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Sovereignties of the Imagination: Worlding from the Ethnographic Museum

Wayne Modest, Vrije Universiteit

March 2, 2023 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · 010 East Pyne

Department of Art & Archaeology


This presentation takes up some of the more recent academic explorations of the concept of “worlding” to think about possible futures of the so-called ethnographic or world cultures museum. For more than three decades now, ethnographic museums – at least those in Europe – have received sustained critique. In its most recent iteration, this critique has congregated around ideas of restitution and repatriation, and more broadly of decolonisation. I will draw on work done within the context of the research collective “Worlding Public Cultures”, of which I have been a part for the last 3 years, to take worlding as an analytical and practical/pedagogical category for rethinking the museum as institution, along with its attendant disciplines of history, art history and anthropology.

In this presentation, I outline both the main aspects of the critique of ethnographic museums over the last few decades, and museums’ responses to this critique. I do so by discussing first, some of the major research projects that ethnographic museums in Europe have been involved in as they attempt to change, and second, the ways that debates around, for example, World Art Studies in the 2000s were seen to offer new possibilities for such museums. Here, I draw on my own work within Dutch museums over the past twelve years, and on the trans-European projects in which we have participated.

Despite the challenges associated with ethnographic museums’ roots in colonial history and calls for their closure, I suggest that – precisely because of their histories – these museums inhabit an important conjuncture today, and that they hold important material and political potential for imagining a new museum for the future. I will contend that beyond easy dismissals of world as a euphemism for those who are not us, Worlding taken as a “work of world-imagining”, or as an attunement to practices of “worldmaking”, as “revisioning of our relations” with others in the world, or as practices of sovereignties of the imagination, proposes important analytical and practical yield for rethinking the ethnographic museums for the future.

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