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3 What, or Where, Is the (Museum) Object?: Colonial Encounters in Displayed Worlds of Things

Museum Theory

Part 1. Thinking about Museums

  1. Sandra H. Dudley

Published Online: 5 DEC 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781118829059.wbihms991

The International Handbooks of Museum Studies

The International Handbooks of Museum Studies

How to Cite

Dudley, S. H. 2013. What, or Where, Is the (Museum) Object?: Colonial Encounters in Displayed Worlds of Things. The International Handbooks of Museum Studies. 1:3:41–62.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 DEC 2013

Abstract

This chapter considers an approach to conceptualizing and theorizing the moments, however brief they may be, in which museum visitors stop to look closely at things on display. Situating the chapter as part of a wider attempt to move away from representation as the starting point of museum analysis, I explore ways in which the engagements between people and things might be imagined from the object's point of view. In particular, I position the object–visitor interaction as analogous to the colonial encounter. I develop the colonial metaphor in order to reflect on the relative position of the two participants, examining the nature of the gaze and the object's capacity to gaze back (metaphorically at least). Once within this new, metaphorically colonial world, encounters between persons and things are different than they would be elsewhere, and objects and engagements with them have the potential to excite, inspire, disorder, or frighten. I then explore the object's perspective in more detail, positively appropriating the term prosopopoeia (the application of human characteristics to material objects, animals, or dead bodies). The chapter concludes that the approach advanced here can allow the development of both innovative material culture theory and fresh approaches to museum and gallery practice.

Keywords:

  • colonial metaphor;
  • encounter;
  • gaze;
  • object;
  • prospopoeia