Un/Engendering the Collections: Rethinking Gender in the Ethnographic Museum


Un/Engendering the Collections: Rethinking Gender in the Ethnographic Museum forms part of our long term research and collecting interest not just to better engage the role of our museum in the study and representation of gender formations in the global context, but also to propose new collecting practices addressed when gender and sexuality as critical categories of analysis are considered outside a purely European Enlightenment tradition. In large part, it also comes out of the curational work done around the exhibit What a Genderful World, curated by Wonu Veys.

The idea to think un/gender/ing from the objects in our collections emerged from work by Wayne Modest, Amal Alhaag, and Carrie Nakamura.

Research coordinators for edited volumes emerging from this work: Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken, Josep Chanza, and Wonu Veys.

As institutions of collecting and display linked to academic disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology, we recognize ethnographic and world cultures museums as potentially playing an important role in both scholarly and public comprehensions[i] of gender and sexuality. We are interested in probing: What kind of gendered histories do we have in our collections? If much of the way we learn to feel, act, or be hijra, kinnar, fa’fafine, trans, female, and male comes less from what we have been told than how we interact with our surroundings—people, objects, and built environment—then it behooves us as ethnographic museums to attend more carefully to what the objects in our collections can tell us about how gender is understood across the world, and across and through differing temporalities: outside of so-called ‘Western’ paradigms that give primacy to the dualistic nature of gender (i.e. male/female), but also in dialogue and in resistance to this often oppressive prototype.

[i] Here we hold on to the Glissantian provocation that the act of taking as seizing (prendre) etymologically inscribes the words comprehend and apprehend, informing most acts of trying to comprehend  or understand each other. Instead, how might we think each other’s othernesses through Relation, which “signals that life is interrelationship and interdendence, always and at every level” (Escobar, Pluriversal Politics, 92).
Image: Print of the goddess Bahuchara, Mumbai, ca. 1980. TM-4816-375. Bahuchara Mata has been associated with ahimsa, nonviolence against humans and animals. A rooster serves as a vehicle for the Goddess and she is depicted carrying a trident in one hand and a copy of the Hindu scripture in the other. She is the patron goddess of hijras, transsexuals and eunuchs.

We ask

  • What might a history of gender studies look like when approached from the lens of the museum?  
  • In which ways does collection-based research into gender and sexuality foster more critical approaches beyond normalized binary approaches? 
  • How might current scholarly approaches to gender and sexuality help us to re-interpret our collections? 
  • What happens when this world of things is shaped by both cultures and temporalities that are only partially informed by the oppressive imposition of European modernity? What does it mean to think histories of gender and sexuality through the local cultures and temporalities to which ethnographic objects rightfully belong?
  • In other words, what of the objects in our museums, which represent experiences of being in the world that exist parallel to, in resistance to, contrapuntally to, and in the interstices of European colonial modernity? What information might these objects provide as our present-day societies think through more gender-fluid paradigms of identity?
  • How might engaging in more thoughtful collection-based research around gender and sexuality foster more critical approaches beyond the normalized dualistic approaches? 
  • What risks do we play in attempting to “recover” how gender might have been understood within a specific cultural and historical context before the onslaught of colonialism?
  • How might professionals working in ethnographic museums ask the same question of a colonial past, but also a past whose sources of history have purposefully and violently been obfuscated or obliterated by the destructive forces of colonial machinery.   


To better attend to questions that link gender to the material cultures of the objects that populate our museums and their depots, we invite scholars from an array of disciplinary backgrounds to:

  • Conduct research on specific objects that might recover, recuperate and revise our understanding of gender within the given specific context to which the object was extracted; and,
  • Propose new collecting practices that might emerge when gender and sexuality as critical categories of analysis are considered outside a purely modernist (and thus necessarily colonially informed) European tradition.

The edited volume, anticipated for 2021-22 will then have two parts:

  1. Materializing Gender: Object Lessons: Recovering the context of an ethnographic object?
  2. Urgent Provocations: What is at stake in thinking through the gender of an ethnographic object?