Wed, Jan 24, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Moving past colonial representations

A group of Brown University students, including four Native Americans, recently spent a week in Taiwan visiting museums and displays on Aborigines and comparing them with their counterparts in the US

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A group of students from Brown University pose with locals at Kaviyangan, a Paiwan village in Pingtung County.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Frank

Sierra Edd was surprised to hear a museum guide in Taiwan mention that Aborigines and other minorities around the world are vanishing — including Native Americans in the US.

“That was very striking for [the guide] to get that impression when we were in the same room,” she says, noting that the group of 12 students she was with included, in addition to herself, three other Native Americans.

“That message actually gets conveyed in a lot of different ways, even without a label or a guide to say that,” Edd’s professor, Caroline Frank, says.

The group from Brown University recently spent a week in Taiwan as part of a three-week winter break course, Decolonizing Museums: Collecting Indigenous Culture in North America and Taiwan.

From the National Taiwan University Museum of Anthropology in Taipei to the Indigenous Peoples Culture Park in Pingtung, they dissected labels, presentations, language and scrutinized every word the guides said, comparing them with Native American exhibits in the US. The students also visited a Paiwan village and spent a day with its residents.

The course is part of a three-year partnership between Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and Brown University that aims to promote awareness of Taiwan among American college students. Although Frank is an American Studies professor, she is interested in transpacific relations and exchanges as well as the power imbalances between different groups of people.

“It wasn’t obvious why in American Studies we would be teaching about Taiwan,” Frank says. “But when you look at the issues [of what it means to be indigenous], it becomes very logical that there are a lot of common experiences with a similar paradigm of colonialism that was going on.”


While the often underprivileged Aboriginal communities have much to worry about other than their objects in the museums, Edd says it is an important part as the representation of indigenous peoples is a “good first step toward the long process of decolonization.”

Edd, for example, had the wrong idea about the Paiwan people’s hierarchical society based on a museum display until she had dinner with a Paiwan woman who explained the system in her own terms. Frank says another student mentioned that he was getting sick of seeing the same object used to represent each Aboriginal group.

“Often in displays, the object is a stand in for the entire person,” she says. “The message there is that these objects are the people. They are frozen in time and they’re not allowed to change. It’s a tradition. It’s not a presence ... In fact, I’m not sure if we want to be representing people at all in museums as they are political spaces.”

While Frank says the ideal is to collaborate with indigenous communities or have them run their own museums, it is difficult for these institutions to tear everything down and start over. One method to give more context is the object biography, where one traces the lifespan of the object, from the cultural context under which it was made to how it ended up in the museum.

Frank says she finds it interesting that while the colonizers tried to wipe out indigenous culture, they were collecting their objects at the same time. In Taiwan, there’s an additional dynamic as the Han Chinese colonizers were in turn colonized by the Japanese.

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