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Spring 2024, | Book review

Book review: The Museum of Other People, by Adam Kuper (London: Profile, 2023)

Harry Parker


Adam Kuper, anthropology museums, culture wars, restitution

I doubt very much that anyone choosing to diagnose a ‘crisis’ in Western museums would willingly submit to the indignity of being called a culture warrior. But the confines of belligerent epistemic communities are not easy to escape, and even the most well-intentioned efforts to survey or even referee all the sparring have the unfortunate tendency to turn combative themselves. The safest positions from which to speak are from the inside of what are now very deep trenches.

The camps divide roughly like this. On one side is a group of people who see the twenty-first century museum as a monument to defunct ideologies. Museums not only find themselves unable to break free from, but in many cases actively perpetuate the iniquities of the colonial era in which most of them came into fruition (e.g. Hicks, 2020). Display cases and storerooms house plundered loot. Curators, essentially conservative creatures, jealously guard these spoils, and stubbornly resist change. The urgent work of restitution, decolonisation, and the dismantling of ‘white infrastructure’ goes unfinished.

On the other side is a group that tends to view museums has having undergone a massive crisis of confidence in the last fifty years. The core functions of preserving, collecting and exhibiting objects have taken a backseat to navel-gazing about colonial legacies. Curators, the opposite of conservative, are mostly in thrall to ‘fashionable’ forms of ‘identity politics’. A pervasive anxiety about the ethics of displaying ‘other people’s’ artefacts now reigns supreme. And new ‘orthodoxies’, like the vogue for ‘restitution’, threaten to undermine the possibility of a truly ‘universal’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ museum, where all the world’s peoples can be housed under one roof. The ‘age of the museum’, one right-leaning thinkpiece put it, is ‘over’.

Needless to say, the whole debate is both intractable and rather tedious. Both camps agree that the status quo cannot continue. Each one has a diametrically opposed analysis of what the status quo is. Neither is particularly close to the way most people who work in museums tend to think about these issues. The score – to pinch a line from Tom Gieryn (1998, p 221) – is a rather drab nil-nil. I fear we are not even at half-time.

Adam Kuper’s latest entry to the debate illustrates some of the perils of writing a history of the museum in such a fractious atmosphere. Part polemic, part episodic narrative, The Museum of Other People offers a long, winding story of the development of the major anthropological museums in Europe and North America, from the French Revolution up to the middle of the twentieth century. Early chapters discuss the European pioneers of ethnographic museology in Europe, when the idea of trying to rank the world’s peoples in terms of how ‘primitive’ or ‘civilised’ they were first seriously took hold. A long middle section reveals the widespread (though contested) take-up of this idea in late-nineteenth century America. A final cluster of chapters narrates the ‘decline’ of the Museum of Other People in the twentieth century, as anthropology increasingly lost interest in both material culture and the techno-civilisational perspectives that went with it, and as the 1960s brought with them the multiple challenges of decolonisation and the revival of what Kuper calls a ‘romantic conception of identity’ (p 296). In this section we learn about the author’s misgivings about cultural restitution, the treatment of human remains, and the rise of so-called ‘identity museums’ in the 1980s.

Book cover for The Museum of Other People
Figure 1 : The Museum of Other People by Adam Kuper (London: Profile, 2023) © Pantheon

The twin agendas of Kuper’s account, historical and polemical, fit together awkwardly. Kuper’s opponents – let’s call them the restitutionists – at least have the advantage of being able to stress continuity in their histories: museums arrived as, and have remained, colonial spaces. Kuper has no such luck. For him, the crucial period for explaining the present crisis is not the nineteenth century, but the great rupture of the 1960s. If he is right about this – he might plausibly be – then one is tempted to wonder what the point of devoting several hundred pages of a book to the nineteenth century museum is. (One might even question the point of writing about museums at all, given that so much of their current predicament has its roots in social changes taking place outside their walls.) Conversely, if the ambition of the book is primarily historical rather than polemical, then one wonders why the author would spend a lengthy final section outlining his personal likes and dislikes in contemporary museological practice. It is as if Kuper has written not one but two books, and each one tells us that the other is not the one that matters.

It does not help, either, that the historical exposition itself often feels a bit aimless. Kuper gestures on several occasions at an overarching framework or argument, but seemingly refuses to pursue one. In his introduction he sketches a rough periodisation for the Museum of Other People, consisting of an era of Beginnings (1830s–1880s); a Golden Age (1880s–1920s); and a period of Decline (1930s–present) (pp 1–2). But the book as a whole does not follow this trajectory. At several other points, Kuper also hints at what might be understood as a structuring tension throughout the history of ethnographic museums: a tension over the question of whether to order collections and exhibits typologically, in an evolutionary series; or geographically, by region of origin. These respective preferences are shown to loosely correspond to persistent tensions within anthropological thought itself: between an Enlightenment-era universalism, stressing the common inheritance and common destiny of all humans, and a more relativistic, even Romantic, understanding of difference, one more inclined to promote diversity as a source of value. But, again, this is not an issue Kuper pursues in any great depth, and in any case it receives much more extended treatment in his earlier, better works on the history of anthropology (Kuper, 1988; 2000; 2003).

What the historical sections of the book do instead is provide a colourful, witty, wide-ranging, though often meandering account of the lives and careers of several significant curators. Anecdote piles up on anecdote, and threads and through-lines are laid out, set down, and picked up again with reckless abandon. Wry asides, ironic juxtapositions, and the sheer weight of evidence are all preferred to the baldly stated claim. And in a way that mirrors almost exactly the museums he describes in the book, Kuper seems definitively unable to decide whether to order his material chronologically, geographically or thematically. (One particularly difficult-to-follow chapter sees Kuper tell us about the opening of the Trocadéro Museum in 1878, jump ahead to the First World War, and then discuss the 1937 opening of the Musée de l’Homme, all in the space of two paragraphs. He spends the rest of the section discussing the new fashions for primitivisme in art collecting in the 1920s, much of which he then repeats seven chapters later.)

That Kuper would prefer subtlety in exposition is, of course, no bad thing, but with such a sprawling historical canvas to cover, this way of writing tends to produce one of two outcomes. At one extreme, the book feels like an antiquarian jumble of facts about museums and the men (they are all men) who used to run them. At the other, the book reads like an inside account for the already initiated. This latter problem is only compounded when Kuper leaves the history behind and embarks on his critique of contemporary museology. At one point, for instance, Kuper dismissively describes the Sainsbury galleries in the British Museum that opened in 2001 as a ‘roomful of uncontextualized precolonial art, juxtaposed with…craft productions’ (in this case work by contemporary ceramicist Magdalene Odundo) (p 326). Later, Kuper praises a 1995 exhibition at the same museum for showing nineteenth-century Kalabari funerary screens next to ‘work by contemporary artists’ (Sokari Douglas Camp and Eduardo Paolozzi) (p 355). I am sure Kuper has good reasons for preferring the latter of these exhibitions over the former, and perhaps there are readers who do not need to be told what those reasons are. I confess I am not one of them.

Nevertheless, Kuper is more purposeful when he reaches the latter stages of the book, largely because much of what he has to say about today’s museums is predicated on a long-running argument he has been having with his anthropologist colleagues since at least the 1990s. The argument is, at heart, a philosophical one, concerned with the nature of identity and difference. But it is a political one too, insofar as it pitches Kuper against what he sees as an uncomfortable affinity between what he has tended to call the ‘postmodernist movement’ in anthropology and what elsewhere has become known as ‘identity politics’.

The basic thrust of Kuper’s critique is that this ‘postmodernist’ current in anthropological thinking, while founded on understandable ethical principles, is both self-abnegating and self-contradictory. The critics who dominated the conversation in the 1980s cast much doubt on the notion that Western anthropologists could ever really ‘know’ or ‘speak for’ another person’s culture. They advocated for more ‘reflexive’ and ‘polyphonic’ forms of study that do not ‘silence the native voice’. At the same time, they also cast much doubt on the idea that there even are such things as ‘culture’ or a ‘native voice’, preferring instead to emphasise the constructed and contingent nature of all forms of group identity (Kuper, 2000, pp 208, 214). Well, Kuper asks: which is it? Either cultural identity is a fabrication, or it affords its owners a privileged position from which to speak about themselves. To claim that culture is an invention, but only when Western anthropologists are the ones doing the inventing, is to produce what Kuper calls the ‘reductio ad absurdum of a whole movement of academic anthropology’: the ‘view that only natives should study natives’ (Kuper, 1994, p 545).

However unmixable the cocktail of essentialism and relativism that this generation imbibed, it turned out to be potent enough. The implications for ethnographic museums have, for Kuper, been severe. These museums, he reckons, are now profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of usurping the ‘voices’ and ‘knowledge’ of cultural insiders by displaying and interpreting ‘their’ artefacts. In turn, they are now trying various workarounds. Restitution and repatriation have been the most famous. Another has been to hive off ethnographic collections into new ‘identity museums’, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where selected ‘community curators’ from indigenous groups collaborate in museological practice (p 300). A third has been to abandon the anthro-museological project altogether, give way to the big galleries, and rebrand all ethnographic material as ‘art’ (p 288). None, according to Kuper, has offered an especially successful way out of the impasse.

Against these intellectual trends Kuper takes a firmly anti-essentialist line. Cultural, ethnic, religious and other identities are permanently in flux, people often possess more than one, and in any case membership of a particular group does not automatically entitle one to make claims on behalf of it. Against those who would wish to ‘return’ museum objects, Kuper simply asks: return to whom? How strong, really, is our commitment to the idea that there is a singular, unchanging, ‘native’ group to which ancestral artefacts legitimately belong? How strong is the natives’ own commitment to such an idea?

Kuper is probably right to point out the philosophical inconsistencies underlying his fellow anthropologists’ arguments. It is far from clear that the alternative he proposes is in any way more coherent. Advocating for a ‘cosmopolitan museum’ (and a ‘cosmopolitan anthropology’), Kuper proposes a curatorial practice that tracks ‘connections’ and ‘exchanges’ between the world’s peoples rather than depicting static identities. A global, comparative perspective will be maintained – the Museum of World Cultures will live on – but it will be backed by ‘research’ rather than ‘appeals to mystical insight or the authority of identity’. ‘Displays of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and Bitcoins’, Kuper writes with apparent seriousness, ‘might be set off against the cowry shell currencies of nineteenth-century Africa’ (pp 353–56).

A few notes of caution here. The first thing to say is that Kuper’s proposals in this instance are not, actually, all that far away from the kinds of views found among the very ‘postmodernists’ he has set himself the task of opposing. When Kuper states that ‘every human society is hybrid, a dynamic amalgam of traditions and populations’ (p 353), he seems to come dangerously close to arch-postmodernist James Clifford’s influential account in his book Routes (1997). ‘Discrete regions and territories’, Clifford writes ‘do not exist prior to contacts, but are sustained through them’. ‘Intercultural connection’, he continues, ‘is, and has long been, the norm’ (Clifford, 1997, pp 3, 5).

A second concern, then, stems from the question of whether any of this actually gets us out of the trap of cultural essentialism. Making ‘culture’ move rather than fixing it in place might free us from reductionist myths about ‘one person, one tribe’, but, as the literary critic James Buzard (2003, p 70) has argued, to do so is still to give primacy to some notion of ‘culture’ as a category ‘capable of containing those who are its “insiders”’. If museums should treat all ‘cultures’ as nothing more than the product of ‘exchanges’ between peoples, then visitors might reasonably be tempted to ask what it is that all these peoples were bothering to exchange, if not their ‘culture’. One (mobile) person, one (portable) tribe.

A third query concerns the nature of ‘cosmopolitan’ projects in general. (Before the ‘cosmopolitan’ museum, there was, of course, the Universal Museum of 2002, a rather notorious episode that Kuper strangely does not cite.) Whatever the obvious appeal of such endeavours (common humanity! the world under one roof!), it is still sometimes hard to shake the feeling that they are little more than fronts for a specifically Euro-American way of looking at the world. How might the cosmopolitan museum deal with those people whose lives have been shaped less by ‘connection’ and ‘exchange’ than by violence and oppression? Will our cosmopolitanism extend beyond just those people who are, or wish to be, cosmopolitans? And do we really have nothing to learn from those who don’t?

A book that focuses entirely on Western museums will do little to answer these charges. Cosmopolitan museums for us, identity museums for you. Uncharitable readers might also spot the sole identity category in the book that Kuper is not prepared to question. It is, predictably, his own: the expert. (Even then, it is a specific subset of expert – anthropologists. Art historians pick up a lot of flak in The Museum of Other People). The cosmopolitan museum, Kuper writes, will be ‘informed by rigorous, critical, independent scholarship’ (p 355). Yet – and I am sure Kuper knows this more than most – scholars rarely agree on much, least of all on what constitutes the right kind of scholarship. What if scholars started to believe – as they have tended to do – that their inherited ways of knowing the world are neither the only nor the best? Setting the authority of ‘research’ against the ‘authority of identity’ might seem like an appealing prospect in principle, but the two may not be as distinct as Kuper claims.

I do not pretend to have any solutions to the predicaments of twenty-first century museums, nor would this be the forum to air them if I did. I am not even really sure there is much of a predicament. Museums, Nicholas Thomas (2016) has stridently argued, are not going anywhere soon. Certainly, whatever the intellectual currents of the last sixty years, one thing they haven’t done is become vehicles for promoting narrow identarian concerns, any more than social anthropologists have all downed tools and become autoethnographers. The threats museums do face are much less to do with philosophical muddles than with funding cuts and governmental hostility to the cultural sector.

One of Kuper’s more practical suggestions for a future museum did stick with me, though. Museums, he argues, should adopt a more flexible system for displaying objects. Unwieldy permanent galleries could be replaced by a shifting and regularly updated cast of temporary exhibitions. Institutions might work together to come up with a better way of facilitating international loans. The vast storerooms that house the majority of object collections might be opened up to visitors and researchers.

In several places these suggestions are seemingly already the direction of travel. They apply no less to museums of science and technology than to museums of Other People. (The Victorian science museum, which Kuper does not mention in the book, is after all a kind of historical obverse to the Victorian anthropological museum: one set out to catalogue the ‘primitive’; the other exhibited the ‘civilised’.) If museums of all kinds really want to stop themselves purveying bad ideologies, then embracing impermanence and showing a willingness to constantly rewrite their mission might not be a bad place to start. Far from reproducing outdated ways of thinking, museums might then be seen for what they really are: catalogues of all the ways we are, and continue to be, wrong: about our world, about ourselves, and about Other People.



Buzard, J, 2003, ‘On auto-ethnographic authority’, Yale Journal of Criticism, 16/1, pp 61–91 Back to text
Clifford, J, 1997, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) Back to text
Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, 8 December 2002, (accessed 11 January 2024) Back to text
Gieryn, T F, 1998, ‘Balancing acts: science, Enola Gay and history wars at the Smithsonian’, in Macdonald, S (ed), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture (London: Routledge), pp 197–228 Back to text
Hicks, D, 2020, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (London: Pluto Press) Back to text
Kuper, A, 1988, The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion (London: Routledge) Back to text
Kuper, A, 1994, ‘Culture, identity and the project of a cosmopolitan anthropology’, Man, 29/3, pp 537–554 Back to text
Kuper, A, 2000, Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) Back to text
Kuper, A, 2003, ‘Anthropology’, in Ross, D and Porter, T M (eds), The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 7: The Modern Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp 354–378 Back to text
Roussinos, A, 29 August 2023, ‘The age of the museum is over’, UnHerd, (accessed 11 January 2024) Back to text
Thomas, N, 2016, The Return of Curiosity: What Museums are Good For in the 21st Century (London: Reaktion Books) Back to text


Harry Parker

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Harry Parker is a historian of modern Britain with broad interests in the histories of science, technology and culture. His PhD, completed in 2023, focused on the development of the social science disciplines in early-twentieth century Britain. Since then, he has been working as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant on the MaILHoC (Museums and Industry: Long Histories of Collaboration) project at the Science Museum, London, researching historical relationships between science museums and their industrial patrons

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Book cover for The Museum of Other People


Harry Parker
Published date:
20 May 2024
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Book review: The Museum of Other People, by Adam Kuper (London: Profile, 2023)
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Spring 2024,
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