Are Objects Ever Enough?

After reading Clifford, I am thinking back to our conversation about the role of dialogue and “voice” in the presentation of cultures. Our readings last week problematized the primacy of visuality in museums and other institutions representing “culture.” Clifford’s essay on “Museums as Contact Zones” reinforces the shortcomings of objects as cultural ambassadors.

Clifford observes that when Tlingit guests came to the Portland Art Museum, they interacted with museum objects through memory and performance. The objects themselves did not represent Tlingit culture, the objects instead served as prompts to oral histories and other modes of telling. He suggests throughout the essay that interpretation gives objects meaning, offering examples like the New Guinea Sculpture Garden, wherein the people featured became “practicing artists” rather than “specimens on display” through their active creation of the site. (196) Clifford concludes the article by proposing that museums working to reckon with histories of conquest and cultural appropriation aim for co-curation rather than consultation with people whose artifacts the museum houses.

The bigger question this all raises for me is whether it is ever possible to ethically represent a culture through material culture alone. Clifford writes that when legacies of colonialism and other “asymmetrical” power relationships shape museum collections, the objects “could never be entirely possessed by the museum.” (194) Without human interlocuters, are objects ever enough?

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