Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes poses a number of probing questions about the role and responsibility of museums and anthropology in the contemporary world. In it, Michael Ames, an internationally renowned museum director, challenges popular concepts and criticisms of museums and presents an alternate perspective which reflects his experiences from many years of museum work.
Based on the author’s previous book, Museums, the Public and Anthropology, the new edition includes seven new essays which argue, as in the previous volume, that museums and anthropologists must contextualize and critique themselves – they must analyse and critique the social, political and economic systems within which they work. In the new essays, Ames looks at the role of consumerism and the market economy in the production of such phenomena as worlds’ fairs and McDonald’s hamburger chains, referring to them as “museums of everyday life” and indicating the way in which they, like museums, transform ideology into commonsense, thus reinforcing and perpetuating hegemonic control over how people think about and represent themselves. He also discusses the moral/political ramifications of conflicting attitudes towards Aboriginal art (is it art or artifact?); censorship (is it liberating or repressive?); and museum exhibits (are they informative or disinformative?).
The earlier essays outline the development of museums in the Western world, the problems faced by anthropologists in attempting to deal with the often conflicting demands of professional as opposed to public interests, the tendency to both fabricate and stereotype, and the need to establish a reciprocal rather than exploitative relationship between museums/anthropologists and Aboriginal people.
Written during the course of the last decade, these essays offer an accessible, often anecdotal, journey through one professional anthropologist’s concerns about, and hopes for, his discipline and its future.
Michael M. Ames is director of the Museum of Anthropology and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Cannibal Tours has quite a bit to recommend it, and to recommend it to professional and lay readers alike. For the former, it offers some new and eminently practical insights not just about the present and future of museums, but about the relevance of anthropology to late 20th century society. In this sense the book is less true to its current subtitle than to the original “Anthropology of Anthropology,” and so is deserving of being read as a critical commentary on where the discipline has been, and where it may be heading. And for the latter, Ames’s well-written essays explain a good deal of what actually constitutes the work of museums, most importantly the production of those “cultural consumables” meant to inform and entertain the museum-going public.
Museum curators, anthropologists, and students of popular culture will find much in Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes to inform and provoke. It will ... encourage readers to challenge the common sense of their own particular situations and apply its lessons to the operations of their own institutions.
This rich, complex, and compelling book represents a forceful scrutiny of the often polarized discourse on museums as well as an attempt to discredit one-sided arguments that prevent subtle and nuanced understandings of these institutions ... Ames spends a good deal of time challenging the ways people think about, understand, and represent Native art ... Ames raises interesting and important questions for anthropologists., for art historians, and for museum professionals ... The struggle for genuine openness to a multitude of voices is by no means over; we should be grateful to Michael Ames for providing us with such a rational and thoughtful publication which represents a major contribution to that struggle.