Oberlin Center for Convergence (StudiOC)

Mining the Museum

Where did museums come from, where should they be going, and who gets to decide?

Renee Romano.

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Amy Margaris

Renee Romano.

Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Renee Romano

Bonnie Cheng.

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Bonnie Cheng

Mining the Museum 

Offered Fall 2022

This learning community interrogates museum practices and contemplates their future. Museums have deep imperialist roots, yet museum collections are also physical manifestations of social, artistic, scientific, and spiritual values held by many different kinds of stakeholders. Curators, Indigenous culture bearers, art collectors, scientists, and diverse museum viewers all lay claim to material culture and associated knowledge in ways that frequently clash, but increasingly intersect as institutions begin to heed the call to democratize and decolonize museum spaces and the things within them. 

Students in this learning community will explore museum histories and futures through the disciplinary perspectives of Anthropology, Art History, and History. We will learn about the many different types of museums, explore the functions of museums as modern institutions, and examine how museum practices shape knowledge and define what constitutes art; construct historical narratives, and determine how objects are categorized and cataloged.

The learning community will include field trips to several area museums, lectures by outside speakers, and workshops with AMAM curators and with a collections consultant representing the indigenous Kiribati Pacific Island community.

Registration in any two of the following: HIST 435OC, ANTH 460OC, or ARTH 329OC is required for this learning community.


Course Instructors for this learning community are Professor of History Renee Romano, Associate Professor of Anthropology Amy Margaris and Associate Professor of Art History and East Asian Studies Bonnie Cheng

Renee Romano, Instructor

HIST 435OC: Museums: A Cultural, Political, and Institutional History 
Meets: Tuesday and Thursday, 3:00 - 4:20 PM

This class explores the origins, evolution, and function of many different types of museums from the 18th to the 21st century. From the first natural history museums, which reflected the Enlightenment era’s impulse towards hierarchical categorization, to the new 21st century “memorial museums,” which seek to commemorate past violence in order help build a better future, museums have viewed themselves as playing an important cultural and political role in their societies. As a class, we will explore the creation and evolution of many different kinds of museums, the relationship between museums and modernity, and the ways in which museum practices have changed over time. How, we will ask, have museums been colonial institutions and how might they be decolonized? What role have museums played in legitimizing the nation-state? How have movements to build alternative museums sought to challenge dominant cultural and political narratives? As we study—and visit—art museums, science museums, natural history and history museums, we will consider the many ways in which museums produce and structure knowledge. This class includes several required weekend field trips.

Amy Margaris, Instructor 

ANTH 460OC: Museum Anthropology 
Meets: Wednesday, 2:30 - 4:20 PM

This course provides an overview of the history, politics and changing roles of anthropological collections housed in museums. In the current era, objects are mediating new relationships between museums, object source communities, and diverse audiences. We will draw on published literature and current initiatives involving Oberlin’s own anthropological collections to explore such themes as co-curation; indigenous “maker movements” and knowledge repatriation; physical repatriation and the law; and digital approaches to democratizing access to physical collections.

Bonnie Cheng, Instructor

ARTH/EAST 329OC: Cultural Property? Art, Heritage, Ownership
Meets: Monday, 2:30 - 4:20 PM

This course explores how objects, especially works in art museums, circulate within different systems of value. Using case studies of objects from premodern China: ritual bronzes, Buddhist sculpture, and works looted from the Old Summer Palace, we will consider their meaning in their original religious-historical context against their meaning in museums or for modern dealers and collectors in Europe and China. We will also explore issues of nationalism and national heritage, and international frameworks that attempt to legislate the circulation of objects and the challenges of enforcing these laws between nations with different structures of government.