Anthropology Art Museums
Haidy Geismar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0278


This bibliography surveys work on the art museum from a broad-based anthropological perspective, with the caveat that many of the influential, anthropologically inflected studies of art museums have not been produced within the confines of the discipline of anthropology. As such, this bibliography also draws on scholars working within art history, history, sociology, and museum studies/museology highlighting however the benefits of working within an anthropological framework that filters art museums through a lens that is global, cultural, and comparative, and which places the art museum within societal and cultural contexts. Attending to local contexts and histories not only highlights the social worlds that both produce and are produced by museums but highlights the complex power relations that underpin the museum as a global form. Anthropology’s methodological commitments also demonstrate the insights that can be gained through long-term participatory fieldwork and ethnographic writing. The art museum that emerges from within these references is a globalized site of institutional practices of curation, collection, conservation, education, and display, profoundly implicated within discourses about the public, national identity, and citizenship that also vary according to local histories and cultures. In turn, these texts also show how the museum as an institutional form and set of practices contributes to the making of the very category of art. I start by reviewing some foundational texts that have established a baseline for conceptual framings of the art museum as it emerged as a nation-building civic institution in Europe. This section also underscores a more global history of the art museum, intrinsically bound up with colonial power and knowledge systems. From the start, the art museum has been instrumental within discourses and ideologies of the public, regulated through its role in the formation of canonical taste, and through the civilizing rituals of exhibition visiting and art appreciation, which controlled and contained the bodies of the citizenry through careful and attentive viewing practices. Discourses of taste, of high and fine art, and, later, of accessibility expose the ways in which the art museum stratifies the public along lines of class and other distinctions, and fosters nationalist policies and politics of inclusion and exclusion. The following section explores the ways in which the classification and display of artworks in museums are fundamentally bound up with a global politics, and underpinned by colonial value systems. Understandings of art and artifact, primive and modern, are categories emerging from highly racialized worldviews that have been distilled into display strategies that have been salient to the emergence of the display of modern and contemporary art and are baselines for exhibition-making in many museum contexts. This section, on practices of display, is followed by a section on art museums and marketplaces, highlighting the interdependences of both monetary and social value between these two institutional contexts. The subsequent sections explore some of the ways in which art museums are bound up in discussions of contemporary social theory and practices of research, tracking an ongoing dialogue between contemporary art and anthropology. The final section then explores the multiplicity of social practices inculcated within the art museum, here presented under the rubric of care, extending the practice of conservation into broader social domains of cultural heritage preservation, social and historical justice, reparation, and community relations.

General Overviews

The texts in this section provide a good overview of the emergence of the art museum, in historical, political, and cultural context(s), and introduce some of the key areas that have informed anthropological (and other) understandings of art museums. Altshuler 2008 and Altshuler 2013 provide an invaluable sourcebook of influential art exhibitions across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting how alongside the museum itself, biennales, world’s fairs, and other global exhibitionary forms have all been important venues for the collection and exhibition of art. McClellan 1999 highlights how the Louvre set the standard for the modern art museum to become, as Duncan 1995 describes, a civic space for public betterment through exposure to high culture. Knell 2016 highlights the role of the art museum in producing national identities. Alpers 1991 is an influential essay arguing that the art museum provides training in a specific “way of seeing” the world. The “soft power” of art museums is explored by McComas 2015 in relation to the Cold War and this can also be seen in the way in which art museums are leveraged into “universal museums” in the argument against repatriation made in the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums 2002. In turn, the European art museum was swiftly exported, through imperial networks, around the world. Conn 1998 explores the role that fine art museums played in the formation of American civic life in the nineteenth century. Coombes 1997 highlights the role that museums played in constructing an aesthetic vision of British colonies in Africa, and Thomas 1999 explores the ways in which art museums formed an important part of the expansion of colonial nationhood in Australia and New Zealand, tracking the shift of aesthetics from imperial center to periphery and the incorporation of Indigenous aesthetics into art collections. Price 2007 explores the role that non-Western art has played in French civic and political culture. Unpacking the cultural politics of museums from different subject positions, Mathur and Singh 2017 explores the impact of the civic mission of the art museum in India. Procter 2020 is an accessible overview to the entanglement of art museums within colonial networks.

  • Alpers, Svetlana. 1991. The museum as a way of seeing. In Exhibiting cultures: The poetics and politics of museum display. Edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 25–32. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    An essay by an art historian about the forms of attention and experience that the (art) museum produces and cultivates, which is helpful for encouraging students to see art museums as institutions in both aesthetic and contextual terms. This work has formed part of an important canon of museological theory.

  • Altshuler, Bruce. 2008. Exhibitions that made art history. Vol. 1, Salon to biennial, 1863–1959. London and New York: Phaidon.

    Volume 1 of a two-volume sourcebook that draws together primary documents and analysis of key exhibitions that formed the canons of both art museology and art history across Europe and North America. An invaluable reference work to ground the history of art museums in terms of influential temporary exhibitions, in particularly highlighting the global context of exhibitions that linked art museums to an art world ecology of fairs, biennales, and private galleries and collectors.

  • Altshuler, Bruce. 2013. Exhibitions that made art history. Vol. 2, Biennials and beyond: 1962–2002. London: Phaidon Press.

    Volume 2 of a two-volume sourcebook that draws together primary documents and analysis of key exhibitions that formed the canons of both art museology and art history across Europe and North America. An invaluable reference work to ground the history of art museums in terms of influential temporary exhibitions, in particularly highlighting the global context of exhibitions that linked art museums to an art world ecology of fairs, biennales, and private galleries and collectors.

  • Conn, Steven. 1998. Museums and American intellectual life, 1876–1926. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An historical account of the role that museums played in the United States in forming key canonical ways of thinking about such concepts as history, culture, and race, with an emphasis on the role that objects, their collection, and their display play in creating knowledge. Chapter 5 in particular focuses on the importation of European ideals of fine art into the American context.

  • Coombes, Annie E. 1997. Reinventing Africa: Museums, material culture and popular imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    A series of interlinked essays highlighting the mutual constitution of Imperial England and African Identities. Chapters focus on the Benin Bronzes, ethnographic, missionary and world-fair exhibitions and collections, and how an image of Africa was forged through collection and display in the popular English consciousness from the 19th century onwards.

  • Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. 2002. St. Petersburg, Russia: State Hermitage Museum.

    A declaration signed by eighteen notable art museum directors from Europe and North America, arguing against calls for repatriation through their invention of the category of a Universal Museum. A highly controversial political statement that is a good teaching device to think about competing claims to the ownership of art and the role of art museums as tools of both colonial control and reparation.

  • Duncan, Carol. 1995. Civilizing rituals: Inside public art museums. Re Visions (London, England). London and New York: Routledge.

    Groundbreaking and accessible book that has shaped and underpinned academic approaches to the art museum. Duncan traces the history and development of the art museum as an institution and the ways in which they structure visitor behavior as a form of “ritual” consolidating aesthetic values, social relations, and political hierarchies.

  • Knell, S. 2016. National galleries: The art of making nations. London and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315692203

    This book is a comparative study of national art museums around the world, emphasizing the role of the art museum in constructing national and civic identity within a global aesthetic frame of fine art and providing a historical account of the emergence of this form in the nineteenth century and beyond.

  • Mathur, Saloni, and Kavita Singh. 2017. No touching, no spitting, no praying: The museum in South Asia. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315090481

    Edited volume that explores what happens when the European museum enters the space of colonial, and postcolonial, South Asia. A series of case studies explore how museums across the region stage identity politics, religious experience, and aesthetics/art.

  • McClellan, Andrew. 1999. Inventing the Louvre: Art, politics, and the origins of the modern museum in eighteenth-century Paris. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Widely recognized as the first modern and public art museum, this volume traces in detail the history and formation of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

  • Price, Sally. 2007. Paris primitive: Jacques Chirac’s museum on the Quai Branly. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This is a lively and accessible account of the development of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris that demonstrates the complex ways in which so-called primitive art fits into the broader museum and art world in Paris—drawing together politicians, art dealers, and architects to formulate a specifically French view of non-European art.

  • Procter, Alice. 2020. The whole picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums and why we need to talk about it. London: Cassell.

    Bringing together art-historical and anthropological framings, this accessible book focuses on the hidden histories of colonialism that underpin art museums, drawing on case studies from a wide range of different institutions (many of them in London). A good introductory text to the complexities of colonialism and representation in the art museum.

  • Thomas, Nicholas. 1999. Possessions: Indigenous art/colonial culture. New York and London: Thames & Hudson.

    A detailed study of the formation of national canons of art in Australia and New Zealand, highlighting the important role of art museums in bringing together Indigenous and settler aesthetics to form new national identities. A good introduction to the ways in which national, colonial, and political identities are consolidated within the production, consumption, and display of art in museums.

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