In opening his essay “Museums as Contact Zones,” James Clifford transports his readers to the basement of the Portland Museum of Art to eavesdrop on a meeting that had been arranged between Tlingit elders, the Museum’s curators, and himself to discuss the future of the Museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Indian artifacts. The curators, Clifford tells us, had shared his own expectation that the elders would want to focus their attention on, and to organize the discussion around, the objects in the collection—but this proved not to be so. Although the artifacts were referred to from time to time “as aides-mémoires, occasions for the telling of stories and the singing of songs,” 1 it was the stories and songs that took center stage. The objects were left to keep pretty much to themselves, lying undisturbed “on the museum tables or in storage boxes,” 2 for the most part unheeded and, indeed, unseen, their role eclipsed by the cross-cultural exchanges—in stories, songs, and conversation—that they had occasioned. In Clifford’s telling, the Museum thus emerges as primarily a scene of conversation rather than one of exhibition.
The imagery is a fitting one for Clifford’s argument that museums should now be understood as “contact zones” that aim to facilitate a greater degree of cross-cultural communication between the different [End Page 345] communities that are brought into contact with one another within the museum space. This entails that curators should conceive their roles in new ways. In place of the curator as the possessor of an authoritative knowledge that results in museum artifacts being arranged as the vehicles for a one-way transmission of messages, Clifford suggests that curators should rethink their relationships to the objects entrusted to their care and see these as artifactual mediators in, and of, complex histories of cultural exchange. It is equally clear, however, that the program Clifford proposes for the museum entails a shift in the ratio of the senses that are to be brought into play in the artifactual environment that the museum constructs. If, for the past two hundred years and more, the curator’s role has been to arrange an authoritative message for the museum’s public, this has been done by exhibiting collections in a manner calculated to render that message visible. This centering of the eye within a conception of the museum as an institution of the visible is now to be displaced in a conception of the museum’s function that—in the stress placed on dialogue across cultures caught in reciprocal, although unequally structured, exchanges—views objects as vehicles for promoting complex kinds of cross-cultural talk and listening, rather than simply as collections that are to be displayed to be looked at. This becomes clear as Clifford outlines the difference between what the Portland Museum’s curators had looked forward to obtaining from their meeting with the Tlingit elders—that is, another context for the display of the collection, one rooted in and authenticated by an authoritative indigenous cultural perspective—and what they actually got:
As evoked in the museum’s basement, Tlingit history did not primarily illuminate or contextualize the objects of the Rasmussen Collection. Rather, the objects provoked (called forth, brought to voice) ongoing stories of struggle. From the position of the collecting museum and the consulting curator, this was a disruptive history which could not be confined to providing past tribal context for the objects. The museum . . . was urged to act on behalf of Tlingit communities, not simply to represent the history of tribal objects completely or accurately. 3
Clifford is not alone in suggesting the need for a change in the sensory regime of the museum. Indeed, the dominance of the eye has been put in question for some time now across a range of museum practices—from hands-on exhibits that promote tactile involvement in the museum environment, through museums in which the sonic element predominates over the visual, to avant-garde [End Page 346] experiments in which sound and vision are gratingly misaligned with one another. My purpose here is to place these concerns in historical perspective by looking...