Museum Anthropology Futures, Day 2: Conference Ethnography Report

Written by Haley Bryant, Emily Cain, and Lillia McEnaney

Today’s activities were a distinctive departure from yesterday’s student-focused panels and presentations. The discussions were oriented around the broad themes of practice vs. theory, pedagogy, and collaborative approaches. The second day of the conference offered a diverse selection of presentation formats, all of which addressed community engagement and project implementation in some form.

The day began with two artist dialogue panels. Rebecca Duclos sat down with Spring Hurlbut to discuss approaches to, and results of, interventions into ethnological museums. Specifically, Spring discussed the diplomacy necessary to coordinate museum-based projects. Next, conference organizer John Lukavic spoke with Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and talked at length about the ‘boxes’ we may find ourselves in within (and without) institutions, how we conceptualize the spaces between those boxes, and the ways in which we can use art to “slice through institutional walls.” He also discussed the need for non-western epistemologies in museological ideologies and practices. All the presenters touched on the idea of porosity, perceived or real, in barriers between objects and communities, between institutions and communities, and between fellow museum professionals.

Presenters discussed the intersections of practical work and theoretical interventions in two roundtables focused on “Challenging Objects in the Anthropocene” and “Museum Histories for Museum Futures”. Participants in the “Challenging Objects” roundtable offered accounts for exciting and intuitive ways they are complicating traditional, imperial museologies in their institutions to look toward and enact a more positive, collaborative, and hopeful future. The discussions taking place at the “Museum Histories” panel addressed curatorial integrity and legacy in shaping community collaborations, how institutional transformations do or do not alter the course of decolonization, and the process of compiling a history of museum anthropology in the UK.

A number of thoughtful pedagogical approaches was offered today in Candace Greene’s panel “Using Museum Collections in Teaching Anthropology”, and a lunch table dedicated to student and early career advising. Educators came together for “Using Museum Collections” to share how they have personally mobilized collections as tools for education and how they have encouraged student interest in collections as research subjects. The practical and logistical implications of this kind of work was at the forefront—including collaborations with museum collections staff. Attendees of the lunch table received practical and actionable advice for the next stages in their careers.

Conversations around collaborative approaches to projects infused all of today’s sessions. Cynthia Chavez Lamar and Landis Smith led a breakout session, “Help shape Guidelines for Collaboration”, which workshopped their School for Advanced Research project: Museum+Community: Guidelines for Collaboration. The open format allowed audience members to offer thoughts and ideas to the panel leaders. Collaboration was also a major theme in the Pecha Kucha-style presentations which took place this afternoon. Hearing these short, rapid presentations on a broad variety of projects and topics in one session allowed for a conversation that ran across all the presentations as a whole and dug deep into each presentation individually. The work of considering intellectual and practical issues was effectively shifted from the presenters to the group as a whole.

The day concluded with a keynote address given by Dr. Wayne Modest. Dr. Modest discussed the many projects he has and is currently working on, all of which work toward decolonization of museum spaces and increased accessibility in a variety of new ways. A major theme of the talk was how museums can and should engage with the current political moment and the responsibilities each member of the museum staff has in that endeavor. He also pushed the audience members to think and rethink definitions and practices of decolonization that may challenge common conceptions of the idea. Dr. Modest drew a comparison between decolonization and the Japanese practice of Kintsukuroi, saying: “We need to think about repair not as an attempt to hide damage but as an acknowledgement that it will always be broken.”

Tomorrow brings us sessions on objects and data, slow museology, and mobilizing museum anthropology.