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Panel discusses future of anthropology museums

The panel, titled, “A Discussion on the Future of Museum Ethnography,” took place at the DeVault Gallery and classroom in the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and was coordinated by Jason Jackson, director of the Mathers Museum.

The panel included three speakers: Smithsonian Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology Director Candace Greene, SIMA Program Assistant and IU doctoral candidate Suzanne Godby Ingalsbe and University of Colorado Cultural Anthropology Curator Jen Shannon.

“Well, it’s an exciting time,” Jackson said before the event. “There’s a number of factors which have changed the landscape of museum anthropology. Globalization, new information technologies, those kinds of forces which cause us to intensify our contact with one another around the world, inevitably change the way that museums that focus on cultural diversity do their work.”

This is Jackson’s first year as director of the Mathers Museum and the 50th year since the museum’s opening.

“We’re spending a year thinking hard about how we will do our work at the beginning of our next 50 years,” he said.

The discussion, led by Jackson, was conversational, and the about 30 people in the audience were invited to contribute. Topics such as the role of technology, recognition of the field among other academics and funding for museum research were discussed.

“If you look at the literature on museums, they’re considered one of the most trusted sources of information by people,” Shannon said. “What we represent in museums is really important because there’s a lot of power in the authority of museums to the public.”

Shannon said collaboration among museums, and also between museums and the people they represent, is an important way of understanding and advancing knowledge of material culture and life experiences.

Shannon works closely with the Native American communities on documenting and researching collections, as well as identifying objects which are sacred and inappropriate for museum displays.

“If you’re going to represent a people, you need to collaborate with them,” Shannon said.

Several IU students who had participated in the Smithsonian Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology were in attendance.

SIMA, a research training program, accepts 12 students every year from across the country. Seven IU students have participated in the program over the six years it has existed.

“We’re a teaching museum,” Shannon said of UC’s Museum of Natural History. “And that allows us some leeway to experiment, to support student-generated ideas and to bring contemporary ongoing anthropological research to our displays.”

Jim Seaver, a doctoral candidate in history, said learning can happen on campus as well.

“For people who are interested in working with objects and seeing what kind of relevance they have for our lives, there’s no better place than the Mathers Museum at IU to do that,” Seaver said. “You roll up your sleeves, and they put you to work on projects that you’re interested in.”

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