Ambivalent pasts: colonial history and the theatricalities of ethnographic display

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Bachmann, Michael;
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

In the twenty-first century, museums holding ethnographic collections have come under scrutiny for their implication in colonial history, and many have started to address this problematic legacy, often in conscious attempts to move beyond the colonial as “post-ethnograp... View more
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    71 references, page 1 of 8

    1 I would like to thank Jen Parker-Starbuck, Sabine Kim, and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback concerning this essay.

    2 Peggy Buth, "The Warrior as Multiple," in All of Us: Trauma, Repression, and Ghosts in the Museum. Buth's installation was commissioned by the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, for its exhibition Foreign Exchange (or the Stories You Wouldn't Tell a Stranger), January 16, 2014-January 4, 2015.

    3 Peggy Buth, "'All of Us': Trauma, Repression, and Ghosts in the Museum," in Foreign Exchange (or the Stories You Wouldn't Tell a Stranger), ed. Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2014), 275.

    4 See Britta Lange, Echt, Unecht, Lebensecht: Menschenbilder im Umlauf (Berlin: Kadmos, 2006) for a cultural history of the Umlauff company and a critical analysis of how ethnographic objects, display mannequins, and fake artifacts shaped social imaginaries of the Other in the period around 1900.

    5 Emma Barker, ed., "Introduction," in Contemporary Cultures of Display (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 8.

    6 Critical histories of the diorama within museum contexts mention these plaster figures, but are more often focused on the taxidermied animals that would populate, sometimes alongside indigenous figures, dioramas at natural history museums. For a careful contextualization of animal dioramas alongside other modes of museum display, see Karen Rader and Victoria Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

    7 Among the seminal texts offering a critique of ethnography and cultural anthropology from within these disciplines (rather than from the outside) are Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); and the contributions to James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

    8 Foreign Exchange is the official English translation of the exhibition's German title, Ware & Wissen, which could also be translated as "goods & knowledge." The typographical substitution of the "and" by the ampersand brings the two words in even closer relation to each other. It thus opens up the possibility of reading the exhibition's title as Ware Wissen, or "knowledge as commodity." The exhibition's subtitle, “or the Stories You Wouldn't Tell a Stranger,” is in English in the original.

    9 Bernhard Hagen, qtd. in Clémentine Deliss, "Trading Perceptions in a Post-Ethnographic Museum" (2013), available at

    10 See Karen Pinkus, Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 61-65.

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