In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Museum Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Monographs
  • Artifact Conservation and Collections Management Methods
  • Repatriation, Provenance of Material Culture, and Ethics
  • Major Exhibition Catalogues
  • Representation Critiques
  • Changing Role of Museums

Anthropology Museum Anthropology
Alaka Wali, Rosa Cabrera, Jennifer Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0053


The field of museum anthropology predates the institutionalization of anthropology as an academic discipline in universities. The formation of collections from as early as the 17th century spurred the study of the cultures that produced the objects destined for display. Early on, anthropology collections were integrated either into national museums (e.g., the British Museum), museums of “folk culture,” or, especially in the United States, natural history museums. The first major anthropology and archaeology museum was the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, founded in 1866. Eventually, the collections became the foundation for research and documentation of the lifeways, material circumstances, and human ecology of diverse cultures. For more than a century, anthropologists situated in museums curated the collections by documenting them through catalogues and publications and by creating public displays. However, after the 1970s, museum anthropology became more research oriented, moving beyond collections-based documentation to an emphasis on field research. Simultaneously, it became more difficult to acquire objects because of diminishing resources and international and national policies on cultural patrimony. In the 1980s, a growing critique of the representation of cultures began to emerge from outside the museum walls. The critiques concerned the ahistorical, evolutionary-oriented display of non-European cultures, and the lack of inclusion of “first voice” (the perspective of the peoples themselves). The authority of the curator was questioned, as were the colonialist perspectives that museum displays embodied. Critiques came from academically situated scholars as well as from the communities whose cultures were represented in museum displays. The response from within the museum has been transformative. Curators developed new forms of representation, more attuned to contemporary theory, and they began to collaborate with communities to include their perspectives. Studies of material culture and human ecology continue to dominate museum anthropology, but they are very diverse and cover a huge geographical terrain. Interest has also revived in material-culture studies outside of museums, and we have included some sampling of this work here. Museum-based education programs and publications oriented toward the general public cover the classic four fields of anthropology. Museums of specific cultural groups or heritage-based museums may not always include anthropologists on staff; however, their work represents an important contribution to the understanding of the role of culture and ethnicity in social life. “Eco-museums,” museums dedicated to a single place or a single cultural heritage, represent an important trend of this kind.


A significant amount of material is available on the history of museum anthropology and of museums of natural history. Stocking 1985 is one of the most cited. Periodic assessments of the role of museums in anthropology have been offered, of which Sturtevant 1969 is still perhaps the most widely cited. A recent important contribution is Nash and Feinman 2003, which includes reprints and original articles on the history of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, the fourth-largest natural history museum in the world. Early volumes on the history of museums, such as Murray 1904, chronicled their development or placed museums in the context of the general development of the discipline as in Mead and Bunzel 1960. A general theme of more recent historical writings concerns the problematic relationship between the colonial roots of museum collections’ projects and contemporary theorizing and decolonizing processes in anthropology, as discussed in Alexander 1997, Hodgen 1964, Kavanaugh 2000, and Pearce 1992.

  • Alexander, Edward P. 1997. The museum in America: Innovators and pioneers. London: AltaMira.

    Follows the story of many of the leading historical figures in the development of museums. Their historical accounts trace the formation of the institutions we have today.

  • Hodgen, Margaret T. 1964. Early anthropology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    Historical appraisal of the curiosity of cultures and development of acquisition.

  • Kavanaugh, G., ed. 2000. Making histories in museums. New York: Continuum International.

    Looks at the direction in which museums are going and the crucial role they play in the way the public interprets history.

  • Mead, Margaret, and Ruth Leah Bunzel. 1960. The golden age of American anthropology. New York: G. Braziller.

    Leading scholars look back at the turning point of anthropology in America. Section IV contains articles by Boas, Wissler, and Lowie, among others, on Native American practices as preserved in museums.

  • Murray, David. 1904. Museums: Their history and their use, with a bibliography and list of museums in the United Kingdom. Glasgow: J. MacLehose and Sons.

    This is one of the earliest studies of the history of museums and their use. The text also provides a list of museums and other publications for study.

  • Nash, Stephen E., and G. Feinman. 2003. Curators, collections and contexts: Anthropology at the Field Museum, 1893–2002. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.

    A review of the history of anthropology at the Field Museum through the discussion of the museum’s context and the curators’ contributions, finally covering past and present issues that the museum has faced.

  • Pearce, Susan M. 1992. Museums, objects, and collections: A cultural study. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    Explores the history of museums, their collections, and their current practices paying close attention to the relationship that individuals and institutes have with the artifacts.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1985. Objects and others: Essays on museums and material culture. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    This volume covers the central role museums played in the development of anthropology from 1850 to 1920. It focuses on a number of important questions, including the representation of culture in material objects and the tension between anthropological research and popular education in museums. Articles by Curtis, Hinsley, Jacknis, and Williams are especially interesting for a historical perspective.

  • Sturtevant, William. 1969. Does anthropology need museums? Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 82:619–650.

    This significant article summarized the history of museum anthropology, characterizing three phases—Museum period (1840–1890), Museum-University period (1890–1920), and University period (1920–present)—in the relationship between museums and the discipline of anthropology.

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