The other on display: translation in the Ethnographic Museum

Kate Sturge

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Published conference outputChapter


    The ethnographic museum in the West has a long and troubling history. The display of 'exotic peoples' in travelling exhibitions began as early as the sixteenth century, but it was the mid and late nineteenth century that saw the great expansion of museums as sites to show artefacts collected - under anything but reputable circumstances - from what were considered the 'primitive', 'natural', or 'tribal' peoples of the world. Today the ethnographic museum is still a feature of large European cities, though faced with newly formulated dilemmas in the postcolonial world. For how can the material culture of a non-western people be collected and displayed in the West without its makers being translated into wordless and powerless objects of visual consumption? In national museums the processes of choosing, contextualizing and commentating exhibits help form national identity; in the ethnographic museum, similarly, they shape perceptions of the apparently distant Other. Like written ethnography, the museum is a 'translation of culture', with many of the associated problems traced by Talal Asad (1986). Like the written form, it has to represent the dialogic realities of cultural encounters in a fixed and intelligible form, to propose categories that define and order the material it has gathered. As the public face of academic ethnography, the museum interprets other cultures for the benefit of the general reader, and in that task museum practice, like all ethnography, operates within very specific historical and political parameters. How are museums in western Europe responding to the issues raised by critical ethnographers like James Clifford (1988), with their focus on the politics of representation? Is globalisation increasing the degree of accountability imposed on the ethnographic museum, or merely reinforcing older patterns? What opportunities and problems are raised by the use of more words - more 'translation' in the narrower sense - in ethnographic museums, and how do museums gain from introducing a reflexive and contextualizing concept of "thick translation" (Appiah 1993) into their work of interpretation?
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationTranslating Others
    Place of PublicationManchester
    PublisherSt Jerome Publishing
    Number of pages10
    ISBN (Print)9781900650854
    Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2006


    • ethnographic museum
    • West
    • postcolonial world
    • dialogic realities
    • cultural encounters


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