Material and Visual Culture: Critical and practical anthropological approaches to museums and heritage

Course content

Although anthropology deals with material, visual and practical dimensions of life, its academic products are mostly texts – but what happens if anthropology produces products more in line with anthropologists study as embodied researchers? One fast-growing field where anthropologists increasingly develop their scholarship, find employment and reach out to wider audiences is museums and heritage sites. At present, more and more anthropologists are employed at museums and heritage sites, which in the present times of cultural complexity have an increasing demand for the critical theoretical approaches offered by anthropologists. But that demand is for anthropologists who know how to translate their ethnographic methods and critical insights into non-textual or semi-textual formats, like exhibitions based on material objects, panels, exhibition books and flyers, videos, podcasts, etc. And all too often, however, anthropology graduates are held back by the impression that museums and heritage sites are stale and/or old-fashioned, and hence unworthy of their intellectual endeavor; but a less than up-to-date museum exhibit or heritage complex could constitute an opportunity for critical, practical and visual input by anthropologists.

In this course students will learn both aspects of the anthropology of museums and heritage:

  1. Students will learn about the critical anthropological approaches through a cross-reading of contemporary work within the anthropology of museums and heritage, in connection with neighboring disciplines (history, cultural studies) and with social science classics, like Debord, Durkheim, Halbwachs and Hobsbawm. The outcome will be a firm grounding in the critical theoretical literature on museums and heritage.
  3. Students will learn about the practical aspects of museum and heritage work through small field research projects and through (or: in combination with) small internships at museums or heritage sites. The outcomes of these practical engagements would be in formats that could be useful for the sites where the research and internships take place, e.g. small-scale basic museum or heritage research, an exhibition text, a small video, a podcast. This would be negotiated with the museum or heritage site, and would form part of the portfolio. The outcome would be knowledge of the various skills and competencies as well as of the various formats needed for effective museum and heritage work.
  5. Students will learn the basics about visual culture and visual anthropology through a short crash course by a trained and accomplished visual anthropologist.


Eventually, this course might prepare interested students for MA research in and on museums or heritage sites, and potentially prepare for their Master's Thesis.


Learning outcome


The final portfolio is expected to demonstrate, by way of a clearly structured, well written, and lucidly argued set of texts, that the student is capable of:

  • demonstrating knowledge of and insight into the anthropological literature concerning questions of heritage and museums as well as related topics



The final portfolio is expected to demonstrate, by way of a clearly structured, well written, and lucidly argued set of texts, that the student is capable of:

  • demonstrating the capacity to carry out small-scale ethnographic field research in a selected heritage site or museum
  • demonstrating the capacity to carry out small-scale internship in a selected heritage site or museum
  • writing critical academic texts as well as producing outcomes in a format that is suitable for and potentially usable by a museum or heritage site, in particular audio-visual formats



The student is expected to be able to:

  • contribute orally to discussions on the theme of the lecture course in the seminars;
  • work together with other students and provide mutual feedback
  • incorporate feedback from others
  • work effectively in a (museum or heritage) work  environment
  • demonstrate his or her ability to read and understand the course literature by regularly uploading the required ‘postings’ to his or her portfolio on the Absalon course website.

• Seminars with proactive student participation in the form of presentations and discussions
• Small research projects in or with reference to museums or heritage sites
• Limited internships in museums and/or heritage sites

Reading list will be uploaded in Absalon.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Type of assessment
Portfolio, .
Portfolio exam:
Length: The portfolio exam can be taken individually or in groups of maximum four students. The portfolio exam consists of 3-7 submissions. The number of submissions is set by the lecturer. The total length of all of the submissions must not exceed 30,000 keystrokes for a single student. For groups of two students the maximum is 40,000 keystrokes. For groups of three students the maximum is 45,000 keystrokes and for groups of four students the maximum is 50,000 keystrokes.
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

See learning outcome.

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 42
  • Preparation
  • 202
  • Project work
  • 142
  • Exam
  • 28
  • English
  • 414