This course will examine how objects can be used to shape (or distort) our understanding of other cultures, and how stories about societies, nations, and ethnic groups are formed around collections of objects and artworks. This way of encountering others can illuminate the differences and similarities between cultures and result in a deeper, more tangible connection across humanity that yields greater appreciation and understanding.
However, there are also several challenges in this process. Museums are generally how we access objects from cultures and civilizations from around the world. How do museums handle objects that were stolen or looted? How do displays confront or enforce racial stereotypes? What aspects of a society are being highlighted or hidden and how does this change the story being told about them and our engagement with them? How do those in power represent those without power? How do those without power represent themselves?
In this course we will learn to distinguish how objects have been used in museum collections, exhibitions, and displays to tell stories about various groups of people. We will learn to detect gaps in what is presented. We will recognize bias in the presentation of objects from other cultures. We will engage with the questions museums are struggling with today: Can we display objects from other cultures without our own cultural bias? How can voices from other cultures be represented in the display of their art/artifacts? What does it mean for these objects to speak for themselves? From paintings, textiles, tribal masks, Chinese vases, and ancient sculptures and sarcophagi to looted menorahs and slave shackles, we will see how objects can tell us about their creators, users, and collectors. We will reflect on how some of our own possessions can reveal aspects of our identity, as well as doing hands-on work to examine how historical objects have been used to tell the story of UVA.