This post was submitted by AAA member Jen Shannon, curator and associate professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History and department of anthropology.
In a university faculty meeting last semester full of cultural, biological, and archaeological anthropologists, and one museum anthropologist (me!), we discussed the value of acknowledging public forms of scholarship within the university tenure and promotion process. I was delighted to hear the support of my colleagues for this form of work. I am even more delighted to note that this is part of a larger trend, as we see increasingly diverse formats for communicating anthropology—podcasts, multimodal journal sections, videos, blogs, and more— aimed at scholars and the public. 
This kind of work is why I love being a museum anthropologist, and why I am inviting anthropologists in and beyond our subfield to look to museum anthropology for models to think with, and literature to turn to, as we bring the values of experimentation, collaboration, and public-oriented scholarship to the center of our discipline.
It seems experimental and public-oriented anthropology is having a moment. I am excited because it reflects the values of museum anthropology, where this “moment” has been ongoing practice for decades. I am hoping we can orient the broader discipline to our subfield, to celebrate the great work museum anthropologists and community partners have been doing.
Even more exciting, the American Anthropological Association is endorsing this moment to become a longer term disciplinary value and mission. The “AAA Guidelines for Tenure and Promotion Review: Communicating Public Scholarship in Anthropology” were distributed in 2017. The AAA defines “public scholarship” as “that which is in dialogue with non-academic as well as academic audiences, and that is informed by anthropological scholarship and knowledge.” (This sounds very familiar to museum curators…)
The guidelines go on to say that the AAA “acknowledges the importance of these new, public forms scholarship… and recommends that tenure and promotion committees review their existing guidelines with the following considerations.” The considerations begin with:
Acknowledge the value of public forms of communicating, writing, and publishing as scholarship. Some of this scholarship involves experimentation and risk-taking or requires rapid responsiveness. Some of this work is crucial in terms of community and public engagement, and in numerous instances it includes scholarship that blurs boundaries between research, teaching, and service. We encourage departments to familiarize themselves with this new ecology of writing and publishing.
I think museum anthropology is where exciting and experimental and risk-taking work of anthropology is happening: specifically at the intersection of the public, indigenous communities, and anthropologists. We have been doing this work for years, and it’s time we advocate for our role in contributing to and leading this shift in the discipline’s vision.
First, museum anthropologists regularly produce anthropology for the public in the museum. To do so, we work with exhibit developers and design specialists who are always saying – “know your audience, no jargon!” And, “I know you did two years of research, but still…give me 75 words!” The emphasis is on Show, Don’t Tell—and we do that by the thoughtful juxtaposition of images, text, and objects. And it is those objects, those collections, that often bring us together – they are something originating communities, museum anthropologists, and the public care about, even if for very different reasons and in very different ways.
Second, museum anthropologists are always in conversation with people beyond our field, whether it be originating communities, other museum and design professionals, or audience researchers. These consultations and collaborations bring different ways of knowing and seeing together which spark new ideas that might not come from a intradisciplinary conversation alone.
In these ways, museum anthropologists are dedicated to public anthropology, the practice of sharing our research and what we learn beyond the museum and the academy. And for those of us who do collaborative anthropology with Native peoples, this is an inherent part of our work. Being at the nexus of colonial relations, power imbalances, historical trauma, having to figure out how to build relations of trust from a distrusted and suspect position (all for good reasons), and communicating with communities and the broader public—these are all wrapped into our research practice. Our work is by nature a risk, seeking to establish trust, but failure is always possible.
I often cite this quote from Regna Darnell in her book Invisible Geneologies: A History of Americanist Anthropology (University of Nebraska Press, 2001: 29): “For a long time Native Americans have been teaching anthropologists how to behave in a civilized fashion and respond to local communities’ needs and concerns.” I think it helps explain why museum anthropology in North America has led us in collaborative, experimental directions. In our work together, our community partners drive us to develop new ideas, to think outside our academic box. And their demands that we create something that is relevant to their communities, and reaches beyond the academy, drives us to diverse and creative ways of sharing our research.
If the field of anthropology is highlighting “the value of public forms of communicating, writing and publishing as scholarship,” including “experimentation and risk-taking,” then now is the time to advocate to our peers and to the broader discipline that museum anthropology is an excellent place to look for methods, models, and literatures to do so.
Museum anthropology is a diverse field that includes curating anthropology collections, developing anthropology exhibits, conducting research in relation to collections and/or their originating communities, doing ethnography within the museum as a field site, critically analyzing exhibitions and museums, and more.
Here are just a few of the many resources available to learn more about museum anthropology scholarship:
2015 Practicing Anthropology journal issue about museums and anthropology
If you are looking for specific book suggestions, syllabi, university programs, or other resources relating to museum anthropology, repatriation, critical museology, or collaborative museum practice feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 This commentary is based on an excerpt of a AAA conference paper, “NAGPRA Comics: Risking the Media for the Message,” presented November 17, 2018 in San Jose, CA at the session “How Experimental Are You? Museum anthropology as a catalyst for shaping the discipline,” organized by Gwyn Isaac and Jennifer Kramer.