Given the intensifying global migrations of people and things during the 20th and 21st centuries, the grounds for ‘cultural authenticity’ – and the authority and analytical tools to determine it in relation to material culture – increasingly overspills the contours of any single national or cultural community. Quite simply, the language of ownership and property is insufficient to both theorise and productively activate certain kinds of material culture present in colonial-era museums today. Without eroding the fundamental ethical (and legal) achievement of recognising ‘source communities’ and championing the restitution of ‘cultural property’ to those groups from whom it was unjustly acquired, we must explore how museums can supplement and expand notions of object-community relations. Museums are in a powerful position to help broker new modes and terms of engagement with collections that enhance both our understandings of meaningful objects, and our ability to envision and call into being new, progressive communities and solidarities with their help. We need additional concepts that support innovative museum work in a range of social, cultural, and political settings, a vocabulary suited to complex past and present relationships not only of museology, but of object-making. This language must also support new visions of identity politics and cross-group solidarity, to counteract our dangerously polarised world.

How may we simultaneously grasp the plural meanings of objects, constitute ethical stewardship, and allow for (or encourage) the emergence of future(-oriented) communities? What new models of inheritance or kinship might transcend the modern Western framework of ‘possessive individualism’ (1) – that we are what we own – and fit a range of circumstances within but also beyond the Indigenous-colonial paradigm? And what approaches to display and encounter can museums use to open up such objects to their inherent plurality? Ivan Karp and Cory Kratz invoke the variety of ‘links and claims,’ including ‘felt kinship, ownership, and rights,’ that define the relations that diverse ‘stakeholders’ may have to objects in museum collections. (2) It is this range of possible relations that we need to enlarge, to bring a dynamic, pluralist gaze to bear on museum objects. Such an expansion can help us re-envision our relations not only to objects, but to each other.

A starting point is the notion of a ‘heritage community.’ The Council of Europe (CoE) defines a heritage community as ‘people who value specific aspects of cultural heritage which they wish, within the framework of public action, to sustain and transmit to future generations’ [my emphasis].(3) This conception brings a usefully flexible sense of agency, process, and change to people-object relations.(4) But the notion of a ‘heritage community’ is also limiting in its focus on desire and choice in relation to heritage. For this reason, I propose the term ‘community of implication,’ building on the CoE’s definition to include people who are affected by or can be said to be implicated (5) in certain tangible or intangible cultural products, in ethical terms. Such a move decenters Europe as the space of definition, and yet keeps European connections to the objects that have sojourned in colonial museums in full view without imputing any necessary or noble character to such custodianship. It also takes into account the problem of cultural appropriation, which entails the loss of crucial historical and contemporary meanings – and thereby power – due to the choice by new individuals and groups to identify with, or simply employ or enjoy, objects or intangible heritage originating with other groups.(6)

More exceptionally, thinking about implication involves shifting the focus away from the agency of the subjects – the idea that we always choose what aspects of heritage relate to us – and transposes it instead to the agency of the objects, recognising the material world’s ability to depict, to move, to connect, to remind, even to accuse.(7) Such a shift is particularly salient when considering complex recent histories involving both colonialism and other forms and catalysts of mass violence, forced migration, and subsequent mnemonic formations – so called ‘difficult heritage.’(8) Heritage discourses are often deployed by regressive or even dangerous forces in highly exclusive, essentialist forms, that countenance no acknowledgement of ‘undesirable’ heritage that would complicate celebratory nationalist (or other exclusivist) projects.(9) We must thus go beyond the notion of positive valuation and a desire to protect and bequeath ‘heritage’ as a gift of identity that one hopes to see continued by one’s descendants. There are simply too many tangible and intangible traces of the past that intrude on our social lives and consciousness unbeckoned (and often undesired), in ways that may strongly contribute to our senses of self and others ideas about us, to allow us to think of heritage as always fully chosen and embraced.

Museum collections also contain such ‘awkward objects,’ which bear traces of forgotten or suppressed histories that link communities in ways that raise important questions and point to needed social and cultural work of redress, repair, recovery, and reimagining.(10) An example from the Kraków Ethnographic Museum is instructive. a group of ratchets (wooden noisemakers) on display in the ‘spring customs’ room of the permanent exhibit of ‘Polish folk culture’ in the Kraków museum. The only interpretive material ‘reads’ them as Catholic Polish terkotkas (or kołatkas) – used in Eastertime ritual processions, or in place of bells to call locals to church on Good Friday.(11) But they could just as easily be Jewish groggers, used by local children each time the villain Haman’s name is said during the traditional reading of the Book of Esther on Purim. (That is how they appeared to this author, having played with them as a Jewish child in the USA). The addition of an explanatory label connecting the two traditions that employ the same object, historical and contemporary photos of the two religious communities using them, or reminiscences from Jewish and Catholic individuals who played with them, could remind museum visitors that Poland was prior to World War II (and to a very small extent is still today) a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, and thereby place Jews within the story of ‘Polish culture’ from which they have, in significant ways, been erased. The display would tell a story of cultural proximity, exchange, and hybridity that could help both communities understand ‘their culture’ in more expansive ways.(12) (IMG. 01)

Colonial-era museums have a priori multicultural heritage. Their collections span the globe and contain evidence of cultural contact and heterogeneity elided by the very national boundaries these museums were founded to underscore and legitimate. From continually-transforming American Indian totem poles,(13) to Kenyan Samburu marriage beads (of 19th century Venetian origin, coveted today by middle-class American women),(14) and ubiquitous ‘tourist art’ created by cultural insiders but catering to visitors desires,(15) the objects contained in them bear a wide range of cultural meanings and affects reverberating from a history of ambivalent inter-group engagements. Should not their galleries do the same?

This call for a new term and related innovations in museum practice is necessarily enunciated in a highly political, over-determined field. We must therefore commit to an ongoing conversation about how ostensibly emancipatory terminology may elide the ongoing injustices perpetrated by European and Euro-colonial museums that continue to hold and misrepresent ill-gotten collections. The development of a notion of ‘communities of implication’ must take vigilant care to distinguish itself from the practice of ‘inventing conceptions and slogans that will protect [museums’] illegal holding of looted / stolen cultural artefacts of others.’(16) Such terms include ‘shared heritage,’ ‘world heritage,’ or ‘heritage of all mankind.’ We must also open difficult discussions about the divergent power relations surrounding Indigenous, Jewish, and further racialised, ethnicised, or differently ‘otherised’ collections. Attention to Holocaust memory, for example, can in some locations and under some circumstances become a ‘comfortable horrible’ that is grievable – and politically, socially, and emotionally ‘safe’ – in ways that colonial memory is not. Indeed, Holocaust memory may even act to conceal colonial memory.(17)

With these caveats in mind, the idea of ‘communities of implication’ aspires to expand the circle of voices that museums bring to bear on understanding objects, with democratic interpretation and exhibition – and new network-building in relation to these – achieved through the widest range of means. Further, the push to diversify the interpretive toolkit does not only apply to Indigenous or ‘minoritized”’ cultural objects in majority, dominant-culture museums.(18) A Picasso painting inspired by African masks stands to gain as much from being viewed in the context of a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-vocal ‘community of implication’ as does a Benin bronze, or a Polish folk sculpture depicting the Nazi persecution of Jews. Arguments that such objects are somehow better exhibited in the British Museum, rather than in Benin or Brooklyn, are merely exercises in the perpetuation of colonial-era power politics. Rather, such contextual shifts – potentially achieved via rotating itineraries of custodianship – would aid in the accumulation of perspectives on human-object implication, and in building the envisioned communities, a new kind of global kin.


Image caption

Terkotky/Groggers on display at the Krakow Ethnographic Museum (1929, Brzezowa near Myślenice, gift from the girl’s junior high school. Object inventory no. 3764. Photo by author).



(1) Anthropologist Richard Handler discusses how even Indigenous groups have today adopted – quite fairly in political terms – flawed Western notions of group property in efforts to regain their culturally-significant objects from Western museums. Richard Handler, “Who Owns the Past? History, Cultural Property, and the Logic of Possessive Individualism,” in The Politics of Culture: Policy Perspectives for Individuals, Institutions, and Communities, edited by Brett Williams (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), 63-74.

(2) Ivan Karp and Cory Kratz , “The Interrogative Museum” in Museum as Process: Translating Local and Global Knowledges, edited by Raymond Silverman (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 284. The term ‘stakeholders’ is itself problematic, as it has economic and business-oriented resonances that work against a more humanistic notion and approach to the museum as a public good.

(3) “Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society,” Council of Europe Treaty Series 199 (Faro, 27 October 2005).

(4) Or more broadly ‘people-heritage relations,’ to encompass ‘intangible’ cultural materials like music, stories, specialised knowledge, ritual practice, etc.

(5) I am broadly inspired here by Michael Rothberg’s expanding on and complicating the standard victim/perpetrator/bystander paradigm via his theorisation of ‘implicated subjects,’ which he defines as the ‘large and heterogeneous collection of subjects who enable and benefit from traumatic violence without taking part in it directly.’ He notes that ‘The category of implicated subjects emerges in relation to both historical and contemporary scenarios of violence: that is, it describes the indirect responsibility of subjects situated at temporal or geographic distance from the production of social suffering. It helps direct our attention to the conditions of possibility of violence as well as its lingering impact and suggests new routes of opposition… implication draws attention to how we are entwined with and folded into (‘im-pli-cated in’) histories and situations that surpass our agency as individual subjects.’ In the present context, I am interested in the lingering impact of violence and the conditions of possibility for retroactively witnessing it in ways that surpass our agency as individual subjects. “Trauma Theory, Implicated Subjects, and the Question of Israel/Palestine,” Profession (2014). Accessed June 10, 2018,

Trauma Theory, Implicated Subjects, and the Question of Israel/Palestine

(6) The problem can be particularly egregious in a capitalist system where money is being made by dominant groups’ use of marginalised people’s creations.

(7) Recent scholarship on the agency and affective force of objects includes: Yael Navaro-Yashin “Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 1-18; Forensic Architecture (ed.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014); Janet Hoskins, “Agency, biography, and objects,” in Handbook of Material Culture, edited by C. Tiller et al. (London: Sage Publications, 2006): 74-84; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(8) Sharon Macdonald, Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2008).

(9) Chiara De Cesari notes how the transnational project of invoking ‘European heritage’ is often deployed in museums in ways that draw on regressive nationalist paradigms. “Museums of Europe: Tangles of Memory, Borders, and Race,” Museum Anthropology, Vol. 40, 1 (2017):18-35.

(10) Indeed, collecting practices and policies as a discrete process (separate from interpreting or curating what has already been collected) have implications for the notion of ‘heritage communities,’ as the act of amassing materials may itself make visible previously unseen cultural interconnections and raise new questions.

(11) The quote inscribed on a nearby wall, next to a similar rattle, reads, ‘there is a custom in the countryside, that from Holy Thursday until the end of the week (…) boys race about the village clacking their clackers.’ Buków (near Kraków), 1903. [In Polish: jest taki zwyczaj na wsi, że od Wielkiego Czwartku do końca tygodnia (…) chłopcy biegają po wsi z kłapaczkami i kłapią. Buków (koło Krakowa), 1903.]

(12) In fact, recent additions to the Ethnographic Museum’s website do offer such interpretive material in relation to another Purim object: a scroll of Esther. See Similarly, in March 17-18, 2018, the museum organised a workshop for families focusing not on the traditional Easter celebrations, but focusing on Purim, in association with local Jewish organisation Czulent. For one image see:

(13) Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass, The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).

(14) Bilinda Straight, “From Samburu Heirloom to New Age Artifact: The Cross‐Cultural Consumption of Mporo Marriage Beads,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, 1 (March 2002): 7-21.

(15) Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner (eds.), Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

(16) Kwame Opoku, “Looted/Stolen Cultural Artefacts Declared ‘Shared Heritage’,” No Humboldt 21! Moratorum für das Humboldt-Forum im Berliner Schloss. Accessed March 18, 2014,

(17) ‘Comfortable horrible’ is Edward Linenthal’s term for narratives of tragedy that have little social power beyond confirming what ‘we,’ as a pre-determined collectivity, already know, think, or feel. Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 267. The idea of a ‘grieveable subject’ is from Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2008).

(18) ‘Minoritized individuals belong to groups that as a result of social constructs face prejudices and have less power or representation than other groups.’ I.E. Smith, “Minority Vs. Minoritized: Why The Noun Just Doesn’t Cut It,” The Odyssey (September 16, 2016). Accessed June 10, 2018,