Call for Papers: The Circulation of Museum Objects

American Anthropological Association Meeting, New Orleans, November 17th- 21st, 2010
Panel organizer: Chris Wingfield, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford / University of Birmingham –
Deadline for title and abstract: Friday 19th March.
When things become museum objects, they can appear to be removed from the world of normal circulation. The process of collecting ethnographic objects has been described in terms of detachment and excision (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998). Storage technologies in museums such as locked doors, alarm systems and glass cases all serve to restrict the movement of museum objects. Museum labeling and documentation can attempt to define museum objects as an immoveable and fixed part of a particular museum’s collection.
Nevertheless many museum objects continue to circulate within and between museums through exchanges and loans. Particularly charismatic objects can be regular travelers between exhibitions staged in different world cities.[1] In some ways it may be more sensible to think of museum objects as forming part of a particular sphere of exchange (Douglas and Isherwood 1979), rather than as being removed from circulation altogether. When museums are closed down, their collections may be transferred to other museum institutions, but can also be sold and returned to other arenas of circulation through the market. Repatriation has also seen museum objects enter new spheres of exchange in recent years.
As well as the circulation of the material objects themselves, museum objects circulate through indexical forms (Gell 1998). Casts and physical replicas of particularly iconic objects can form part of the way in which they circulate. Other indexes include photographs and drawings in museum publications, as well as scale models that may be sold in museum gift shops. For some museum objects, there is a relationship between their relative immovability and the number of indexes that circulate in the world.
This panel will seek to understand museums as institutions which on the one hand restrict and block the circulation of their objects, but on the other, channel their circulation in particular directions, and through particular spheres. By bringing some of the resources of anthropological exchange theory to the analysis of museums and their objects, it is hoped that museums may be understood in relation to the networks in which they operate, rather than as isolated monolithic institutions. In emulation of recent work on the anthropology of colonial archives, it is suggested that focusing on the circulation of museum objects may be a step towards an anthropology of museums that operates ‘along the grain’ (Stoler 2009).
Douglas, Mary, and Baron C. Isherwood (1979) The world of goods : towards an anthropology of consumption. Allen Lane, London.
Gell, Alfred (1998) Art and agency : an anthropological theory. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (1998) Destination culture : tourism, museums, and heritage. University of California Press, Berkeley ; London.
Stoler, Ann Laura (2009) Along the archival grain : epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford.
[1] For an exploration of the idea of the charismatic museum object, see Wingfield, Christopher (2010) Touching the Buddha: encounters with a charismatic object. In Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, edited by S. H. Dudley, pp. 53-70. Routledge, London & New York.