Professor Anthony Shelton is Director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Having graduated from the University of Hull in 1976 with a BA Hons in Sociology and Anthropology, he has worked at a variety of institutions across the globe including the British Museum, Royal Pavilion Art Gallery and Museum, University College London, and University of Coimbra, Portugal. He is an expert in critical museology, areas of visual culture and the history of collecting. In this interview we find out how Hull helped open up the world to him, and what are some of the challenges and pleasures of working at the museum.
What initially attracted you to study at the University of Hull?
Hull captivated me above all other universities for its bustling street and night life; the open, gritty and unpretentiousness of its people; its dock-side streets off the Hessle Road and the contrasting charm of the Land of Green Ginger; It seemed to provide solitude too when you needed it – the solitude of the old dock areas and spring bank cemetery, or the trails along Holderness point or by the banks of the Humber.
Hull was the city that introduced me to Phillip Larkin and Ted Hughes; I discovered New Wave French cinema at the library and I regularly took the ferry to Hamburg, where whether walking across its bombed-out spaces, its post-war shopping centres, by the side of the Alster or strolling through the St Pauli district at night, I developed a fascination for German intellectual history, and sensibility, and a profound love and empathy for Europe and the ideals behind the Union.
Hull gave me Europe. It knocked me into a wider global orbit.
What are your fondest memories of your time as a student here?
Great universities give students more than an education, they give them values and sensibilities. I’m not sure how they do this, certainly not by missionizing, but in the case of Hull, there were two transcendental moments I have never forgotten.
The first was when I arrived as a student and in his speech of welcome, the then Vice-Chancellor, Donaldson, described the purpose of education, and suggested that our time as undergraduates should be given to developing a critical acumen which would always serve as a bulwark against unthinking totalitarianism and dictatorship.
The second occasion was when at my graduation ceremony the University awarded an honorary degree to the great American writer, James Baldwin, whose acceptance speech included recollections of growing up Black in New York City. His prose and easy manner sent me away to read everything I could by him, but like for so many others, it was Giovanni’s Room that was the book that somehow infused me most. These were fond memories, because they imparted something stable within me, something that became part of whom I grew to become.
Understanding concepts such as imperialism, colonialism and post colonialism are central to anthropological learning in a higher education environment, how do you seek to discuss or depict these concepts in a museum setting to a more general audience?
It depends where the museum is located. In British Columbia, the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, has raised a broad consciousness of the effects of imperialism and colonialism and its effect on the national society. These issues have become an integral part of our political culture and impact social stratification and economic and cultural marginalization.
Museums and their collections have been an intrinsic part of these exploitative and deleterious mechanisms and now themselves recognize the need for change. If they were to try to obfuscate these relations, they would have problems functioning in most parts of Canada. One of my predecessors, Michael Ames wrote somewhere that “nobody said decolonization would be a walk in the garden” and its not, but goodwill and the overarching excitement involved in the project of reshaping Canadian society and creating a better cultural integration of the country, has given us shared priorities.
The difficult categories we are now working with are the application and understanding of interculturalism, multi-lingualism and multiversities which demand a rethinking and wider appreciation of limits and pluralities of the re-existing ontologies and epistemologies through which we see the world. Our problem is how to see the multitudinous and complexity of thought worlds when the processes and instruments through which you bring them into focus, at the same time, also distort them. Things are a little simpler in Europe, but with greater global integration the same problems will become more acute there too.
What has been your favorite (or most successful) museum activity or exhibition during your time as director of MOA?
My most enjoyable and satisfying activity was the major redevelopment and expansion project, a Partnership of Peoples, which is what originally attracted me to the job. This was an ambitious $58 million project which at the beginning didn’t even have its own development officer to help raise funds. Working in partnership with three Indigenous communities, the project was intended to renew most of MOA’s existing spaces and build a new research and public service facilities that increased the size of the museum by 50%.
We built a new library and archive, storage facilities for the collections, new permanent exhibition galleries, conservation and archaeological laboratories, collection management facilities, workshops, design and recording studios and four research rooms, offices and meeting rooms, giving the museum the most advanced research infrastructure of any museum in Canada. In addition, we re-stored and digitized 50,000 objects, commissioned a new on-line catalogue (MOA Cat), and with our partners developed the Reciprocal Research Network, an interactive research platform that links together Northwest Coast collections in museums across the world and makes them available for on-line research by members of Indigenous communities, scholars and museum researchers.
A recent report by Pearson/NESTA/Oxford on the future of workplace skills predicted that ‘Sociology and Anthropology’ will be the 5th most demanded skill/knowledge area for US occupations by 2030. Do you feel that the development of AI and rapid automation will create greater demand for inter-personal skills and advanced cultural understanding? Are you seeing any evidence of this already?
Writing this from Vancouver, which is sometimes described as North America’s loneliest city, its not only AI and automation that create a thirst for new skills and cultural understanding, but globalization, cultural diversity and personal insularity and alienation that are all reducing our quality of life. While Vancouver is an exceptionally affluent city, traditional social ties are in decline and as yet there is little that is replacing them. It may take the full breadth and diversity of the arts and humanities to replenish these shrinking or lost domains as well as the kind of social engineering long attributed to anthropology and sociology. Alternatively, what we have known and identified as humanity, may be undergoing radical changes itself, that may require new skills and sensibilities the nature of which we have not yet began to imagine.
Photo credit, title image: Photo by Hover Collective, courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC