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The Anthropology of Museums

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The public museum emerged in Europe in the 18th century, one of many cultural legacies of the Enlightenment. By the mid-19th century, museums all over Europe and even some in the United States were flourishing. Museums played many roles, from homogenizing the social classes to softening the harsh realities of monarchic government through propagandistic display that purported to educate and edify. By the 20th century, the role of museums had crystallized, providing a form of entertainment and education as well as social mobility for donors and visitors. Through a series of case studies, the course traces the development of the museum’s potential to carry broad social and political significance from its origins to the present, focusing on the different ways that museums generate and perpetuate meaning. Topics include the museum as a constructed space, social experience, marketplace, and political arena. Several visits to local museums supplement course readings. 3 credits.