Curators as keepers and exhibition makers: the British Museum's African Galleries

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It is generally assumed that anthropological artifacts are fundamentally different from art works. This article questions aspects of this distinction by exploring the role of curators in anthropological collections, with a focus on the Africa Galleries at the British Museum. It looks at the complexities faced by the curators of a controversial collection which is contested as 'heritage' and the curatorial practices used to address it in the late 20th and early 21st century. It explores questions such as: can curatorial work narrate the Other outside power structures? How might it narrate other cultures? And can there be collaborations across cultures without collapsing into existing power structures?
Johannes Fabian (2014) has argued that ethnography has two 'moments': the first involves close exchange and collaboration with other communities during field trips. The second involves the construction of an unchanging temporality through which another culture becomes Other and thus excluded from change. This exclusion applies a power relationships. The article demonstrates how the curators developed exhibitions which critiqued the second moment and built on the first by collaborating with living artists. In so doing the curators also questioned the status of works in anthropological collections.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMuseum History Journal
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 7 Jan 2023

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