As someone interested in the history of museums, I have thought for a long time about how we can use the objects in museums’ collections along with their archives to enrich our understanding of both. Recently I have been studying how ideas about art and the discipline of anthropology shaped the reception, display, and interpretation of Indigenous material culture in the late nineteenth century. At the height of the British Empire, British missionaries, anthropologists, and other collectors brought back and exhibited objects of the peoples whom they had conquered — peoples they defined as “primitive.”
Anthropology as a discipline emerged at this time, entangled with colonial power structures, and some anthropologists embraced and helped to popularize racist ideas of socio-cultural evolution. These legacies continue to haunt our relationships to Indigenous material culture. Understanding these relationships is part of the broader project of decolonizing museums, and Indigenous communities and scholars have made it clear that we need to be aware of the colonial context of the acquisition and display of these objects. The rightful ownership of Indigenous arts and historical artifacts is the subject of intense debate, particularly in the case of objects held by former colonial powers.
Alongside their original meanings and histories of acquisition, it is also important to show the ways that material culture acted within the cultures that collected it. Examining this question allows us to place museums and their collections in their own historical and cultural contexts and to remember that objects have meaning in British and European contexts, and not just in their cultures of origin. In thinking about Indigenous art and culture in this way, the objects themselves are vital, because they often give us clues to their histories of use and interpretation. When used in conjunction with museum archives, such objects can help us see some of the distortions that took place in the moment of their collecting and display, and how they functioned in their collectors’ culture.
To illustrate these ideas, let’s consider one particular Haida object, now in the collection of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, England.