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Words by Dr. Ayesha Fuentes

There is no West: Language and geography in museum practice

In the seventh century Tang dynasty, a scholar named Xuanzang left the capital city of Chang’an in present-day central China to visit and study in the Buddhist regions of central and south Asia. In each community, he commented on public monuments and the accessibility of Buddhist relics, which he felt was the most noteworthy form of local material culture. When he returned from what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India after traveling for 17 years, Xuanzang’s descriptions were archived and would eventually become the popular story Journey to the West.

Some 1300 years later, Edward W. Said wrote about Orientalism as the product of European imagination and defined in opposition to the self-awareness of “the West”. And in the early fifteenth century – as European scholars were turning towards humanism and the intellectual traditions that would support Descartes and the foundations of the modern museum – distinctions between east and west can be seen as arbitrary and politically motivated. Each of these geo-cultural definitions reflect the perspective and specific context of the author as well as their audience.

As museum professionals engaged with goals of the TAKING CARE Project, how then do we understand the “Western”-ness of our institutions? What does a “Western” museum look like, how are its methods distinguished from other forms of exhibition, collection or cultural preservation? Based on the travels of Xuanzang described above, for example, one could argue that people have been visiting sites for the exchange, protection and display of valued material heritage – e.g. the relics of the Buddha – since before the Common Era. Why, even in conversation, do we speak about museums as the product of “Western” thinking when there is evidence that our present institutions are part of a larger, global history of care and curation?

Scientific thinking: A small trough made from bark and wooden dowels for carrying water, collected in Mozambique and now at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (1926.610), Photo by Annie Tomkins/MAA

Personally, as a conservator specializing in ethnographic collections, I find science a particularly problematic source of expertise for this so-called “Western” model of museum practice. It is science – and the use of microscopes and wearing of lab coats, for example – that is supposed to give me the technical knowledge and authority to study and care for material heritage in this setting. It is also science – and its industrial application– that led to the development and widespread use of biocides in our collections, many of which have persisted as hazardous residues.

Yet as Thomas Kuhn explored in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), systems of empirical learning which are recognized as “science” are the product of their specific social, historical and material contexts. I often consider this when faced with objects that exhibit skilled resource management or evidence of repair previous to collection. How does my training as a conservator – and the way I communicate my expertise – shape the way these systems of care and material knowledge are valued by museums?

Working with a global diversity of material heritage, I find that “science” is a larger and more complex category of study, observation, skill, and documentation than what I have learned to use as a museum professional. And yet I am often surprised in our discourse by the ways in which science has been framed as a European invention characteristic of museum practice, especially when so many of us are simultaneously invested in re-evaluating and challenging the authority of our institutions. In an ethnographic collection, how can a science - or any methodology - be universally neutral or appropriate?

During my involvement with the TAKING CARE Project, I’ve seen many of my colleagues in European ethnographic museums engaging with the ways in which these collections have been and continue to be shaped by identity, wealth, nationalism, displacement, migration, and feelings of custodianship. I’ve been especially encouraged where this professional community has embraced its complexities and responsibilities by focusing on practical change, access and knowledge exchange. At the same time, I’m concerned by the ways in which we have left some of our key vocabularies like “the West” and “science” – both closely linked to the definition of a European museum – unexamined and relatively unchallenged.

Like “America”, I find “the West” a vague and amorphous idea that reflects a very specific perspective on cultural geography, and it often obscures more than it illustrates. On the other hand, “the Americas” I can locate in space and time. Precision and an awareness of scale – referring to specific cultural histories, languages, practices or groups; placing the local within the global, national or regional – may be key to expanding the ways in which we define our institutions and communicate our goals.