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Collecting Colonialism:
Disembodied Culture at the Temple Anthropology Museum

You may think that culture is saved in spaces much like the one you’re standing in. If culture is embodied in objects, then we have loads of it right here in special archival bags intended for safe-keeping.  

But many museum collections were created in a colonial process that excised the cultural value from material objects. Many of the artifacts housed at Temple have been robbed of meaning, first through removal and then through time and poor record keeping. Colonialism’s obsession with materialism strips artifacts of their contexts, leaving them disembodied and untethered. ​

We imagine that museums are places of preservation, but a glimpse at two of Temple’s earliest collections reveals that, while the objects themselves might be preserved, their cultural value is not. The snippet of hand-written catalogs you see here are often the only piece of information we have for objects from these two collections.  


Penn Collection 

Rose Collection

We reflect on the colonialism that created our museum while trying to envision a museum of the future, where collections are replaced by collaboration, connection, and creation

Penn Collection 

This collection was a donation by the Penn Museum in 1966, soon after the establishment of an anthropology museum at Temple. It includes a wide variety of objects, sourced from at least 3 continents. Though the collection is expansive, we know almost nothing about these objects, how they were collected, or who collected them.  

The selections you see illustrate both the breadth of items in this collection and how poorly the records were kept. They have been organized by object type, regardless of cultural origin, to illustrate their disembodied nature. Original, handwritten catalog entries provide all of the information that accompanied these objects. 

The “Penn Collection” accession form below refers to the material as a “study collection of ethnographic materials” but provides little to no additional information. It was filled out in 1976, twenty years after it was received. The earliest known catalog dates to 1977. If a catalog existed when the collection was received, it has been lost, although a few objects retain original tags (see below) or other immediately identifying information.  

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1966.03.132.01, women's nose ornaments.

These nose ornaments are among the few objects in the collection of which we have original tags from donation in 1966. While the script on the tag indicates that these may have belonged to a Muslim woman, these pieces have long been detached from their purpose and history. 

Original tag for 1966.03.132, reads "Mohamadian woman's nose ornament." 

1966.03.132.02, women's nose ornaments.

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