I’m often frustrated that the research students submit at each semester’s end is only read by a single person – usually their instructor. The Logan Museum of Anthropology works to use its collections to address important social and historical themes relevant to our campus and community. This semester, students in the course “Anthropological Research in Museums” are contributing to this endeavor by turning course research into products of public scholarship that address social justice concerns.
The course focuses on how research is conducted in museums and how that relates to the history of anthropology over the last two centuries. Students are working on enduring questions that define the ethical, moral, and social responsibilities of working with museum collections. The objects in any museum – including the Logan Museum – do not come to the museum neutrally. They do not reside in museum storage devoid of cultural and social impacts beyond the institution’s walls. Rather, museum objects are things made by and for individuals, groups, and societies, and which continue to have relevance to them. Some acquisitions may have been the result of unequal exchanges because of the nature of collecting in places impacted by settler-colonialism especially. The stories of how objects come into museums are sometimes complex.
Many museum objects collected from past and recent societies are of special concern to descendant communities and other types of stakeholders who in some way have a vested interest in the use and representation of the collections. Because of the multiple and changing meanings of objects and their roles in museum collections, museums and museum researchers have a significant responsibility to diverse stakeholders to study and present human prehistory and history respectfully and honestly. When museums take this obligation seriously – as the Logan Museum does – they seek to promote intercultural understanding and equity.
With these goals in mind, students in the course are thinking beyond the research paper as an activity undertaken in the interest of their grade. They are formulating final projects derived from their original research that more than one person (me) will see. Public scholarship projects put student research into practice. They provide an outlet for students to take risks and experiment with new ways for museums to engage diverse publics. Twelve projects in various media and with diverse target audiences are being developed. Some projects will be displayed in the museum. Others are designed for local schools, Beloit College programs beyond the Logan, or for Tumblr.
One student is creating a pamphlet for the museum discussing the early 20th century biases found in the museum’s historic murals representing ancient peoples. The idea is to make visitors aware that these images came from a particular viewpoint that can contribute to misunderstandings about gender, social relationships, and social organization in the past. Two other projects will make Logan collections accessible to our local schools. The first explores how to create an immersive experience for elementary school students replicating the museum’s popular but now-closed Paleolithic Cave exhibit. If students are not able to come to the museum during the school day, how can the museum bring educational opportunities to them? Another project geared toward local middle and high school students examines self-representation in photography (namely, selfies) in comparison with ethnographic photos depicting exoticized peoples of cultures other than white Euro-Americans. This project asks students to consider their role in choosing how they represent themselves and to juxtapose that with images from places such as anthropology textbooks and National Geographic magazine.
The Logan Museum of Anthropology offers Beloit students rich resources for critically evaluating the human story and who gets to tell it. These student projects seek to make a difference beyond our course and campus. They are exploring how to reach people to whom the museum’s collections and history are meaningful, and to connect those collections to issues of broad social concern.