EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Re-visioning material anthropological legacies for cosmo-optimal futures
Location U6-1E
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Sharon Macdonald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email
  • Margareta von Oswald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email
  • Henrietta Lidchi (National Museums Scotland) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel calls for examples of innovative research and initiatives on ethnographic collections that explore their potential and limitations for contributing to new ways of imagining and realising 'cosmo-optimal' social relationships in the future.

Long Abstract

The anthropological imagination and practice of former times has left durable legacies in the form of ethnographic collections. These evidence not only the peoples and places from whom they were collected but also anthropological theories and perspectives of the time, specific personal as well as institutional relationships and visions of what was deemed worthy of saving for the future. Often collected within colonial frameworks and as part of a presumed salvage of remnants of disappearing worlds, today ethnographic collections are sometimes viewed as highly problematic and may be contested or subject to calls for repatriation. They are sometimes also seen as irrelevant to contemporary anthropological concerns. Increasingly, however, they are being revisited to generate new and often more nuanced understandings the past, including the nature of relationships 'on the ground' and the imaginations and aspirations of diverse participants. Moreover, they are also being re-visioned through new forms of use and engagement - including with those who see the collections of part of their own material legacies - to establish new knowledge and social relationships between participants.

In this panel we invite contributions that explore the potential and limitations of ethnographic collections for forging positive and convivial relationships across cultural difference, i.e. what we call cosmo-optimal futures. We welcome in-depth case-studies that analyse the mobilisation of ethnographic collections as part of initiatives to variously address contested and difficult pasts in new ways, to forge new relationships with potential legatees or audiences, or to redisplay or otherwise re-vision collections for more cosmo-optimal futures.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Reassembling the social organization: museums, collaboration, and digital media in the making and remaking of Franz Boas's 1897 monograph

Authors: Rainer Hatoum (Goethe University)  email
Judith Berman (University of Victoria)  email
Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center)  email

Short Abstract

A collaborative team is producing a new critical edition of Franz Boas's 1897 landmark, The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, which uses digital media to link museums, archives and Native communities while recuperating ethnographic records for current and future use.

Long Abstract

Franz Boas's 1897 monograph, The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, was a landmark in anthropology for its integrative approach to ethnography, the use of multiple media, and the collaborative role of Boas's indigenous partner George Hunt. Not only did the volume draw on existing museum collections from around the world, the two men also left behind a vast and now widely distributed archive of unpublished materials relevant to the creation and afterlife of this seminal text, including hundreds of pages of Hunt's corrections and emendations. This paper discusses an international and intercultural collaborative project to create a new, annotated critical edition of the book--in both print and digital formats--that unites published and unpublished materials with one another and with current Kwakwaka'wakw knowledge. We catalogue the range of museum collections and archival materials at issue and present an interactive prototype for the digital edition that re-embeds ethnographic knowledge within indigenous epistemological frameworks and hereditary protocols for access. This unprecedented effort within anthropology promises new ways of using digital media to link together disparate collections and Native communities in order to produce a critical historiography of the book while recuperating long dormant ethnographic materials for use in current and future cultural revitalization.

Taking chances without ignoring problems: ethnographic collections as testimonies of past relationships and as a starting point for producing shared future knowledge

Authors: Michael Kraus (University of Göttingen)  email
Andrea Scholz (Ethnological Museum Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

The paper presents two independently developed projects that will be linked in the future, where different partners work together on ethnographic objects from the South American lowlands. The common work provides a starting point for knowledge acquisition and new networks.

Long Abstract

Debates about ethnographic collections often focus on a museum's colonial heritage. As a result of heated discussions, scholars sometimes ignore the large number of objects which came into a museum legally. Existing acquisition documentation provides evidence not only of colonial violence and an outdated, dichotomous worldview, but also of peaceful meetings and multifaceted exchanges. It offers varied information about cultural practices, and at the same time reveals much about the scientific approaches and personalities of protagonists on both sides.

However, the objects are not only witnesses of historical contacts and scientific approaches, they also open up opportunities for new networks in the present. Museum collections lead to new forms of cooperation, in which representatives of a collection's community of origin take the role of research partners. Transregionally shared methods of knowledge production can enable all parties to explore past and present relationships, as well as negotiate their interests and ideas for future contact.

In our presentation, we firstly cover some historical facts about different collections from the South American lowlands which are now located at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. We then present two projects which were developed with indigenous partners from Venezuela and Colombia independently of each other. Finally, we outline our approaches on how this exchange will continue to link existing projects with one another. Thus, the collections are a starting point for knowledge acquisition, dialogue and new networks.

Colonial films in contemporary eyes

Author: Anna Seiderer (University Paris 8)  email

Short Abstract

The Royal Museum for Central Africa and the Cinémathèque royale de Begique conserves almost seven hundred colonial films. While their typology is quite diverse, they were all framed by the same ideological and political context which is rethought through contemporary artistic practices.

Long Abstract

The reality from which man draws his knowledge and the elements of his manipulation has been amplified not only by the development of analytical instruments; It has, increasingly, become itself a reality created by the manipulation of instrument.

(Maya Deren)

The Royal Museum for Central Africa and the Cinémathèque royale de Belgique conserves almost seven hundred films produced between 19011 and 1960. While their typology is quite diverse, they were all framed by the same ideological and political context of the Belgian colony of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Seeing these images today evokes tensions and conflicts which are important to confront for social and epistemological reasons. I propose to present the first steps of a research project in which contemporary artists and art students as well as art historians, historians, anthropologists and philosophers together address these images as a material through which the still troublesome colonial past might become transmissible through new practices and manipulations.

We'll analyze different gestures, crystalized in the images, and which constitute them (gestures of the filmmaker, of the objectified subjects, of the montage, of viewing and interpreting). The violence of these films is not so much in the representations themselves but in the uses of the medium and the power relationship which is still expressed by its institutional control. Working on and with the film medium through contemporary artistic practice enables us to "deframe" and rethink the construction of the past and to think its contemporary renegotiations and possibilities.

Linking museum and community-based archives in a postdigital world

Author: Katja Müller (Halle University)  email

Short Abstract

In India digital photo archives are used for encounters with historic legacies. Yet, museums need to engage with the communities driving these archives in a social media world, if they want to revive their collections and include them into the current cultural productions based on online archives.

Long Abstract

Among ethnographic museum collections are numerous photographic archives as visual traces of often colonial times. They are a material legacy, yet the focus is often on the images' content, which is a technical reproduction of a certain place and time. As such, anthropological archival photographs are predestined for second reproduction, which digital techniques allow for. In postethnographic times, when museums opt for encounters and transcultural co-operations, digitizing photographs and putting them online provides a very broad if not the broadest range for dissemination of cultural heritage. Online dissemination of anthropological photographs - and arguably of digitized artefacts as well - offers means of (re)appropriating heritage as a shared one.

Yet, my analysis of digital photo archives in Indian contexts - an area with a strong focus on and a long history of visuality - indicates that there are grave differences in numbers and ways museum-based and community-based photographic archives are used and received. In today's world where cultural production is strongly informed by social and digital media, museums can't afford to detach museum-based archives from those created online by other stakeholders. They rather need to rethink the still prevailing concepts of the aura of the (museumized) documents and artefacts in order to inform postdigital cultural production, which to an increasing extent engages with visual historic legacies.

"We owe a historical debt to no-one": the rehabilitation and mobilisation of photographic images from a museum collection by Kachin youth

Author: Helen Mears (University of Brighton)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the use of historical photographic images taken by a British colonial officer and amateur anthropologist, in a 2014 music video created by the Kachin artist Bawmwang Ja Raw ('Kaw Kaw'): Labau hte nga ai amyu ('a race with history').

Long Abstract

In a 2014 music video by Kachin artist Bawmwang Ja Raw ('Kaw Kaw') the singer appeals to the nationalist sentiment of her listeners, presumed to be Kachin youth. The video to the track 'Labau hte nga ai amyu' ('a race with history') includes footage of dancers in clothing inspired by traditional Kachin dress at a showground built for the largescale Kachin manau festival located in Mangshi, southern China, not far from Laiza on the Burma/China border, headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization. In making her claim for being a 'race' with 'history' the artist makes use of photographic images of Kachin people created in 1920s by a British colonial officer. These images, which appear in the video as a backdrop to the singer who performs in rap/hip-hop mode, were taken by James Henry Green, a recruiting officer for the Burma Rifles and an amateur anthropologist. His collection of 1400 images and 230 textile items are now in the care of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (UK).

Despite the layering of historical references in the video and the track itself, Bawmwang Ja Raw insists in the song's lyrics that 'labau hka kadai hpe mung nkap' ('we owe a historical debt to no-one'). This paper will explore how politically-engaged and educated Kachin youth living in diaspora are mobilising and rehabilitating cultural resources such as those held at Brighton Museum to visualise cosmo-optimal pasts and futures; futures based on political possibilities as yet unrealised.

“Object lessons” at the British Museum’s African Galleries

Author: Mischa Twitchin (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

How does the organisation of the British Museum’s African Galleries offer “object lessons” for considering the potentials and limitations of a cosmo-optimal re-visioning of its collections, addressing questions of agency and citizenship for the future?

Long Abstract

In 1881, Tylor proposed that what he called “object lessons in the development of culture” would help prepare students “to visit intelligently the British Museum Collection”. What are the possibilities of such “intelligent visiting” today, with respect to the display of artefacts that Neil MacGregor recently called “documents of Euro-African contact”? How does the organisation of the African Galleries offer “object lessons” for considering the potentials and limitations of a (so-called) “post-colonial” re-visioning of their collections? How does the distribution (or segregation) of what are separately identified as ethnographic, historical, and contemporary objects perhaps obscure a “cosmo-optimal” view there? How do such questions suggest alternative readings of what is now supposed to evidence “world culture”, rather than the museum’s own ethnographical history of display? Addressing what Gilroy calls “Britain’s racial conscience”, how might we see the “evidence” of this ethnographic legacy in cosmo-potential terms? How might transversal approaches to material claims of “British” possession fracture the supposed universalism of the Museum, founded upon others’ cultural dispossession? How does dialogue with diaspora communities become manifest through changed conceptions of these objects’ agency? Finally, what might be the implications of the Galleries’ dedication to Henry Moore for a possible re-visioning of the relations between ethnography and art, in which the “contemporary” is perhaps not as cosmo-optimal as the curators clearly wish? How might we envision the cosmo-optimal as a new mode of museum enchantment, renewing object lessons of “European” citizenship for the future?

Things matter: reengaging African objects at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)

Author: Silvia Forni (Royal Ontario Museum)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on a recent project that reflects on the colonial legacies of ethnographic collections and their potential for engagement. Objects are put at the center, to rethink in a collaborative fashion how historical collections may still be relevant to contemporary dialogues.

Long Abstract

This paper addresses some of the historical and recent developments of a troubled exhibtionary and relational history involving African objects, images, and communities in Toronto Canada. In 1989, "Into the Heart of Africa" an exhibition, meant to critically explore the colonial premises of museum collecting in Africa, generated harsh controversy which created a fracture between the African Canadian community and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Since then, large segments of this community have continued to feel estranged from the ROM in ways that have become visibly at odds with the museum's institutional rebranding as a "space that connect people to their world and to one another".

The presentation will discuss "Of Africa," a three year multiplatform initiative, initiated in 2014. In particular, I will focus on some recent work done to reconnect communities with the collection, interrogating the materials beyond scholarship. By moving the discussion from the conference room to the collection area we seek to interrogate the objects and their ability to function as community catalysts or connectors. Can collections built under very specific historical premises be effective communicators in today's complicated cultural landscape? What are the stories worth telling? What are the limits of the materials holdings of museums? And how can these be overcome to invent new spaces and opportunities of dialogue and exchange? While these are the driving questions of our project, the paper will report on the preliminary insights gained through the ongoing work with our community advisors.

Mobilizing objects: collaborative research practices in ethnographic collections

Authors: Margareta von Oswald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)  email
Verena Rodatus (Institute for Art History, Arts of Africa)  email
Romuald Tchibozo (University of Abomey-Calavi)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses how untapped objects can become tools for challenging and innovative collaborative research. We, three German and Benin scholars, captured different perspectives on a group of objects from Benin, and presented our research in a video-installation in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.

Long Abstract

There are approximately 75 000 objects in the Africa collection of Berlin's Ethnological Museum. The majority of the objects lie undisturbed in the museum's storage. Less than one percent, mainly "masterpieces", is accessible to the public in the museum's exhibition. How can those untapped objects, collected to be preserved for future generations, but not to collect dust, become accessible? Thinking of those collections as material traces of social histories, how can they become tools for contemporary forms of identification and research and be the point of departure to construct "cosmo-optimal" futures ? In 2014-2015, we took a group of objects from Benin as the starting-point for a collaborative research project. In Benin, these objects have become rare. To find out why this is the case we did research in Berlin and different locations in Benin. We documented the research in a 4-channel-video installation which captured different perspectives on the objects and was displayed together with the objects in the exhibition "Object Biographies" (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Mar 2015 - Oct 2015). We unraveled, first, issues linked to the past, laying open histories of European-African entanglement. Second, considering those historically unequal relationships, we discussed how they continue to affect the present. The research was shaped by issues of disparate access: to the collections, to knowledge, to funding. This led us, third, to reflect upon how in the future different formats of cooperative knowledge production on ethnographic collections, can be conceptualized and linked to institutional priorities and funding structures

Enlivening Australia ethnographic collections through exhibition: a catalyst for new national narratives

Author: Ian Coates (National Museum of Australia)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines an innovative mobilisation of the British Museum’s Australian ethnographic collections via the recent Encounters exhibition. The exhibition’s performative power created a new context for interpretation bridging cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.

Long Abstract

This paper examines an innovative mobilisation of Australian ethnographic collections via the recent Encounters exhibition in Canberra, Australia. During its development 150 ethnographic objects from the British Museum were brought into dialogue with 27 Indigenous source communities across Australia. This reconnection culminated in a major exhibition in the nation's capital - a locale where national narratives play out.

Resulting from a variety of collecting contexts, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians conceptually link these objects to a broader history of dispossession of Indigenous land by British settlers. These objects - removed from Australia to London, the centre of empire, have become emblems of that dispossession. For some, the return of these objects on loan - the first time they had been displayed in Australia - was a provocative act.

However the performative power of the exhibition created a new and complex context for their interpretation - one bridging cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.

The exhibition stressed connections between objects and source communities, privileging community views over authoritative curatorial voices.

For Indigenous participants, the exhibition became a powerful platform to interrupt broader public discourse. For many Australians the nation's colonial heritage is still to be recognized and acknowledged. Encounters created a 'safe' space in which non-Indigenous Australians were able to engage with this rarely articulated past.

In this case the 'cosmo-optimal future' is one acknowledging continuing impacts of the colonial moment in which these objects were initially acquired; an acknowledgement which is a catalyst for legacies continuing beyond the exhibition.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.