In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology and Museums

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Managing Collections
  • Documenting Collections
  • Interpreting Collections
  • Tangible and Intangible Heritage
  • Restitution and Repatriation
  • Looting, Despoliation, and Museum Acquisitions
  • Critical Responses and Reflections

Anthropology Archaeology and Museums
Alex Barker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0238


If archaeology is a historical social science concerned with study of past societies and cultures through material traces, called the archaeological record, then museum archaeology can be understood as the institutional documentation, study, and preservation of those physical traces, and their representation and interpretation to the public. Increasingly diverse archaeological approaches expand the range of forms those material traces may take, presenting challenges to traditional forms of curation and care. Competing epistemologies and theoretical approaches view the ontological significance of these traces in very different ways—some as material correlates of behavior allowing systematic, scientific study of past cultures (including providing the wherewithal for confirmatory reanalyses); others as objets d’art celebrating and expressing the development of human creativity, from diagnostic markers of reconstructed temporocultural periods (e.g., Clovis or Mousterian) to continuingly reconstrued and manipulated instantiations of memories and identities having their own agency and power. As a result extant collections may be understood as everything from scientific voucher specimens on par with biological holotypes to kidnapped relatives requiring return as elements of restorative justice. Through exhibitions and public programs—and through the implicit logics of what is valued and accepted into permanent collections—museums also create and reify conceptions and appreciations of the archaeological past. Interpretive choices and tropes in representation and display are critical in both translating archaeological scholarship into public knowledge, on the one hand, and inadvertently feeding popular stereotypes on the other. Recent critical approaches examine the ways in which museums appropriate other peoples’ pasts, and attention has increasingly turned to incorporating more diverse and culturally sensitive viewpoints into curatorial practice. These and related concerns have also led to a shift from a primary emphasis on building and preserving synoptic teaching or systematic research collections to issues of collaborative curating, community engagement, and of service to the groups represented in the exhibition galleries and storage cabinets. Concomitant with those changes has been a shift in the role of curator from expert interpreter and connoisseur to interlocutor, with attendant additions to necessary skill sets and training. While largely beyond the immediate scope of this work, there is now a broad and growing critical literature on the implication of museums—of all kinds, not just archaeological—in the shaping of knowledge, formation of academic disciplines, role in nation building and transformation of cultural identities, and the perpetuation of stereotypes and preservation of existing systems of power and privilege.

Organizations and Resources

Museum archaeology represents a broad and rapidly changing field; as a result a series of different organizations have merged representing different aspects of the discipline inflected by the differing legal frameworks and intellectual traditions affecting heritage in different regions. Most of these organizations both publish journals and offer a range of resources including best practices and standards documents.

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