Writing the Ethnological Museum

Pitt Rivers labels

Supervisory team: Dr Priya Gopal (Cambridge) and Professor Dan Hicks (Pitt Rivers Museum)

This collaborative project uses the historic inscription practices of the Pitt Rivers Museum as a lens through which to study the history and ongoing legacies of the knowledge made through colonialism in the context of the ethnographic museum. Primary material includes all writing practices involved in the functioning of the anthropological museum as an institution from 1884 to the present day: from vocabularies of people and thing to museum labels as a genre, a narratology of annual reports and accession books, a close reading of the card index and database, and the study of the diversity of practices of writing on objects. The hands of particular curators and collectors and the re-writing of museum displays will be put into dialogue with a broader set of questions about the relationships between objectification through material culture and representation through text.

In a cross-disciplinary perspective that brings literary analysis into dialogue with linguistic anthropology through material culture, the research  will involve a literary study of language, writing and speech acts as imperial technologies of objectification in the academy in the past, and a consideration of the scope for rereading and revision today.

Case studies will be drawn from across the geographical, temporal and disciplinary scope of the Pitt Rivers, from Asia and Africa to the Americas and Oceania, with regional or thematic focuses developing from the student’s own interests.

The research will be conducted at the intersection between a series of present themes in postcolonial literary and museum studies, including thinking about ‘voice’; the politics of representation/self-representation; technologies of writing; the making and unmaking of cultural, racial and gendered identities; archival silences and archival traces; reparative histories; the construction of narratives of self and other; the politics of the ‘contact zone’ and encounter and the question of ‘culture wars’; aesthetics and politics; the constitution and/or reframing of the archive; the politics of the particular and the universal; authority and authorship; narrative strategies and ‘narrativity’; (re)reading against the grain; and resistance, dialogics and rewriting.

The contemporary politics of empire and colonialism and their ongoing legacies will be central to the project, but in supple ways which allow for considerations of resistance, reflexivity and reconstitution. It might be possible, for instance, to consider the ways in which texts can function as colonial disciplinary and governance mechanisms while examining the possibilities for radical rewriting and re-imagining in the wake of empire. A number of questions might govern a study:

  • Can colonial documents/collections/practices be deployed towards new political claims or imaginings of community?
  • What forms of ‘epistemic co-operation’ might be possible in the reconstitution of collections or archives?
  • Can the collection(s) in question at all enable a revisioning of the relationship between the particular and the universal?
  • How might the voices of resistance be found in the interstices or margins of colonial knowledge?
  • Do the collections entrench epistemic scepticism or can they serve to provide reparative histories and knowledges?
  • In the process of ‘objectification’, does the ‘subject’ disappear entirely?

The student will have a background in literary studies, and a demonstrable interest in any aspect of postcolonial studies, archival studies, or anthropology. 

Application process:

For details of how to apply, please see: http://www.jobs.cam.ac.uk/job/19544/.  

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