Book review | The Oxford Handbook of Museum Archaeology - Museums Association

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Book review | The Oxford Handbook of Museum Archaeology

This publication is a sound starting point for those wanting to understand the context and challenges of contemporary museum archaeology
Archaeology Books
The handbook includes case studies and photos from across the world, including this prison cell at Elmina Castle in Ghana with this rather ominous symbolism

Museums have long been at the centre of the production of archaeological knowledge, and, similarly, archaeology has deeply influenced the development of museum narratives and practices. This multi-authored volume, part of the Oxford Handbooks series, provides an accessible and informative starting point for those who wish to gain a greater understanding of the complexities and challenges of contemporary museum archaeology.

With 28 chapters written by experts in their respective fields, this volume examines important and timely issues that have emerged within and beyond the sectors of museums and archaeology in the past decade. These include decolonisation, repatriation, born-digital media, approaches to the study and display of human remains, and looted artefacts.

Edited by Alice Stevenson, Oxford University Press, £110, ISBN 978-019-884-7526

While acknowledging that any definition of this subject is problematic, the editor, Alice Stevenson, argues that: “Museum archaeology can and should be a critical awareness of the histories, agencies and conditions that form assemblages, a reflexive practice for ongoing archaeological documentation and analysis, and a responsive, sensitive, and community-engaged approach to knowledge production, interpretation and access.”

A comprehensive introduction provides readers with key issues relating to historic and current approaches to this diverse subject, including “collecting, categorising and challenging histories”.

A series of engaging case studies present theoretical and practical perspectives that draw on archaeological collections more holistically. Here, the authors examine archival material, modern replicas and examples of global intangible heritage, as well as archaeological artefacts. These are presented and valued as a whole and not as separate constituent parts.


Archaeological collections were often created under colonial conditions, as part of nationalist and imperial agendas. Stevenson’s refreshingly transparent approach to the subject ensures that what we recognise as “best practice” is a concept drawn from global practice. The diverse chapter themes have an international reach, covering Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceania, as well as Europe and North America.

Here, readers can learn as much about interpreting archaeological collections in case studies from Ghana and China as they can from Oxford. This is an important step to breaking down barriers and transforming narratives in archaeology and museums, which are two traditional disciplines that are both in need of greater self-reflection and critical analysis.

While several of the chapters are illustrated with greyscale images, the inclusion of more images – including colour plates – would bring the case studies to life and is something the Oxford University Press should consider for future publications in this series.

However, this does not detract from the overall significance or usefulness of the volume. As both a curator of a large archaeological collection and its associated archive, and a field archaeologist, this handbook will become a vital resource in my approach to critical engagement in these sectors.

The chapters examining “fieldwork in the museum” as transformative practice, presenting different strategies for how archaeological research can be positively undertaken in museums, will be useful in this regard, particularly Bristol Museum’s curator Gail Boyle’s approach to defining and capitalising on the potential of archaeological archives.

Ceramic petrography expert Patrick Sean Quinn’s examination and reflection on the process of scientific investigation of museum objects is pertinent at a time when fieldwork in many parts of the world is becoming increasingly problematic, leading to greater reliance on archaeological museum collections as datasets for scientific analysis.

This handbook will also form a key text for those who work with non-archaeological collections. The diverse approaches to documenting, caring for, analysing and (re)interpreting assemblages are eminently transferrable to other types of collections. Students will also benefit from the case studies, which offer bibliographies for further research.

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