( pn90 )

The role of Anthropology in the Decolonization of Museums and Ethnographic Collections


    Renato Athias


    Center for Ethnicity Studoies (NEPE) Federal University of Pernambuco

    Face to Face/ On Site - Presence

    Paride Bollettin


    Department of Anthropology - Masaryk University - Brno

    Face to Face/ On Site - Presence

IUAES Affiliation: Museums and Cultural Heritage


Museums, Ethnographic Collection, Anthropology, Repatriation, Decolonization


This panel intends to bring together anthropologist experts to discuss the decolonization processes of museums, both from a theoretical and methodological point of view. This theme is currently receiving a lot of research interest, in particular regarding museological institutions' responses to demands of indigenous peoples or other discriminated segments of societies in different countries. Many museums have legacies rooted in colonialism; their collections donated or sold by collectors who benefited from colonial empires. Many of these collectors saw their efforts as a way to ‘preserve the past’, believing that indigenous peoples, for example, would disappear into obscurity. However, the debate around returning contaminated colonial collections is not the only way to resolve issues that are linked to colonial museological narratives. In the past decades, countless other colloquia, seminars, and meetings have taken place on this issue and, therefore, this topic has been followed with great attention by the numerous panels organized by COMACH within the scope of anthropological discussion. What is perceived is that museums are facing the challenge of decolonizing their own institutions. However, the very meaning of “decolonization” is being widely debated in different academic spaces. The IUAES Commission on Museums and Cultural Heritage (COMACH) is witness to this debate mainly between anthropologists and museologists, which has been going on since the late 1980s. Anthropologists commonly translate this debate as a process that institutions go through to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly of Western colonizers. Therefore, the anthropological discussion about the decolonization of museums cannot be limited to the debate about colonial cultural objects. The contributions of this Panel will help to analyze the complexities of the current debate beyond questions around the return and historical repair of such objects. The focus of this debate will be on the practice and mentality present in mainly European museums and its influence in the political and public domains. In general, the discussion of colonial cultural objects concerns predominantly the meanings of the objects and the underlying structures of domination. Some museums are developing plans to reformulate their collection design and audit the institution as a whole. And, above all, evaluating their own relationship with their objects and changing the view of the museum as the ‘owner’ of objects or guardians of these collections, with an obligation to the people who created the objects and stories, and to their descendants. This is helping institutions to understand the diversity of their own collections, something that they may have never fully understood before. These discussions are just some examples of issues embedded in the decolonization processes which this panel will explore in detail and provide clues for a better understanding on how museums can take these questions forward.