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Ethnological Museums: Methods and Limitations


    DR. H. S. HARRISON, in his presidential address to the Royal Anthropological Institute delivered on June 29, played the part of a wandering sceptic, to use his own term, to excellent effect in setting out some of the more striking shortcomings of the ethnological museum as a place of exhibition of material objects bearing on man's cultural development. As he pointed out, there is a considerable body of exhibits, such as, for example, musical instruments, personal ornaments, money and currency, which find their place in a museum as 'material objects', but of which the real significance is non-material and is lost on either the distributional or comparative method of arrangement, as their interest lies not in form or material, but in their sociological functions and meanings. Practical considerations limit the use of labels, quite apart from the danger of the museum becoming what Dr. Harrison said has been described as a collection of labels illustrated by exhibits. Dr. Harrison also showed himself a keen but kindly critic of the evolutionary method of display, pointing out its weaknesses hi the scanty evidence and uncertainties relating to origins, the necessary, but at times excessive dependence upon inference, and the ambiguities of direction, including the possibility of degeneracy. Among the instances quoted in support of the argument he cited an interesting example in the uncertain development of the canoe and the relation of the plank and dug-out forms.

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