Stocking, George W., editor. Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. History of Anthropology, Volume 3. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.


Objects and Others, the third installment of the History of Anthropology series published by University of Wisconsin Press, is an edited volume featuring essays on the role of material culture and museums in the history of anthropology. While originally conceived as a series of essays on the “museum period”[1] of anthropology, George Stocking explains in his introduction how the process of assembling and editing the essays opened up larger questions about “objects and others”—in other words, how material culture mediates the relationship between science and its subjects. The case studies, primarily drawn from British and North American contexts, illustrate the role of material culture and museums in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several case studies focus on key institutional spaces: the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (William R. Chapman), the Peabody Museum at Harvard (Curtis Hinsley), the Trocadero Museum in Paris (Elizabeth A. Williams), and the American Museum of Natural History, where Ira Jacknis memorably narrates how Franz Boas attempted, and ultimately rejected, the role of exhibition designer. The remaining essays focus on the negotiations that happen around the collection, preservation, and display of objects, including how the Rockefeller Foundation’s philanthropy shaped scientific priorities (Stocking), how market forces guided the creation and valuation of American Indian art in the Southwest (Edwin L. Wade), how Quebec selected a particular aesthetic version of its French past to preserve and perpetuate (Richard Handler), and how the shifting institutional place of archaeology within the academy shaped collecting trends (Bruce G. Trigger). 

While attempts to synthesize the contributions are minimal, Stocking suggests that the combined essays highlight several “dimensions” in which anthropological objects operate: not only the three dimensions of the physical space of the museum, but also their existence in time, and their shifting identities as objects of power, wealth, and aesthetic interest. An afterword, provided by James Clifford, argues that the collection and display of other cultures’ objects is intimately tied to the creation of Western social and cultural identity. To the question of where such objects rightfully “belong,” Clifford suggests that they belong “nowhere, […] having been torn from their social contexts of production and reception, given value in systems of meaning whose primary function is to confirm the knowledge and taste of a possessive Western subjectivity” (244).

Relevance Today

Objects and Others continues to be one of the most widely read and cited installments in the History of Anthropology series. The volume remains a great starting point for scholars interested in how Western cultures have processed knowledge of other cultures through their “stuff.” In particular, it brings attention to how the meaning of an object is profoundly shaped by its institutional context. Published in 1985, long before the “material turn” that caught the attention of the humanities in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the volume shows the enduring generative promise of examining material culture, and how it has been commissioned, collected, organized, debated, and displayed. One particular strength of the volume is the variety of professional perspectives included—the contributors include not only academic anthropologists and historians, but also museum professionals (Wade and Jacknis) whose experience grappling with the practical concerns of object management come through in their analyses. However, this is not to say that the discussion is comprehensive. The volume does not include non-Western perspectives, and is very much a history of what the West has done with other peoples’ things, including the West’s imagination of their own culture’s history. When Clifford suggests in the afterword that the anthropological objects filling museum basements belong “nowhere,” having been removed from their original contexts of social meaning, we are reminded that this volume predated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which opened the possibility, at least in the American, legal context, that many of these objects had the potential to be re-contextualized yet again, this time by the descendants of their producers.

Ultimately, what remains with the reader are the entanglements of materiality, time, power, wealth, and beauty that shape the creation and curation of objects. For example, in his essay on the market for American Indian art in the Southwest, Wade recounts how the staff of the philanthropic Museum of Northern Arizona decided in the 1930s that Hopi jewelry was too similar to Navajo and Zuni metalwork (from whom the Hopi had learned the technique in the late nineteenth century). They decided that it was “time for the Hopi to have their own distinct style,” (183) which was created by museum staff through the combination pottery and basketwork motifs and commissioned from Hopi silversmith Paul Saufkie. Initially suspicious of this new technique, the Hopi Silvercraft Guild eventually adopted the style as their official tribal technique after it proved financially successful. Through episodes such as these, Objects and Others demonstrates the ironic, paradoxical entanglements of aesthetic, economic, and cultural value that have shaped the collection and display of material culture in Western institutions. 

Selected Reviews

Bean, Susan S. American Ethnologist 14, no. 3 (August 1987): 552–559.

Cantwell, Anne-Marie. American Indian Quarterly 13, no. 1 (Winter 1987): 84. 

Durrans, Brian. Man 22, no. 3 (September 1987): 566–567.

van Keuren, David. Isis 79, no. 1 (March 1988): 117–118.

Porter, Charlotte. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 23, no. 1 (January 1, 1987): 65.

[1] William Sturtevant identified three historic eras, the Museum Period (1840-1890), the Museum-University Period (1890-1920), and the University Period (after 1920), to describe how the main intellectual activity shifted its institutional home between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. William Sturtevant, “Does Anthropology Need Museums?,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 82 (1969): 619–649.

Laurel Waycott: contributions / website /