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Collecting Colonialism:
Disembodied Culture at the Temple Anthropology Museum

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1966.03.69. Pouch. Leather and fabric. Beaded in floral design (Old French Pattern). South Dakota. Native American.

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

"I felt that even after the very long and extensive years of rethinking anthropology, one could still suggest that colonialism still hovers over it or in it. The colonial haunts it, in a certain sense. Anthropology in the present, in my sense, cannot come without the histories that it is haunted by. These histories are part of the structure of how I think of the discipline itself, especially within the museum."

- Wayne Modest. 2020. From "Museums are Investments in Critical Discomfort."

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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Disembodied Object Feature: Nose Ornaments

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. 

1966.03.132.02, women's nose ornaments.

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

Rose Collection

Temple acquired the Rose collection via donation from the Rose family. Frederick W. Green, an Egyptologist, began the collection with purchases made during his travels. He passed it along to his cousin, Robert Rose. Mr. Rose and his wife Glanola, added to the collection with purchases made as they traveled around the world.  
The cultural context of these artifacts is now known only through a brief catalog and correspondence between the Rose family and the Temple Department of Anthropology in February of 1967. This display showcases the geographic breadth of these disembodied objects, with little information about their cultural value or meaning. 

The Rose Collection retains the original catalog outlining information about the origin of the artifacts and brief descriptions for each object, but there is still uncertainty. How were these objects used? To whom did they belong before the Rose family? 

"The physical presence of objects makes them appear direct representatives of the past in the present, but existing now in new contexts they are objects with new significances."

 - Chris Gosden, Chantal Knowles. 2020. Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change.



1967.2.7a-h. Brass fingernails used by dancer. Thailand. 

The brass fingernails in the images above and beside are used in a traditional dance called Fawn. Brass fingernail extensions are used in Fawn Leb, or the Fingernail Dance, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Rose Collection catalogue describes these as "brass fingernail extensions used by dancer," but does not include information of how they are used. This is one example of the way that collected artifacts can be stripped of their cultural context. 

"Young Woman Performing the Fawn Leb (Fingernail Dance), Chaing Mai, Thailand.

Photo: "Young Woman Performing the Fawn Leb (Fingernail Dance), Chiang Mai, Thailand" by Hale-WorldPhotography (2007)

Disembodied Object Feature: Brass Fingernail Extensions


Gosden, Chris, and Chantal Knowles. 2020. Collecting colonialism: material culture and colonial change.

Thailand Chiang Mai July 2007 - Hale-WorldPhotography

Modest, Wayne. 2020. “‘Museums Are Investments in Critical Discomfort.’” In Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial, edited by Margareta von Oswald and Jonas Tinius, 65–75. Leuven University Press.

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