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Ethnographic museums in mutation. Experiments with exhibitionary practices in Post/Colonial Europe

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posted on 12.09.2013, 15:08 by Serena Iervolino
In post/colonial times the roles and purposes of ethnographic museums have been challenged, prompting some institutions to rethink their practices. Recently, criticism has focused on the struggle of ethnographic museums based in post/colonial, multicultural European countries to adjust to the socio-political and cultural changes brought to societies through globalisation and international migration. This thesis explores recent efforts of a few institutions to respond to these changes by experimenting with new exhibitionary praxes. While drawing on insights from several disciplines (primarily postcolonial studies, political theory, cultural studies, and museum studies), this study examines the application of a thematic approach to semi-permanent exhibitions, an exhibitionary praxis focusing on cross-cultural themes. By analysing data from research at two case studies, the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) and the Museum of World Culture (Gothenburg, Sweden), this thesis investigates to what extent and how the application of a thematic strategy enables ethnographic museums to move beyond their endemic tendency to construct cultural ‘others’ and their complicity with neo-colonial discourses. The thesis locates the two museums within their historical and socio-political contexts, and explores their ideological positions regarding cultural diversity which have legitimated the application of a thematic strategy. Analysis of selected exhibitions at these institutions suggests that a thematic approach, although posing new and as yet unresolved challenges, nevertheless holds considerable potential to challenge prevailing understandings of cultural diversity and to express postnational, fluid ideas of identities and belonging. Importantly, the investigation into exhibitionary processes has highlighted alterations in the ‘structures of production’ and revealed negotiations across expertise and power relationships. The thesis argues that attempts to introduce new exhibitionary praxes should be accompanied by efforts to alter museums’ internal structures. Eventually, the broader implications of this study question established museological practices and indicate new perspectives for ethnographic museums in our contemporary, rapidly changing, plural Europe.



Sandell, Richard; Gibson, Lisanne

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University of Leicester

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