Re-Imagining Ethnographic Museums: A European Project

“If museums wish to turn into institutions that pose questions instead of administering conventional truths, they need to radically reconsider their internal structure, the training of their professionals, and, most of all, their relation with users.”

                                          — Elena Delgado. Museo de America, Madrid   


In recent decades there has been a growing global debate about the role of ethnographic museums in contemporary society.  From Australia and Indonesia to the Netherlands and the United States, scholars, museum professionals, government officials and leaders of indigenous peoples have engaged a range of questions with implications for the future of these museums.

• To what extent do ethnographic museums perpetuate a distinction between “us” and “them”?

• What are the implications for museum practice of the colonial contexts in which many museums’ collections were developed?

• How can the perspectives of indigenous peoples be integrated into museum interpretation?

• What is the role of contemporary art in ethnographic museums?

• What is the relationship of anthropology to ethnographic museums today?

• How should we collect and interpret material culture in the 21st century?

Museums and museum associations across the world have taken different approaches to these issues.  In Australia there have been significant efforts to promote indigenous interests within the museum sector.  In the United States, some museums, such as the Denver Art Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, have returned specific objects or collections to their countries or communities of origin.  All these efforts reflect the need for policies and programs that acknowledge the legacies of past collectors, scholars and curators and that also reflect the dynamic and evolving connections between people, communities and institutions today.  

Ethnography Museums and World Cultures (EMWC): A European Project

A five-year project is taking place in Europe, specifically within the European Union, that aims to “rethink the place and role of ethnography museums.” ‘Ethnography Museums and World Cultures’  (EMWC) – also known as RIME (réseau international des musées d’ethnographie or International Network of Ethnographic Museums— is funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General Education and Culture and lead by Anne Marie Bouttiaux and the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Central in Tervuren, Belgium.

EMWC involves a network of 10 museums, ranging from the Musee du Quai Branley in Paris to the Linden Museum in Stuttgart.  Now in its fifth and final year, the project is organized around two working groups:  “modernity” and “first encounters.”  To explore these issues, EMWC partners have employed multiple approaches: international colloquia, workshops, collaborative touring exhibitions, a theatre piece and focused research and publications.   Annual meetings, each organized around special themes, have reported on scholars’ and partners’ activities and stimulated professional exchange.  The 2010 meeting at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, for instance, addressed “New Approaches to the Relationship between Europe and the non-European World through the lens of Europe’s ethnographic museums. 

The most recent EMWC conference, “Beyond Modernity: Do Ethnographic Museums Need Ethnography”, was held at the Museum Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico Pigorini in April, 2012.  Ethnographers, curators, anthropologists, museum administrators and cultural policymakers considered such questions as how to change the “colonial stamp” inherent in many ethnographic museums, the relationship between ethnographic specialists and museum interpreters, and, above all, how museums can meaningfully involve their diverse audiences in the interpretive enterprise.   It was at this conference that Elena Delgado of the Muso de America (Madrid) challenged her colleagues to “radically reconsider their internal structure, the training of their professionals, and, most of all, their relations with users.”  

EMWC Partner Projects

IN addition to the annual meetings, EMWC has stimulated a range of experimental projects and dialogues at and between partner museums.  The following examples suggest the diversity of these efforts.

  • EMWC was launched with Fetish Modernity, a collaborative traveling exhibition that examined the connection between modernity and museum interpretations of European and non-European cultures.  The exhibition was composed of objects from the collections of partner institutions, and benefited from curatorial input from multiple institutions.  It opened at the Musee Royal de l’Afrique Central in Tervuren in April 2012 and subsequently traveled to partner museums in Madrid, Prague, Vienna, Leigen and Stockholm.
  • The Pitt Rivers Museum, a department of the University of Oxford, is taking advantage of digital technologies to widen access to their collections, to communicate more directly with the communities they serve, and to stimulate interest in ethnography and material culture.  The museum has experimented with “visual” or “virtual” repatriation, an approach that can serve other ethnographic museums committed to connect collections to relevant audiences.   The museum’s “Tibet Album” website, a collaboration with the British Museum, is an example of a project designed to transform the traditional museum into a distributed global resource.  “Tibet Album” makes an extensive collection of 6000 colonial period photographs of Tibet accessible worldwide, reaching Tibetans in Asia and throughout the world.  A visit from the Dalai Lama to launch the website in 2008 underscored the significance of the initiative.   
  • The Musee Royal de l”Afrique, located in Tervuren, Belgium is one of several EMWC partners engaged in a major renovation program that includes not only renovation of physical facilities and permanent exhibitions, but also cultural changes in the fundamental culture of the museum.  The museum was established in 1898 as a scientific institute, inherently supportive of the colonial policies of Belgium in what was then Belgian Congo, resulting in exhibitions that reflect a colonial perspective.  Through the renovation program the museum is shifting to a “post-colonial” perspective.  It is collaborating with members of the African Diaspora in Belgium and throughout Europe, re-interpreting the origins of its collections to offer varied narratives, and emphasizing multi-disciplinary exhibitions that cross scholarly boundaries and broaden understanding of the cultures on display

Collectively, the problems and questions engaged by these museums throughout the course of EMWC have implications for the future of research, planning and programming at ethnographic museums worldwide

Final EMWC Conference:  The Future of Ethnographic Museums   

PRMconferenceA culminating EMWC conference, The Future of Ethnographic Museums, will be hosted by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in July 2013.  With the participation of anthropologists, ethnographers, museum directors, curators, archivists and academic commentators, the conference aims to build on the EMWC project:   

“to stimulate debate about ethnographic museums in the post-colonial period and  to envision new ways of thinking and working in those museums in the future.”  

Based on the scope and depth of the discussions at prior EMWC meetings, the upcoming program promises to help provide a blueprint for the future of ethnographic museums within the European Union and beyond.