Refocusing Ethnographic Museums Through Oceanic Lenses by Philipp Schorch, with Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, Sean Mallon, Cristián Moreno Pakarati, Mara Mulrooney, Nina Tonga and Ty P. Kāwika Tengan (Otago University Press, 2020), 299pp, $49.95
A deep-dive into museum work across Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa, Refocusing Ethnographic Museums Through Oceanic Lenses presents ‘a collaborative ethnographic investigation of Indigenous museum practices in three Pacific museums’: Hawai`i’s Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa, and Rapa Nui’s (Easter Island) Museo Antropológico Padre Sebastián Englert. The text’s key contribution is, according to lead author Philipp Schorch, to provide ‘historically informed ethnographic insights’ into regional museology, ‘grounded in Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies’. Like Nicholas Thomas’ compelling work, The Return of Curiosity: What museums are good for in the twenty-first century, this multi-authored text reanimates its three museums for readers, revealing their histories as well as their recent attempts at recalibrating and decolonising their practices, and their creative potential in decades to come.
Schorch is a professor of museum anthropology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. Through years of conferences and networking, this German scholar forged fertile connections, friendships and professional relationships throughout Oceania, including those that form the collaborative backbone of this text. Like irrepressible waves, the other co-authors surge in with invaluable knowledge, worldviews, interdisciplinary expertise and methodological insights. Much is made of the ‘deliberate sharing of analytical authority’, said to be ‘explicit in the cowritten chapters’. But, as we shall see, the co-authors’ knowledge is not allowed full expression; Schorch’s dominant voice often eclipses theirs. This is one fundamental limitation of the book. Refocusing Ethnographic Museums is based on nine months of fieldwork, conducted with the help of Schorch’s co-authors, whose voices are interwoven (albeit in a tightly bound way) throughout this work of ‘collaborative ethnography’. Schorch’s academic mission in this book is ‘to refocus rather than deny the ethnographic—by decentring, multiplying, and undisciplining—through Oceanic lenses’. Readers familiar with the literature and debates may well ask: is refocusing enough? Ultimately, does ‘refocusing’ hew closely enough to decolonising methodologies, or is it too close to co-opting Indigenous methodologies ‘in order to stabilise the neocolonial status quo’? While the co-authors clearly explain Indigenous knowledges and praxis, and centre Indigenous knowledge as analytical lens and methodology, these concepts are always subsumed within European disciplinary bounds. This is especially evident in the book’s structure.
The book’s six main chapters are paired, with two chapters devoted to each museum. In short, Schorch takes the even chapters alone, while co-authorship (or ‘collaborative ethnography’) occupies the odd chapters. For this innovation, Schorch has been praised by a leading light in this field—Nicholas Thomas, director of the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—as having advanced ‘genuine multi-vocality, and the distinctive expertise of those bringing specific Indigenous perspectives/analyses/concepts’. Undoubtedly, Schorch has drawn admirably upon a solid network of friends, colleagues, mentors and co-curators with which to weave this polyphonic tapestry. It is, however, unsettling to see Schorch claim that his chapters are the ‘more conceptually minded’ of these pairings. His repeated insistence on the ‘conceptually driven’ nature of his solo contributions unintentionally reinscribes the false binary between Western-trained anthropologist and ‘native informant’. While I do not believe Schorch meant to underscore the intellectual/indigene divide, this is the impact of his introductory remarks. There is a strong implication that his solo work is the intellectual strand of the text, while the collaborative work is somehow less rigorously academic—in other words, simply less in the eyes of the Western-dominated academy. Thus, while Schorch is committed to reconceptualising anthropological studies as ‘cross-cultural mediation and translation’, and thus to ‘channel rather than represent the agency of others’, he never quite dissolves ‘the subject/object distinction’. Different worlds are always represented as Other, and—as co-author (and Schorch’s mentor at Te Papa) Sean Mallon notes in a frank assessment of Schorch’s work with Te Papa—not allowed to ‘dictate the terms of their own analysis’. Schorch, as European mediator and interpreter, always has the last word in these chapter pairings. For this reason (among countless others), Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora’s recent edited collection, Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface (Otago University Press, 2021) would reward reading alongside such attempts at decolonising universities, academic disciplines and the very conception of knowledge.
The most engaging chapter-pair is that on Rapa Nui. Chapter three offers an engaging and incisive analysis of the agency of the ‘native informant’, through the figure of a charismatic enigma from Rapa Nui, Juan Tepano. Cristián Moreno Pakarati, Mara Mulrooney and Schorch explore Tepano’s work as informant as a form of resistance, an example of the ‘adopt to adapt’ strategy which was by no means limited to the Indigenous peoples of Rapa Nui. Tepano, like Te Rangihiroa and others, was an academic entrepreneur, perceiving ‘how knowledge about Rapa Nui’s past was of interest to foreigners and decid[ing] to forge himself into the custodian of that knowledge’ for various reasons. Meanwhile, the fascination of chapter four is its exploration of the branding of Rapa Nui as a museum island, at once a Chilean national monument, national park and UNESCO world heritage site. Schorch also explores local strategies of partially reclaiming ‘Museum Island’ as means of co-constructing the island and impacting on its ‘heritageisation’. Illustrated with beautiful black-and-white archival photos of the iconic moai (Easter Island statues, or faces of the ancestors), the island’s former leprosarium, and performances of the birdman cult, this chapter might well have been subtitled: ‘How to Museumise an Island’.
The last words, however, are reserved for the Kanaka `Ōiwi/Native Hawaiian scholar, Ty Kāwika Tengan. His afterword exemplifies what Vicente Diaz calls ‘Indigenous discursive flourish’ by oxymoronically offering polyphony in a single voice. Focusing on the potential for museums to function as kīpuka, or organic creative spaces ‘for the regeneration of Oceanic materialities, connectivities, and mana’, Tengan concludes with a powerful caveat curator. He warns that ‘refocusing museums’ in these Indigenous ways ‘requires koa (courage) to both hurl and dodge the spears that will fly in the battles to decolonize ethnographic museums’. Because regeneration has been long practised by Indigenous ancestors, Tengan is confidently optimistic that future descendants will rise to the challenge, continuing to ‘bud, emerge, and regenerate’ in these spaces of knowledge.
Refocusing Ethnographic Museums presents readers with carefully referenced summaries of the mercurial shifts in museum and disciplinary politics throughout the twentieth century, and the changing definitions of disciplines and their core concepts, providing an excellent primer for the uninitiated (or refresher for the initiated). Still, Schorch occasionally lapses into exclusionary jargon, and there’s a risk of getting lost in semantics (‘the translational dialectic of resonances and dissonances’; ‘re-implacing’, etc). Schorch also sketches the limits of various critical ‘turns’ (paradigm shifts in practice and theory) to truly expand the field of disciplinary actors, agents, scholars and methods. Although professing that the ‘limits of such polyphonic and utopian work lie at the heart’ of this book, Schorch does not offer sustained reflection on the limits of his own methodologies. These are occasionally pointed out by his co-authors, with Mallon offering a candid critique of Schorch’s unilateral decision-making, professional self-advancement through research, and—without labelling it thus—somewhat Orientalist eyes on Oceania. Both Sean Mallon and Nina Tonga note, for example, that the absence of a Sāmoan collector-curator from Schorch’s apprenticeship project at Te Papa ‘limited the full potential of mana taonga and co-collecting’. Although identifying problems with the project of collaborative ethnography, this honesty and constructive criticism is one of the highlights of the book.
There are occasional slips in decolonising methods. How, for example, could a scholar ostensibly committed to decolonising the discipline cite the American cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins for a definition of the concept of mana, rather than Sir Hirini Moko Mead, or one of countless other authoritative māngai (mouthpieces) of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge)? To take decolonising methodologies seriously involves prioritising Indigenous knowledge and scholarship. To continue to reify European dominance and domination through neocolonial referencing and recycling of imperialist knowledge is decidedly not decolonial. Moreover, Schorch often assumes readers’ familiarity with the cultural imperialism of ethnography and anthropology. The text would thus have been greatly improved by engagement with the scholarship of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and her observation that ‘[f]rom the vantage point of the colonized … the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, “research”, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary’ (Decolonizing Methodologies, 1999). Schorch’s collaborative text has not rescued anthropology from its imperialist taint as ‘the handmaiden of colonialism, as a scientific enterprise developing in the shadow and service of colonial expansion’. The project cannot fairly be criticised for this; it would be unreasonable to expect such miracles from a single text. However, it does go some way towards the salvaging of ethnography through the re-centring of Indigenous epistemologies. Each new contribution to this field will, hopefully, take the decolonising project further.
Given Schorch’s etymological play with the concept of curation (from the Latin, curare) as healing, it is also surprising not to see more analysis of core curative missions: anticolonial protest and climate justice activism, or engagement with Pacific environmental issues. It would have been ideal, moreover, had Schorch et al explored more deeply the politics, ethics and practicalities of repatriation of artefacts, along with further examples.
Mostly, though, this work is ethically sound, culturally respectful, historically rich and methodologically and metaphorically strong. Schorch and his co-authors draw often and deeply upon profound concepts of Indigenous knowledge (for example, the Hawaiian muliwai and nā`au, and its Māori cognate, ngākau). These ‘embodied concepts’ are all tightly theorised and well explained. Grounded in decolonising methods, as well as Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies, this book is committed to undoing Indigenous erasure and transforming asymmetrical structures of power, knowledge and recognition. The historical detail is rich, emphasising the dark ironies of the ethnographic museum, the credibility of these institutions within the public mind, the importance of repatriation and reversing the private hoarding of anthropological and archaeological artefacts and knowledge, the indispensability of community engagement with museums, and the importance of material culture as language enabling cross-cultural connection and communication. Most resonant is Schorch’s argument that Oceanic perspectives should not be confined to Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), ‘but travel back to Pacific collections held in Europe. Such a globalised Oceanic lens would assist us in rethinking Pacific collections … and ethnographic museums more broadly.’ We must expect, Schorch argues, that ‘Oceanic styles of museology should have something to offer in return’: they are not simply passive recipients of French or German social theory, but active shapers of thought, methodology and conceptions of time, knowledge and space.
This polyphonic collaborative ethnography is largely a success, although I wonder if Schorch’s kaleidoscopic metaphor is not over-stretched in the instrumental claims he makes for it. Schorch argues that, as ‘ethnographic kaleidoscope’, this text ‘materializes a way of ethnographically thinking and knowing about what can and should be ethnographically thought and known’. Precisely how the kaleidoscope achieves these ends? We are left guessing. As Tengan observes, the ‘collaborative mode’ enacted here is ‘not perfect’: it is insufficiently polyphonic, remaining over-focused on the European outsider–scientific observer. However, as Tengan equally notes, despite these imperfections, this work ‘is a powerful example of what can happen when anthropologists and curators rethink both the starting and end points of their interventions’. A deeply reflective text, this book poses as many worthy questions as it answers. It will force and enable you to think critically about the political, cultural and epistemic issues raised within. Refocusing Ethnographic Museums Through Oceanic Lenses will fascinate and enlighten readers interested in ethnography, anthropology, museum studies (and the heritage sector more broadly), Indigenous knowledges and the scholarship and histories of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa more broadly.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge.