Since recently becoming a full-time student of ethnography I have been wondering how to answer this question to the satisfaction of those that have never even heard of this word before. To be honest there is little consensus amongst those of us that actually work with ethnography never mind a simple-one word answer that everyone can identify with.
Traditionally speaking, in museums, the material that would have been called ethnographic came from those countries outside Europe that were not seen as having ‘High Art’ or a ‘civilized’ culture. Such racist and derogatory terms unfortunately have historically gone hand in hand with museum ethnography. These ‘Exotic curiosities’ from ‘Savage nations’ were displayed alongside dioramas of natural history underlining the Victorian ideas of white supremacy and the social order of evolution.
Today many curators are starting to view ethnography as being a multi-discipline, movable feast which is better termed World Cultures or Human History. Ethnography can now be seen as integrating many more aspects of material culture including Oriental art, Middle Eastern societies, most applied art, and even some archaeology (especially South American). A simplistic view might be Ethnography as the social history of non-Western peoples. (Although this Euro-centric approach of looking at ‘the other’ may still seem an inherently biased one).
Even with a move to a wider, more inclusive idea of ethnography, issues relating to how and where museums collected this material continue to dog the discipline. Colonial attitudes towards people and societies are no longer tolerable yet much of the material we work with was brought together at a time when ethical considerations were vastly different.
Undoubtedly there were those that stole, lied, and cheated material from their moral and legal owners in order to satisfy their desire for wealth and fame. However, many more objects are now in museums as a result of peaceful trade, friendly gifts, and lawful commercial transactions. The reason why ethnography today seems such an unknown quantity is in part due to the fact that until relatively recently many curators were very aware of this contentious history and tried to steer away from confronting such difficult issues head-on.
Debates over the continued stewardship of culturally important material (both of objects and human remains) are being held in the museum world internationally. Dialogues are being established with representatives of indigenous groups and those who are the current moral guardians of the cultures represented in ethnographic collections. It is hoped that through mutual respect and cooperation it will be possible to achieve the balance of celebrating world cultural diversity, through display and academic research, and protecting the rights of self-determination for those groups whose heritage we curate.
It is this spirit of communication and tolerance that is at the heart of the future of ethnographic collections in museums. Working with this material provides one of the clearest opportunities, here in the UK, to engage new and diverse audiences (especially, but not exclusively, those from ethnic minority backgrounds). We are lucky to have the opportunity to discuss ideas of equality and racism using objects associated with the cultural heritage of Black and Asian groups in Britain today. These historical perspectives are being added to by the development of contemporary collecting, and the inclusion of advisors and co-curators from related communities will no doubt increase the validity and enjoyment of ethnography for all.