Subject, object, grandpa, enemy: a comparative ethnomuseology among the Mebêngôkre-Kayapó and Baniwa of Brazil

Abstract Ethnomuseology seeks to put indigenous people in dialog with their own material culture heritage. This article reflects on collaborative research carried out with Mebêngôkre-Kayapó and Baniwa consultants on important collections of both groups from the early twentieth century. In addition to noting differences between museological or scientific and indigenous concepts about museum objects, we also noticed a number of cultural differences in the way the two indigenous groups related to objects from their past. While both cultural groups attributed subjective characteristics to museum objects, for the Mebêngôkre-Kayapó this subjectivity expressed itself mostly in terms of possible threats to visitors of the museum collections, leading to a hesitancy to handle museum objects, assumed to be war trophies captured in the past from dangerous enemies. The Baniwa, by contrast, expressed great affection for ‘grandpa’s things’, and they felt they had a right to handle objects that represent the heritage of patrilineal clans. This experience in ethnomuseology highlights the diversity of indigenous concepts, attitudes and expectations about museum collections and the need for the dialogical approach to collaborative research.