Tony Bennett, Fiona Cameron, Nélia Dias, Ben Dibley, Rodney Harrison, Ira Jacknis, and Conal McCarthy. Collecting, Ordering, Governing: Anthropology, Museums, and Liberal Government. 360 pp., 46 illus., notes, refs., index. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. $94.95 (cloth), $26.95 (paper)

Histories of museum anthropology often have been constrained by the particularities of the institutions in which anthropological and archaeological objects have been gathered and displayed. Furthermore, these institutional narratives have tended to neglect the broader political implications of curatorial practices. In Collecting, Ordering, Governing, seven scholars specializing in the history of anthropology and museum studies have begun to subvert these accounts through a thoughtfully-crafted book that relies as much on the careful application of theory as it does on recounting the histories of specific museums. Focusing on case studies of museum displays and collecting projects organized in settler-colonial states (the United States, Australia, New Zealand) and in former imperial powers (Great Britain and France), the authors highlight both the explicit and implicit connections between developments in museum anthropology and the establishment of government policies. Yet the authors are careful to note that the book is not meant to serve as a “comparative analysis” of anthropological museums as established in different national and/or regional political contexts; rather, it concentrates on using these cases to trace the complex networks of influence and authority that enabled transactions of particular things and ideas across both physical and conceptual spaces (2). By focusing on these processes of exchange during what is typically regarded as the height of anthropology’s “museum era” (Sturtevant 1969; Stocking 1985), the authors shift away from scholarship that positions the museum as the central organizing force in the collection of anthropological objects and data and instead look to a variety of sites and actors that supported the management of populations as well as the dissemination of scientific and cultural knowledge.

To demonstrate the connections between museum anthropology and government projects and policies, the authors draw on three theoretical frameworks that inform their application and reading of the terms “collecting,” “ordering,” and “governing.” First, they define the process of collecting through what they call “fieldwork agencements” (4). This concept borrows from post-Deleuzian assemblage theory in order to discern the networks of human and non-human actors involved in gathering and circulating material objects and anthropological data. Second, they rely on recent interventions in science studies as articulated by scholars like Bruno Latour to consider the role of archives as “centers of calculation” devoted to managing and ordering materials (4). In particular, they stress the technological and curatorial techniques that enabled the organization and display of anthropological objects (which in their reading include notecards, sound recordings, and films as well as archaeological artifacts, material goods, and human remains). Finally, they turn to Michel Foucault’s description of a “liberal government” to show how anthropology, as a “liberal discipline,” helped reinforce categories of freedom and subjecthood across different populations. By engaging Foucault, the authors emphasize the capacity of anthropological museums to serve as governing tools that supported a spectrum of ideological positions on citizenship and national identity. For example, whereas several of the book’s case studies demonstrate how the racial preoccupations of colonial museums have contributed to lasting legacies of discrimination against the indigenous populations that once served as anthropological subjects of study, other cases reveal moments where museums provided policy makers and indigenous peoples neutral ground on which to experiment with different notions of governance and self-representation. As the authors show, these instances aided early recognitions of indigenous sovereignty within broader governing structures—an awareness that has since prompted conversations about the best practices of museums and archives for engaging with and representing the interests of indigenous communities.

The authors synthesize these three distinct theoretical approaches in Chapter One, which uses four mini case studies to help ground their discussions of collecting, ordering, and governing. These cases are: Baldwin Spencer’s arrangement of typological displays of Aboriginal throwing sticks and boomerangs at the National Museum of Victoria in Australia; Franz Boas’s cultivation of “life groups” in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; the colonial displays in the Musée de l’Homme; and two exhibits constructed in the Dominion Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, that reveal different strategies for depicting Maori culture. These four cases are representative of the types of displays and museum practices treated in more detail throughout the rest of the book, and help establish the geographies and time period (roughly 1880-1930) examined in the text. In fact, only one case—Chapter Two’s discussion of the “Mass-Observation” project organized in Great Britain during the 1930s—diverges from this basic framework and geographic focus.

Chapter One sets up the argument expanded throughout the rest of the book by emphasizing how the processes of collecting, ordering, and governing are interrelated, and how these processes can in turn be studied by scholars interested in perceptions of culture and identity as they affect the implementation of policy and vice versa. The authors suggest that paying attention to the reciprocal nature of these relationships reveals a gradual intellectual and political move away from race-based understandings of human populations to those firmly grounded in concepts of culture. This shift, they argue, would later help “shape the development of postwar forms of cultural governance” that subsequently challenged the curatorial focus and authority of anthropological museums (49). At the same time, the increase of culturally sensitive museum practices worldwide during the second half of the twentieth century created spaces where indigenous communities could assert their sovereignty through representation both in museums and in politics. The authors’ decision to tie their analysis of anthropological displays to examples of interaction and engagement with indigenous communities in the field thereby suggests that anthropological museums may prove surprisingly relevant for understanding the theoretical as well as the museological transformations of postcolonial anthropology. This is important, as it helps to bridge scholarly treatments of material objects and displays with more standard narratives accounting for developments in anthropological theory and thus calls for a reevaluation of museums as epistemological centers for anthropology well after the discipline’s so-called museum era.

This book thus offers a significant contribution to scholars interested in the interplay of museology, scientific authority, and the emergence of government power structures. It is also a major asset to historians, anthropologists, curators, and others seeking new ways to mobilize or recuperate anthropological collections in the present moment. This is particularly true of the final chapter, which applies the careful synthesis of theory and case studies to consider how anthropological museums and exhibits can be transformed into civic institutions for fostering cross-cultural engagements.

Yet there are a few shortcomings. The special attention the authors give to parsing out the “agencements” within larger networks and institutions makes their decision to publish it as a cumulatively-authored work instead of as an edited volume somewhat puzzling and even a bit contradictory. The resulting text is therefore marked by an uneven tone and writing style, with some chapters paying greater attention to the importance of theory in their analysis than others. One wonders, too, how useful the integration of theory really is in the end, especially in those cases describing lesser-known episodes in the history of museum anthropology. While the theory is sophisticated and carefully outlined, it ultimately complicates the book’s narrative structure, making it a difficult text for those unfamiliar with the broader histories of these institutions, particularly for those who may not be well-versed in anthropology’s distinct development in different national contexts (Barth et al. 2005). That said, overall this book marks an important step forward in reframing conversations about the organization and provenance of anthropological museums and collections, and will hopefully inspire more critical treatments of other sites of ordering and display in the future.


Works Cited

Barth, Fredrik, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin, and Sydel Silverman. 2005. One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Sturtevant, William C. 1969. “Does Anthropology Need Museums?” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 82: 619-649.

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