Questioning boxes, borders and invisible lines

Allison Adler presents at the Green College Residence Members’ Series.

Curators spend time collaborating with communities to ensure each object accurately reflects the community of origin’s national history. 

The public doesn’t question the ways in which objects are displayed in museums – visitors don’t see how borders of identity are fluid, and not always divided into neat little boxes,” says Allison Adler, a UBC graduate student from the faculty of anthropology.

Adler will share her research findings at the Resident Members’ Series hosted by Green College, an interdisciplinary residency at UBC, on Jan. 23. Her talk Questioning Boxes: Migration, Transnationalism, and Cultural Fluidity in the Museum looks at the colonial perspective of museum exhibitions.

“I’m interested in traditional ethnographic displays in museums, and the borders that are created in these exhibits,” says Adler.

Questioning boxes

Adler believes that exhibits like the National History Museum in New York present an outdated view of cultural identity.

“We live in a globalizing world with fluidity, porous borders, migration, and because of the Internet, even collapsing borders,” she says.

As an anthropologist, Adler is keen to critique the effects of traditional museum exhibitions on cultural identity, and the societal benefits of creating exhibits that express a global perspective.

Born with mixed heritage, Adler is curious about how borders impact a society’s frame of reference. From an early age, she observed the difficulties people had in accepting her heritage.

“Because you’re white, you’re not Hispanic enough, or you’re Hispanic and not white enough,” she says.

Adler explains that these criticisms create invisible borders, which prevent her from moving between her cultural identities. Through these personal experiences Adler formed her research goals.

“I’m interested in adding to the conversation of curators and progressive museums like MOA [Museum of Anthropology], who are interested in creating exhibits that demonstrate a global perspective of cultural identity,” she says.

Museums influence cultural identity

In 2003, MOA embarked on a renewal project called The Partnership of Peoples. “The idea was to make the museum more welcoming and accessible for people’s belongings held in the museum,” says Dr. Jennifer Kramer, MOA curator, First Nations Pacific Northwest. “Instead of a museum being a place where the community of origin feel as though their belongings have been taken and used without their control, MOA wanted to make sure that we returned the control, or at least, recognize the historical wrong and work towards a decolonized future,” says Kramer.

More recently Adler assisted Kramer with a temporary exhibit called Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures. Ceremonial cloths from around the world are displayed; yards of textiles are suspended elegantly in the gallery for visitors. “I’m trying to show the diversity of textile production in the aesthetics, but in all cultures we wear clothing for similar reasons: to amplify our identity,” says Kramer.

Working with Kramer, Adler is able to explore exhibits that take community belongings out of their boxes, literally removing the borders that traditionally have created cultural differences. “In the future, I look forward to creating spaces like these,” says Adler, “where people can question traditional ideas about culture, borders, identity and creating spaces where there is a recognition of simultaneous differences and similarities in culture.”

Green College creates space for further reflections

A resident of Green College, Adler is in a unique space that lets her explore ideas with other graduates and post-doctoral students. About a hundred students are selected each year from different faculties at UBC. Residents are expected to build interdisciplinary networks with other students across campus.

“As a university, we have a responsibility to ensure faculties and students talk to one another,” says Mark Vessey, PhD, principal at Green College. “We don’t just want brilliant physicists; we want physicists who are talking to philosophers,” he says.

Adler is one of two anthropologists who reside at Green College.

“Living here is teaching me to articulate my ideas to a wider audience of academia,” says Adler.

Presenting at the public lecture series at Green College is another opportunity for Adler to engage her peers and receive feedback on her research. She hopes attendees find her presentation thought-provoking. “Eventually, I’d like to contribute to the conversation on how we want to display cultural issues in light of migration and globalization,” says Adler.

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