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museum anthropology

some form of consultation. James Clifford’s 1997

neocolonial collaboration: essay, ‘‘Museums as Contact Zones,’’ was certainly
Museum as Contact Zone Revisited influential here. Especially in Europe, the contact
zone is now more or less synonymous with these in-
Robin Boast clusionist, collaborative programs. For example, since
university of cambridge 2004 the Manchester Museum has had a film studio
for recording dialogues with source community
abstract experts about objects in the collection. According to
Museums have increasingly been promoting their postco- the museum’s website, ‘‘The Contact Zone, the
lonial status through inclusionist programs in exhibitions, Museum’s first permanent film studio, opened in
shared curatorship, and use of collections. Where there September 2007 with a special ceremony by a Yoruba
are indigenous stakeholders, we have seen an unprece- chief, and attended by many of the Museum’s com-
dented improvement in the empowerment of source munity partners. It is intended to be an active,
communities in the management, use, and presentation informal and relaxed space for Collective Conversa-
of their patrimony in museums. Since James Clifford’s tions’’ (Manchester Museum 2006).
1997 essay, the phrase ‘‘contact zone’’ is now more or One of the best-known examples of the appli-
less synonymous with these inclusionist, collaborative cation of the idea of the contact zone is the University
programs. This paper, while being openly supportive of British Columbia Museum of Anthropo-
of such collaborations in museums, is nevertheless criti- logy’s (MOA) Renewal Project, ‘‘A Partnership of
cal of the use of the contact zone concept. Returning Peoples,’’ which includes a number of new spaces and
to Clifford’s essay, as well as those of Pratt and others, new approaches to museum storage and presenta-
this paper questions why museum scholars perpetuate tion, ‘‘including a new Research Centre, Major
only a partial portrait of the contact zone, despite clear Temporary Exhibition Gallery, and Community
warnings about its inherent asymmetry. The goal of this Suite. Together, they support collaborative, socially
paper is not to undermine the ethically engaged work that responsible, and interdisciplinary research across lo-
has been done, but to expose the dark underbelly of the cal, national, and international borders’’ (MOA
contact zone and, hence, the anatomy of the museum that 2008). The project has been consultative from the
seems to be persistently neocolonial. [neocolonialism, beginning with a Community Advisory Committee
postcolonialism, museum studies, contact zones, local convened to write the original application consisting
knowledge] of representatives of the academic disciplines, ‘‘Lower
Mainland’’ community groups, and First Nations.
As Ruth Phillips, the then Director of the MOA,
Since the 1990s, museums have been promoting their recalls it:
now realized postcolonial status through inclusionist
programs in exhibitions, shared curatorship, and use We revisit our own traditions and our institu-
of collections. Particularly in archaeological and an- tional experience across these past twenty-five
thropological museums, where there are indigenous years that have seen so much change in museum
stakeholders, there have been a large number of pro- practices and ways of doing research. The mo-
grams that have sought to empower these source ment of clarity comes when we realize two
communities. Imbroglios persist (Phillips 2007), but things. First, the locus of ‘‘innovation’’ has been
we have seen an unprecedented improvement in the in front of us all along in the new collaborative
inclusion and empowerment of source community and multivocal models of research with com-
stakeholders in the management, use, and presenta- munity partners that MOA has helped to
tion of their patrimony in museums (Phillips 2005). pioneer. Second, we realize that although new
Dialogue and collaboration is the name of the game technologies have the capacity to revolutionize
these days and there are few museums with anthro- access to and research on museum collections,
pological, or even archaeological, collections that the key applications have not yet been devel-
would consider an exhibition that did not include oped. [Phillips 2005:106–107]

Museum Anthropology, Vol. 34, Iss. 1, pp. 56–70 & 2011 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1379.2010.01107.x
neocolonial collaboration

Another institution that has gone further than contact zones could destroy the very empowerment
others to incorporate such contact zone practices is that it is meant to engender. This paper returns to
the National Museum of the American Indian Clifford’s essay, as well as those of Pratt and others, to
(NMAI) at the Smithsonian Institution. Dialogue question why we perpetuate only a partial and rosy
and collaboration are incorporated into the NMAI portrait of the contact zone. My goal is not to un-
Mission Statement and Collections Policy. As Rosoff dermine what good work has been done but to
points out, the NMAI encourages, expose the dark underbelly of the contact zone and,
hence, the anatomy of the museum practice that
‘‘the direct and meaningful participation of In-
seems to be persistently neocolonial.
dian people’’ in all aspects of the museum’s
activities. In addition to providing detailed
What is a Contact Zone?
procedures for documentation, acquisition, re-
In Mary Louise Pratt’s original article on the
patriation, exhibition, care and handling, and
contact zone, ‘‘The Arts of the Contact Zone,’’ she
other museum functions, the Collections Policy
defined the contact zone as a ‘‘term to refer to social
‘‘respects and endeavours to incorporate the
spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple
cultural protocols of Indian people that define:
with each other, often in contexts of highly asym-
cultural and religious sensitivities, needs, and
metrical relations of power, such as colonialism,
norms; the utilization of cultural knowledge
slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out
and information; and restrictions outlined by
in many parts of the world today’’ (1991:34). The
specific tribal groups.’’ [Rosoff 2003:72]
contact zones that Pratt (1992) went on to describe,
Of course, we have to be careful of our use of expand, and discuss in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel
collaboration and consultation here. These two terms Writing and Transculturation were deeply asym-
have different meanings in different parts of the metrical (i.e., unequal) spaces where a dominant
world. I am writing from Europe where the two terms culture would provide for a ‘‘negotiated’’ space for
are often used interchangeably, but consultation has a certain kinds of cultural exchange, negotiations, and
more informal sense to it, but also, confusingly, a transactions necessary to the maintenance of the
sense where a formal agreement is the goal. In the imperialistic program.
United States, consultation has a definite legal sense, In Imperial Eyes, Pratt explored how travel writing
as defined in federal legislation such as the Native created a bidirectional tableau and, hence, shaped
American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, relations between the European metropole and the
the National Environmental Policy Act, the Archaeo- non-European periphery. She moved the academic
logical Resources Protection Act, and the National interest of the early 1990s into the textual analysis of
Historic Preservation Act (Bell and Paterson 2009). cultural studies within the historical context of
In North America, generally, where tribes are depen- European imperialism. In doing so, she managed to
dent sovereign nations, consultation implies specific break down the binary opposition of the metropole
legal and political rights. Although the varying rela- and the periphery, masculine and feminine, and
tionship between collaboration and consultation white and nonwhite, to establish a more subtle rela-
deserves its own treatment, in this paper, I speak tion of cross-cultural negotiation and translation.
mostly of collaboration. Her key theme in this book was the process of trans-
While I hope that all museums welcome these culturationFa term borrowed from the Cuban
changesFand we must all agree that this new spirit sociologist Fernando Ortiz (1940). Pratt initially
of collaboration has made relations between collect- described transculturation as a ‘‘process whereby
ing institutions and their stakeholders far more members of subordinated or marginal groups select
equitableFI nevertheless have become increasingly and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant
concerned with the museum as contact zone. There- or metropolitan culture’’ (1991:35). These highly
fore, I walk a thin line here. On one hand, I welcome selective, reciprocal but unequal exchanges create a
the new collaboration, and, on the other, I raise a se- two-way dialogue that both defines the colonial
rious concern that the neocolonial nature of these Other and redefines the metropole.

neocolonial colla boration

It is in this respect, that of Pratt’s Imperial Eyes, singular expert accounts to a site of different educa-
that postmodernist museum studies and museum tional engagements.
anthropology have appropriated the contact zone. Arising from this realignmentFand at the core of
We can see this appropriation in Phillips’ (2005:93) museum studies research that has been undertaken
museum, ‘‘Considered in terms of newer constructs over the past 20 yearsFis a particular set of assump-
of colonial contact zones and transculturation,’’ and tions about the social and political nature of the
Mason’s (2006:25) museum as ‘‘a permeable space to processes by which knowledge is produced and
transcultural encounter.’’ Even Mason’s appropria- reproduced in the museum. A summary of this set of
tions of Clifford’s original paper emphasized the assumptions could be as follows:
 Knowledge is fundamentally relative. The nature
He [Clifford] writes: ‘‘[a] contact perspective
of reality is dependent on the perspective from
views all culture-collecting strategies as responses
which it is observed.
to particular histories of dominance, hierarchy,
 The procedures and practices by which an
resistance, and mobilization’’ (1997:213). Viewed
individual comes to know are inherently social.
in this light, the term ‘‘museum’’ is understood
Each of the conversations through which an
as a much more flexible and expansive way of
individual generates and shares knowledge is a
describing a whole range of relations and activi-
contribution to multiple, simultaneous, ongo-
ties which surround the valuation, collection,
ing discourses that are, in turn, dynamically
and display of cultures and histories. [Mason
situated in multiple overlapping networks of
What is common to these, and subsequent,  Every sequence of knowledge-claims takes the
descriptions of the museum as contact zone is the form of a narrative or story by which the nature
character of the contact zone as a dialogical space, of objects may be understood, explained, or
that of transculturation, but this is also what is prob- accounted for.
lematic about such zones.  Knowledge is knowledge of (or about) objects;
objects are things of (or about) which knowers
Museum as Contact Zone know. In this sense, knowledge may be said to be
As Ruth Phillips (2005) implied in her paper about embodied in objects. A necessary condition for
the second museum age, museums have been going the generation of knowledge is engagement with
through major changes over the past 30 years. These objects.
changes began in the late 1970s with a major reori-
entation of the museum’s primary goal that was Despite the relativistic and postmodernist foun-
termed ‘‘the new museology.’’ While the original term dations of the new museology (Macdonald 1998;
is now unpopular, as a characterization of this Macdonald and Fyfe 1996; for a critique see Lonetree
movement it remains useful as a guide to implica- 2006), museum practice, and much of museum
tions and influences. Some argue that the movement studies, has interpreted these principles through the
arose from the International Council of Museums’ lens of the educator. No matter how much museum
(ICOM) redefinition of museums in 1974 (ICOM studies have argued for a pluralistic approach to
2009), others from de Varine’s (1978) definition, and interpretation and presentation, the intellectual con-
others from Peter Vergo’s (1989) edited volume of the trol has largely remained in the hands of the museum.
same name. Aside from origin seeking, at the core The extension of the new museology into museums,
of the new museology is an assumption that the over the past 30 years, has introduced a regime where
museum is neither a center of research nor primarily the educator and the marketing managerFthrough
a collecting institution but an educational instru- the changed instrumentality of the museum as set
ment. The goal of the new museology was, and largely within cultural policyFcontrol the voices of the
still is, the transformation of social practices through museum’s presentations for a relatively narrow,
the transformation of the museum from a display of selective view of ‘‘public’’ interest (Shelton 2001).

neocolonial collaboration

There has been a renewed motivation to reconnect sized that, ‘‘Artefacts in museums embody both the
research and practice, as identified by Macdonald local knowledge and histories that produced them,
(2006) and Phillips (2005), as a core component of a and the global histories of Western expansion which
‘‘second wave’’ of ‘‘the new museology’’ that has have resulted in their collection, transfer to museums,
emerged since 2000. Some of the operations that have and function as sources of new academic and popular
been examined from new perspectives, and trans- knowledge’’ (2003:4). Explicitly they wrote that,
formed as a result of such analyses, are collections ‘‘Artefacts function as ‘contact zones’Fas sources
development, exhibit display, conservation, storage, of knowledge and as catalysts for new relation-
and museum education. Curatorial staff, for example, shipsFboth within and between these communities’’
have long appreciated that by selecting only some (Peers and Brown 2003:4). John Stanton, in the same
kinds of objects for acquisition, preservation, and volume, stated, ‘‘Museums are ideally situated within
public display museums recognize, represent, and this paradigm, since working with their historic col-
affirm the identities of only some communities. lections reinvigorates contemporary wisdom and
Further, they understand that the kinds of decisions understanding, prolonging internal discourses about
made in the acquisitions processFdecisions both the nature of history, culture and identity. . . . The
about what should be selected and about who should reinvigorated objects in museum collections gain
be involved in selectionFshould continuously be fresh meanings and a new element of engagement for
reviewed and questioned. visitors and scholars alike’’ (2003:151).
Along with this development, or perhaps because Andrea Witcomb, in her work Re-imagining the
of it, from the time that James Clifford first associated Museum, has written, ‘‘Rather than understanding
Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the contact zone with the museum as a static, monolithic institution at the
museums there has been a growing translation of the centre of power, it is read as an unstable institution
idea to fit, implicitly and explicitly, into the goals of a attempting to come to grips with the effects of the
postmodern new museology. Key works of the past ten colonial encounter, an attempt which has both posi-
years have been Sharon Macdonald’s (1998) The Poli- tive and negative affects [sic] on those involved’’
tics of Display, Andrea Witcomb’s (2003) Re-imagining (2003:89). In Rhiannon Mason’s review of Witcomb’s
the Museum, Ruth Phillips’ (2005) Re-placing Objects, book, she reiterated this interpretation that, ‘‘As
Anthony Shelton’s (2006) Museums and Anthropolo- ‘contact zone,’ the museum functions more as a
gies, Rhiannon Mason’s (2006) Culture Theory and permeable space to transcultural encounter than as a
Museum Studies, and the many papers in Laura Peers tightly bounded institution disseminating knowledge
and Alison Brown’s (2003) edited volume Museums to its visitors’’ (2004:25).
and Source Communities. However, we also find doubters of this optimistic
What characterizes all of these works is their gen- view of the contact zone. Tony Bennett argued soon
eral optimism about the nature of a new collaborative after Clifford’s essay came out that the new collabo-
approach to representation in museums. Ruth Phil- ration between museums and source communities
lips recognized, for example, that these ‘‘new models was a bit of a ruse, though perhaps a useful one.
of partnership and collaboration . . . are creating ever Bennett (1998:213) saw the contact zone, as a space
more opportunities for Aboriginal intervention into for cross-cultural dialogues and source community
the traditional orientation of the Western museum expertise, to be merely an extension of the museum
toward visual inspection and experience’’ (2005:96– as an instrument of governmentality, expressed as
97). Further, she has found new forms of association multiculturalism. Bennett (1998:213) asked, are
between cultures when they collaborate, ‘‘Considered ‘‘museums not still concerned to beam their improv-
in terms of newer constructs of colonial contact zones ing messages of cultural tolerance and diversity into
and transculturation, there are other ways in which civil society as far as they can reach?’’
these objects are part of the same historical world’’ Andrea Witcomb’s (2003) book tried to draw
(Phillips 2005:93, original emphasis). Bennett’s negative discourse back to a positive role for
Laura Peers and Alison Brown, in their pivotal the museum as cross-cultural mediator. Witcomb
work on museums and source communities, empha- (2003:17) questioned Bennett’s critique by arguing

neocolonial colla boration

that museums’ positions of power are far more What all of these appeals represent is both an at-
unstable than often represented, and that the process tempt by museums, and anthropology museums in
by which museums represent through exhibitions particular, to realign themselves within a postmodern
and documentation is far too complicated a process critique and to reclaim what they see as ground lost to
to be reduced in this wayFthat museums do not anthropology in general, as the mediator between the
simply extend the influence of the elite. Further, that West and the Other (Blaut 1993; Clifford 2004; Dicks
there is a ‘‘range of possible interpretations of the 2000). In these accounts, the museum of the second
function of museums’’ (Witcomb 2003:17). Witcomb age is becoming a contact zoneFa space of collabo-
argued that one of the destructive assumptions about ration, discussion, and conflict resolution. This
contemporary museums is their association with the movement toward integration of source community
narratives of modernity. Museums, for Witcomb, and stakeholder voices into the museumFas well as
are caught between their traditional role as rational an increased willingness to consult with source
and civilizing institutions and their association with communities over matters of storage, conservation,
the ‘‘sins of the West.’’ She argued, ultimately, that and even access (Peers and Brown 2003)Fhas become
just as museums cannot represent their collected a major justification within the museum community
world anymore through totalizing visions, neither for their ongoing relevance and even right to maintain
can the world represent the museum through a their vast colonial collections (Shelton 2006).
totalizing vision of its past, present, and future However, in this attribution of the museum as a
(Witcomb 2003:18). contact zone, what exactly is being claimed? To an-
Rhiannon Mason (2006), in a later work, has swer this we need to look again at what Pratt was
brought the ‘‘public’’ into this diversification of the claiming for the contact zone, and what Clifford was
museum as a postcolonial institution. She argued, as claiming in its application to the museum.
Clifford showed, that as the world outside the
museum exerts forces upon the museum, this fact The Third Literate Art of the Contact Zone
levels a major criticism against the governmental In Pratt’s (1991) original paper, she defined another
model of Bennett, ‘‘namely, that it places too much phenomena that is equally an integral part of the
emphasis on the production side of museums at the contact zoneFthat of autoethnography. Autoethno-
expense of the consumption side of the process. As a graphy is
result, visitors are often overlooked or their responses
a text in which people undertake to describe
oversimplified. Yet as is increasingly acknowledged
themselves in ways that engage with represen-
. . . visitors do not come to museums wholly passive
tations others have made of them. Thus if
or as blank slates’’ (Mason 2006:25).
ethnographic texts are those in which European
Finally, the most recent apologetic for the museum
metropolitan subjects represent to themselves
as a postcolonial institution has been from Anthony
their others (usually their conquered others),
Shelton (2006). In an attempt to reinvigorate the claim
autoethnographic texts are representations that
that museum anthropology is alive and well, especially
the so-defined others construct in response to
within anthropology, Shelton argues that:
or in dialogue with those texts. [Pratt 1991:34]
Museums are a microcosm of the wider society Pratt defined autoethnography as one of the ‘‘lit-
in which inter-ethnic relations are played out erate arts’’ of the contact zone. In The Arts, Pratt
through a struggle over interpretation and con- (1991:35–37) used Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle as
trol of cultural resources. . . . It is this new, an exemplar of an early autoethnographic text.
revitalized sub-discipline of anthropology that, Poma’s letter is an appeal to the King of Spain, writ-
through its dialectical engagement and transfor- ten between 1600 and 1615, in two parts and in two
mation of its subject, has done much, and can be languages, Spanish and Quechua. It is, Pratt argued,
expected to do much more, in charting new written as much for the Quechua-speaking people of
courses not only for ethnographic but for other Peru as for the King of Spain, and uses the European
museum presentations too. [Shelton 2006:79] chronicle as its literary genre. The point, for Pratt, of

neocolonial collaboration

Poma’s Chronicle was not only that he used a students do other than what the teacher specifies is in-
European literary genre to perform Quechua culture visible or anomalous to the analysis. This can be true in
and history, but that it was also an appeal to both practice as well’’ (1991:38).
the Spanish Crown and the Quechua for the recog- In Clifford’s use of the contact zone as a consul-
nition of their cultural and historical significance as a tative space within the new museum (now too a kind
people. The appeal was unsuccessful and the New of classroom), he also presented a much more com-
Chronicle lay forgotten in the Spanish archives for plicated story than is usually represented in later
centuries. With its resurrection by Pratt, Poma’s works. In the usually referenced example from ‘‘Mu-
Chronicle has become a prototypic example of the seums as Contact Zones,’’ that of the Portland
autoethnographic. Museum of Art’s consultation with Tlingit elders over
However, I think, along with Richard Miller the Rasmussen collection, Clifford clearly signaled
(1994), that the key example in The Arts of auto- that, ‘‘What transpired in the Portland Museum’s
ethnography is not Poma’s letter and appeal. The basement was not reducible to a process of collecting
problem with Poma’s letter is that the colonial con- [original emphasis] advice or information. And
text is so prototypical that it does not challenge our something in excess of consultation was going on. A
perceptions of the context within which the contact message was delivered, performed, within an ongoing
zone operates. The contemporary autoethnography is contact history’’ (1997:193, emphasis added).
too clear, too much of a colonialized appeal within a What the museum thought was going on was an
colonial setting, too much of a literary intervention. elucidation of additional context and information that
When applied to the museum as an exemplar, it ob- would enrich the collection. What the people repre-
scures the role of the autoethnography when applied senting the Tlingit were doing was much broader. The
to such settings (granted this was not Pratt’s con- objects represented, for them, ‘‘ongoing stories of
cern), because it is too easy to see the museum as the struggle,’’ an opportunity to remind the museum of its
site at which such appeals are preserved, represented, responsibilities over its stewardship of clan objects,
and reinterpreted. The role of the museum, or ar- and an appeal to the museum to be accountable
chive, is obscured as it does not make clear how these in ways that went beyond ‘‘mere preservation’’ and
objects of the contact zone are being used in postco- contextualization (Clifford 1997:193).
lonial contexts. Far more useful is the experience of
Manuel (Pratt’s son) who, being a student, is daily Autoethnography and the Rhetoric of
embedded in the contact zone that is education (Pratt Appropriation
I’m pleased science has accepted native wisdom,
Pratt recalled how her son clearly recognized,
but why did they have to go and create ethno-
within the first few days in his new ‘‘open’’ school, how
sciences out of it to explain it to themselves? Our
such open and multivocal spaces as his new school
native educators have been drawn into the orbit
operate. When asked by his mother what it was like in
of ‘‘native science’’ for a variety of reasons so
his new school, he responded: ‘‘ ‘theyre a lot nicer, and
it will take some time for them to see under the
they have a lot less rules. But know why theyre nicer?’
rug.FJim Enote, personal communication, 2008
‘Why?’ his mother asked. ‘So youll obey all the rules
they don’t have,’ he replied’’ (Pratt 1991:38, misspell- The problem was not so much that of negotiating a
ings and emphasis in original). new mode of transculturation, nor the lack of un-
It is in exactly this way that we see how the museum derstanding on the part of the Portland Museum of
as contact zone operates. Reference, appropriateness, Art staff about the necessities of the contact zone.
and legitimacy are always framed from the point of Something much more intractable was being per-
view of the party in authority, ‘‘regardless of what other formed, an aspect of these colonial institutions, and
parties might see themselves as doing’’ (Pratt 1991:38). the contact zone, that has largely been left out of the
Pratt pointed out to us that in the school if ‘‘a class- post-Clifford/Pratt discussions. It is the third feature
room is analyzed as a social world unified and of the contact zone and contact zone–like engage-
homogenized with respect to the teacher, whatever ments: autoethnography.

neocolonial colla boration

Autoethnography is as much a part of the contact argues for a decentralization and circulation of
zone as is transculturation. However, it is the forgot- collections in a multiplex public sphere, an expansion
ten part. This is very strange, though probably of the range of things that can happen in museums
very telling, as both Clifford (1997:213) and Pratt and museum-like settings’’ (Clifford 1997:214). For
(1991:34) made clear that autoethnography is one Clifford, the democratization of these politics, and
of the most significant, and most neocolonial, aspects these settings, is a possibility, and this was the central
of all contact zones. point of the article. However, it has become increas-
Pratt explained that autoethnographic texts are ingly clear, over the past ten years, that the contact
not forms of self-representation or autochthonous zone has been continually used by the museum
expression. Rather, they are those texts, written by the (Bennett 1998:212–213), by ‘‘native science’’ (Enote,
Other, that mix indigenous idioms within metropol- personal communication, 2008), and by governmen-
itan and academic modes. Although Pratt (1991:34) tality of indigenous populations (Hemming and
argued, ‘‘Such texts often constitute a marginalized Rigney 2008) as a neocolonial genre. I am arguing
group’s point of entry into the dominant circuits of here that part of this problem, of the traditional
print culture,’’ this clearly points to a much wider reappropriation of the contact zone as colonial
phenomenon, or even mode of dominance, that can contact zone, is due to the now ignored role of auto-
be found when the Other finds that they have to make ethnography as a fundamental neocolonial rhetorical
account of themselves. genre and even instrument of appropriation.
The reason why autoethnography has been
the largely ignored feature of the contact zone may be The Lessons of the Stanford Papuan
that Pratt defined autoethnography as a textual mode Sculpture Garden and the Collaborative
or genre. In her original The Arts of the Contact Zone, Exhibition
autoethnography was ‘‘a text’’ (Pratt 1991:34). In her One of the accounts from Clifford’s (1997:195–196)
next great contact zone work, Imperial Eyes (Pratt contact zones essay that is rarely discussed in the
1992), there was no mention of autoethnography secondary literature is his account of the develop-
as anything but a literary genre. This despite the ment of the Papuan Sculpture Garden at Stanford
fact that Pratt recognized that, like transculturation, University. As Clifford recounted, in 1994 a then
‘‘autoethnography, is a phenomenon of the contact anthropology student at Stanford, Jim Mason, had
zone’’ (Pratt 1991:34). raised enough money, mostly through donations and
If we return to Clifford’s ‘‘Museums as Contact small grants, to bring about a dozen sculptors from
Zones,’’ and the many examples he presented, it seems the Papuan Highlands to Palo Alto. During that
that the main focus of this essay was to suggest to us summer, the sculptors, who were staying with local
that autoethnography is not simply a textual genre, friends and supporters, worked on tree trunks
but, perhaps, a rhetorical genre. Although the primary brought from Papua New Guinea and acceptable
purpose of this paper was a call for museums to loosen stone from Nevada to create ‘‘human figures entwined
‘‘their sense of centrality and [see] themselves as spe- with animals, fantastic designs’’ (Clifford 1997:195).
cific places of transit, intercultural borders, contexts of ‘‘Their workplace was open to everyone passing by
struggle and communication between discrepant and on Friday evenings it turned into a party, with
communities’’ (Clifford 1997:213), he seemed to be barbecues, face painting, drumming, and dancing.
suggesting to us throughout the paper that there are The New Guinea artists taught their designs to inter-
also some fundamental asymmetries: ‘‘A contact per- ested Palo Altoans. Growing numbers turned up every
spective views all culture-collecting strategies as week to hang out, make art, and celebrate’’ (Clifford
responses to particular histories of dominance, hierar- 1997:195).
chy, resistance, and mobilization’’ (Clifford 1997:213). Clifford went on to recount how, when he visited
For Clifford, though, the potential of a ‘‘de- the site in the autumn of 1994, the sculptors had
centred’’ museum is a possibility: ‘‘My account argues returned home to Papua New Guinea and what con-
for a democratic politics that would challenge the stituted the ‘‘New Guinea Sculpture Garden’’ were the
hierarchical valuing of different places of crossing. It various carved stones and trunks, secured by cables,

neocolonial collaboration

covered by plastic, and spread around among the simple statement to sink in, what I think Clifford was
other trees. Jim Mason had also begun another fund- saying was that though we were looking at a perfect
raising initiative, this time to raise money to erect and example of a contact zone, it was not the pleasant
secure the sculptures and create a proper sculpture contact zone usually assumedFcontact zone of equal
garden. Within a year the garden was taking shape reciprocity and mutual benefit.
(Clifford 1997:195–196). It now stands on its site, next Clifford was showing me that contact zones are
to the Humanities Center at Stanford UniversityFthe not really sites of reciprocity. They are, despite the
sculpted poles and stones set in concrete, replete with best efforts of people like Jim Mason, asymmetric
lighting and interpretive panels. spaces of appropriation. No matter how much we try
We could go on to ask why it took so much effort to make the spaces accommodating, they remain sites
to bring these particular artists, and to provide the where the Others come to perform for us, not with
minimal display support for their works, to one of us. What we see in the creation and stabilization of
the richest universities in the world? Having said this, the Papuan Sculpture Garden, I think, is that like so
we must certainly applaud Jim Mason and his com- many other collaborations scattered around the Palo
munity of supporters who looked after the Papuan Alto campus that also have complex hidden histo-
artists with such care and hospitality. What I am in- riesFsites that are also stabilized and naturalized for
terested in here, however, is something that James posterity into the campus landscapeFthere is little
Clifford deferred comment on at the time of his sign of the Papuan artists but for the sculptures. Nor
writing because he thought it was too early to con- is there any sign that very much at all, but for the
sider. The issue was how the garden was ultimately to artists, went back to Papua New Guinea.
be owned and used (Clifford 1997:196). What we see in the New Guinea Sculpture Garden
When my wife and I finally visited the New at Stanford University is not just a contact zone that,
Guinea Sculpture Garden, with James Clifford, in the ultimately, failed to live up to the Papuan artists’ ex-
summer of 2008, I found a well-presented, cared for, pectations. What we see is the conflict between two
and seemingly permanent feature of the Palo Alto fundamentally different sets of assumptions about
campus. While Clifford reminded me of a bit of his what the engagements were for. For the Papuan ar-
paper that I had almost forgotten, it seemed to me to tists the expectations included sets of reciprocal
be an almost perfect example of the successful obligations for the gifts of their time, effort, and
contact zone. It was a project that directly supported works that never materialized. Such engagements
indigenous artists by bringing them into direct and entail ongoing obligations between people that are
meaningful engagements with a diverse group of part of the agreement to come and help. For the
people on the other side of the world. It was a chance people who participated and helped in Palo Alto over
for them to speak for themselves and to demonstrate that year of 1994, it was a chance to engage with these
their artistic productionsFfor these works of art to talented artists, to speak with them and show them
be displayed for posterity in a permanent site on California culture, but mostly to promote them by
campus. What more do we want from a contact zone? permanently displaying their art.
Perhaps this is why so little has been said about this It is foolish to argue that the Palo Altoans were
section of Clifford’s paperFbecause it is so obvious wrong, or insensitive, or even naı̈ve. Both sides in the
a model, a model so often reproduced these days, bargain had culturally specific expectations that were
especially in museums. not going to map onto each other very well. We could
However, while wandering about the garden, equally say that the Papuan sculptors were naı̈ve about
something that Clifford said, intentionally I think, the artistic exchange they were engaging withFa
struck me out of this complacent attitude. While naiveté that largely no longer exists among indigenous
wandering around the exhibited sculptures and artists. The point I wish to make here is that although
reading the now permanent interpretations, Clifford all contact zone engagements are incommensurable in
said that he thought that the Papuan artists expected this way, what matters is that in an incommensurable
something more, more long term, out of the exchange. context, dominance wins. This is the real lesson of the
Although it took some time for the significance of this contact zone.

neocolonial colla boration

Mary Louise Pratt also tried to teach us this A New Museum Age or Neocolonialism
lesson when she revealed how contestation within
the contact zone can be literally obliterated when she Museums are indeed very painful sites for Na-
discussed how her son’s essay on ‘‘A grate adventchin’’ tive peoples as they are intimately tied to the
of an imaginary vaccine that would make school un- colonization process.FLonetree 2006:632
necessary received the usual, but utterly silent, gold Why play the game of self-representation? Such
star. Richard Miller’s later critique of Pratt’s essay visitors, their hosts, and impresarios are not free
neatly summarized the program of silencing within of colonial legacies of exoticism and neocolonial
the contact zone: processes of commodification. Nor are they
entirely confined by these repressive structures.
For Pratt, the teacher’s star labors to conceal a . . . The historical possibilities of contact rela-
conflict in the classroom over what work is to tionsFnegative and positiveFneed to be
be valued and why, presenting instead the confronted.FClifford 1997:200
image that everything is under controlF
students are writing and the teacher is evaluat- That museums were the premier colonial institu-
ing. It is this other strategy for handling difficult tionsFinstitutions that created the ordered
material, namely ignoring the content and representations that contained, objectified, and re-
focusing only on the outward forms of obedient duced the colonized world for the paternalistic
behavior, that leads Pratt to wonder about the imperialism that characterized the 19th and early
place of unsolicited oppositional discourse in 20th centuriesFis beyond dispute (Bennett 1995;
the classroom. With regard to Manuel’s real Harrison 1997:45–47; Hooper-Greenhill 1992; Young
classroom community, the answer to this 1990, 2001). However, there persists a view of muse-
question is clear: the place of unsolicited oppo- ums as postcolonial institutions that have managed
sitional discourse is no place at all. [Miller to reconstruct themselves after the dissolution of
1994:390, emphasis added] the colonies in the later 20th century (Prasad 2003;
Shelton 2000, 2001). As argued above, this vision of
The role of autoethnography within the contact museumsFpostcoloniallyFis represented in what
zone is not simply one of translation and transcultu- has been called the new museology (Macdonald
ration, but of an appeal. The autoethnographic 2006), a museology that promotes education over
within the contact zone offers ‘‘self-representations research, engagement over doctrine, and multivoc-
intended to intervene in metropolitan [or authorita- ality over connoisseurship.
tive institutions’] modes of understanding. Dominant premises of this move to an open
Autoethnographic works are often addressed to both postcolonial role for museums are tied up with a later
metropolitan audiences and the speakers’ own com- 20th century neoliberalism and abstract postmod-
munity. Their reception is thus highly indeterminate’’ ernism. The new museology is neoliberal in the sense
(Pratt 1991:34). that it assumes, as a core premise, the open exchange
However, as Manuel’s effort to challenge the he- of information and the open access to information. It
gemony of the academy shows, the contact zone is abstract postmodern in that it assumes a critical
allows for, and even encourages, participation; it de- ambiguity to definitive interpretations and positions
mands dialogue, it assumes collaboration (of sorts), within the museum (Lonetree 2006:642).
but it is almost impossible to effect. By placing the The justification for these positionings is to
contact zone within the academy, as it always is, es- redress the ‘‘colonial’’ museum’s stance of universal
pecially when applied to the museum, we see how typological calibration, where the object was ‘‘to
dialogue and collaboration are foregrounded, but the speak for itself ’’ within an exhibitional space that
ultimate suppression of oppositional discourse is al- ordered its relation to a measure of civilizationF
ways effected. A pragmatic agonism is provided for thus setting it in relation to the necessary programs
all, but only to the degree that it returns to, and re- of improvement, paternalistic governance, and social
inforces, the academy. utility that supported Western-style imperialism.

neocolonial collaboration

As Susan Ashley has pointed out, the problem is justification pour forth (Hemming and Rigney 2008).
that though However, I will give some justification for my claims.
When Tony Bennett (1998:212) challenged what
there has been great hand-wringing over the he saw as an overly optimistic view of ‘‘cross cultural
new, post-colonial role for the museum and dialogues’’ in Clifford’s contact zones, he was high-
how it functions as a place of representation, lighting the new inclusiveness of museums as merely
socialization and commodification (Hallam and another manifestation of the museum as an instru-
Street 2000; Hein 2000; Kary [sic., Karp] and ment of governmentality. For Bennett this ‘‘bottom-
Lavine 1991). Much has been made of how to up,’’ as opposed to ‘‘top-down’’ model of exhibition
ensure participation and inclusion with the aim development and engagement is not much more than
of creating unbiased cultural representations a subterfuge (Bennett 1998:213; see also Harrison
and developing new, non-white, audiences 2005a, 2005b:31). Although Bennett did not explic-
(Sandell 2002). But at their core museums re- itly associate this instrumentality as a form of
tain two basic competencies left over from neocolonialism, it is not hard to see how we could.
colonial timesFthey collect and they exhibit. Such programs of the appropriation of resources
[Ashley 2005:31] using the subterfuge of collaboration and entitlement
are what define neocolonialism (Marshall 1998;
They also educateFwhich is also a leftover from Nkrumah 1965). The institution that controls the
colonial times, and a core goal of the new museology. calibration and use, controls the resource. This is
Susan Ashley went on to speculate as to what would what Bennett is referring to.
happen when communities with non-Western eth- Hilden and Huhndorf (1999) went further and
nicity interact with the museum? Even speculating: argued that there is little positive potential in such
what would happen if collecting and exhibiting were messages from museums. For them, the act of muse-
rejected altogether (Ashley 2005:31)? However, I am ums allowing source community voices simply
interested here in what practices constitute the three continues to silence the stories of violence and de-
leftover colonial competencesFcollecting, exhibit- gradation that were the colonial past. Amy Lonetree
ing, and educating. Of course what I am suggesting would agree with this critique and has argued that,
here, perhaps even asserting, is that on top of being ‘‘Our survival, as many people have argued, is one of
‘‘leftover’’ colonial competences, these competences the greatest untold stories, and the specifics of this
have adapted themselves to a neocolonial world difficult and shameful history need to be told’’
(Marshall 1998; Nkrumah 1965; Yew 2002), rather (2006:640–641). Her argument is that postmodern
than transcending it. So, rather than being mere abstractions permeate modern, inclusive museum
‘‘leftovers,’’ these are new platforms for a neocolonial exhibitional design:
positioning of the new museum in relation to the
We have long critiqued the elitism and insider
ex-colonial Other.
nature of Western institutions. But by produc-
Of course a thorough examination would cover
ing a museum that features exhibits that only
all of these issues in chapter and verse. They would
curators or those from the academy engaged in
explore all of the nuances of museum practice and
postmodern theory can readily appreciate, have
current museum history. They would accommodate
we created a new institution of elitism? In my
all of the potential objections that will be levied at
opinion, the museum misses an important op-
such an audacious claim. But, then, this is the pri-
portunity to educate because of its choice to
mary mode of defense of the center against claims
present a blurred abstract message to dispel
that it is centralized. The center constantly general-
those stereotypes about Indian history and cul-
izes, constantly summarizes, constantly standardizes.
ture that have long predominated in American
This is the raison d’être of the center, to calibrate by
culture. [Lonetree 2006:642]
summary standardization (Latour 1987, 1988; Law
2004; Pickering 1995). Yet, when the periphery chal- Certainly collaboration is meant to overcome
lenges these summary tactics, claims for absolute this dilemma. Isn’t the inclusion of not only source

neocolonial colla boration

community voices but also actual collaboration meaning and value to objects was to invite source
meant to ensure that meaningful co-narratives are community members into the museum to add their
generated (Clifford 2001; Cooke and McLean 2002; voices to the objects. This accumulation was the
Peers and Brown 2003)? Perhaps. I am not going whole point of significance for the museum, the
to argue that it is not the intention of the museum object, the source communities, and the public.
professionals to achieve a meaningful and inclusive However, what these two encounters, and the subse-
co-narrative through these programs of collaboration. quent work for this article, led to was the realization
On the contrary, it is my belief, and my experience, that the contact zone is a clinical collaboration, a
that in almost all cases museum professionals are consultation that is designed from the outset to
absolutely sincere in their desire to find an inclusive appropriate the resources necessary for the academy
narrativeFto allow the source community a real and to be silent about those that were not necessary.
partnership. However, I think that the concerns This was this clinical collaboration that Jim Enote was
outlined above from Tony Bennett, Patricia Hilden, so perceptively referring to.
and Sherry Huhndorf, Amy Lonetree, and the earlier I have argued that the Papuan Sculpture Garden
concerns of James Clifford expose a structurally at Stanford University is a far more prototypic ex-
neocolonial institution and profession. ample of the contact zone than the many other
examples of collaborative engagements. The ultimate
Decolonizing the Museum power, in such cases, lies not only with the control of
In late 2008 I was working on a set of principles for the objects and the funding regimesFthe property
the expansion of a project with my colleague and and capitalFbut also with the power to stabilize and
friend, Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan display (Geismar 2008:113). The brief summer of di-
Museum & Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico. We alogue and symmetric performance at Stanford has
were discussing the incorporation into the project of now yielded to the forces of documentation. The
the principles of the museum as contact zone. Not Papuans, in fact all of the participants in that sum-
being familiar with the argument, Jim asked me to mer’s events, are now trapped in documentation, in
explain the details of what that meant. Two things inscriptions, in the academy’s discourses.
that happened in that conversation were formative to The discourse produced, in the end, is not even
the writing of this paper. First, I realized that in trying one of autoethnography in the sense of Pratt’s
to explain to Jim what the museum as contact zone Guaman Poma or Clifford’s Papuan Sculptors. It is
meant, my explanations were themselves somewhat absorbed into the collections of the center, of the
confused and disjointed. I realized that my concep- metropole. It is calibrated against international
tion of the contact zone was full of holes and documentation standards, narrated within the idi-
inconsistencies. Second, that when I had given Jim a oms of the academy, and displayed with all the
somewhat reasonable description of a contact zone, resources of the center. Thus, always, is the contact
his reply was simply that the concept seemed quite zone an asymmetric space where the periphery comes
‘‘clinical’’ to him. to win some small, momentary, and strategic advan-
Jim Enote’s response to my description worried tage, but where the center ultimately gains.
me. Had he not understood what I meant by contact This asymmetry is built, literally and figuratively,
zone? Was my description somehow deficient? Was into our institutions (Chakrabarty 1992; Shelton
my own conception of the contact zone weak or ill 2001). They are determined by our funding regimes,
informed? As with the Papuan Sculpture Garden, his by our proscribed professional practices, and in mu-
comment caused me to look again at what I imagined seums, by the very roles that we fulfillFcollecting,
the contact zone to be. I say ‘‘imagined’’ for that documenting, and displaying:
is what I later realized my conception to beFan
imagined definition of the contact zone. I had read more often than not, as this new ‘‘museum age’’
Clifford’s article, and the subsequent discussions of of building and expansion unfolds, the existing
it, with the assumption in mind that the museum museum infrastructure is being renewed along
could, and should, be a dialogic spaceFthat to give preexisting lines. The Western typology of

neocolonial collaboration

museums and the art and artifact display para- mance, and presentation. They are increasingly giving
digms it characteristically deploys are, in fact, up on the academy as the accumulator of voices and
being extended to communities and countries appropriating the technology of museum to their
around the world that have had no previous own ends.
museum tradition. . . . The hard evidence of its So what is the key problem with the museum as
resilience and vitality is the billions of dollars contact zone? It is not so much that the contact zone
being invested in museums, new and old, by is inherently asymmetric but that the contact zone is
governments and private individuals. [Phillips a site in and for the center. This is easily subverted. It
2007:18] is most certainly not that collaboration in the
museum is wrong, or should be abandoned, as some
Good intentions have little force against the power might think I am arguing. On the contrary, this is an
of this institutionalized assemblage. If we read Clif- important feature of the empowerment of commu-
ford’s essay carefully, and the writings of Mary Louise nities whose patrimony museums hold.
Pratt as well, we find that we were warned against this: The key problem, as I see it, lies deeperFdeep in
My account argues for a democratic politics that the assumptions and practices that constitute the
would challenge the hierarchical valuing of museum in the past and today. As Ruth Phillips
different places of crossing. It argues for a de- (2007:18), Tony Bennett (1998), Amy Lonetree
centralization and circulation of collections in a (2006), Nancy Mithlo (2004), and Susan Ashley
multiplex public sphere, an expansion of the (2005) all point out in their various ways, it is that the
range of things that can happen in museums and new museum, the museum as contact zone, is and
museum-like settings. . . . A contact perspective continues to be used instrumentally as a means
argues for the local/global specificity of struggles of masking far more fundamental asymmetries,
and choices concerning inclusion, integrity, dia- appropriations, and biases. The museum, as a site of
logue, translation, quality, and control. And it accumulation, as a gatekeeper of authority and expert
argues for a distribution of resources (media at- accounts, as the ultimate caretaker of the object, as
tention, public and private funding) that the ultimate arbiter of the identity of the object, as its
recognizes diverse audiences and multiplies cen- documenter and even as the educator, has to be
tred histories of encounter. [Clifford 1997:214] completely redrafted. Where the new museology saw
the museum being transformed from a site of deter-
This is the account of the contact zone that mined edification to one of educational engagement,
museums today would embrace, and some have put museums of the 21st century must confront this
into practice, at least in part. deeper neocolonial legacy. This is not only possible
Yet, Clifford warned us in the central sections of but, I would argue, could renovate the museum into
the essay that, ‘‘Contact work in a museum thus goes an institution that supported the enrichment, rather
beyond consultation and sensitivity, though these are than authorization, of collections. To do this, how-
very important. It becomes active collaboration and a ever, requires museums to learn to let go of their
sharing of authority’’ (Clifford 1997:210, emphasis resources, even at times of the objects, for the benefit
added). He also tells us, on the same page, that the and use of communities and agendas far beyond its
center, the academy, is now being challenged by tribal knowledge and control.
museums and minority cultural centers, that,
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