The future of the Museum

Melanie begins her talk by discussing the impact of colonialism on the history and future of museums. The Pitt Rivers is one of the leading and best-known museums of anthropology, ethnography and archaeology in the world and its collection of more than 500,000 items, acquired over more than 130 years, reflects an incredible breadth of culture. Objects range from musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery and tools, and cover all periods of human existence.

However, the history of the Museum and many of its objects is closely tied to British Imperial expansion and the colonial mandate to collect and classify objects from the world over. The processes of colonial collecting were often violent and inequitable towards those peoples being colonised. In her talk, Melanie asks us to reflect on how colonialism has led to the collections of museums today. As one example, she introduces Haida Gwaii, in Canada; one of the largest items in the Pitt Rivers Museum is the Star House Pole, from Masset in Haida Gwaii. The Star House Pole was acquired by the Museum in 1901, after a token amount was paid. This difficult history has led the Museum to engage more closely with its past practices and the nature of its collections, display and interpretation and the effects these continue to have today. Melanie reflects on how the Pitt Rivers are considering the future of the Star House Pole, and other items in their collections.

Melanie Rowntree
Melanie Rowntree

Melanie Rowntree is the Education Officer for Secondary Schools and Further Education at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. You can read more about the Pitt Rivers Museum here.

Helen Haig-Brown is a co-director, alongside Gwaai Edenshaw, of Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife). The film is recorded in Haida, which is an endangered language that neither Helen, nor half of the starring cast, spoke fluently. Watch the video below of Helen discussing her experience of filming in an endangered language, and if you would also like to watch Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife), it can be found on Amazon Prime.

Did you enjoy watching this lecture? Explore more about this topic and the other taster lectures from this Session in our Further Reading Materials Booklet.