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Ethnographic Object Analysis

Course Description

It is expected that students attend all 5 sessions of this course.

Do you ever visit museums and feel that you lack the specialist knowledge, skills and experience to critically analyse and evaluate ethnographic objects and displays? This training course, run by the UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage and Material Culture Studies, is designed to provide the skills necessary to do this.

Utilising collections at UCL, and with access to the British Museum and the Horniman Museum, this training course sets out to develop the skills and understanding necessary to best utilise ethnographic collections from Africa, the Americas and Oceania. The course will be particularly suitable for those wishing to develop their ethnographic expertise in such fields as museum studies, heritage studies, material culture studies, and world art as well as graduates keen to familiarise themselves with the materiality of ethnographic objects, images and collections. You will be guided towards relevant themes and perspectives through a series of hands-on practical sessions run on a weekly basis.

Sessions will focus on:

  • Analytical techniques for examining materials, style and technique of ethnographic objects
  • Learning how to observe, document and describe ethnographic objects through drawing, classification and computer documentation systems
  • Handling training, basic conservation assessment techniques and issues of conservation practice and ethics
  • Practical exploration of issues relating to exhibition, design and representation
  • Analytical techniques for ethnographic photographs and their storage

The training course will give research students a practical grounding to become confident in handling and using ethnographic objects in research and creative media. It will also provide some of the necessary skills needed by those students interested in pursuing a career in museums and galleries, anthropology, culture and heritage, art history and the education sector.

Week 1. Understanding Ethnographic Objects and Collections:

This session will introduce students to the multiple ways of looking at, analysing and interpreting ethnographic objects. It will consider both the history of ethnographic collections and their role for museums and source communities today. Students will get an opportunity to engage with and ask questions of a selection of objects from UCL's ethnographic collections, and in doing so will learn about ways of analysing the material properties, production techniques and formal qualities of such objects. We will consider and discuss how such analysis can reveal telling aspects about an object’s biography and the agency of the people who made, used and collected it.            

Recommended Bibliography:

Bouquet, M. (ed.) 2001. Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future. Oxford:Berghahn.
Byrne, S., Clarke, A., Harrison, R. and Torrence, R. (eds.) (2011) Unpacking the collection: Networks of Material and Social Agency in the Museum, One World Archaeology Series, Springer.
Elsner, J. & R. Cardinal (eds.) 1994. The Culture of Collecting. Reaktion Books: London.
Gosden, C. and Larson, F. 2006. Knowing Things: Exploring the Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, 1884-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hoskins, J. 1998. Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of Peoples’ Lives. London: Routledge
Pearce, S. (ed.) 1994. Interpreting Objects and Collections. Routledge: London & New York.
Shelton, A. 2006. Museums and Anthropologies: Practices and Narratives, in MacDonald, S.
(ed.) A Companion to Museum Studies, p. 64-80. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Stocking, G.W. 1985.Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Week 2. Collecting and Documenting Ethnographic Objects:

The first half of this session considers the strategies employed in the collection of ethnographic objects and how these methods have changed through time. The historical context of collecting will be explored during a visit to the Centenary Gallery at the Horniman Museum. The session will also discuss what motivates and influences contemporary ethnographic collecting, acquisition and disposal policies and the role of community consultation within these processes. The second half of the session will examine the documentation of ethnographic collections by examining the various taxonomies, typologies and thesauruses that have been developed to describe them and how these categories have influenced how objects are archived, stored, interpreted and displayed.                                          

Recommended Bibliography:

Gosden, C. and Knowles, C. 2001. Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change. Oxford: Berg.
Harrison, M. and McKenna, G. 2009. Documentation: A Practical Guide. Cambridge: Collections Trust.
Pearce, S.M. 1995. On collecting: An investigation into the European Tradition. London: Routledge.
Shelton, A. (ed.) 2001. Collectors: Individuals and Institutions. London: Horniman Museum.
Waterfield, H. and King, J. 2010. Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990. London: Paul Holberton Publishing.
Holm, S.A. 2002. Cataloguing Made Easy: How to Catalogue Your Collections, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: MDA.
SPECTRUM Terminology: http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk/index.cfm/collection-management/spectrum-terminology/
Pitt Rivers Thesaurus: http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk/index.cfm/collection-management/spectrum-terminology/bank/pitt-rivers-museum-university-of-oxford-keyword-thesaurus/?keywords=ethnographic&tag=&searchSectionID
Horniman Museum Acquisition and Disposal Policy: http://www.horniman.ac.uk/images/new_uploads/Policies-Acquisition.pdf

Week 3. Issues in the Conservation of Ethnographic Objects:

Conservation comprises interventive and preventive processes designed to prolong the material, historical, social and cultural lives of objects. Given that objects have complex biographies, from their various pasts prior to entering museum collections to the different histories they come to represent within them, conservation practices impinge not just on the material preservation of things, but also upon which aspects of objects’ lives are foregrounded as particularly meaningful. While not undertaking conservation procedures, we will learn how to assess the needs of the different types of ethnographic objects, based on their materials, and how these are addressed in display, handling and storage contexts. We will also consider the different meanings objects possess for the communities of origin, for the museum and for contemporary audiences, and how, or if, these differing agendas can be accommodated in Western museum contexts.

Recommended Bibliography:

Appelbaum, B. 2007. Conservation Treatment Methodology, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann (chapter 5: “Quadrant IV - Lifetime of the cultural object”)
Ashley Smith, J. 1982. ‘The ethics of conservation’, UKIC, no. 6, p. 1-5
Caple, C. 2000. Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making, London and New York: Routledge (chapters 7: “Cleaning”; 8: “Stabilization”; and 11: “Preventive conservation and legal protection”)
Clavir, M. 2002. Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations, Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press (chapter 3: “First Nations perspectives on preservation and museums”)
Hooper-Greenhill, E. 2000. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London and New York: Routledge (chapter 5: Objects and interpretive processes)
Matero, F. 2000. ‘Ethics and Policy in Conservation’ The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, 15.1 (available at: http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications/newsletters/15_1/feature1_2.html)
Philippot, P. 1996. ‘Historic Preservation: Philosophy, Criteria, Guidelines 1’ in N. Stanley Price, M. Kirby Talley Jr, and A. Melucco Vaccaro (eds.) Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 268-274
Richmond, A. and Braker, A. (eds.) 2009. Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
Waller, R. and Michalski, S. 2004. ‘Effective Preservation: From Reaction to Prevention’, The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, 19.1 (available at: http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications/newsletters/19_1/feature.html)

Week 4. Ethnographic Photographs: Contexts and Methods:

 Photographs have an integral and complex role in many anthropological/ethnographic contexts, from fieldwork to exhibitions.  This session is concerned with examining ethnographic photographs, both as images and as objects.  We will learn how to interpret photographic images, and explore how close-readings of photographs reveal not just Western agendas, but also layers of cross-cultural experience.  We will also learn key skills related to archived photographic collections including the dating of images and their technical processes.  

Recommended Bibliography:

Barthes, R. 1993. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
Brown, A. and Peers, L. 2006. ‘Pictures Bring Us Messages': Sinaakssiiksi aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa, Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Edwards, E. 2004. Photographs, Objects Histories: on the Materiality of Images. Oxford: Berg.
Edwards, E. 2001. Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford: Berg.
Lidchi, H. and Tsinhnahjinnie, H. 2009. Visual Currencies: Reflections on Native Photography. National Museums of Scotland.
Maxwell, A. 2000. Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the `Native' People and the Making of European Identities.  Continuum International Publishing Group.
Pinney, C. 2011. Photography and Anthropology. Reaktion Books.
Sontag, S. 2002. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Week 5. Displaying Ethnographic Objects in Museums:

The final session examines ethnographic objects in the context of museum display and representation and investigates different methods for analysing ethnographic exhibitions. It provides an understanding of the ways in which ethnographic objects are displayed in different museums and the types of decisions involved in the process. The session further investigates exhibitionary practice by examining issues such as object selection, gallery space design, interpretation and display techniques; issues that are further examined in the British Museum’s African and North American galleries. Finally, we look at ways for dealing with difficult issues and contentious material such as repatriation claims, human remains and sacred objects.                                                                                               

Recommended Bibliography:

Ames, M.M. 1999. ‘How to Decorate a House: The Re-negotiation of Cultural Representations at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology’, Museum Anthropology 22(3): 41-51.
Kreps, C.F. 2003. Liberating Culture: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Museums, Curation and Heritage Preservation. London: Routledge. (Chapter 2: ‘The Eurocentric Museum Model in the Non-European World, pp.20-45)
Lidchi, H. 1997. ‘The Poetics and Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures’ in S. Hall (ed.) Representations: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage. pp.199-219.
O’Hanlon, M. 1993. Paradise: Portraying the New Guinea Highlands. London: British Museum Press.
Phillips, R.B. 2007. ‘Exhibiting Africa after Modernism: Globalization, Pluralism, and the Persistent Paradigms of Art and Artefact’ in G. Pollock & J. Zemans (eds) Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement. Oxford: Blackwell. pp.80-103.
Pieterse, J.N., 1997. ‘Multiculturalism and Museums: Discourse about Others in the Age of Globalization’, Theory, Culture & Society 14(4): 123-146.
Shelton, A. 2003.‘Curating African Worlds’ in L.L. Peers & A.K. Brown (eds) Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader. London: Routledge, pp.181-193
Stocking, G.W. 1985. Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Analysing Ethnographic Objects - "This course provides both traditional and high tech object analysis techniques (3-d scanning technology). As this is an interactive hands on training, we benefited from each other knowledge (as students) and from the presence of several UCL staff with very different type of expertise and background."

Archiving Ethnographic Objects - "An opportunity to see the functioning of the archiving from inside, with examples of objects which present issues: a good way of learning from the mistakes of others. Issues of conservation, funding, and drawing as a way of understanding the intentionality behind the object."

Speaking for Objects – Conservation Perspectives - "A good way for museums specialists, archaeologists and anthropologists to get together and see what they actually have in common."

Researcher Development Framework Categories

A2) Cognitive abilities

Course Recommended for

This course is particularly relevant to the following groups:

  • Students in Arts & Humanities
  • Students in Social & Historical Sciences

Course Organisers

  • Course Director - Dr Paul Basu - (Institute of Archaeology)
  • Course Tutor - Dr Sarah Byrne - (Institute of Archaeology)
  • Administrator - Ms Kasia Bronk - (Organisational Development)

Further Web Resources


Registration information will be available in due course.

Page last updated: 23rd April 2015