Back in July 2013, at the Future of EthnographicMuseums conference, the excellent Wayne Modest spoke about the way racism and colonialism seem to haunt ethnographic museums, and the extraordinary institutional amnesia most museums seem to have about their histories, and the role these histories played in constructing colonial relationships of power. It was a thought-provoking presentation. As part of his querying of issues of power in museums, Modest problematized the term ‘source communities’, asking how museum engagements with such communities might conscript them to a status of difference vis a vis the mainstream audiences which remain the staple ones for museums, and which fund museums.
In 2003, Alison Brown and I published Museums and Source Communities, a reader of newly commissioned and republished articles about the relationships between museums and the communities that their collections come from. The volume was UK-oriented, and we hoped it would help to strengthen the sense of responsibility between museums in the UK and the mostly overseas (but now often immigrant) communities whose material heritage is cared for and displayed in those museums. We realized that access to those historic treasures is crucial for maintaining identity for certain groups, and indeed for aspects of cultural survival. Given the physical and political distance between museums in the UK and those communities, we were concerned that museums in the UK did not take this relationship seriously. At a conference, I once asked a deputy director of the British Museum whether he understood that communities of origin might have greater need to access their material heritage than, say, London audiences, and might require more institutional and staff resources spent on meeting those needs. He said no, he didn’t see that, and thought that all audiences should be treated alike, that to do otherwise would be discriminatory.
For the book, we chose the term ‘source communities,’ rather than ‘communities of origin’ or other possible terms, as a convenient and deliberately direct term, hoping to see it become part of ordinary professional language and thinking. It has done so. UK museums have shifted tremendously across the past decade, embracing the concept of special relations with source communities and engaging in many special projects with these communities. The idea that museum collections can play special roles in marginalized communities, or might have social or biomedical or therapeutic healing properties, has also been extensively researched. Concepts of audiences and access have been debated and museums have begun to try to diversify their audiences in serious ways. The profession has really moved on.
The term ‘source community’ has been critiqued by some Indigenous people as implying an extractive relationship. As Brown and I noted in the introduction to Museums and Source Communities, that is precisely what the nature of the relationship was historically. Is it still so today? Have the attempts to create relationships of greater equality made ‘source community’ an awkward term in the present? I’m not so sure. I still favor the directness of the term, the implication of deep and ineradicable tensions and relationships between the partners involved. And in answer to Modest, I think I’d say that there is still need of a concept of ‘special relationship’ between museums and these communities, so long as the material heritage housed by museums is still desperately needed for cultural survival. Yes, that’s a status of difference, but one I think will be necessarily with us for some time.