Anth 380 Introduction to Museum Anthropology

Anth 380  Introduction to Museum Anthropology

Most recently offered: May-June 2013  (previous Fall 2011)

Instructor: Lynette Harper

An introduction to contemporary issues in museum practice and their historical context.  Topics include historical debates and analytical frameworks; shifting purposes and roles of museums and anthropology; changing political contexts and issues; museums, communities, and First Nations; acquisition and interpretation of cultural property; and issues in public representation.


* ANTH 380 Course pack (available in bookstore, and on reserve in library) – titles listed below

* Watson, Sheila (ed.). 2007.  Museums and their communities. New York: Routledge.

Schedule at a glance

Sept.6 Course overview
Sept. 13 A critical history: Museums as social institutions
Sept. 20 Politics of cultural property
Sept.27 Public representation
Oct.4 Museums and First Peoples
Oct.11 Multiple perspectives
Oct.18 Community, Identity, Relationships
Oct.25 Social responsibility: Museums in a troubled world
Nov.1 Objects vs. people  &  Museum practices
Nov.8 Battleground or Contact Zone?   & Time for exhibit teamwork
Nov.15 Exhibition Committee meeting
Nov.22 Committee debriefing, Course review
Nov.29 In class open book essay exam     Take-home option by advance request

Assignment overview

15% Chapter analysis

15% Exhibit analysis

20% Collaborative exhibit project

30% In-class essay exam

15% In-class Group reports or Reflective writing

5% Class participation and attendance

Assignment details:

1. Chapter analysis  (15%) 

Write a short analytical essay (approximately 4-6 pages double-spaced), which addresses one or two chapters in the textbook.

Select a textbook chapter at least 6 pages long, that is not written by editor Sheila Watson, and is not included as required reading in the course outline. Chapters less than 6 pages may be used only if you are comparing and contrasting two of them. Your essay should:

  1. briefly, accurately, and concisely describe focus and significant points in the chapter(s);
  2. analyze the chapter(s) using anthropological concepts and ideas from class and other sources;
  3. consider strengths and weaknesses of the chapter;
  4. link with other readings, concepts, class discussions, and/or personal experiences.

Evaluation criteria for assignments 1, 2, 3 & take-home exam 

  • Main ideas are clear and well developed.
  • Insightful, with ideas and assumptions fully explained, in depth and with details, demonstrating the reasons for your interpretation. 
  • Considers more than one perspective, comparing interpretations to reach your own conclusions.
  • Ideas and opinions are well supported by evidence, using multiple resources, with specific references when appropriate. 
  • Demonstrates accurate understanding of course materials, and appropriate application of anthropological concepts from class & readings. 
  • Easy to read (well organized, concise, with accurate grammar, spelling & punctuation errors)
  • All quotes must be referenced in the body of the essay with author, date, and specific page numbers; general concepts require author and date only. (except for in-class exam, see below)
  • Use any standard format for your list of references at the end of your paper, listing authors alphabetically.

Please note: Essays longer than the specified length are welcome!

2. Exhibit analysis  (15%)        

Your essay (approximately 5-7 pages double-spaced) should go beyond a simple description of the exhibit content, appearance, and visitor reactions.  The analysis should consider the meanings, values, and assumptions that are consciously or unconsciously represented in the display.

  1. Choose an exhibit to analyze.  The display should be in a museum, gallery, historical society, or similar cultural institution. If you’re uncertain about your choice, check with the instructor!
  2. Provide a “thick description” of the exhibit, and apply analytical questions and critical approaches to your chosen exhibit.
    • Briefly, accurately and concisely describe the exhibit focus and present significant features (including content, exhibition techniques, and visiting experience);
    • Consider strengths and weaknesses of the exhibit from multiple perspectives (ie. museum staff, visitors, people represented in the exhibit).
    • Analyze the exhibit using anthropological concepts, readings and topics including those we have discussed in class. Specific themes that might be relevant to your analysis are the museum context and purpose; exhibit purpose (explicit and/or tacit); ideas and values represented, subordinated, or missing altogether; whose interests are being served; apparent relations with source communities; authenticity; and voice.  You are welcome to draw upon other anthropological concepts and frameworks, and personal experiences.

3.Collaborative exhibit proposal  (total marks 20%)       

Groups of 3 or 4 students will collaborate to develop a socially relevant exhibit proposal and make a visual presentation to the class. All proposals will be assessed in an Exhibit Committee Meeting.  Proposal guidelines will be distributed in class.

Presentation (5%)  Group marks based on instructor, peer, and self-evaluations.

Independent report on exhibit plan & development  (15%)

Each student will produce an independent report about the exhibit plan and development, following the proposal guidelines. (Group reports are acceptable by advance arrangement; all team members will receive the same mark.)

4. In-class open book essay exam (30%)  (last class)

Open-book essay exam; sources quoted or cited require only title and author name. Students will write two or three short essays chosen from exam question options, 2-4 handwritten pages for each answer.

Take-home exam option available only by advance arrangement with instructor.

5. Short Group reports and Reflective writing (15%)

During some class sessions, you will be asked to either work with other students to produce a report, or  to independently write a brief written response to a video, article, or discussion topic.  These must be submitted the day of the class, or by email the next day.

Evaluation criteria:  Group work participants will receive a point for each report (5/15). Individual writing will receive a letter grade (total 10/15).

6.  Class participation and attendance (5%)

Readings in Course pack (at Campus Bookstore & Library reserve desk)

Ames, Michael M. 1992. Cannibal tours and glass boxes: The anthropology of museums. Vancouver: UBC Press.  (Chapters 2, 13)

Frank, Gloria Jean.  2000. “”That’s my dinner on display”: A First Nations reflection on museum culture.”  B.C.Studies 125/126, 163-178.

Janes, Robert R.  2009. Museums in a troubled world. New York: Routledge. (Excerpt from Ch.2 “A troubled world,” pp.26-52)

Schildkrout, Enid.  1998.  “Personal styles and disciplinary paradigms:  Frederick Starr and Herbert Lang.” In Enid Schildkrout & Curtis A.Keim (Eds.),  The scramble for art in central Africa (pp.169-192).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.