The Future of Ethnographic Museums Conference

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‘The Future of Ethnographic Museums’ conference was designed to consider how ethnographic museums might develop in the twenty first century and respond to new ideas, new audiences, new technologies and new political realities. This conference marked the culmination of a five-year research project funded by the European Commission in which fourteen ethnographic museums from across Europe collaborated. It therefore also sought to consider the European context in the light of experiences from other parts of the world through lectures given by some of the leading figures in curatorship and museum anthropology internationally. With the Pitt Rivers Museum as its spectacular setting, conference convenors Michael O’Hanlon and Clare Harris aimed to show how the ethnographic museum could be a space not only for debate but also for performance and innovation.


This conference was attended by more than 230 delegates from 26 different countries, ranging from India to Israel and Russia to Brazil. Among them were curators, museum directors, students, artists, policy makers and academics in many disciplines (not only anthropology).

The conference began with a talk by Dr. Laura Peers in the Pitt Rivers Museum gallery where the exhibition she curated ‘Visiting with the Ancestors’ was on display. It was followed by a reception in the main court of the Museum to which all conference delegates and staff of the Museum and School of Anthropology were invited. They were welcomed to the conference by the Museum’s director Michael O’Hanlon and lively conversation ensued among the display cases. Delegates then attended the keynote lecture by Professor James Clifford in a packed lecture theatre at Keble College. His inspiring talk introduced some of the key issues that recurred in papers and discussions during the rest of the conference.

During the 20th and 21st July the conference was addressed by Sharon MacDonald, Wayne Modest, Nicholas Thomas, Ruth Philips, Annie Coombes, Corinne Kratz, Clare Harris and Kavita Singh (see accompanying copy of the conference programme for further information). With 40 minutes each for their talks, they managed to give detailed attention to their own research but also to ensure wide-ranging coverage of the general conference theme. Each paper was followed by questions posed by delegates. Further discussion was prompted by poster displays and oral presentations in the lunch breaks. The afternoon session on 21st July led by five representatives of the EC Ethnographic Museums research project provided an effective format for acknowledging the European background for this conference and triggered a wider discussion with delegates about the themes of the conference as a whole. Prof. Clifford closed the conference with some spontaneous words of praise. He said that he had been encouraged by the novel ways of thinking about ethnographic museums he had encountered during the conference and was glad to see connections being made between North America and Europe.

A highlight of this conference was undoubtedly the torch-lit event at the Pitt Rivers when historic sound recordings and live music by composer Nathanial Mann transformed the experience of the museum space. Several curator-delegates said that they would emulate this model on return to their home institution.


Other outcomes arising from this conference include: a book edited by the convenors, blogs and website entries created both by the Pitt Rivers Museum and by delegates, future collaborations between individuals and institutions, new ideas for museum collections and displays and workshops/symposia organised along similar lines at other museums.


After the event we solicited feedback from all the delegates. Here are a few examples of their very positive responses:

“the papers were excellent and the topics were very timely”
Curator, Museum of International Folk Art, USA

“a great opportunity for discussion”
Academic, Humbolt University, Germany

“The programming was excellent - the perfect balance between content and room to socialize”
Academic, University of Oxford, UK

“a truly thought provoking conference”
Curator, Manchester Museum, UK

 “this was one of the best organized conferences I’ve ever been involved with. Flawless organization, excellent communication, and … I think it will be an important book”
Academic, Emory University, USA 

“performance at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Spectacular!!”
Curator, Museo de América, Spain

Conference support: the organisers gratefully acknowledge the support of the following funders: The European Commission, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (University of Oxford), the Astor Fund, Oxford ASPIRE, the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum and Magdalen College.