Shasti Lowton, archives and engagement, National Trust


Issue 115/11, p15, 01.11.2015
Does categorising non-western collections as ‘ethnographic’ diminish their historic and cultural importance?
Shasti Lowton, archives and engagement, National Trust

“Museums should stop using the term ethnographic to describe non-western collections. The artisans that painstakingly crafted these pieces did not create them with the intention of their work becoming mere cultural curiosities or souvenirs from an exotic folly.

Categorising objects in this way belittles their historical, artistic and cultural significance. Classing objects as “ethnographic” sends a message to non- western and Black, Asian, and minority ethnic societies that their heritage is “other” and twists it from truth to folklore.”

Vandana Patel, interpretation officer, British Museum

“Context is everything. The term is problematic when used to describe non-western collections, particularly if western collections in the same institution are labelled with greater detail and categorised as anthropological, antiquities or decorative arts.

When terms are juxtaposed like this then the description “ethnographic” can become a reductive term that quietly diminishes these other cultures and their importance historically and culturally. Ingrained perceptions are difficult to alter and institutions need to consider the context of categorisations.”

Claire Wintle, senior lecturer in museum studies, University of Brighton

“The term ‘ethnographic’ refers to valid research techniques in anthropology that are used to describe and analyse people from all societies (and often emphasise their historic and cultural importance), but it does have past connotations of difference and scientific racism.

The term can also alienate museum audiences. Yet referring to world cultures collections as “art” applies western values in equally problematic ways. Ideally, public-facing projects should move beyond these categories and focus on the benefits of working across collections.”

Nicholas Thomas director of museum archaeology and anthropology, Cambridge

“Ethnography in a museum contexts evokes colonial collecting, but ethnography as method means ‘writing culture’ on the basis of sustained engagements with people; the idea is to go the distance and do justice to their perspectives.

Ethnographic collections should be imaginatively narrated expressions of human diversity and human creativity that stimulate curiosity in the world. If museums are to foster cosmopolitan citizenship, world cultures collections need to be reactivated through dialogues with community, and put at their heart.”


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20.11.2015, 11:23
Early Oriental ceramics, however crudely made,such as those belonging to the Han dynasty or previous eras, are always categorised as ' Oriental ' or Chinese, which places them firmly in a tradition of refined aesthetics and advanced techniques. So why are objects from other parts of the world that might demonstrate similar qualities, denied the respect they deserve by being labelled ethnographic ?
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
19.11.2015, 00:28
It is an interesting academic discussion, but on a more prosaic level, when I see a sign for Ethnographic collections, I usually head that way. One of the best museum experiences is the hands-on enthographic collection at the World Museum in Liverpool. I definitely left that gallery a happier person than when I entered (to continue a conversation from another part of this website).

I hope that there are museums in Africa, Asia and Latin America that have ethnographic collections and that they include a few items from Britain and Europe (sic), just to see what they would choose. It would be as enjoyable as reading tourist guides written in foreign languages about this country.