Essay The Rise Of Museum Culture

Essay The Rise Of Museum Culture

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The rise of museum culture in the 19th century was paralleled by an increased interest in the discipline of anthropology, and more specifically ethnology. Two individuals in particular - Augustus Pitt-Rivers from England and the German-born Franz Boas, who worked in the United States for the latter part of his career - had differing, sometimes even opposing views on how to approach the anthropological study of artifacts in the museum. In England, Pitt-Rivers adopted the concept of cultural evolution and created decontextualized artifact displays which supported this concept. Boas, on the contrary, rejected the cultural evolutionary theory and looked to show how “primitive” cultures were shaped by their environment. Their attempts to effectively display the progression of human civilizations differ in that Pitt-Rivers utilized a typological and functional approach to anthropology in the museum, while Boas used a more holistic and contextual method in how he studied and arranged the ethnographic artifacts.
In his approach to studying ethnographic artifacts, Pitt-Rivers was heavily influenced by the concept of cultural evolution. Inspired by the work of Charles Darwin, Pitt-Rivers believed that human civilizations evolved in different stages, and that the contemporary “primitive” cultures, like the Native American tribes in North America, were like windows into the ancient past of modern-day Western nations. As such, he thought that the technologies produced by the “savages”, as he would refer to tribal peoples, were examples of artifacts which fit into certain stages of evolution of that specific object. Older objects then served as evidence of cultural evolution when they were shown to be “simpler” than more modern specimens.

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...e of Pitt-Rivers is in fact still grounded in the Boasian ideal of contextualized arrangements.
Both Pitt-Rivers and Boas believed their approach to anthropology in the museum to be the most effective, and each presents a convincing approach. Pitt-Rivers claims to present the development and evolution of particular ideas as they moved from people to people, shown in his typological sequence arrangements. These displays decontextualize the objects and allow for them to be compared easily to similar objects from other civilizations and across time periods. Boas on the other hand attempted to create dioramas in which objects were displayed in a contextualized tribal setting, emphasizing that the object is the result of its own history. Yet while both approaches were strong in their philosophical intent, both had shortcomings in their end result inside the museum itself.

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