Negotiating 'Indigeneity': museums, indigenous cultural heritage, and indigenous activism (completed)

This project focused on the relationship between indigenous groups and museums. Building on the case studies of Taiwan and Norway, the research investigated the role of indigenous cultural heritage in the definition of indigenous identities, the promotion of indigenous rights, and more broadly, in shaping notions of ‘indigeneity’.

Filmkamera foran som filmer en dame med mikrofon.

Local Taiwanese television filming an elder of the Kavalan indigenous group performing a ritual blessing at the opening of an exhibition of banana fibre artefacts. The ancestral skill to weave banana fibre is one of the cultural features that contributed to the official recognition of Kavalan as one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups.

Photo: Marzia Varutti.

About the project

Indigenous activism is a prominent arena where indigenous tangible and intangible heritage is being deployed and in the process, re-appropriated, re-contextualized and re-interpreted. Indigenous activism thus challenges established sites of cultural display such as museums, and questions received understandings of indigenous cultures and identities. Whilst indigenous activism is increasingly engaging museums in demands for social justice, this phenomenon remains under-researched and poorly understood.

Empirical research will focus on Taiwan and Norway – two contexts in which museums and indigenous activists are fully involved in the definition of indigenous identities, and in claims for indigenous rights. Taiwan’s relatively late (1996) turn to democracy meant that only recently the expression of indigenous identities has become possible. This has resulted in ongoing, contested indigenous claims to obtain official recognition by the Taiwanese government (the 14th indigenous group was officially recognized in 2008, and several others are seeking recognition). In addition, indigenous cultures in Taiwan are caught in discourses stressing their Austronesian origins aimed to strategically position Taiwan in the Pacific and to uphold Taiwan's nationalist claims to cultural independence from mainland China. Thus, Taiwanese indigenous groups are mobilized in the making of indigenous, national and supra-national identities. In this situation, the representation of indigenous cultures is charged with political significance.

Whilst prominent in Taiwan, the issues surrounding the preservation, interpretation and representation of indigenous cultures resonate with concerns shared by indigenous groups in other parts of the world, including in Norway. Norway has the largest population of one of the few officially recognized indigenous people in Europe, the Sami. Since at least the late 1970s, with the demonstrations against the damming of the Alta-Kautokeino Watercourse, Sami activists have been at the fore front of the process of Sami political and cultural empowerment which led, among others, to the amendment of the Norwegian constitution and the establishment of the Sami Parliament in 1989. Moreover, Norway is the country that has made the greatest advances in the establishment of Sami local and regional museums. Norway thus offers a pertinent case-study to juxtapose to Taiwan


The research aimed to produce outputs and engage in dissemination activities that will further the understanding of the relationship between museums and indigenous activism, and the role of indigenous cultural heritage in defining ‘indigeneity’.


The project received financial support from the Norwegian Research Council and the University of Oslo.

Published Mar. 4, 2016 10:05 AM - Last modified Apr. 6, 2020 12:46 PM