Applied Anthropology in the Cultural Museum

Date of Award

Spring 2019

Document Type




First Advisor

Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez


This research aims to explore how anthropology is used as a framework for cultural curation in museums, as interpreted by museum or cultural specialists. Current museum studies literature focuses widely on improving museum-indigenous relationships, agency, decolonization, and repatriation. It has not been widely studied how curators think of their work and their role, and an empirical study of this information reveals alternative approaches to cultural curation for other museums to implement. Through semi-structured interviews with 8 museum professionals or academics, this work uncovers the museum professional’s rationale behind their exhibition processes and the role that anthropology has in these decisions. While current anthropological ethics aim to alleviate unequal power dynamics between the anthropologist and indigenous persons, some museum professionals believe that anthropology often struggles ethically with indigenous relationships. Many of these professionals, especially those educated in anthropology before the 2000s perceive anthropology as a science or bone-based study, and express some reservations about anthropology as a discipline, yet their methodologies reflected concepts and theories of modern anthropological ethics as they are taught in higher education today. Some key concepts of this research are museum anthropology, agency, historical particularism, cultural relativism, reflexivity, and power. A larger interview pool including Smithsonian museums could add significantly to this research, since many museum professionals look to the Smithsonian for advanced processes and approaches. Overall this research reveals how the implementation of anthropology leads to successful cultural programs in the research, planning, and preservation processes of museums.


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