Over the weekend I attended a truly thought provoking conference entitled The Future of Ethnographic Museums as hosted by the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Museum ethnography as a discipline has over the past several decades been experimenting with multiple futures, it has morphed and adapted to the current cultural climate to become world art, world culture or in my case living cultures. Few museum curatorial disciplines, if any, can claim to have embarked on such revolutionary reflexivity. However, the future of such collections and museums is by no means, nor has it ever been, guaranteed.
At times of uncertainty, the continuing global recession in this instance, museums are compelled to contemplate their future as the socio-political and economic landscape dramatically shifts. Following World War II for instance local government funding for large encyclopaedic collections constricted leading to a drastic series of rationalisations. During this period Manchester Museum acquired, as the result of transfer, several ethnographic collections including those from the neighbouring museums of Salford, St Helens and Bankfield, Halifax. As the Manchester Museum ethnographic collection grew exponentially, it appears that neighbouring museums in smaller cities and towns concomitantly focused their priority on local history.
Does this trend help us predict the future of ethnographic museums? Is the future one in which the cosmopolitan museum absorbs the ethnographic collections of smaller contiguous institutions? Perhaps so, as the conference clearly evidenced the geographic state of flux within which ethnographic museums and collections are operating. Sharon Macdonald plotted how the Ethnologisches Museum on the outskirts of Berlin will return to the heart of the city in the newly built Stadtschloss, Wayne Modest explained how several ethnographic museums in the Netherlands have closed whilst the Dutch history Rijksmuseum opened recently at a cost of approximately €375 million, and Kavita Singh described how an appetite for the ethnographic museum in multifarious forms is growing rapidly in developing cosmopolitan centers beyond the west.
Although the future of ethnographic museums is not entirely certain, what is certain is the ability of these institutions and collections to make themselves immediately relevant through socio-cultural engagement and research. In an increasingly multicultural world such places and objects can foster understanding between cultures, just as they do here at Manchester Museum. Given this critical application I am convinced that the future offers further scope for experiment, exploration and endeavor. To paraphrase Japanese techno-pop girl group Perfume’s hit single Mirai no Museum (The Future Museum), ethnographic museums are capable of connecting to an important future.