Ethnographic Objects: Imagining Recuration

This workshop stimulated discussions about decolonising anthropology and museums collections, the ethics of display, and the duty of care that anthropology departments have to objects that have been taken from faraway communities during ethnographic fieldwork. Old objects collected by anthropologists at the university of Edinburgh sit on shelves in the anthropology department, forgotten and dusty. In this workshop each group of participants were given one object, with no knowledge of its history or how it came to be in the department. Participants were asked to sketch the objects, and note its material features, how it made them feel and what they thought about how it looked. In groups, participants were then tasked with constructing their ‘ideal’ display of each individual object. These objects are ‘problematic’, their provenance is now largely unknown, material culture is out of fashion in social anthropology, many are not even particularly ‘valuable’ – they are not ‘wanted’ back by their communities of origin. Some may even have been ‘gifts’ to the anthropologist. Yet at the same time they are caught up in the deeply problematic colonial history of anthropological collections – one could say they are ‘shameful’. What to do with such objects is a question faced by anthropological departments and museums across the world, and taps into a broader problematic around the practice of collecting and displaying people’s material heritage in any museum anywhere. The workshop and the questions it raised was documented in a short film directed by Elspeth Parsons which can be viewed below

Mende Mask, possible origin Sierra Leone.
Workshop participants.