Museum Realisms - James Clifford - Research Center for Material Culture
10 May 2016

Museum Realisms - James Clifford

Lecture | 10 May 2016 | RCMC

James Clifford was a RCMC/FEL Distinguished Fellow in April/May 2016. On May 10th, James Clifford (UC Santa Cruz) delivered a lecture on "Museum Realisms".

Museum Realisms

Realism is a concept usually associated with scientific objectivity or with philosophical conceptions of the "fact of the matter". In literature it denotes the social/historical novel with its complex portrayals of character and milieu. What does realism mean in museum contexts, especially those concerned with cross cultural translation? What forms can realism take in changing times?

Today ethnology museums feel increasing pressure to justify their existence. In response, many are transforming themselves into centers for "world arts and cultures". They experiment with new spaces of performance and dialogical modes of presentation.

This lecture explores emergent practices of display and reception--reflexive and postcolonial. It weighs their ability to deliver complex, historically embedded, "realist" truths about selves and others in a decentered world.

Visit the RCMC YouTube channel for the comments of Peter Pels, Susan Legene and Pieter ter Keurs. 


James Clifford, Emeritus Professor at UCSC and Visiting Professor at Stanford, is best known for his historical and literary critiques of anthropological representation, travel writing, and museum practices. Clifford co-edited (with George Marcus) the influential intervention, Writing Culture, the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986). Clifford has just published Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the 21st Century (2013), a book that is the third in a trilogy. The first volume, The Predicament of Culture (1988) juxtaposed essays on 20th-century ethnography, literature, and art. The second, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century (1997) explored the dialectics of dwelling and traveling in post-modernity. The three books are inventive combinations of analytic scholarship, meditative essays, and poetic experimentation.