Ambivalent pasts: colonial history and the theatricalities of ethnographic display

Bachmann, M. (2017) Ambivalent pasts: colonial history and the theatricalities of ethnographic display. Theatre Journal, 69(3), pp. 299-319. (doi: 10.1353/tj.2017.0043)

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In the twenty-first century, museums holding ethnographic collections have come under scrutiny for their implication in colonial history, and many have started to address this problematic legacy, often in conscious attempts to move beyond the colonial as “post-ethnographic” spaces and forums for intercultural dialogue. This essay uses a contemporary artwork, Peggy Buth’s installation “The Warrior as Multiple, “exhibited at the Frankfurt Museum of World Cultures in 2014, as a starting point to develop a taxonomy of dominant curatorial strategies at work in ethnographic museums today: self-reflexive contextualization, inversion or reversal, indigenous curation, visible storage, and the turn to live performance—all of which are used to address colonial history. Approaching these strategies from the perspective of theatre and performance studies, the essay analyzes their “theatricalities” of display—the “doing” of ethnographic objects, as well as the “spectacularity” of dioramic settings—through a series of case studies, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut, and the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam. It argues that despite their critical potential, these strategies run the danger of being complicit in a working through (in the Freudian sense of the term) of colonial history, which might ultimately “liberate” ethnographic museums from their problematic legacy. Instead, the essay proposes an insistence on ambivalence, understood as the simultaneous co-existence of at least two conflicting meanings, in order to resist such an erasure.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Bachmann, Dr Michael
Authors: Bachmann, M.
College/School:College of Arts > School of Culture and Creative Arts
Journal Name:Theatre Journal
Publisher:Johns Hopkins University Press
ISSN (Online):1086-332X
Published Online:19 September 2017
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2017 Johns Hopkins University Press
First Published:First published in Theatre Journal 69(3):299-319
Publisher Policy:Reproduced in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher.

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