The future of the enthnographic museum (Respond to this article at


  • Clare Harris,

    1. Reader in Visual Anthropology and Curator for Asian Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. She is also a Fellow of Magdalen College Oxford. Her most recent book is The museum on the roof of the world: Art, politics and the representation of Tibet, University of Chicago Press, 2012. Her email address is:
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  • Michael O'Hanlon

    1. Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum. He has published on New Guinea highland ethnography, the site of his long-term fieldwork, and on anthropology and museums. His previous post was at the British Museum. His email address is: Michael.O'
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This essay discusses the recent past of ethnographic museums and raises questions about their future. In the last thirty years or so, ethnographic museums have faced many challenges arising both from within and beyond anthropology to the extent that in the post-colonial and post-modern era they could be said to have suffered an identity crisis. Many have been renamed, remodelled or rehoused in spectacular new premises (such as the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris). Only a few have remained largely unaltered, as at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where the authors of this essay are employed. Drawing on the theoretical literature in museum anthropology and material culture, many years of ‘hands on’ curatorial experience and the insights gained from a five year collaborative research project involving ten major ethnographic museums in Europe, the authors investigate how ethnographic museums might engage with new audiences and new intellectual regimes in the future.