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Reassembling the Collection

Ethnographic Museums and Indigenous Agency

Edited by Rodney Harrison, Sarah Byrne, and Anne Clarke

Reassembling the Collection presents innovative approaches to the study of historical and contemporary engagements between museums and the various individuals and communities who were (and are) involved in their production and consumption. Reassembling the Collection is interdisciplinary in scope and international in coverage. It addresses fundamental questions about the nature, value, and efficacy of museum collections in a postcolonial world, and the entangled agencies of those who have made, traded, received, collected, curated, worked with, researched, viewed, and experienced them in the past and present. In moving beyond the concerns of the politics of representation that have dominated critical museum studies, Reassembling the Collection considers the material networks and affective qualities of “things” alongside their representational role within the museum and explores the ways in which concepts of agency and indigeneity need to be reconfigured in light of the study of these concepts within the museum context. The contributors explore key concepts including the idea of museums as “meshworks” of material and social assemblages; how an “archaeological sensibility” might inform approaches to understanding past and present relationships between people, “things,” and institutions in relation to museums; and the “weight of things” and sense of “curatorial responsibility,” which arises from a reconsideration of the nature of museum objects.

2013. 368 pp., figures, maps, table, notes, references, index, 6 x 9

Contributors: Joshua A. Bell, Tony Bennett, Sarah Byrne, Anne Clarke, Rodney Harrison, Kelley Hays-Gilpin, Gwyneira Isaac, Chantal Knowles, Ramson Lomatewama, Evelyn Tetehu, Robin Torrence, Chris Wingfield

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Interview from the advanced seminar Reassembling the Collection: Indigenous Agency and Ethnographic Collections

“A lucid, well-focused collection of essays that not only proposes a new engagement between anthropology and archaeology, but challenges weary methodologies in museology and tired museum practices. This stimulating volume proposes nothing less than a ‘Mobius museology’ in which established disciplinary, epistemological, and ethical dualisms are exchanged for an infinitely more nuanced, complex, and dialogical approach. This broad sensibility intermeshes academic, indigenous, and practical viewpoints in the best tradition of critical scholarship to imagine a new terrain on which the importance and significance of museum collections can be reassessed in a non-consensual and increasingly globalized and intercultural world.”
—Anthony Alan Shelton, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

“Each of the chapters succinctly and clearly sets out different aspects of many of the current sensibilities, methodologies, and conclusions of scholars of material culture working with ‘indigenous peoples.’”
—Alison Petch, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford


  1. Reassembling Ethnographic Museum Collections
    Rodney Harrison
  2. The “Shuffle of Things” and the Distribution of Agency
    Tony Bennett
  3. Reassembling the London Missionary Society Collection: Experimenting with Symmetrical Anthropology and the Archaeological Sensibility
    Chris Wingfield
  4. Assembling and Governing Cultures “at Risk”: Centers of Collection and Calculation, from the Museum to World Heritage
    Rodney Harrison
  5. The Sorcery of Sweetness: Intersecting Agencies and Materialities of the 1928 USDA Sugarcane Expedition to New Guinea
    Joshua A. Bell
  6. We’wha Goes to Washington
    Gwyneira Isaac
  7. Creative Colonialism: Locating Indigenous Strategies in Ethnographic Museum Collections
    Robin Torrence and Anne Clarke
  8. Exposing the Heart of the Museum: The Archaeological Sensibility in the Storeroom
    Sarah Byrne, with comment by Evelyn Tetehu
  9. Artifacts in Waiting: Altered Agency of Museum Objects
    Chantal Knowles
  10. Curating Communities at the Museum of Northern Arizona
    Kelley Hays-Gilpin and Ramson Lomatewama
There are no working papers for this book at the present time.