Manitoba History: Michael Ames, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums

by David H. Stymeist
Department of Anthropology, University of Manitoba

Number 27, Spring 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Michael Ames, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1992, 230 pp. ISBN 0-7748-0391-6.

Engagingly and energetically written, Michael Ames book, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes, offers a rare, insider’s view of museums and their role in contemporary society. Far from being the staid and dusty establishments of our popular imagination, museums, art galleries, and other like institutions have found themselves occupying a hotly contested terrain in current political and cultural discourse. Museums are, in part, all about representation; putting things in ‘glass boxes’ and showing them to the public. What, if anything, is put up for display, how it is presented, who is presenting it, why, and in what context are all issues raised with increasing frequency and enthusiasm by academics and by members of the ‘originating peoples’, those cultures and groups which have traditionally produced the artifacts and lifeways transformed into museum displays. The politics of representation impacts on museums, and especially on Anthropology Museums, in many direct and tangible ways. Moreover, the public demands or financially rewards the exotic, blockbuster exhibition, and museums are often so stressed that acquiescence is increasingly tempting. At the same time, the historically-grounded scholarly functions of museums coalesce with another widespread expectation: museums should be educational.

These many conflicting and somewhat inconsistent demands ultimately collapse on the person of the museum director and his or her staff, and Michael Ames, who has been the director of the University of British Columbia’s renowned Museum of Anthropology since 1974, is in a particularly well situated position to comment on them. The crisis of representation, which has become possibly the central issue for anthropology and related social science disciplines, is no less evident in museums and museum work. In fact, Ames argues that museums may find themselves at the very centre of controversy because they are public institutions and because they are, as well, the, “... self-appointed keepers of other people’s material and the self-appointed interpreters of other’s histories” (p. 140). This has become of late an increasingly difficult and perhaps ultimately untenable position.

Two central challenges present themselves. On the one hand, there may exist ongoing and deeply rooted tensions between the demands of the public and the desires of the Museum and its staff to maintain and enhance professional standards, orientations, and missions. Mass culture has changed museums, and as they have become, “... integral parts of consumer society they are also buying into the ideology of consumerism” (p. 11). In attempting to cater to a wide, diverse audience, museums run the risk of becoming yet another source of a pre-packaged, commoditized entertainment, a Disneyland of the past. In a somewhat different way, museums find their relationships with the ‘originating peoples’ to be increasingly contentious. Museum work often focuses on actual objects. These objects once collected are decontextualized, ripped out of their cultural matrix, and carried away to be recontextualized in a glass box as part of a museum display. Thus alienated from their source, cultural items may be used to construct a narrative and to build up an impression inconsistent with the understandings and desires of those originating peoples from which the items first came. Disputed interpretations, fabrication of images and stereotypes, and demands for repatriation are all possible consequences of this fundamental dislocation of time and space which is inevitably at the very core of the Museum enterprise.

Museums can also tell us a great deal about a dominant culture and its assumptions, values, and beliefs. Museum displays are never neutral, objective constructions but are instead the creations of culturally and socially embedded persons who may consciously or unconsciously communicate in a display a particular ideological stance or orientation. Museums may be studied as cultural objects themselves. “The great museum of today,” Ames writes, “is equivalent to the cathedral of the Middle Ages, the palace of the eighteenth century, and the Eiffel Tower in the nineteenth: it expresses in a modern idiom, ... the essential values and world view of a community” (p. 22).

As “machines for recontextualization,” museums offer a particular, invented tradition which is often presented as an accurate, value-free reconstruction. Museums can be mirrors of ourselves as well as windows onto another place and time. This dual stance is embodied in practice in some quite subtle ways. Dr. Ames recalls a particularly intriguing construction of a Native American fishing scene, “... complete and accurate down to the smallest detail, with carefully fabricated replicas of fish and plant life shown underwater, and with fish hooks and nets hanging down from above to demonstrate how Native people used to fish” (p. 23). Comments by visitors on the display often focused not on its ostensible purpose in communicating ethnographically accurate information but on the technological wizardry necessary to present such a realistic exhibition. The scene was in this way double-coded: it showed the past in fine detail, but it also celebrated the present and its mastery over the arts of representation. Dr. Ames notes that the exhibit inadvertently presented a subtext: “though the Indians were apparently clever fishers, they obviously did not compare with the wonders of modern museum technology” (p. 23).

The author circles these problems throughout, considering in turn the history and philosophy of museums, their evolution into public, status-enhancing establishments, the many paradoxes of First Nations art and artists and their representation by museum culture, the ‘de-schooling’ of museums and some of its pitfalls, Expo ‘86, and even a brief essay on McDonalds. The work is genuinely vital as a whole but especially so when Dr. Ames ponders the Museum and his own particular experience within it. Less effective are those comparatively rare excursions into the world of modern art and the semiology of popular culture. Ames consistently maintains an even tone and argues above all else for a constructive as well as a critical reassessment of cultural institutions, one that will preserve whatever is valuable from the past and respond to the meaningful challenges of the present with sensitivity and grace. A middle ground is sought wherever possible, but the issue itself remains in doubt. Time alone will tell if there is to be a future for museums or for anthropology in a post modern world. Of interest to anthropologist and museum workers, Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes is also recommended to the general reader wishing to pursue the tangled issues of cultural studies and the politics of representation.

Displays in the Provincial Museum of Manitoba, Civic Auditorium (now the Provincial Archives Building), 1930s.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 11 April 2010