Learning about museum exhibits and collections from source communities

Learning about museum exhibits and collections from source communities

Academic Year:
2018 - 2019 (June 1, 2018 through May 31, 2019)
Funding Requested:
$489.50
Project Dates:
-
Applicant(s):
Chair Uniqname:
Overview of the Project:
In the Museum Anthropology course (Anthrarc 497), students investigate the changing role of anthropology museums from colonial collecting institutions to organizations that collaborate with the communities from which their collections originated, commonly called “source communities.” Students learn about these critical changes in museum practice by engaging with museum exhibits and through a course project in which they examine museum collections and then learn about the cultural context of these objects from members of the source community. The course project focuses on a different museum collection whenever it is taught. In the winter 2019 semester, students are examining a collection of ethnographic objects and related plant materials that were collected from Native Anishinabe communities in Michigan and Ontario during a 1933 project that examined traditional basket-making techniques. This collection is curated by the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA). To enhance the engaged learning in this course, funds are requested to take students on a field trip to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Museum. The field trip serves a dual purpose. Students will experience differences in representation, voice, and authority through museum exhibits, as well as learning about the cultural context of the objects in the museum collection they are researching for their course project. Funds are also requested for a small honorarium for a member of the source community to meet with the students and discuss the museum collection from their perspective.

Number of Graduate Students Affected Annually:
5 graduate students
Number of Undergraduate Students Affected Annually:
18 undergraduate students
Budget Administrator:
Amy Rundquist, amyjr@umich.edu
Final Report Fields
Project Objectives:
The first objective was to take the course on a field trip to the Ziibiwing Center (the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Museum). During this trip and in an associated writing assignment, students critically examined the issue of representation in museums by contrasting the ways in which a Native American community decided to represent itself in comparison with more traditional anthropology exhibits in natural history museums, especially in dioramas. The second object was for students to be able to have opportunities for students to have conversations with Anishinabe community members. During videoconferencing meetings, students shared information about the objects they were studying for the course project to learn how the perspectives of the source community differed from the anthropologist who collected the objects.
Project Achievements:
Through the field trip and the meeting with Anishinabe community members, students learned about the importance of the voices and knowledge of source community members for understanding objects in museum collections. Students were also able to apply the knowledge they had gained from their readings and class-room discussions in real-world situations. Student were asked to reflect on these experiences in various individual writing assignments and then discuss their reflections with their fellow students. Below are quotes from two undergraduate students that capture the achievements of these experineces: "These community conversations with people from the Ziibiwing Center … were essential to reshaping the way that I was thinking about the collection objects but also how I thought about the relationship between museums and source communities." "Part of me is a little disappointed in myself for not giving community perspectives more value and thought from the beginning of [the course] project, just because the inclusion of native voice and participant engagement has been a topic covered in many of my classes. On the other hand, I had never gotten to work with anthropological or ethnographic collections physically before, let alone the communities they came from, so this was an entirely new situation for me. I think it goes to show that you can read about something, but you really don’t know what it is like, or how you will react, until you are in the situation yourself. I am so glad my perspective has changed, and that I was able to grow as part of a class and learning environment, so that hopefully if I encounter a similar situation in the future I will be better prepared to understand and handle things.”
Continuation:
I will be teaching Museum Anthropology in the winter 2020 semester and will include the field trip to Ziibiwing and various opportunities for students to learn directly from members of the source community. I also plan to submit a proposal to include this course in the Winter 2020 theme semester on the Great Lakes.
Dissemination:
The work that the students conduct on the UMMAA collections is disseminated through an online (LINK: https://anthrarc497.anthro.lsa.umich.edu/bkejwanong/). In addition, the UMMAA director and collections managers use this course project as an example of how the Museum is providing object-based learning opportunities for students and ways to learn about collaborative museum practice.
Advice to your Colleagues:
1. I made sure that students understood how important the field trip was but was also flexible because the field trip took place outsides of course time. If a student has a valid scheduling conflict (e.g., sport or professional obligations), I allowed them to visit the museum at a time that fit their scheduling, using their own transportion.

2. When working with community members, be sure to keep lines of communication open and be flexible in your expectations. If community members offer to discuss opportunities that different from what you expected or planned, be creative about including it and making it relevant to the course content and learning goals.

3. Although I regularly ask students to individually reflect on their engaged learning experiences, I also found it useful to develop activities to help all of us debrief as a group after they had written their reflections. I also made sure to share my own reflections after our discussions in order to help the students integrate their experiences into the course content and learning goals.