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  • Cruise Ships and Prison Camps:Reflections from the Russian Far East on Museums and the Crafting of History
  • Alexia Bloch

In formerly socialist societies the state has dominated sites like museums viewed as critical for producing a national past, but in the case of the Russian Federation these same institutions often are being utilized now to critically examine the past. For many in the emerging market economy of the Russian Federation, formerly state-dominated sites like museums have become important economic resources as well as new sites for representing shifting concepts of history. In this article I examine the museum as an artifact of socialist and postsocialist society and consider how distinct political economies shape the ways in which cultural practices, as well as national and local histories, are depicted.

The broad literature on anthropology museums and museum displays that has burgeoned in the past decade often situates its critique in terms of the West and the "Other." This literature has defined the acquisition of objects from the periphery and the portrayal of peoples under glass as both representative of and an affirmation of the hegemony of the metropole (Stocking 1985, Clifford 1990, Hinsley 1992). Recently, however, scholars are taking note of the divergent aims and functions of museums as they operate in diverse national and local contexts. As a range of scholars has emphasized, museums are a potent force in forging and maintaining identities for newly emerging nations and for groups in postcolonial contexts (Kaplan 1994, Price and Price 1995, Schildkrout 1999).

The inadequacy of a model of cultural hegemony to describe the function of anthropology museums overall is especially revealed in socialist or recently socialist contexts. ("Anthropology museums" is used here to indicate a wide range of museums that could be identified as natural history, ethnography, or local history museums. The emphasis is meant to be on those institutions that consider the representation of local, regional, or national history to be their mandate. In the Russian context, these museums are often called kraevecheskye muzei, or museums of regional studies.) Although the state has dominated sites like museums viewed as critical for producing a national past (Breckenridge 1989, Hinsley 1992, Watson 1994; A. E. Mendonça, "Company museums in the former Soviet Union," paper presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings in Philadelphia, December 1998), in the case of the Russian Federation these same institutions now are often being utilized to critically examine the past. Furthermore, for many an emerging market economy throws state-dominated sites like museums into relief as places where members of minority groups can continue to represent their past and thus consolidate community interests; this is especially important for indigenous groups often competing with various interests for control over natural resources. In drawing on research conducted in the late 1990s in several Siberian museums, this article examines a context of extreme flux in the directions anthropology museums are taking. Anthropology museums in Russia are inextricably part of the struggle over natural resources, the writing of local histories, and the general constitution of knowledge in a postsocialist society. In this article I examine the museum as an artifact of socialist and postsocialist societies reflecting [End Page 377] the distinct trajectory of a political economy in flux. In particular, this article focuses on three portraits of museum communities in Russia and considers what Siberian anthropology museums can tell us about broader issues concerning museums internationally.

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Figure 1.

Map of Russia with the Evenk District shaded (Bridget Thomas, graphic designer, Department of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History).

Three Siberian Museums, Three Stories

Until recently, one of the unifying features of Russian (and earlier Soviet) natural history museums was the unilineal trajectory of development featured in them. As federal funding has diminished, and ideological constraints have also, this common feature is increasingly modified. Since 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, museums are no longer required to create exhibitions catering to Communist party dictates. Museum curators are free to design exhibits without the grand narrative that had defined their work for decades; they are able to set aside the grand narrative of progress tracing a trajectory of human...