James Clifford’s “Museums as Contact Zones”

The way that museums operate is always in line with political and social happenings of the moment…the move from excluding cultures in exhibitions, or imperialist display to our fervent desire to see and experience tribal, primitive identities, manifested through inclusion and differentiation is an example of that. This desire emerges with deindustrialization, a time when inclusion and differentiation are the current trends.

Image Clifford 1

A Museum postcard showing Gallery E-14, the so-called “Persian Room,” looking north into Gallery E-13, on October 2, 1912. The Museum sometimes used the terms “Persian” and “Assyrian” to distinguish Islamic-period art from ancient Near Eastern art, regardless of country.

In 1997 Professor James Clifford proposed the idea of ‘museums as contact zones’ where different cultures come into contact and collaborate in attempt to create a museum environment conducive to discussion and understanding. Today, the internet is basically a giant ‘contact zone’ in the way it connects people of different cultures and backgrounds allowing them to collaborate and exchange ideas to no end.

Image Clifford 2

Five Asmat ancestor figures, Indonesian Tribal art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The more perspectives and interactions there are among different people, the more opinions and knowledge there is, the less room there is for misrepresentation or offensive aspects to the cultural exhibit. However, this would not eliminate the possibility of challenges in the ethnographic field. The fact is that when a culture is represented in a place other than its origin, and that representation is meant for an audience outside of that culture—and/or the time period being referred to—within an institution that has its own political/social motivations and inherent cultural ideologies, questions, critique and controversy are inevitable.

As cynical as that sounds, I believe that it is more interesting this way. After all aren’t museums today places of learning, of dealing with your own ambivalence to a certain controversial exhibition, of thinking through questions in a way in which you will not necessarily arrive at an answer, more than they are places of passive observation? In today’s world of deindustrialization it is crucial to continue to ask questions such as, who has the right to represent a culture, or a group of people, in a globalized world and how is it possible to represent a minority, or a non-western culture, without exploiting them.

Musée du quai Branly. Bâtiment Musée. Le plateau des Collections. Vue de la zone Océanie. Mars 2008.

Musée du quai Branly. Bâtiment Musée. Le plateau des Collections. Vue de la zone Océanie. Mars 2008.

Musee Du Quai Branly, Paris, France. Opened in 2006.

Clifford states that we could “begin to grapple with difficulties of dialogue, alliance, inequality and translation” that come with the territory of curating ethnological exhibitions. This “reciprocity” within contact zones is the path away from object exchange and toward decentralization against hierarchical legacy, according Clifford.

  • – Olivia Marciano
Categories: Artists, Exhibitions