On museums and contact zones

Two Hands in Steam CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user David Rosen

I had two competing ideas stuck in my head that have been twining around each other for a couple of months. I finally figured out how to disentangle them enough to examine them more closely and the result was my last post and this one.

What is a museum? What should it be? I already discussed my problems with the classic binary models of temple vs forum, or cathedral vs bazaar, and particularly the way both models ignore the primary functions of temples and cathedrals in order to make the case for more a open and participatory kind of museum. And the unspoken zero sum approach that cultural commentators often assume – that an increase in one sort of engagement must come at the expense of the other – I reject. The reality is much messier, but how does one model “messy” constructively?

Museum as Contact Zone 

A more helpful model might be found in James Clifford’s adaptation of Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of “the contact zone” in colonial encounters. In his seminal 1997 essay, “Museums as Contact Zones”, Clifford problematized the one-way relationships between museums and indigenous peoples in the United States using an experience he observed at the Portland Art Museum between staff and Native American elders, ostensibly around the display of sacred objects. The museum staff wanted to talk about objects they wanted to display, and the native people wanted to talk about history and contemporary issues. So, not only did they have different viewpoints, they didn’t even want to have the same conversation. What happened though, was that the museum basement became the place where they came together and had what sounds like two mutually unsatisfying conversations that were the first step on the road to better mutual understanding. The museum became a contact zone, a space where different cultures come into contact (and conflict), where competing dialogues are heard, and reciprocity replaces one way transmission and translation. It’s a very different kind of place.

“When museums are seen as contact zones, their organizing structure as a collection becomes an ongoing historical, political, moral relationship––a power-charged set of exchanges, of push and pull.” (Clifford 1997, 192-3)

Charlie Gere, in describing Clifford’s view, says the museum “need not be thought of just as a storehouse of colonial plunder, nor a one-way medium, but as a place of interactive communication.” (Gere 1997, 59) Gere describes Clifford’s contact zone as a way to rethink the museum’s role in relation to other cultures. Clifford’s intention is to challenge and rework that relationship, which is normally perceived as that of one­-sided imperialist appropriation. He proposes instead that the museum can become a space which benefits both it and the cultures whose artifacts it shows. In Clifford’s model these cultures can exploit the museum as much as the museum exploits them. And Gere goes on to describe the many similarities between Clifford’s metaphors of communication networks and the decentralized nature of the modern digital realm.

For me, the power of the conflict zone model is how directly it addresses how museums might move beyond the 19th century and become active participants in the creating a useful role for themselves in the 21st century. It’s a fascinating and short read, and I feel a bit ashamed I’ve managed to not encounter it until now. I had to buy a copy of the book to find a legit copy to read, so this is the best link I can provide.

Clifford’s stance is provocative and not without it’s critics. There was a whole conference in 2011 debating the concept of the museum as a contact zone. What I find useful about it are two things. First, taking a term that comes out of the study of colonialism is itself deeply meaningful, as it clearly places museums as beneficiaries of the troublesome legacy of Western hegemony. Second, it the model privileges dialogue and exchange over extraction. Contact zones are places where change flows in both directions.

Sound familiar?

Does the contact zone model work more broadly than in post-colonial settings? Could you apply that same mindset to competing constituencies who fight for the soul of the Western-style object-based museum? For me, (and I’m still plowing through articles and critiques of the idea) it does. The contact zone really works as a model for how a 21st century museum could function, particularly in the digital realm.  As Gere points out, “Clifford’s model of the museum, like the Web, is a space of exchange, negotiation and communication.” The contact zone is both temple and forum, cathedral and bazaar. And more. It’s a “yes, and” place where improvisation based on listening becomes the necessary prerequisite, and that’s both exciting and a bit frightening.

What do you think?


  1. Yes.

    “The contact zone is both temple and forum, cathedral and bazaar.” I think this is what I was after with building museum models around the axes of experiential learning. We can’t afford for them (and wouldn’t want them) to perform just one function or adhere to one model – there are a few museums that do adhere rigidly to one, and they can be amazing experiences but are of course one-note. The best use of most museums to society is in the unpredictability of their most complex outcomes; not that that excuses museums from the responsibility to offer interesting, authoritative, provocative points of view or framing essential questions – it doesn’t – but that there is an art there of putting forth that content and then allowing space and creating methodologies for the next phase of creative iteration, the audiences’, to happen, to serve as catalyst for further thought and creativity that happens both within and outside of the institution.


  2. Hi Ed, am not an expert on Clifford but whole idea of contact zone to me preserves hegemony of museum as discussion is on museum turf and about objects mostly taken and not necessarily offered back. How can those who no longer own these items and who are in such a weakened position vis a vis the museum ‘exploit’ it in any meaningful way? Maybe by trying to get obj back. But discussions in such a non neutral space seem to me to continue to privilege the museum. Thanks for posting this. Thought provoking. G


    1. Right on the money, Gretchen. Most of the critiques I’ve read thus far make precisely that point, that “the contact zone” could be just a reformist wrapping draped over the same old museum model. For me, my starting points are these: 1) I do privilege the museum. I think they play a role in making the world better, and, in a secular age, take on added importance as one of the few places people come together to share in the propagation of culture. 2) Given that we have the museums we have – troublesome past and all – how do we even begin to have the kinds of conversations that need to happen in order to evolve into the kinds of cultural stewards the world needs now? That’s the power of the contact zone for me. It gives a framework to understand (and normalize) how museums and their stakeholders, even given power differentials, can take advantage of one another for their own benefit.


  3. @Ed: I have not read Clifford’s piece but found your explanation of the Portland Art museum intriguing. As someone who does not work for museums, I find the issue a little confusing. Let’s consider the Portland display of sacred objects. Not only does it seem obvious that the museum would want to promote the indigenous worldview for these objects, as a museum enthusiast, I’d like to know what the indigenous peoples think of the rest of the museum’s collection. I want to learn how they think about objects and the world. For that matter, I want to hear multiple perspectives and voices around every museum object (perhaps filtered according to my preferences in some way).


    1. Well, obvious to some is extreme to others. I love your desire to hear multiple viewpoints on the fly and to be able to control which ones based on your preference, not the museum’s.


  4. Re: “The contact zone really works as a model for how a 21st century museum could function, particularly in the digital realm.”

    The possibilities! In your case of the Portland Art Museum – it was (presumably) local tribes and local staff. What happens when geography becomes a variable? If the digital becomes the zone – who is being put in contact? People around the world? Those with less (or more) understanding of each other? If the museum is the temple and forum, cathedral and bazaar, what variables change with the zone being the web? Is the decorum that one knows to have in a temple or cathedral lost? Do we equate the web to a forum and a bazaar, where negotiation haggling and even hiding behind our “second self” is possible?

    Saving the article for later use – thanks!


  5. The idea of a contact zone, from what I gather in your essay, is a sort of anthropological exercise in mediation. This seems precisely what we are lacking in so much of arts policy and funding debates (as far as I can tell). The attitude within the arts is too often one of colonizing the natives rather than any sort of mutual sharing.

    Gretchen above raised an issue that seems to often get swept under the rug, namely that in these discussions sharing and inclusion happen mostly on our own terms rather than neutral or even the grounds that our partners in conversation might find natural. If the contact zone is the museum itself, for instance, then the framing of issues starts there rather than with the different cultures that we are in contact with. Its already a biased framing, no matter how well intentioned and progressive it attempts to be. Its possible that conversations move beyond that starting place, but we first need to see it as a choice, and not a necessary one.

    This reminds me of two essays I read recently which had me questioning the virtuous sounding ideals of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as they are normally presented to us. The idea is parallel to the issue of contact zones in that the concessions being made are often only from the foundation where a source of privilege already inhabits the terrain. In other words, we end up measuring diversity by how much evidence there is for it in our own contexts. We end up measuring inclusion by how many folks are included in our institutions and events. The default always sides with the status of privilege.

    Can we do better than that? I think asking the question is a start, and at the very least acknowledging a contact zone seems important. Understanding that there is a different point of view has to be the first step, but it remains to be seen whether future steps can be taken in concert, whether we end up only leading others where we intend to go, and how much our own paths will be influenced by the values and decisions of others. This is a huge issue for all of us.

    The two essays that has me thinking along these lines were:





    1. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, Carter. In fact, no matter where the meetings or dialogues are held, the initial meeting will be of an uneven nature because it is between a privileged party (the possess the stuff!) and supplicanats (they have been deprived of materials the museum has). to me the best way to work to establish some kind of equal relationship, without which real dialogue can’t happen, is for the agenda to be set jointly, not just by the museum.

      And somewhere on the agenda there needs to be acknowledgement of this uneven relationship and a statement by the museum that it wishes to end this dynamic and modify its privileged stance.

      I wish I could share right now an article I just reveiwed for the Fall Exhibitionist journal (Now called Exhibition). It is about a museum’s work with both local and national Native American communities. It started with the museum being in charge but ended as a great collaborative effort. One of the things the museum learned that it had to do was acknowledge that it was built on land that once belonged to the local Native American group. Look for this article in the fall. Thanks, Ed, for opening this great discussion. G

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The issue at hand seems to go far beyond the relationship of the museum to indigenous groups. Rather, it is about opening up the conversation about objects in general within a museum’s collection. Here is an example of diversity around different “ways of seeing” with a sculpture as the example object: http://creative-automata.com/steam/projects/


  7. Ed, Thanks for this blog post and the last. Both are thought-provoking and important. I agree that the binary positions that try to define museums are not helpful. Your posts, especially the end of this one, reminded me of Elaine Gurian’s idea of the museum as a place of “and.” As museum professionals, we need to advance the idea in the public that we are places of “and” and not binary places. A museum as a “contact zone” is as good a starting point as any. Thanks for the reading suggestions!


  8. (I’m rather late to the conversation, and I understand that this comment may get little traction, since people have likely moved on.) I do appreciate you raising a question that gets at what museums should be for by way of extant models of the museum: forum, bazaar, contact zone, etc. But I wonder whether you could make a different approach to what I imagine is the more fundamental question of what a museum is supposed to DO. What if we started there and posed that question and from the considered responses fashioned a name for the template suggested? It seems to me that the museums I like to attend do a couple crucial things: They create opportunities to talk about (in particular, contemporary) art and thereby talk about ideas (as opposed to people or events) by drawing on their collections and institutional power to borrow objects from other collections. They create a civic space of organized responses to the issues of the day. They help to define what is important for the public to consider right now. It provides moments where members of the public can be surprised.

    What kind of museum is the one I’ve just described? What would you add to the list of things that the museum you want to visit should do?


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