, Identity, Agency,” which the four co-chairs organized at the Sixth World Archaeological Congress in Dublin in 2008. “Our session was awarded the inaugural SAR Anthropological Archaeology Prize and we were encouraged to rework the session as an advanced seminar,” said the co-chairs—Rodney Harrison, Sarah Byrne, and Anne Clarke. “We decided to see this opportunity as an entirely separate endeavor to the WAC 6 session, and used it to advance many of the issues which we had only begun to touch on in Dublin in a more thorough manner.”

“In the advanced seminar we were reconfiguring how we interpret the role indigenous people have played at crucial points in the formation of museum collections,” co-chair Annie Clarke said in an interview with SAR. “We are looking particularly at the early days in the formation of colonial museums around the world where indigenous peoples have been the ‘silent actors’ in the development of these collections. It’s extremely difficult to extract agency and the indigenous presence from the historical records, photographs, diaries, and the archival and historical material.

“We are looking at the way museum collections are being reinterpreted, reconfigured, reclaimed, and reimagined in the present through interactions between museum curators, members of the museum community, and indigenous peoples. We have people from all over the world looking at a whole range of materials and collections,” Clarke said. Coming from Great Britain, Australia, Scotland, and the United States, seminar participants represented both academic and museum backgrounds, as well as a variety of disciplines and spheres of geographical expertise.

Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic Collections
Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic Collections

Recently, there has been a huge resurgence in the interest of museums in the engagement and interactions of indigenous peoples with museums around the world. “One of the things people have found difficult to do, from both historical evidence and archival evidence, and even the objects themselves, is to find ways of talking about and understanding those interactions, the social relationships that cycle around objects and collections,” said the co-chairs. “Through detailed case studies, we’re trying to come up with ways of understanding the role of indigenous communities in producing museum collections.”

Contributions addressed the complexity and characteristics of the social relationships that both create, and are created by, the processes and actions surrounding ethnographic collections. “Some of the issues that were considered in the seminar included the nature and location of agency, the range of theoretical frameworks and methods for understanding and observing cross-cultural negotiation, and how the normative classification categories of producer/consumer, people/objects, and document/artifact might be dissolved and reformed,” wrote the co-chairs.

The seminar discussions pushed to identify underlying issues. For instance, indigenous critiques of museum categorization and resulting efforts to incorporate indigenous categories are important aspects of reforming these practices. “We argue that we need to go further in drawing attention to the very nature of the categories themselves and the forms of authority on which they draw and which they subsequently reproduce,” wrote the co-chairs. “For example, what would happen if we were to consider things in museums as ‘kin’? How would this transform curatorial practices and modes of ordering and classification within the museum and in heritage practice more generally?”

A “thing-focused” approach to exploring a set of relations that surround museums and their collections linked many of the contributions, an approach the participants identified as an “archaeological sensibility.” This involves the study of the museum “as an archaeological ‘site’ and an exploration of the processes which led to the formation of the museum collection as an archaeological assemblage,” the co-chairs wrote.

“Museum collections are not only spaces of display, but also provide objects to think with, through, and in relation to—objects which have and continue to exercise their own forms of agency in a complex mesh of relations with those who have made, traded, received, collected, curated, and viewed them in the past and present. Acknowledging these various forms of agency has profound implications for curatorial practices, implying not only an active engagement of people and things, but a curatorial responsibility which arises from the material, historical, and political weight of museum objects. Acknowledging this curatorial responsibility has the potential to transform our relationships with museums and their varied communities of interest in the twenty-first century.”


Sarah Byrne, Chair Production Assistant, Institute of Historical Studies, University of London Re-assembling the Collection in Relation to Practice and Place
Annie Clarke, Chair Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney ‘Decorated in Red, Black and White’: Papuan ‘Curiosities’ and the Identification of Cross-Cultural Interaction in Sale and Auction Catalogues
Rodney Harrison, Chair Lecturer in Heritage Studies, Faculty of Arts, The Open University, London Collecting Cultures: Reassembling the Connections between Ethnographic Collecting Practices and World Heritage and Implications for Understanding Indigenous Agency in Relation to Both
Robin Torrence, Chair Principal Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, Australian Museum Creative Colonialism: A View of Social Interaction Based on Ethnographic Museum Collections
Joshua A. Bell Curator of Globalization, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Sugarcane, Artefacts, Images and Communities: Intersecting Agencies and Narratives of the USDA 1928 Sugarcane Expedition to New Guinea
Tony Bennett Professor, Department of Sociology, The Open University, London The ‘Shuffle of Things’ and the Distribution of Agency
Kelley Hays-Gilpin Professor, Department of Anthropology, Northern Arizona University Curating Kin at the Museum of Northern Arizona
Gwyneira Isaac Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Whose Idea Was This? Museums, Replicas and the Reproduction of Knowledge
Chantal Knowles Principal Curator, Department of World Cultures, National Museums Scotland Artefacts of Encounter: Altered Agency of Museum Objects
Christopher Wingfield Researcher, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford Reassembling the London Missionary Society Collection: Tracking Moving Objects

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