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Is cultural democracy possible in a museum? Critical reflections on Indigenous engagement in the development of the exhibition Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum

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Is cultural democracy possible in a museum? Critical reflections on Indigenous engagement in the development of the exhibition Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum

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Abstract

Recent museological scholarship emphasises visitor participation and democratic access to cultural heritage as key to securing the ongoing relevance and future sustainability of museums. But do legacies of colonialist collecting practices and hierarchical conventions of representation in museums afford the possibility of genuine cultural democracy? This paper explores this question via detailed analysis of the Encounters exhibition, developed by the National Museum of Australia in partnership with the British Museum and promoted as an unprecedented partnership between the institutions and Indigenous Australian communities. Drawing on an extensive and emerging literature on museums, community engagement, participation and democracy, in tandem with analysis of public critiques and Indigenous responses to the exhibition, the paper suggests that the extent of Indigenous agency within the collaboration fell short of the articulated goals of the project. It concludes that the concept of maximal participation and release of agency to communities of interest may be difficult to achieve within existing museum frameworks.

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