Architecture of the Contact Zone: Four Post-colonial Museums

  • Paul Walker


Museums have become important locations for shaping and reshaping contemporary relations between post-colonial nations and indigenous cultures. The anthropologist James Clifford has used the term ‘contact zone’ to describe the indeterminacy and possibility that exists when the formal, anthropological knowledge held by curators and the embodied, evolving culture represented by indigenous groups encounter each other within the orbit of the contemporary museum. Clifford’s use of the term ‘contact zone’ is borrowed from the work of Mary Louise Pratt who used it rather in an historical sense to describe the strangeness and unanticipated outcomes for epistemology of encounters on the frontiers of European imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This chapter will examine the architecture of four museums which in their institutional missions have foregrounded relations between contemporary nation–states and the communities descended from colonised people. These museums are the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Noumea (completed 1998); Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand, Wellington (1997); National Museum of Australia, Canberra (2001); and the Musée du quai Branly, Paris (2006). Each museum is based on a different idealisation or conception of the contemporary emerging from the colonial histories which it represents: rapprochement between coloniser and colonised at Tjibaou; the post-colonial nation as ‘bicultural’ at Te Papa; the post-colonial nation as multicultural ‘mosaic’ at the NMA; rapprochement between a former coloniser and the formerly colonised at quai Branly. In each museum, architecture was charged with the responsibility to make these idealisations physically and experientially manifest even as architecture itself struggles with its own inheritances of elite, monocultural knowledge. For both Clifford and Pratt, the term ‘zone’ primarily entails a spatial metaphor; the contact zone is an epistemological space. The term ‘zone’, however, can also be taken to refer literally to the physical spaces of an institution or the geographical spaces where colonial encounters with the other took place. Indeed, both Clifford and Pratt often discuss or allude to just such ostensible places in their work. The chapter will bring their discussions of the ‘contact zone’ to bear in critique and analysis of its four key examples to consider what architecture could be in such a place, how it too could become a more labile and less determinate thing.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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