Museums Research Paper

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A museum is a place for housing, conserving, restoring, and displaying objects and collections of artistic, scientific, or historical significance. These collections are generally selected, arranged, and presented by a curator and made available for public viewing through exhibitions. The museum is an institution with an important role for conserving cultural heritage and in educating the public about the items in its care.

The museum, or institute of the Muses (the goddesses of song, poetry, and the arts and sciences more generally), has been with us for millennia, since the time of the ancients. Plato’s library in Athens is thought of as one of the first, while the Musaeum at Alexandria, including the great Library of Alexandria, is considered one of the most famous. Today museums take all shapes and sizes; some are housed in magnificent monuments to preservation, while others are virtual and only accessible online. Museums contain and display all manner of objects and artifacts, from the ancient to the near new, from the conventional to the bizarre. Often thought of as dedicated to archeological, anthropological, and natural history preservations, museums are also dedicated to various themes, places, and peoples: from maritime to space, from science to fashion, from wars to sports, and from Goethe to Elvis.

From “Curiosities” to “Ethnographica”

Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, anthropological museums began to flourish in virtually all major European and American cities. Through the 1920s these institutions became major centers for the construction of global narratives, whose rise and fall can be charted over the course of this period. Such an investigation also reveals that museums and global narratives are by no means exclusively Western phenomena.

In the Western world, museums developed out of an impetus to understand and categorize the world. It was during the Renaissance that a combination of mercantile wealth and human inquisitiveness created the first “curiosity cabinets” in Italy. Initial curators of such cabinets had few organizing principles, and they listed the relics of saints along with “curios” of animal and plant remains. Frequently such cabinets presented little more than mementos retrieved from long-distance voyages undertaken in the 1500s and 1600s. Yet already within these cabinets a clear separation between artificialia (or human-made artifacts) and naturalia (or natural objects) soon appeared. This distinction became more pronounced with the development of the natural sciences in the 1700s. The most significant development was the publication of the Systema Naturae (1735) by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Linnaeus’s system classified plants by reproductive apparatus and created a taxonomy that accommodated new plant types encountered during exploratory voyages. While Linnaean categories functioned well in the realm of naturalia, one could not extend them to indigenous artifacts. Over the next century, however, scholars invested considerable time and effort in replicating Linnaeus’s system for the realm of human artifacts. Their endeavors became even more pronounced as Westerners increasingly encountered non-European peoples following 1750. Expeditions into the African continent or the watery expanse of the Pacific Ocean returned thousands of objects that stimulated not only curiosity about indigenous peoples but also attempts to classify the world’s diversity into well-ordered epistemological systems.

By the 1800s, this search for organizing principles received additional currency from the field of archaeology. Conceived to support the available Greco- Roman literature, archaeology provided additional findings that extended and reinterpreted the humanist traditions. While classical archaeologists operated within the framework of an existing body of Greek and Roman literature, anthropologists were free to conceive histories from the material cultures of so-called nonliterate societies of Africa and Oceania. At the same time, however, there emerged a growing concern about the availability of indigenous artifacts. Early anthropologists argued that Western expansion brought about the transformation of indigenous cultures around the world. They believed that Western commerce, diseases, and theology reshaped indigenous societies to such an extent that material culture became tainted with Western influence or, in the worst case, ceased to exist. Either way, there emerged a need for an “anthropology of salvage,” which ultimately called for storage houses for indigenous artifacts and established their value as historical sources. This salvage anthropology became instrumental in the creation and sustenance of anthropological museums, which were thus conceived as a thesaurus of human cultures.

The Rise of World History in Anthropological Museums

Armed with new perspectives on the importance of indigenous artifacts, anthropological museums flourished throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Skilled anthropologists employed the salvage agenda to mobilize civic pride in their respective cities in an attempt to create leading anthropological institutions. Concern over disappearing non-Western heritages enlisted patrons and established networks of collectors. Over the next decades, there also emerged increasing pressure to impose a coherent, orderly framework on the artifacts amassed that could be displayed in the museums’ hallways. The concern about vanishing indigenous peoples was nowhere more pronounced than in the United States, whose westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean often conflicted with the interests of Native Americans. The emerging Smithsonian Institution, created by the U.S. Congress in the 1840s, provided a museological example for other institutions to follow in dealing with indigenous artifacts. Within the United States, a number of other anthropological museums emerged, and the competitive atmosphere with regard to indigenous artifacts soon spread to such countries as Germany, Great Britain, and, later, France.

The Fall of World History in Anthropological Museums

A number of important factors contributed to the decline of world historical narratives within anthropological museums. Most telling were novel methodological approaches in anthropology. By the first decade of the twentieth century, museum practitioners began to venture into the wider world. While formerly relying on collectors such as colonial officials, missionaries, and traders, museum anthropologists decried the paucity of indigenous information accompanying the artifacts they obtained. To remedy such omissions, museum anthropologists organized expeditions to particular regions of the world. While the primary objective of such expeditions was still the collection and study of indigenous artifacts, many expedition participants, dissatisfied with the superficiality of previous data collection, argued for a more localized understanding of cultures, something that could be accomplished only by long-term residence among the members of a particular society. Such considerations, however, could not be easily accommodated in museum displays.

Anthropology’s turn from global to local or regional methodology was under way before the outbreak of World War I. This conflict, however, greatly facilitated matters. It disrupted supply lines of collectors around the world, realigned colonial territories, and decimated the scholarly community. Similarly, certain practitioners were stranded as foreign nationals and by default restructured their studies around specific locations. The most prominent example was Bronislaw Malinowski, who as a national of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ran into complications in the Australian colony of Papua. His ensuing research among the Trobriand Islanders resulted in a number of influential monographs. Although Malinowski did not invent the anthropological method of participant observation, his work enshrined anthropology’s turn away from material culture. Museums continued to exist, but theoretical innovation shifted to the university setting. Anthropology’s attempts at universal histories gave way to more localized studies that have dominated the discipline ever since.

Non-Western Museums and Their Global Narratives

By 1930, global historical narratives had departed from the hallways of anthropological museums. These institutions still served as important training and employment stations for generations of anthropologists, but novel theoretical constructs emerged elsewhere. Hence emerged the stereotype of anthropological museums as relics of a bygone era so popular in postmodern and postcolonial literature. There exists, however, an interesting byproduct of historical investigations into anthropological museums. Legitimate questions emerged about whether or not anthropological museums were indeed Western institutions. While it is difficult to generalize in this context, there seems to be ample evidence that similar processes existed in other societies. Just as Western societies appropriated indigenous material culture to construct historical narratives, so an indigenous appropriation of Western artifacts was a frequent occurrence. Material culture is once again indicative in this case. During the height of the collecting frenzy (three decades before World War I) a number of suspect artifacts started to arrive in anthropological museums. These were things that incorporated Western materials and colors, and whose production involved iron tools. Museum curators generally instructed collectors to abstain from such “tainted” artifacts, yet their numbers started to increase by the 1900s. Deemed inauthentic at the turn of the century, these artifacts are currently restudied to reveal indigenous counternarratives (or, as some historians put it, counterethnographies) to museum world histories. There are even some accounts of indigenous museums, one of the most famous, perhaps, located on the island of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean. There, inside a marae (religious structure) located at Tarahoi, Captain William Bligh (of Bounty fame) discovered an odd collection of artifacts that included mementos hailing from the Bounty mutineers—British symbols of power—and a portrait of James Cook. The last was usually carried to arriving ships, whereupon the captains were asked to add their signatures on the back. Bligh did not make much of Tarahoi, but historians now recognize here the emergence of a museum narrating the encounters between Tahitian and foreign societies.


A significant issue for any museum is the means by which its artifacts or displays are acquired: were they acquired legally and ethically, or is there some dispute over their acquisition? A series of relatively recent cases have served to bring these issues to the fore. Perhaps the most famous case is that of the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, a series of classical Greek marble sculptures that have been housed in the British Museum in London since the early nineteenth century, but which are very much wanted by many to be returned to their original home in the Acropolis of Athens. Even today the theft and trafficking of antiquities is an increasingly common and serious transnational crime. It gained significant international attention following the pillaging and looting of the Iraqi National Museum in the wake of the United States’ invasion and war in 2003. In recent years a number of prominent American art museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Princeton University Art Museum have all returned works of art to Italy that were found to be stolen or looted by third parties and sold on. Similarly, the bones of Australian Aboriginals acquired on voyages in the early nineteenth century and long held by National Museums Scotland, the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands, have recently been returned to their tribal descendants for reburial. While there have been some successes in winning the return of artifacts, particularly human remains, the very nature of many museums and the means by which their numerous artifacts were collected means that this contentious issue will likely remain unresolved as long as there are museums.


  1. Bennett T. (1995). Birth of the museum: History, theory, and politics. New York: Routledge.
  2. Coombes, A. (1994). Reinventing Africa: Museums, material culture, and popular imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Dias, N. (1991). Le musee d’ethnographie du Trocadero, 1878– 1908: Anthropologie et museologie en France. Paris: Editions du CNRS.
  4. Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing nature: Museums, collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. New York: Random House.
  6. Helms, M. (1988). Ulysses’ sail: An ethnographic odyssey of power, knowledge, and geographical distance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  7. Hinsley, C. (1981). Savages and scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the development of American anthropology, 1846– 1910. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  8. Penny, H. G. (2002). Objects of culture: Ethnology and ethnographic museums in imperial Germany. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  9. Stocking, G. (1992). The ethnographer’s magic and other essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  10. Thomas, N. (1991). Entangled objects: Exchange, material culture, and colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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