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Art, Media and Material Culture

Research across mass media, photographic and film practices and archives, historic collections, contemporary art and interactions and question of museum practice and museum futures is undertaken in the Department, through the Visual Anthropology Lab and is central to the work of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Visual and material culture play constitutive roles in social and cultural change, particularly in the expression of Indigenous, local, national and diasporic identities. Art, long a vital focus of anthropological inquiry into myth, belief, gender and sociality, is increasingly prominent in the public and transnational representation of place, history and political conflict. Art is also now a major arena of legal contention and innovation, and is a dynamic - or notoriously inflated - sector of the world economy.

Museums and their collections have renewed significance as sites which mediate questions of diversity and narratives of culture, history and decolonization. Wtih the re-emergence of materiality and material culture as major cross-disciplinary research themes over the last twenty years, and the development of increasingly collaborative approaches to the co-creation of anthropological knowledge, ethnographic collections, such as those of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, have become heritage resources of international significance, drawing Indigenous community members, scholars, curators and artists from many nations worldwide. They are also research resources of exceptional importance, enabling ambitious comparative projects ranging across traditional knowledge, cross-cultural encounters and the histories of anthropological research, exchange and collecting. New agendas include work on modern and contemporary Indigenous arts, still largely excluded from the mainstream institutional art world; museum collections as archives of environmental knowledge and as sources of inspiration for narratives of sustainability; and the rapidly changing landscape of museum practice and policy, notably with respect to questions of restitution.

Museum conservation, formally focussed on artefact preservation, is now a new field of anthropological research. Drawing on innovative imaging, dating and provenance techniques, including ancient DNA and isotope analyses, there is now scope for unprecedented understanding of source materials and the creation and modification of artefacts, enabling new conceptualisations of material value, history and identity.

Specific projects include work on:

  • encounters between Indigenous peoples and tourists, filmmakers and the media
  • the formation of artefact collections and anthropological knowledge
  • conceptualising and critically researching the provenance of ethnographic artefacts and collections
  • the re-activation of historic, ethnographic collections; engagements between Indigenous peoples and museums