Museum Anthropology

NEOCOLONIAL COLLABORATION: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited



Museums have increasingly been promoting their postcolonial status through inclusionist programs in exhibitions, shared curatorship, and use of collections. Where there are indigenous stakeholders, we have seen an unprecedented improvement in the empowerment of source communities in the management, use, and presentation of their patrimony in museums. Since James Clifford's 1997 essay, the phrase “contact zone” is now more or less synonymous with these inclusionist, collaborative programs. This paper, while being openly supportive of such collaborations in museums, is nevertheless critical of the use of the contact zone concept. Returning to Clifford's essay, as well as those of Pratt and others, this paper questions why museum scholars perpetuate only a partial portrait of the contact zone, despite clear warnings about its inherent asymmetry. The goal of this paper is not to undermine the ethically engaged work that has been done, but to expose the dark underbelly of the contact zone and, hence, the anatomy of the museum that seems to be persistently neocolonial.

Since the 1990s, museums have been promoting their now realized postcolonial status through inclusionist programs in exhibitions, shared curatorship, and use of collections. Particularly in archaeological and anthropological museums, where there are indigenous stakeholders, there have been a large number of programs that have sought to empower these source communities. Imbroglios persist (Phillips 2007), but we have seen an unprecedented improvement in the inclusion and empowerment of source community stakeholders in the management, use, and presentation of their patrimony in museums (Phillips 2005). Dialogue and collaboration is the name of the game these days and there are few museums with anthropological, or even archaeological, collections that would consider an exhibition that did not include some form of consultation. James Clifford's 1997 essay, “Museums as Contact Zones,” was certainly influential here. Especially in Europe, the contact zone is now more or less synonymous with these inclusionist, collaborative programs. For example, since 2004 the Manchester Museum has had a film studio for recording dialogues with source community experts about objects in the collection. According to the museum's website, “The Contact Zone, the Museum's first permanent film studio, opened in September 2007 with a special ceremony by a Yoruba chief, and attended by many of the Museum's community partners. It is intended to be an active, informal and relaxed space for Collective Conversations” (Manchester Museum 2006).

One of the best-known examples of the application of the idea of the contact zone is the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology's (MOA) Renewal Project, “A Partnership of Peoples,” which includes a number of new spaces and new approaches to museum storage and presentation, “including a new Research Centre, Major Temporary Exhibition Gallery, and Community Suite. Together, they support collaborative, socially responsible, and interdisciplinary research across local, national, and international borders” (MOA 2008). The project has been consultative from the beginning with a Community Advisory Committee convened to write the original application consisting of representatives of the academic disciplines, “Lower Mainland” community groups, and First Nations. As Ruth Phillips, the then Director of the MOA, recalls it:

We revisit our own traditions and our institutional experience across these past twenty-five years that have seen so much change in museum practices and ways of doing research. The moment of clarity comes when we realize two things. First, the locus of “innovation” has been in front of us all along in the new collaborative and multivocal models of research with community partners that MOA has helped to pioneer. Second, we realize that although new technologies have the capacity to revolutionize access to and research on museum collections, the key applications have not yet been developed.

[Phillips 2005:106–107]

Another institution that has gone further than others to incorporate such contact zone practices is the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) at the Smithsonian Institution. Dialogue and collaboration are incorporated into the NMAI Mission Statement and Collections Policy. As Rosoff points out, the NMAI encourages,

“the direct and meaningful participation of Indian people” in all aspects of the museum's activities. In addition to providing detailed procedures for documentation, acquisition, repatriation, exhibition, care and handling, and other museum functions, the Collections Policy “respects and endeavours to incorporate the cultural protocols of Indian people that define: cultural and religious sensitivities, needs, and norms; the utilization of cultural knowledge and information; and restrictions outlined by specific tribal groups.”

[Rosoff 2003:72]

Of course, we have to be careful of our use of collaboration and consultation here. These two terms have different meanings in different parts of the world. I am writing from Europe where the two terms are often used interchangeably, but consultation has a more informal sense to it, but also, confusingly, a sense where a formal agreement is the goal. In the United States, consultation has a definite legal sense, as defined in federal legislation such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act (Bell and Paterson 2009). In North America, generally, where tribes are dependent sovereign nations, consultation implies specific legal and political rights. Although the varying relationship between collaboration and consultation deserves its own treatment, in this paper, I speak mostly of collaboration.

While I hope that all museums welcome these changes—and we must all agree that this new spirit of collaboration has made relations between collecting institutions and their stakeholders far more equitable—I nevertheless have become increasingly concerned with the museum as contact zone. Therefore, I walk a thin line here. On one hand, I welcome the new collaboration, and, on the other, I raise a serious concern that the neocolonial nature of these contact zones could destroy the very empowerment that it is meant to engender. This paper returns to Clifford's essay, as well as those of Pratt and others, to question why we perpetuate only a partial and rosy portrait of the contact zone. My goal is not to undermine what good work has been done but to expose the dark underbelly of the contact zone and, hence, the anatomy of the museum practice that seems to be persistently neocolonial.


In Mary Louise Pratt's original article on the contact zone, “The Arts of the Contact Zone,” she defined the contact zone as a “term to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (1991:34). The contact zones that Pratt (1992) went on to describe, expand, and discuss in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation were deeply asymmetrical (i.e., unequal) spaces where a dominant culture would provide for a “negotiated” space for certain kinds of cultural exchange, negotiations, and transactions necessary to the maintenance of the imperialistic program.

In Imperial Eyes, Pratt explored how travel writing created a bidirectional tableau and, hence, shaped relations between the European metropole and the non-European periphery. She moved the academic interest of the early 1990s into the textual analysis of cultural studies within the historical context of European imperialism. In doing so, she managed to break down the binary opposition of the metropole and the periphery, masculine and feminine, and white and nonwhite, to establish a more subtle relation of cross-cultural negotiation and translation. Her key theme in this book was the process of transculturation—a term borrowed from the Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz (1940). Pratt initially described transculturation as a “process whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (1991:35). These highly selective, reciprocal but unequal exchanges create a two-way dialogue that both defines the colonial Other and redefines the metropole.

It is in this respect, that of Pratt's Imperial Eyes, that postmodernist museum studies and museum anthropology have appropriated the contact zone. We can see this appropriation in Phillips' (2005:93) museum, “Considered in terms of newer constructs of colonial contact zones and transculturation,” and Mason's (2006:25) museum as “a permeable space to transcultural encounter.” Even Mason's appropriations of Clifford's original paper emphasized the transcultural:

He [Clifford] writes: “[a] contact perspective views all culture-collecting strategies as responses to particular histories of dominance, hierarchy, resistance, and mobilization” (1997:213). Viewed in this light, the term “museum” is understood as a much more flexible and expansive way of describing a whole range of relations and activities which surround the valuation, collection, and display of cultures and histories.

[Mason 2006:25]

What is common to these, and subsequent, descriptions of the museum as contact zone is the character of the contact zone as a dialogical space, that of transculturation, but this is also what is problematic about such zones.


As Ruth Phillips (2005) implied in her paper about the second museum age, museums have been going through major changes over the past 30 years. These changes began in the late 1970s with a major reorientation of the museum's primary goal that was termed “the new museology.” While the original term is now unpopular, as a characterization of this movement it remains useful as a guide to implications and influences. Some argue that the movement arose from the International Council of Museums' (ICOM) redefinition of museums in 1974 (ICOM 2009), others from de Varine's (1978) definition, and others from Peter Vergo's (1989) edited volume of the same name. Aside from origin seeking, at the core of the new museology is an assumption that the museum is neither a center of research nor primarily a collecting institution but an educational instrument. The goal of the new museology was, and largely still is, the transformation of social practices through the transformation of the museum from a display of singular expert accounts to a site of different educational engagements.

Arising from this realignment—and at the core of museum studies research that has been undertaken over the past 20 years—is a particular set of assumptions about the social and political nature of the processes by which knowledge is produced and reproduced in the museum. A summary of this set of assumptions could be as follows:

  • Knowledge is fundamentally relative. The nature of reality is dependent on the perspective from which it is observed.
  • The procedures and practices by which an individual comes to know are inherently social. Each of the conversations through which an individual generates and shares knowledge is a contribution to multiple, simultaneous, ongoing discourses that are, in turn, dynamically situated in multiple overlapping networks of relationships.
  • Every sequence of knowledge-claims takes the form of a narrative or story by which the nature of objects may be understood, explained, or accounted for.
  • Knowledge is knowledge of (or about) objects; objects are things of (or about) which knowers know. In this sense, knowledge may be said to be embodied in objects. A necessary condition for the generation of knowledge is engagement with objects.

Despite the relativistic and postmodernist foundations of the new museology (Macdonald 1998; Macdonald and Fyfe 1996; for a critique see Lonetree 2006), museum practice, and much of museum studies, has interpreted these principles through the lens of the educator. No matter how much museum studies have argued for a pluralistic approach to interpretation and presentation, the intellectual control has largely remained in the hands of the museum. The extension of the new museology into museums, over the past 30 years, has introduced a regime where the educator and the marketing manager—through the changed instrumentality of the museum as set within cultural policy—control the voices of the museum's presentations for a relatively narrow, selective view of “public” interest (Shelton 2001).

There has been a renewed motivation to reconnect research and practice, as identified by Macdonald (2006) and Phillips (2005), as a core component of a “second wave” of “the new museology” that has emerged since 2000. Some of the operations that have been examined from new perspectives, and transformed as a result of such analyses, are collections development, exhibit display, conservation, storage, and museum education. Curatorial staff, for example, have long appreciated that by selecting only some kinds of objects for acquisition, preservation, and public display museums recognize, represent, and affirm the identities of only some communities. Further, they understand that the kinds of decisions made in the acquisitions process—decisions both about what should be selected and about who should be involved in selection—should continuously be reviewed and questioned.

Along with this development, or perhaps because of it, from the time that James Clifford first associated Mary Louise Pratt's concept of the contact zone with museums there has been a growing translation of the idea to fit, implicitly and explicitly, into the goals of a postmodern new museology. Key works of the past ten years have been Sharon Macdonald's (1998)The Politics of Display, Andrea Witcomb's (2003)Re-imagining the Museum, Ruth Phillips' (2005)Re-placing Objects, Anthony Shelton's (2006)Museums and Anthropologies, Rhiannon Mason's (2006)Culture Theory and Museum Studies, and the many papers in Laura Peers and Alison Brown's (2003) edited volume Museums and Source Communities.

What characterizes all of these works is their general optimism about the nature of a new collaborative approach to representation in museums. Ruth Phillips recognized, for example, that these “new models of partnership and collaboration … are creating ever more opportunities for Aboriginal intervention into the traditional orientation of the Western museum toward visual inspection and experience” (2005:96–97). Further, she has found new forms of association between cultures when they collaborate, “Considered in terms of newer constructs of colonial contact zones and transculturation, there are other ways in which these objects are part of the same historical world” (Phillips 2005:93, original emphasis).

Laura Peers and Alison Brown, in their pivotal work on museums and source communities, emphasized that, “Artefacts in museums embody both the local knowledge and histories that produced them, and the global histories of Western expansion which have resulted in their collection, transfer to museums, and function as sources of new academic and popular knowledge” (2003:4). Explicitly they wrote that, “Artefacts function as ‘contact zones’—as sources of knowledge and as catalysts for new relationships—both within and between these communities” (Peers and Brown 2003:4). John Stanton, in the same volume, stated, “Museums are ideally situated within this paradigm, since working with their historic collections reinvigorates contemporary wisdom and understanding, prolonging internal discourses about the nature of history, culture and identity. … The reinvigorated objects in museum collections gain fresh meanings and a new element of engagement for visitors and scholars alike” (2003:151).

Andrea Witcomb, in her work Re-imagining the Museum, has written, “Rather than understanding the museum as a static, monolithic institution at the centre of power, it is read as an unstable institution attempting to come to grips with the effects of the colonial encounter, an attempt which has both positive and negative affects [sic] on those involved” (2003:89). In Rhiannon Mason's review of Witcomb's book, she reiterated this interpretation that, “As ‘contact zone,’ the museum functions more as a permeable space to transcultural encounter than as a tightly bounded institution disseminating knowledge to its visitors” (2004:25).

However, we also find doubters of this optimistic view of the contact zone. Tony Bennett argued soon after Clifford's essay came out that the new collaboration between museums and source communities was a bit of a ruse, though perhaps a useful one. Bennett (1998:213) saw the contact zone, as a space for cross-cultural dialogues and source community expertise, to be merely an extension of the museum as an instrument of governmentality, expressed as multiculturalism. Bennett (1998:213) asked, are “museums not still concerned to beam their improving messages of cultural tolerance and diversity into civil society as far as they can reach?”

Andrea Witcomb's (2003) book tried to draw Bennett's negative discourse back to a positive role for the museum as cross-cultural mediator. Witcomb (2003:17) questioned Bennett's critique by arguing that museums' positions of power are far more unstable than often represented, and that the process by which museums represent through exhibitions and documentation is far too complicated a process to be reduced in this way—that museums do not simply extend the influence of the elite. Further, that there is a “range of possible interpretations of the function of museums” (Witcomb 2003:17). Witcomb argued that one of the destructive assumptions about contemporary museums is their association with the narratives of modernity. Museums, for Witcomb, are caught between their traditional role as rational and civilizing institutions and their association with the “sins of the West.” She argued, ultimately, that just as museums cannot represent their collected world anymore through totalizing visions, neither can the world represent the museum through a totalizing vision of its past, present, and future (Witcomb 2003:18).

Rhiannon Mason (2006), in a later work, has brought the “public” into this diversification of the museum as a postcolonial institution. She argued, as Clifford showed, that as the world outside the museum exerts forces upon the museum, this fact levels a major criticism against the governmental model of Bennett, “namely, that it places too much emphasis on the production side of museums at the expense of the consumption side of the process. As a result, visitors are often overlooked or their responses oversimplified. Yet as is increasingly acknowledged … visitors do not come to museums wholly passive or as blank slates” (Mason 2006:25).

Finally, the most recent apologetic for the museum as a postcolonial institution has been from Anthony Shelton (2006). In an attempt to reinvigorate the claim that museum anthropology is alive and well, especially within anthropology, Shelton argues that:

Museums are a microcosm of the wider society in which inter-ethnic relations are played out through a struggle over interpretation and control of cultural resources. … It is this new, revitalized sub-discipline of anthropology that, through its dialectical engagement and transformation of its subject, has done much, and can be expected to do much more, in charting new courses not only for ethnographic but for other museum presentations too.

[Shelton 2006:79]

What all of these appeals represent is both an attempt by museums, and anthropology museums in particular, to realign themselves within a postmodern critique and to reclaim what they see as ground lost to anthropology in general, as the mediator between the West and the Other (Blaut 1993; Clifford 2004; Dicks 2000). In these accounts, the museum of the second age is becoming a contact zone—a space of collaboration, discussion, and conflict resolution. This movement toward integration of source community and stakeholder voices into the museum—as well as an increased willingness to consult with source communities over matters of storage, conservation, and even access (Peers and Brown 2003)—has become a major justification within the museum community for their ongoing relevance and even right to maintain their vast colonial collections (Shelton 2006).

However, in this attribution of the museum as a contact zone, what exactly is being claimed? To answer this we need to look again at what Pratt was claiming for the contact zone, and what Clifford was claiming in its application to the museum.


In Pratt's (1991) original paper, she defined another phenomena that is equally an integral part of the contact zone—that of autoethnography. Autoethnography is

a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them. Thus if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), autoethnographic texts are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts.

[Pratt 1991:34]

Pratt defined autoethnography as one of the “literate arts” of the contact zone. In The Arts, Pratt (1991:35–37) used Guaman Poma's New Chronicle as an exemplar of an early autoethnographic text. Poma's letter is an appeal to the King of Spain, written between 1600 and 1615, in two parts and in two languages, Spanish and Quechua. It is, Pratt argued, written as much for the Quechua-speaking people of Peru as for the King of Spain, and uses the European chronicle as its literary genre. The point, for Pratt, of Poma's Chronicle was not only that he used a European literary genre to perform Quechua culture and history, but that it was also an appeal to both the Spanish Crown and the Quechua for the recognition of their cultural and historical significance as a people. The appeal was unsuccessful and the New Chronicle lay forgotten in the Spanish archives for centuries. With its resurrection by Pratt, Poma's Chronicle has become a prototypic example of the autoethnographic.

However, I think, along with Richard Miller (1994), that the key example in The Arts of autoethnography is not Poma's letter and appeal. The problem with Poma's letter is that the colonial context is so prototypical that it does not challenge our perceptions of the context within which the contact zone operates. The contemporary autoethnography is too clear, too much of a colonialized appeal within a colonial setting, too much of a literary intervention. When applied to the museum as an exemplar, it obscures the role of the autoethnography when applied to such settings (granted this was not Pratt's concern), because it is too easy to see the museum as the site at which such appeals are preserved, represented, and reinterpreted. The role of the museum, or archive, is obscured as it does not make clear how these objects of the contact zone are being used in postcolonial contexts. Far more useful is the experience of Manuel (Pratt's son) who, being a student, is daily embedded in the contact zone that is education (Pratt 1992:38).

Pratt recalled how her son clearly recognized, within the first few days in his new “open” school, how such open and multivocal spaces as his new school operate. When asked by his mother what it was like in his new school, he responded: “ ‘theyre a lot nicer, and they have a lot less rules. But know why theyre nicer?’‘Why?’ his mother asked. ‘So youll obey all the rules they don't have,’ he replied” (Pratt 1991:38, misspellings and emphasis in original).

It is in exactly this way that we see how the museum as contact zone operates. Reference, appropriateness, and legitimacy are always framed from the point of view of the party in authority, “regardless of what other parties might see themselves as doing” (Pratt 1991:38). Pratt pointed out to us that in the school if “a classroom is analyzed as a social world unified and homogenized with respect to the teacher, whatever students do other than what the teacher specifies is invisible or anomalous to the analysis. This can be true in practice as well” (1991:38).

In Clifford's use of the contact zone as a consultative space within the new museum (now too a kind of classroom), he also presented a much more complicated story than is usually represented in later works. In the usually referenced example from “Museums as Contact Zones,” that of the Portland Museum of Art's consultation with Tlingit elders over the Rasmussen collection, Clifford clearly signaled that, “What transpired in the Portland Museum's basement was not reducible to a process of collecting [original emphasis] advice or information. And something in excess of consultation was going on. A message was delivered, performed, within an ongoing contact history” (1997:193, emphasis added).

What the museum thought was going on was an elucidation of additional context and information that would enrich the collection. What the people representing the Tlingit were doing was much broader. The objects represented, for them, “ongoing stories of struggle,” an opportunity to remind the museum of its responsibilities over its stewardship of clan objects, and an appeal to the museum to be accountable in ways that went beyond “mere preservation” and contextualization (Clifford 1997:193).


I'm pleased science has accepted native wisdom, but why did they have to go and create ethno-sciences out of it to explain it to themselves? Our native educators have been drawn into the orbit of “native science” for a variety of reasons so it will take some time for them to see under the rug.

—Jim Enote, personal communication, 2008

The problem was not so much that of negotiating a new mode of transculturation, nor the lack of understanding on the part of the Portland Museum of Art staff about the necessities of the contact zone. Something much more intractable was being performed, an aspect of these colonial institutions, and the contact zone, that has largely been left out of the post-Clifford/Pratt discussions. It is the third feature of the contact zone and contact zone–like engagements: autoethnography.

Autoethnography is as much a part of the contact zone as is transculturation. However, it is the forgotten part. This is very strange, though probably very telling, as both Clifford (1997:213) and Pratt (1991:34) made clear that autoethnography is one of the most significant, and most neocolonial, aspects of all contact zones.

Pratt explained that autoethnographic texts are not forms of self-representation or autochthonous expression. Rather, they are those texts, written by the Other, that mix indigenous idioms within metropolitan and academic modes. Although Pratt (1991:34) argued, “Such texts often constitute a marginalized group's point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture,” this clearly points to a much wider phenomenon, or even mode of dominance, that can be found when the Other finds that they have to make account of themselves.

The reason why autoethnography has been the largely ignored feature of the contact zone may be that Pratt defined autoethnography as a textual mode or genre. In her original The Arts of the Contact Zone, autoethnography was “a text” (Pratt 1991:34). In her next great contact zone work, Imperial Eyes (Pratt 1992), there was no mention of autoethnography as anything but a literary genre. This despite the fact that Pratt recognized that, like transculturation, “autoethnography, is a phenomenon of the contact zone” (Pratt 1991:34).

If we return to Clifford's “Museums as Contact Zones,” and the many examples he presented, it seems that the main focus of this essay was to suggest to us that autoethnography is not simply a textual genre, but, perhaps, a rhetorical genre. Although the primary purpose of this paper was a call for museums to loosen “their sense of centrality and [see] themselves as specific places of transit, intercultural borders, contexts of struggle and communication between discrepant communities” (Clifford 1997:213), he seemed to be suggesting to us throughout the paper that there are also some fundamental asymmetries: “A contact perspective views all culture-collecting strategies as responses to particular histories of dominance, hierarchy, resistance, and mobilization” (Clifford 1997:213).

For Clifford, though, the potential of a “de-centred” museum is a possibility: “My account argues for a democratic politics that would challenge the hierarchical valuing of different places of crossing. It argues for a decentralization and circulation of collections in a multiplex public sphere, an expansion of the range of things that can happen in museums and museum-like settings” (Clifford 1997:214). For Clifford, the democratization of these politics, and these settings, is a possibility, and this was the central point of the article. However, it has become increasingly clear, over the past ten years, that the contact zone has been continually used by the museum (Bennett 1998:212–213), by “native science” (Enote, personal communication, 2008), and by governmentality of indigenous populations (Hemming and Rigney 2008) as a neocolonial genre. I am arguing here that part of this problem, of the traditional reappropriation of the contact zone as colonial contact zone, is due to the now ignored role of autoethnography as a fundamental neocolonial rhetorical genre and even instrument of appropriation.


One of the accounts from Clifford's (1997:195–196) contact zones essay that is rarely discussed in the secondary literature is his account of the development of the Papuan Sculpture Garden at Stanford University. As Clifford recounted, in 1994 a then anthropology student at Stanford, Jim Mason, had raised enough money, mostly through donations and small grants, to bring about a dozen sculptors from the Papuan Highlands to Palo Alto. During that summer, the sculptors, who were staying with local friends and supporters, worked on tree trunks brought from Papua New Guinea and acceptable stone from Nevada to create “human figures entwined with animals, fantastic designs” (Clifford 1997:195). “Their workplace was open to everyone passing by and on Friday evenings it turned into a party, with barbecues, face painting, drumming, and dancing. The New Guinea artists taught their designs to interested Palo Altoans. Growing numbers turned up every week to hang out, make art, and celebrate” (Clifford 1997:195).

Clifford went on to recount how, when he visited the site in the autumn of 1994, the sculptors had returned home to Papua New Guinea and what constituted the “New Guinea Sculpture Garden” were the various carved stones and trunks, secured by cables, covered by plastic, and spread around among the other trees. Jim Mason had also begun another fundraising initiative, this time to raise money to erect and secure the sculptures and create a proper sculpture garden. Within a year the garden was taking shape (Clifford 1997:195–196). It now stands on its site, next to the Humanities Center at Stanford University—the sculpted poles and stones set in concrete, replete with lighting and interpretive panels.

We could go on to ask why it took so much effort to bring these particular artists, and to provide the minimal display support for their works, to one of the richest universities in the world? Having said this, we must certainly applaud Jim Mason and his community of supporters who looked after the Papuan artists with such care and hospitality. What I am interested in here, however, is something that James Clifford deferred comment on at the time of his writing because he thought it was too early to consider. The issue was how the garden was ultimately to be owned and used (Clifford 1997:196).

When my wife and I finally visited the New Guinea Sculpture Garden, with James Clifford, in the summer of 2008, I found a well-presented, cared for, and seemingly permanent feature of the Palo Alto campus. While Clifford reminded me of a bit of his paper that I had almost forgotten, it seemed to me to be an almost perfect example of the successful contact zone. It was a project that directly supported indigenous artists by bringing them into direct and meaningful engagements with a diverse group of people on the other side of the world. It was a chance for them to speak for themselves and to demonstrate their artistic productions—for these works of art to be displayed for posterity in a permanent site on campus. What more do we want from a contact zone? Perhaps this is why so little has been said about this section of Clifford's paper—because it is so obvious a model, a model so often reproduced these days, especially in museums.

However, while wandering about the garden, something that Clifford said, intentionally I think, struck me out of this complacent attitude. While wandering around the exhibited sculptures and reading the now permanent interpretations, Clifford said that he thought that the Papuan artists expected something more, more long term, out of the exchange. Although it took some time for the significance of this simple statement to sink in, what I think Clifford was saying was that though we were looking at a perfect example of a contact zone, it was not the pleasant contact zone usually assumed—contact zone of equal reciprocity and mutual benefit.

Clifford was showing me that contact zones are not really sites of reciprocity. They are, despite the best efforts of people like Jim Mason, asymmetric spaces of appropriation. No matter how much we try to make the spaces accommodating, they remain sites where the Others come to perform for us, not with us. What we see in the creation and stabilization of the Papuan Sculpture Garden, I think, is that like so many other collaborations scattered around the Palo Alto campus that also have complex hidden histories—sites that are also stabilized and naturalized for posterity into the campus landscape—there is little sign of the Papuan artists but for the sculptures. Nor is there any sign that very much at all, but for the artists, went back to Papua New Guinea.

What we see in the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University is not just a contact zone that, ultimately, failed to live up to the Papuan artists' expectations. What we see is the conflict between two fundamentally different sets of assumptions about what the engagements were for. For the Papuan artists the expectations included sets of reciprocal obligations for the gifts of their time, effort, and works that never materialized. Such engagements entail ongoing obligations between people that are part of the agreement to come and help. For the people who participated and helped in Palo Alto over that year of 1994, it was a chance to engage with these talented artists, to speak with them and show them California culture, but mostly to promote them by permanently displaying their art.

It is foolish to argue that the Palo Altoans were wrong, or insensitive, or even naïve. Both sides in the bargain had culturally specific expectations that were not going to map onto each other very well. We could equally say that the Papuan sculptors were naïve about the artistic exchange they were engaging with—a naiveté that largely no longer exists among indigenous artists. The point I wish to make here is that although all contact zone engagements are incommensurable in this way, what matters is that in an incommensurable context, dominance wins. This is the real lesson of the contact zone.

Mary Louise Pratt also tried to teach us this lesson when she revealed how contestation within the contact zone can be literally obliterated when she discussed how her son's essay on “A grate adventchin” of an imaginary vaccine that would make school unnecessary received the usual, but utterly silent, gold star. Richard Miller's later critique of Pratt's essay neatly summarized the program of silencing within the contact zone:

For Pratt, the teacher's star labors to conceal a conflict in the classroom over what work is to be valued and why, presenting instead the image that everything is under control—students are writing and the teacher is evaluating. It is this other strategy for handling difficult material, namely ignoring the content and focusing only on the outward forms of obedient behavior, that leads Pratt to wonder about the place of unsolicited oppositional discourse in the classroom. With regard to Manuel's real classroom community, the answer to this question is clear: the place of unsolicited oppositional discourse is no place at all.

[Miller 1994:390, emphasis added]

The role of autoethnography within the contact zone is not simply one of translation and transculturation, but of an appeal. The autoethnographic within the contact zone offers “self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan [or authoritative institutions'] modes of understanding. Autoethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speakers' own community. Their reception is thus highly indeterminate” (Pratt 1991:34).

However, as Manuel's effort to challenge the hegemony of the academy shows, the contact zone allows for, and even encourages, participation; it demands dialogue, it assumes collaboration (of sorts), but it is almost impossible to effect. By placing the contact zone within the academy, as it always is, especially when applied to the museum, we see how dialogue and collaboration are foregrounded, but the ultimate suppression of oppositional discourse is always effected. A pragmatic agonism is provided for all, but only to the degree that it returns to, and reinforces, the academy.


Museums are indeed very painful sites for Native peoples as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.

Lonetree 2006:632

Why play the game of self-representation? Such visitors, their hosts, and impresarios are not free of colonial legacies of exoticism and neocolonial processes of commodification. Nor are they entirely confined by these repressive structures. … The historical possibilities of contact relations—negative and positive—need to be confronted.

Clifford 1997:200

That museums were the premier colonial institutions—institutions that created the ordered representations that contained, objectified, and reduced the colonized world for the paternalistic imperialism that characterized the 19th and early 20th centuries—is beyond dispute (Bennett 1995; Harrison 1997:45–47; Hooper-Greenhill 1992; Young 1990, 2001). However, there persists a view of museums as postcolonial institutions that have managed to reconstruct themselves after the dissolution of the colonies in the later 20th century (Prasad 2003; Shelton 2000, 2001). As argued above, this vision of museums—postcolonially—is represented in what has been called the new museology (Macdonald 2006), a museology that promotes education over research, engagement over doctrine, and multivocality over connoisseurship.

Dominant premises of this move to an open postcolonial role for museums are tied up with a later 20th century neoliberalism and abstract postmodernism. The new museology is neoliberal in the sense that it assumes, as a core premise, the open exchange of information and the open access to information. It is abstract postmodern in that it assumes a critical ambiguity to definitive interpretations and positions within the museum (Lonetree 2006:642).

The justification for these positionings is to redress the “colonial” museum's stance of universal typological calibration, where the object was “to speak for itself” within an exhibitional space that ordered its relation to a measure of civilization—thus setting it in relation to the necessary programs of improvement, paternalistic governance, and social utility that supported Western-style imperialism. As Susan Ashley has pointed out, the problem is that though

there has been great hand-wringing over the new, post-colonial role for the museum and how it functions as a place of representation, socialization and commodification (Hallam and Street 2000; Hein 2000; Kary [sic., Karp] and Lavine 1991). Much has been made of how to ensure participation and inclusion with the aim of creating unbiased cultural representations and developing new, non-white, audiences (Sandell 2002). But at their core museums retain two basic competencies left over from colonial times—they collect and they exhibit.

[Ashley 2005:31]

They also educate—which is also a leftover from colonial times, and a core goal of the new museology. Susan Ashley went on to speculate as to what would happen when communities with non-Western ethnicity interact with the museum? Even speculating: what would happen if collecting and exhibiting were rejected altogether (Ashley 2005:31)? However, I am interested here in what practices constitute the three leftover colonial competences—collecting, exhibiting, and educating. Of course what I am suggesting here, perhaps even asserting, is that on top of being “leftover” colonial competences, these competences have adapted themselves to a neocolonial world (Marshall 1998; Nkrumah 1965; Yew 2002), rather than transcending it. So, rather than being mere “leftovers,” these are new platforms for a neocolonial positioning of the new museum in relation to the ex-colonial Other.

Of course a thorough examination would cover all of these issues in chapter and verse. They would explore all of the nuances of museum practice and current museum history. They would accommodate all of the potential objections that will be levied at such an audacious claim. But, then, this is the primary mode of defense of the center against claims that it is centralized. The center constantly generalizes, constantly summarizes, constantly standardizes. This is the raison d'être of the center, to calibrate by summary standardization (Latour 1987, 1988; Law 2004; Pickering 1995). Yet, when the periphery challenges these summary tactics, claims for absolute justification pour forth (Hemming and Rigney 2008). However, I will give some justification for my claims.

When Tony Bennett (1998:212) challenged what he saw as an overly optimistic view of “cross cultural dialogues” in Clifford's contact zones, he was highlighting the new inclusiveness of museums as merely another manifestation of the museum as an instrument of governmentality. For Bennett this “bottom-up,” as opposed to “top-down” model of exhibition development and engagement is not much more than a subterfuge (Bennett 1998:213; see also Harrison 2005a, 2005b:31). Although Bennett did not explicitly associate this instrumentality as a form of neocolonialism, it is not hard to see how we could. Such programs of the appropriation of resources using the subterfuge of collaboration and entitlement are what define neocolonialism (Marshall 1998; Nkrumah 1965). The institution that controls the calibration and use, controls the resource. This is what Bennett is referring to.

Hilden and Huhndorf (1999) went further and argued that there is little positive potential in such messages from museums. For them, the act of museums allowing source community voices simply continues to silence the stories of violence and degradation that were the colonial past. Amy Lonetree would agree with this critique and has argued that, “Our survival, as many people have argued, is one of the greatest untold stories, and the specifics of this difficult and shameful history need to be told” (2006:640–641). Her argument is that postmodern abstractions permeate modern, inclusive museum exhibitional design:

We have long critiqued the elitism and insider nature of Western institutions. But by producing a museum that features exhibits that only curators or those from the academy engaged in postmodern theory can readily appreciate, have we created a new institution of elitism? In my opinion, the museum misses an important opportunity to educate because of its choice to present a blurred abstract message to dispel those stereotypes about Indian history and culture that have long predominated in American culture.

[Lonetree 2006:642]

Certainly collaboration is meant to overcome this dilemma. Isn't the inclusion of not only source community voices but also actual collaboration meant to ensure that meaningful co-narratives are generated (Clifford 2001; Cooke and McLean 2002; Peers and Brown 2003)? Perhaps. I am not going to argue that it is not the intention of the museum professionals to achieve a meaningful and inclusive co-narrative through these programs of collaboration. On the contrary, it is my belief, and my experience, that in almost all cases museum professionals are absolutely sincere in their desire to find an inclusive narrative—to allow the source community a real partnership. However, I think that the concerns outlined above from Tony Bennett, Patricia Hilden, and Sherry Huhndorf, Amy Lonetree, and the earlier concerns of James Clifford expose a structurally neocolonial institution and profession.


In late 2008 I was working on a set of principles for the expansion of a project with my colleague and friend, Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum & Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico. We were discussing the incorporation into the project of the principles of the museum as contact zone. Not being familiar with the argument, Jim asked me to explain the details of what that meant. Two things that happened in that conversation were formative to the writing of this paper. First, I realized that in trying to explain to Jim what the museum as contact zone meant, my explanations were themselves somewhat confused and disjointed. I realized that my conception of the contact zone was full of holes and inconsistencies. Second, that when I had given Jim a somewhat reasonable description of a contact zone, his reply was simply that the concept seemed quite “clinical” to him.

Jim Enote's response to my description worried me. Had he not understood what I meant by contact zone? Was my description somehow deficient? Was my own conception of the contact zone weak or ill informed? As with the Papuan Sculpture Garden, his comment caused me to look again at what I imagined the contact zone to be. I say “imagined” for that is what I later realized my conception to be—an imagined definition of the contact zone. I had read Clifford's article, and the subsequent discussions of it, with the assumption in mind that the museum could, and should, be a dialogic space—that to give meaning and value to objects was to invite source community members into the museum to add their voices to the objects. This accumulation was the whole point of significance for the museum, the object, the source communities, and the public. However, what these two encounters, and the subsequent work for this article, led to was the realization that the contact zone is a clinical collaboration, a consultation that is designed from the outset to appropriate the resources necessary for the academy and to be silent about those that were not necessary. This was this clinical collaboration that Jim Enote was so perceptively referring to.

I have argued that the Papuan Sculpture Garden at Stanford University is a far more prototypic example of the contact zone than the many other examples of collaborative engagements. The ultimate power, in such cases, lies not only with the control of the objects and the funding regimes—the property and capital—but also with the power to stabilize and display (Geismar 2008:113). The brief summer of dialogue and symmetric performance at Stanford has now yielded to the forces of documentation. The Papuans, in fact all of the participants in that summer's events, are now trapped in documentation, in inscriptions, in the academy's discourses.

The discourse produced, in the end, is not even one of autoethnography in the sense of Pratt's Guaman Poma or Clifford's Papuan Sculptors. It is absorbed into the collections of the center, of the metropole. It is calibrated against international documentation standards, narrated within the idioms of the academy, and displayed with all the resources of the center. Thus, always, is the contact zone an asymmetric space where the periphery comes to win some small, momentary, and strategic advantage, but where the center ultimately gains.

This asymmetry is built, literally and figuratively, into our institutions (Chakrabarty 1992; Shelton 2001). They are determined by our funding regimes, by our proscribed professional practices, and in museums, by the very roles that we fulfill—collecting, documenting, and displaying:

more often than not, as this new “museum age” of building and expansion unfolds, the existing museum infrastructure is being renewed along preexisting lines. The Western typology of museums and the art and artifact display paradigms it characteristically deploys are, in fact, being extended to communities and countries around the world that have had no previous museum tradition. … The hard evidence of its resilience and vitality is the billions of dollars being invested in museums, new and old, by governments and private individuals.

[Phillips 2007:18]

Good intentions have little force against the power of this institutionalized assemblage. If we read Clifford's essay carefully, and the writings of Mary Louise Pratt as well, we find that we were warned against this:

My account argues for a democratic politics that would challenge the hierarchical valuing of different places of crossing. It argues for a decentralization and circulation of collections in a multiplex public sphere, an expansion of the range of things that can happen in museums and museum-like settings. … A contact perspective argues for the local/global specificity of struggles and choices concerning inclusion, integrity, dialogue, translation, quality, and control. And it argues for a distribution of resources (media attention, public and private funding) that recognizes diverse audiences and multiplies centred histories of encounter.

[Clifford 1997:214]

This is the account of the contact zone that museums today would embrace, and some have put into practice, at least in part.

Yet, Clifford warned us in the central sections of the essay that, “Contact work in a museum thus goes beyond consultation and sensitivity, though these are very important. It becomes active collaboration and a sharing of authority” (Clifford 1997:210, emphasis added). He also tells us, on the same page, that the center, the academy, is now being challenged by tribal museums and minority cultural centers, that, “Differences of power, control, and design of budgets determined who would be the collectors and who the collected” (Clifford 1997:195). Due largely to frustrations with their engagements with existing museums (Lonetree 2006), or the complete insignificance of these institutions to the community (Mithlo 2004:753), indigenous museums and cultural centers are creating their own centers of collecting, performance, and presentation. They are increasingly giving up on the academy as the accumulator of voices and appropriating the technology of museum to their own ends.

So what is the key problem with the museum as contact zone? It is not so much that the contact zone is inherently asymmetric but that the contact zone is a site in and for the center. This is easily subverted. It is most certainly not that collaboration in the museum is wrong, or should be abandoned, as some might think I am arguing. On the contrary, this is an important feature of the empowerment of communities whose patrimony museums hold.

The key problem, as I see it, lies deeper—deep in the assumptions and practices that constitute the museum in the past and today. As Ruth Phillips (2007:18), Tony Bennett (1998), Amy Lonetree (2006), Nancy Mithlo (2004), and Susan Ashley (2005) all point out in their various ways, it is that the new museum, the museum as contact zone, is and continues to be used instrumentally as a means of masking far more fundamental asymmetries, appropriations, and biases. The museum, as a site of accumulation, as a gatekeeper of authority and expert accounts, as the ultimate caretaker of the object, as the ultimate arbiter of the identity of the object, as its documenter and even as the educator, has to be completely redrafted. Where the new museology saw the museum being transformed from a site of determined edification to one of educational engagement, museums of the 21st century must confront this deeper neocolonial legacy. This is not only possible but, I would argue, could renovate the museum into an institution that supported the enrichment, rather than authorization, of collections. To do this, however, requires museums to learn to let go of their resources, even at times of the objects, for the benefit and use of communities and agendas far beyond its knowledge and control.