Bilinda Straight

Moore Hall 1001

email: bilinda DOT straight AT wmich AT edu

web page address:

office hours: Tuesdays 1:50 - 3:50 pm, & by appointment


Museums and Material Culture


A critical interrogation of the history of anthropology demands a careful consideration of the relationship between anthropology and museums. From its inception, anthropology contributed to lay understandings of the "exotic" objects contained within the "cabinets of curiosities" that filled museums. At the same time, museums and anthropology were so fundamentally connected, that many anthropologists' research was funded by museums specifically for the purpose of contributing to their collections and exhibitions.


This course comprises: a critical consideration of museum practices, including processes of collection, archives, and exhibition; and critical approaches to material culture more broadly. It is also meant to be an exploratory course, dependent on full engagement between participants -- me as well as you. We will be actively engaged in a process of discovery in terms of how to understand objects in cultural and historical context, how to critically interrogate a variety of anthropological approaches to objects over time, and how to understand anthropology's responsibility to the public through museum practices.




Course Readings


The following required books are available for purchase at the WMU Bookstore:


Ivan Karp (ed.) 2006. Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations.


Elizabeth Edwards. 2001. Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology, and Museums. Berg. 

Other readings will be available through elearning.




Online Postings Through elearning (25%):

This course has an elearning component:


1)   You are responsible for writing a short paragraph, thoughtful response to each week's readings. These are due each Monday by 8AM. Please plan your time accordingly. If you work all weekend, then get do the reading and post before the weekend. If you don't work during the weekend, post in the middle of the night if you like but you must post by MONDAY, 8AM.


2)   You are also responsible for replying to someone else's posting each week. This just means engaging with your fellow students and responding to something one or a few of them have written. Your weekly response posting is due each Tuesday by 8AM.


The point of these postings is for you to begin a dialogue with your fellow students each week that will continue in the classroom. I want this to be your forum, so I will pop my head in and may refer to your postings in class, but I will not post to the board myself.


Grading-wise, you will get 1 point per post and 1 point per response to another student's post. That should give you 2 points per week. Your grade will be a simple percentage of total posts you made out of total possible posts.


Mini-Assignments (10%): There will be five to ten credit-only mini-assignments, weighed thus:

0 missed = 100%; 1 missed = 93%; 2 missed = 83% 3 missed = 73%; 4 missed = 63%; 5 or more missed = 0


Annotated Bib (20%): This involves writing two paragraphs each about four readings relating to the exhibit and you must do this no matter what role you play in the project. You will no doubt use class readings in your group project, but for this assignment, use outside readings. The first paragraph for each of the four readings will be a brief summary. The second paragraph will be a critical response, including discussing how this reading contributes to your ideas for the installation.


Semester Project (45%):

One requirement you all have is to visit at least one museum this semester that has an ethnographic component, on your own, and share the experience with the class. It would be terrific if some of you visited the new Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. if you happen to be going to D.C. at some point. Chicago has the Field Museum and many other smaller and equally large museums with ethnographic components. There are museums close by in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and so on. If you are totally unable to leave Kzoo, there is the Valley Museum. You will receive no project grade if you have not visited a museum and shared that experience in the first class discussion after your visit.


The project:


As a class, you will prepare a museum installation, which should be exhibited during exam week. The project should be flexible so that each person can make a contribution they have an interest in. Your contribution to the project will have to be clear and substantial. There are several components required, and you should divide the labor accordingly, probably by breaking into three working groups of design, catalog, and web (research, set-up/tear-down should be done by everyone). The groups should be interdependent. For example, those working on the catalog can assist and be assisted by the web group, and the design group needs to both share and draw ideas from the other groups. Here are the basic responsibilities:


1)   Research: You will need to draw upon class readings and readings outside class that relate to the themes you have chosen for your installation. Every single participant needs to contribute to research.

2)   Design: Everyone should contribute ideas to design but it will be easiest if a smaller group fine-tunes and implements it, asking other members of the class for objects, ideas, and assistance as necessary.

3)   Catalog: A subgroup will prepare a catalog for the exhibit. The catalog is like a brief essay with sample images, highlighting key aspects of the exhibit.

4)   Web version: A subgroup with appropriate skills will develop a website that digitizes the catalog and additional materials from the exhibit. You should add images of the exhibit itself once it is up. Be sure to have a references page (suggested readings) and an acknowledgments page that lists all of you, me, and anyone else who contributed (including Sangren, if we house the exhibit there).

5)   Set-Up, Reception, Tear-Down: As a class, you should divide up the tasks associated with set-up, reception, and tear-down. Set-up is more work. Perhaps those assigned to tear-down will also be in charge of setting up the reception. Keep in mind that tear-down will happen after the semester is over, so it should be people available after finals or even at the beginning of next term if the exhibit space is available until then.


Semester Project/Installation Grading Rubric (Total points out of 100 will be multiplied by 45% towards the total grade):


1)   Overall Excellence and Slickness of Installation = 15pts

2)   Intellectual Content, Relevance to Anthropological Thought = 15pts

3)   Coherence: the hang-togetherness of the installation as a whole and of the catalog and web version in relation to the installation = 15pts

4)   Your group's contribution (my evaluation of the details for each individual group) = 55pts




1)   Exhibit Proposal Due Oct 7th. As a group, you need to decide on a general theme and basic plan for your exhibit by this date and share it in class, where we will do some additional brainstorming together.

2)   Annotated Bib Due Nov 4th.

3)   Installation Set-Up by Dec 9th, Reception Dec. 10th 2:45-4:45 p.m.




         Online Postings           25%           Mini-Assignments                 10%

         Annotated Bib              20%           Final Project                         45%




Grading Key


All quantitative semester grades are multiplied by the percentage of the spread they represent. Thus, if you have a 90 on online postings, multiplied by 20% of the spread, gives you 18. All grades thus calculated are added together to equal the total percentage out of one hundred. Your semester grade is then calculated as per the key below. Using this key and instructions, you can keep track of your own grade as the semester progresses, but always feel free to ask instructors for assistance in calculating it.


                                    Grade Scale for Final Grades


97-100                         A+


94-96                           A


87-93                           BA


84-86                           B


77-83                           CB


74-76                           C


67-73                           DC


60-66                           D


below 60                      E




PART ONE: Orientations: Objects, Museums, Histories


Wk 1, Tuesday, September 4: Introduction to course plan and requirements.


Wk 2, Tuesday September 11


(1) Read Spyer, 'Introduction' (pp. 1-11)

(2) Peter Pels in Spyer, Border Fetishisms, Chapter Four: 'The Spirit of the Matter: On Fetish, Rarity, Fact, and Fancy' (pp. 91-121);

(3) Appadurai 'Introduction to The Social Life of Things.'


Wk 3, Tuesday, September 18


(1) Appadurai 'Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.'

(2) Introduction to Museum Frictions (MF).


Wk 4, Tuesday, September 25


         (1) 'Exhibitionary Complexes' by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in Museum Frictions (MF)

         (2) 'Exhibition, Difference, and the Logic of Culture' by Tony Bennett in MF


Wk 5, Tuesday, October 2


         Raw Histories Chapters 1 through 4 and 8


Wk 6, Tuesday, October 9


(1) Raw Histories Chapter 8

(2) 'The Reappearance of the Authentic' by Martin Hall in MF

(3) 'The World as Marketplace: Commodification of the Exotic at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893' by Curtis M. Hinsley in Exhibiting Cultures (Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, eds.). 




PART TWO: Materializing Cultures: Agency, Objects, Context


Wk 7, Tuesday, October 16


(1) 'Agency, Biography and Objects' by Janet Hoskins. Pp. 74-84. In Handbook of Material Culture. Chris Tilley et al. (eds.) (2006).

(2) 'Scent, Sound and Synaesthesia: Intersensoriality and Material Culture Theory' by David Howes. Pp. 161-172 In Handbook of Material Culture. (2006).

(3) Chs. 1&2 from The Sari (2003) by Daniel Miller (co-author)


Wk 8, Tuesday, October 23


(1) 'Kwaku's Car' by Jojada Verrips and Birgit Meyer in Car Cultures (2001).

(2) 'Powerful Pictures: Popular Christian Aesthetics in Southern Ghana' (2008). Journal of American Academy of Religion 76(1): 82-110.


Wk 9, Tuesday, October 30


(1) Excerpts from Miracles by Bilinda Straight (2007)

(2) 'The Betel Bag' by Janet Hoskins (in Biographical Objects) (1998)


Wk 10, Tuesday, November 6


(1) 'Malangan: Objects, Sacrifice, and the Production of Memory' by Susanne Kuechler. American Ethnologist 14(4), 626-639 (1988).

(2) 'Buy Me a Bride' by Ellen Schattschneider, American Ethnologist (2001)




Part Three: And Back to Museums: Contexts, Re-Contexts, De-Contexts


Wk 11, Tuesday, November 13


(1)'Bones of Contention' by Moira G. Simpson (2001). Pp. 173-189 In Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era. Routledge.

(2)'Becoming American or Becoming Indian? NAGPRA, Kennewick, and Cultural Affiliation' by Joe Watkins (2004) Journal of Social Archaeology 4(1): 60-80.


Wk 12, Tuesday, November 20


(1)'World Heritage and Cultural Economics' by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in MF

(2)'Community Museums, Memory Politics, and Social Transformation in South Africa: Histories, Possibilities, and Limits' by Ciraj Rassool in MF


Wk 13, Tuesday, November 27


(1)'The Ancient City Walls of Great Benin: Colonialism, Urban Heritiage and Cultural Identity in Contemporary Nigeria' by Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan In Heritage and Identity in the Twenty-First Century (Museum Meanings). Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta (eds.) (2009).

(2)'Transforming Museums on Postapartheid Tourist Routes' by Leslie Witz in MF.


Wk 14, Tuesday, December 4


(1)'Revisiting the Old Plantation: Reparations, Reconciliation, and Museumizing American Slavery' by Fath Davis Ruffins in MF.

(2)'The Museum Outdoors: Heritage, Cattle, and Permeable Borders in the Southwestern Kruger National Park' by David Bunn in MF.

(3) Document: Baghdad Lions to be Relocated to South Africa (p. 392 in MF)


Monday, December 10:  Installation is already set up. Tues, Dec 11: Reception 5-7:00 p.m.


AN5450 Museums and Material Culture 2009 Film Series Guide


Sept. 4  Cannibal Tours1988. 77 min. “Cannibal Tours” is two journeys. The first is that depicted – rich and bourgeois tourists on a luxury cruise up the mysterious Sepik River in the jungles of Papula New Guinea, the packaged version of a “heart of darkness.” The second journey (the real text of the film) is a metaphysical one. It is an attempt to discover the place of “the Other” in the popular imagination. It affords a glimpse at the real (mostly unconsidered or misunderstood) reasons why ‘civilized’ people wish to encounter the ‘primitive’. The situation is that shifting terminus of civilization, where modern mass culture girates and pushes against those original, essential aspects of humanity; and where much of what passes for ‘values’ in western culture, is exposed, in stark relief as banal, and fake.


Sept. 16. Cracks in the mask. 1997. 58 min. "The mysterious and elaborate turtleshell masks collected last century in Torres Strait in far north Australia are unique and irreplaceable, yet there are now none left in Torres Strait. They are all in foreign museums. Ephraim Bani, a witty and knowledgeable Torres Strait Islander and an expert on his people's myths and legends, set out on a voyage of discovery to the great museums of Europe where his cultural heritage now lies. Going beyond the overly familiar arguments about pillage and art-theft, three avant-garde curators provide thought-provoking and sometimes surprising challenges to museums in the West and how they reflect our cultural proclivities. This film show how museums decontextualize--the so-called 'poetics of detachment'--and exclude the very people whose ancestors created the objects in the first place."


Sept 23Journey. museums and community collaboration. 1996. 30 min. Addresses issues of diversity and the status of communities of color in museums today--and prospects for the future. Highlights the controversy surrounding "First encounters: Spanish exploration in the Caribbean and United States, 1492-1570," a traveling exhibition produced by the Florida Museum of Natural History. Reveals the process used by the Science Museum of Minnesota in creating "From the heart of Turtle Island: native views, 1992" and the impact this exhibition had on the community and museum professionals.


Oct. 2Fang an epic journey. 2001. 8 min. Too much info would be telling. AND On cannibalism. 1994. 7 min. King Kong meets the family photograph in this provocatively ironic video which explores the West's insatiable appetite for native bodies in museums, world's fairs and early films. A personal narrative about race and identity by an Indonesian-American videographer of Batak- Palembang descent. 


Oct. 7The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey. 1993. One videocassette. 31 min. Too much description would be telling.


Nov. 13Bones of contention. 1998. 49 min. This program provides an even-handed examination of the conflict between Native American groups and scientists, historians, and museum curators concerning the issue of the remains of more than 10,000 Native Americans unearthed at archaeological sites across the U.S. In doing so, it also provides an excellent survey of American Indian archaeology in the U.S.


Nov. 25. In Search of the Hamat'sa: A Tale of Headhunting. Directed by Aaron Glass. 2004. 33 min. Traces the history of anthropological depictions of the Hamat'sa or Cannibal Dance, and, through the return of archival materials to a First Nations community, presents some of the ways in which diverse attitudes toward this history inform current performances of the Hamat'sa. With a secondary focus on the filmmaker's fieldwork experience, the film also attends specifically to the ethics of ethnographic representation and to the renegotiation of relationships between anthropologists, museums and their research subjects.