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The Museum of Other People by Adam Kuper: Reflections on Museums' Past and Identity




Cover of Museum of Other People


THE BOOK

  • Full Title: The Museum of Other People: From Colonial Acquisitions to Cosmopolitan Exhibitions

  • Author: Adam Kuper

  • Number of Pages: 432

  • Year: 2023

  • Genre: Non-fiction, Anthropology, Social Studies

  • Topics: History of Museums, Museology, History and Consequences of Colonialism, Post-Colonial World, Africa, Americas, Australia, Europe

  • Useful Links: Goodreads, Blackwell's


THE BOOK The Museum of Other People retraces the history of ethnographic museums - once very popular across Europe and North America and today increasingly controversial. In this non-fiction book, the reader finds a reconstruction of the very concept behind these institutions and the story of the most important figures and ideas that contributed to their creation, with the author focusing on hot topics and issues of our time.


THE AUTHOR Adam Kuper (b. 1941) is a South African/British anthropologist and professor, who specialized in Southern African studies. A public figure and a prolific writer, his publications include writings on primitive societies, history of anthropology, culture and society in South Africa, and more. The Museum of Other People is currently his latest endeavor.



READING NOTES: WESTERNERS' PAST IS KNOCKING ON THEIR EVERY DOOR


The Museum of Other People clearly rides the wave of the trend and is written to address questions and situations that have made headlines in so many ways recently.


Kuper, from his perspective of an anthropologist, retraces the full history of that bit old-fashioned kind of museums that host (or hosted) tools, artifacts, and even human remains of peoples and societies from around the world. He also explains how and when mainstays such as the British Museum, the Smithsonian and the Quai Branly saw the light and what they have done so far to either acknowledge their colonialist origin, correct their path or at least improve their methods.


Moving forward with your reading, prepare to be sometimes shocked by the ingenuity and simplicity of the colonialists or by the cunningness of the oppressed emerging from the pages. Be ready to hear of how even the brightest minds of the 19th century fell into the trap of progress and civilization or how indigenous peoples at times succumbed to a lust for greed and power.



View of the Benin plaques in the Sainsbury Galleries (African section) of the British Museum
View of the Benin plaques in the Sainsbury Galleries (African section) of the British Museum. Highly controversial, they are frequently mentioned in the book | Photo Credits: Hyperallergic (https://hyperallergic.com/659691/british-museum-africa-galleries-labels-evade-responsibility/)


The book also asks many questions.


Can cities like London, Paris, or Washington still host artifacts or artworks coming from Africa, South America, Australia? Do they have the right to do so? Have they ever? Should Europe and North America give back the treasures they accumulated during the colonial era? How to prove if the pieces were freely traded or forcefully acquired?


And, last but not least, can Westerners' ancestors be forever blamed for the turns our world is taking? Can Westerners be trusted again? These ones may be more implicit, unconscious even, but they voice a dilemma that might have popped up in the mind of many.


Does the book answer all the questions it poses? Not sure if it does, but it provides the reader with all the tools to come up with their own solution. A dangerous move, because Kuper mildly and hardly takes any stand and thus exposes his own work to the threat of being used to prove everything and its opposite.


However, it is good to quote one of the very few clearly-expressed ideas of the author, synthesized in this sentence (which is repeated at least twice across the book):


Fear of controversy freezes innovation*.

Indeed, the book teaches us that innovation and change may save ethnology museums from post-colonial damnation but that this will most likely mean compromise, restitution, acceptance.


So, while reminding us that we are all humans but some of us may have sinned more than others, this book left me wondering if in the future we should act differently, keeping in mind that the Western approach to culture and preservation may be a very good one and well established but not necessarily the best choice for everyone - and that instead of pointing the finger or act like saviors, we may have to accept our different priorities.


 


References:

*This writing is based on the ebook version of Adam Kuper, The Museum of Other People: From Colonial Acquisitions to Cosmopolitan Exhibitions, London 2023.


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