Museum Affordances: Collections, Interventions, Exhibitions
Location British Museum - Stevenson Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


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Short abstract

What do museums afford? What repertoires of action do they make possible? This panel explores the latent possibilities of collections, interventions and innovative exhibition practices, focusing on the material legacies of historical anthropological fieldwork and collecting in the present.

Long abstract

What do museums afford? What repertoires of action do they make possible? This panel explores the latent possibilities of collections, interventions and innovative exhibition practices, focusing on the material legacies of historical anthropological fieldwork and collecting in the present. The vast collections of objects, images and sound recordings from Africa, Oceania, America and Asia assembled during the colonial era remain a troubling presence in our cultural institutions. Increasingly museums are developing new ways of engaging with source communities and diasporic groups to facilitate intercultural dialogue, and yet the latent possibilities for action, understanding and meaning-making that ethnographic collections afford remains largely unexplored. Such affordances are relational and situational, and we are interested in exploring how possibilities for action change over time and become perceptible for differently-situated actors in different contexts. Many such possibilities may be regarded as 'hidden affordances' (Gaver 1991), and we are particularly interested in exploring the scope for interventions of different kinds to reveal and expand what these collections make possible. (Such interventions might include anthropological fieldwork, art practice, conservation, exhibition experiments, etc.) How, through exploiting innovative museological processes of intervention and exhibition-making, can the hidden capacities of historical objects, images and sounds be identified and actualised in the present?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Museum Affordances: Collections, Interventions, Exhibitions (Introduction)

Author: Paul Basu (SOAS) email

Short abstract

None provided.

Long abstract

None provided.

Tracing Fieldwork Experiences: The Material Legacy and Future Affordances of the M. A. Czaplicka and H. U. Hall Siberian Collections

Author: Jaanika Vider (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the affordances of ethnographic collections reimagined as 'traces of field experiences' for the history of anthropology and contemporary museum display.

Long abstract

In this paper I probe the potential museum collections have for reassembling and illuminating aspects of the history of anthropology. Drawing from recent studies in visual anthropology that emphasize the potential of 'presence' in the study of museum photographs (Edwards 2015, Morton and Geismar 2015, Pinney 2005) as 'a way of thinking experience back into the historical equation' (Edwards 2015: 242), I argue that museum objects as well as photographs speak beyond the evidence or representation they were intended to convey. Re-imagining ethnographic collections as traces of field experience allows to bring together different strands of anthropological legacies thus enabling the history of these collections to be understood as multidimensional and layered. Using the example of H.U. Hall and M.A. Czaplicka collections from the 1914-1915 Yenisei expeditions, I explore how this approach can build a more evocative understanding of fieldwork experiences.

I will further offer projections on how this approach may activate objects to reconcile different pasts, inform cultural revival or simply offer a platform for engagements with contemporary source communities. In particular, the notion that museum objects are not simply epistemic but through their presence can evoke multiple histories and ontologies is fertile ground for exploring how museums as public spaces can work within anthropology to produce and convey these histories and ontologies.

Viewing Landscape and Livelihoods: Some Ecological Affordances of Material Culture

Author: Stefanie Belharte email

Short abstract

Ethnographic collections, particularly when originating from subsistence economies, can provide a window onto human-environment relations. Here, I will specifically illustrate the embodiment of landscape and livelihoods in artefacts with an example from Papua New Guinea.

Long abstract

The holdings of ethnographic museums abound with objects produced in subsistence economies - that is, they would by and large have been made from craft materials sourced locally. Embodying local environments, they can serve as a lens through which to regard multiple dimensions of their makers' human-environment relations, ranging from subsistence practices to life worlds. Here, I specifically focus on land use, as manifested in landscape and livelihoods, and its change over time. For illustration, I rely on my own ethnographic collection and field research from the far northwest of Papua New Guinea. There, land use has revolved around small-scale swiddening since time immemorial. Yet the intensity of swiddening has shifted over the last few generations - from the sporadic cultivation of long-lived perennials coupled with extensive hunting and gathering around the time of contact, towards more intensive cropping of both annuals and perennials at the turn of the millennium. This shift can be traced in the artefact collection and its accompanying documentation. Overall, object types and craft materials associated with oldgrowth forest and the respective activities have lessened in their importance for daily life, while those associated with cultivation and regrowth have increased. This evidence confirms, corroborates, and details more general conclusions reached through long-term field research and archival study. It takes its potency from meticulous documentation; ethnobotanical interest; collection-driven elicitation; and the local desire to contribute heritage objects. Without such assets, existing collections might yet afford ecological insights, in particular through biological identification of the craft materials used.

Dialogues: An Ethno-Aesthetic Experiment in Exhibition-Making

Author: Christian Vium (Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

In this paper, I present and discuss my research-based exhibition 'Dialogues', which assembles material from my anthropological research project 'Temporal Dialogues'. I focus on the translation my research into an exhibition and the analytical affordances this has had on my ethnographic research.

Long abstract

Temporal Dialogues is a research-based audio-visual exhibition in three chapters, comprising material produced during experimental interventionist and co-creative visual anthropological fieldwork among indigenous peoples in Central Australia (2014), the Brazilian Amazon (2015) and Northern Siberia (2017). Each chapter revolves around its own specific theme, but is based on a consistent visual anthropological methodology developed particularly for this project.

In each field-site, I repatriate a careful selection of canonical archive photographs produced in the period between 1867 and 1912 to the locations where they were originally made. Together with descendants of the people photographed I conduct in-depth photo-elicitation conversations, which serve as 'allegorical' scripts for our subsequent collaborative photographic 're-enactments' of some of the archival photographs. This method opens up an affective and reflexive space for cultural critique, in which my informants literally perform themselves through an embodied dialogue with their ancestors across time and in space. By juxtaposing the archival images with our new co-created photographs and comparing these across three dispersed field-sites, interesting similarities and differences become apparent.

Excerpts from the project have been exhibited in galleries, public spaces and museums in Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Copenhagen, London, New York, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo among other places.

see www.christianvium.com for examples of my work

Remembering the String Figures of Yirrkala: Action, Intervention, Exhibition

Author: Robyn McKenzie (The Australian National University) email

Short abstract

As the record of bodily movement collections of string figures literally contain 'latent possibilities for action.' This paper considers the affordances of a museum collection made in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land as revealed through reconnection with its contemporary source community.

Long abstract

As the record of bodily movement historical museum collections of mounted string figures (patterns made on the hands with a loop of string also known as cat's cradles), literally contain 'latent possibilities for action.' In the Australian Museum in Sydney is a collection of nearly 200 mounted string figures collected in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land in 1948 by anthropologist Frederick McCarthy. My fieldwork experience reconnecting this museum collection with the contemporary Aboriginal community in Yirrkala provides a case study of the scope for interventions to realise the latent potential of collections. String figure making is no longer the ubiquitous everyday activity that it once was. I worked with a number of older women in the community remembering a repertoire of figures they used to know. After analysing the different modalities of action and interaction involved in the process of remembering for these women, in this paper I look at the way the production of a series of etchings using string figure designs fostered a 'remembering' of string figures as part of Yolngu cultural identity in the present, by the larger Yirrkala community and a broader audience. The process of the string figures 'becoming art' can be seen as situationally dependent on the history, experience and expertise of the institutional and individual actors involved. I conclude with the general argument that the so-called 'hidden affordances' of collections, as exemplified here, is wholly in keeping with the future purpose envisioned for collections in the Museum Tradition of anthropology.

Embodying Heritage: Temporary Assemblages, Ephemeral Artworks and Transient Communities

Author: Orly Orbach (Goldsmiths ) email

Short abstract

Working collaboratively with diasporic communities and other displaced minority groups in response to museum collections, my art practice employs a range of tactile and sensorial materials to explore the idea of embodied heritage, and the museum as a liminal site for temporary communities.

Long abstract

Working collaboratively with museums, diasporic communities and the wider public, I employ a range of participatory processes, sensorial methods and materials to interrogate museum collections and enable new connections to emerge between artefacts and audiences.

Much of my work uses processes through which participants make images come into view, and are also responsible for their destruction. The temporal interventions, transient communities and ephemeral artworks that are created through these processes illustrate a different approach to visualising artefacts and stories, where heritage making is a tactile and embodied encounter, a personal and social experience.

The interventions are ambiguous since they are created in response to a museum collection and yet set against it, as the temporary nature of the work questions the idea of preservation that is so central to museum sensibilities and the detached curatorial methods in which artefacts are conceptualized as separated from the bodies of museum visitors.

These participatory and collaborative approaches to exhibition making turn museum audiences into the makers, producers or editors of the work, deciding how to piece things together, to find personal connections with material, and to embody and consume knowledge sometimes in quite literal ways, by wearing, rubbing, baking or digesting the display.

Processes include biscuit-making workshops such as 'eat your own identity card' at the Jewish Museum, London, 'edible histories' created for Refugee Week UK and exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood and a range of printmaking, stamping and image-making techniques including themed temporary tattoo station.

Making Pain Visible: Artist Kader Attia's Exploration of Colonial Pain in Ethnographic Collections

Author: Anna Vestergaard Jørgensen (Statens Museum for Kunst) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses how works by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia (b. 1970) can make colonial pain visible and tangible in ethnographic collections.

Long abstract

European museums are institutions that in a complex way are both part of larger societal structures of experience economy and the idea of the good life - and at the same time can and do work with the discomforting. That is, the things we do not expect the things and stories that queer and twist our perception of society, make us uneasy. The main focus of this paper is the entanglement between colonial history and ethnographic collections, asking: How can colonial pain be made visible and tangible in ethnographic collections?

The paper will explore these questions through works of French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, who often works with ethnographic collections and objects in his practice. In works such as Dispossession (2013) and The Repair (2012), Attia suggests how aesthetic and affective connections can be made between historic colonialism; it's physical and emotional pain, and contemporary times. With a starting point in works by Attia, this paper argues that aesthetic practices can be used to open towards the affect of ethnographic objects and collections - something that might otherwise remain "hidden" in these objects. The paper thus asks: How can works by artists such as Attia make pain visible in ethnographic collections? What kinds of pain is it? And how might we think differently about museums in general if they are conceived of as places of discomfort and pain, rather than places of happiness?

The Ethnographic Exhibition as Playful Productiveness: Engaging Arts, Crafts and 'Folk' in East Asian Object Collections

Author: Martin Petersen (National Museum of Denmark) email

Short abstract

Historically, the East Asian ethnographic collections in the National Museum of Denmark have predominantly been constituted through 'arts and craft' and 'Folk' focuses. What repertoires of action are enabled hereby? How can the museum engage with source communities and diasporic groups around these?

Long abstract

Colonial relations, large-scale scientific expeditions and anthropological fieldworks are central underpinnings to the formation of the ethnographic museum. Within this framework, the East Asian collections in the National Museum of Denmark are also significantly constituted through 'arts and craft' and 'Folk' focuses by non-professional collectors. What repertoires of action are enabled hereby? How can the museum engage with source communities and diasporic groups around these historical collections today?

Approaching these questions, the paper surveys recent exhibiting practices in the National Museum of Denmark: first, an ethnographic fieldwork on craftsmen in South Korean shamanism which conceptualized historical, ethnographic objects as 'collecting devices'. The ethnographic object and its biography was here employed as a means to initiate, conduct and collect dialogues - here concretely identifying productive creativity arising from craftsmen's encounters with historical objects. In this manner the ethnographic exhibition was divested of its fixed spatial connotations inside a Western metropolitan, postcolonial museum.

Secondly, in a temporary exhibition centred on Japanese hand-painted photographs from the 1890s, these hyper-aestheticized dream world portrayals of 'Folk types' was employed to enable visitors to playfully and productively immerse in the spectacle of Japanese dreamscapes as photographic objects themselves.

Reflecting on these exhibiting practices within the broader context of the Western metropolitan, post-colonial museum with all its actors, the paper argues that the East Asian object collections enable certain repertoires of action in which source communities and diasporic groups are addressed neither as privileged actors nor as represented subjects but as playfully and creatively productive actors.

Working with Contingencies in the Museum Storeroom: An Experimental Exhibition Project in an Ethnographical Collection

Author: Karin Kaufmann (Museum der Kulturen Basel) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses possible insights from an experimental exhibition project in an ethnographical collection. It explores the epistemic potential of working with contingencies and unpredictability, made possible by the distinctive features of the storeroom and through public participation.

Long abstract

For its anniversary exhibition (opening in September 2018) the Museum der Kulturen Basel invites different groups of people from the public to choose the exhibition objects out of the museum storerooms. The participants are asked to make their choices based on personal taste and on the sensory effect of the objects.

Visible ethnographical storage is at the root of a reflexive museum practice. The storeroom in curatorial practices today often stands for a non-curated space, not patronizing the visitor by showing the objects free from authoritative interpretations. Because it does not assign a visual hierarchy, it should allow for a sensory point of entry into the objects which creates openness for new interpretations and meaning-making.

I believe there lies a creative potential in the "equalizing" quality of the storeroom and in the possibility to happen upon things.

Therefore, I find it helpful to think of the storeroom "as method" (Thomas Thiemeyer 2017) following Nicholas Thomas' (2010) conceptualization of "the museum as method". Thomas emphasizes the epistemic potential of the direct work with museum objects, which includes making "discoveries". "Finding things that were not lost" may destabilize classifications because they just do not fit into existing categorizations. Thomas pleads for making theoretical use of such contingencies. Paying close attention to the objects unique qualities and histories may challenge scholarly understandings of what things are and what they represent.

In this paper, I will discuss the potency of working with contingency and unpredictability for this exhibition project, which I assume are made possible by the distinctive features of the storeroom.

The Gods are (sort of) Returning: Experimenting Exhibition-Making

Author: Ulrik Johnsen (Aarhus University) email

Short abstract

What is the value of ethnographic museum artifacts? What is the value for the museum? And what is the (potential) value in the 'originating communities'? A Danish PhD project seeks the answers through an experimenting exhibition approach, which tries to bring old gods back to their place of birth.

Long abstract

Through a collection of objects collected in Nepal in the late 1950s, a Danish PhD student is reassessing the value(s) of an ethnographic collection. The project is carried out in collaboration with Nepalese MA students at the Lumbini Buddhist University, and the outcome is an exhibition, planned to open in Nepal in January 2018. It will visit 5 local communities, and the group behind the exhibition will seek a dialogue with the members of the communities.

Central to the definition of an experiment is that you don't know what the outcome is. It may fail. In that sense the project has already taken many turns and twists, as the reality of contemporary Nepal is continously 'talking back'. In the many gaps that the so-called 'failures' open, interesting data are hiding - about heritage, the role(s) of museum, about cultural continuity and change, and about the potential (risk) of collections in Western Museums.

So - are the gods (in the form of religious objects) welcome back, where they were once powerful? Do they want to return at all? What is the value of a museum collection - collected 60 years ago - in contemporary Nepal? And how does an experimenting approach to exhibition making open up for an understanding of heritage, culture, religion, continuity and change today - if it does at all?

Turning the Table: Exploring Affordances in German Expressionism

Authors: Dorthe Aagesen (Statens Museum for Kunst) email
Mette Rung (National Gallery of Denmark) email
Beatrice von Bormann (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) email

Short abstract

Focusing on the practice of German artists Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and their reception of non-Western cultures in the early 20th century, this presentation will, through the concept of affordance, explore the possibilities of 'returning the gaze' within contemporary exhibition display.

Long abstract

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 'discovery' of the ethnographic museum in Dresden around 1910 and Emil Nolde's expedition to the South Pacific in 1913-14 are significant moments in the history of how non-Western cultures came to occupy German Expressionist artists associated with Die Bruecke. For Kirchner and Nolde non-Western cultures became a stimulating source of both conceptual and formal significance to their artistic projects and a cornerstone for their subsequent developments. However, what 'hidden affordances' and new 'action possibilities' do Nolde and Kirchner's artworks invite? How do these works afford the possibility of interrogating the colonial relations implicit in the encounter between the artist and non-Western cultures. While we know a lot about the two European artists, we know almost nothing about the artists or artisans who made the ethnographic objects they studied. When it comes to indigenous performative practices that the European artists may have met - at colonial exhibitions or 'Volkerschauen' in Europe or during travels to colonial regions - we know even less. How can we work with, expose and explore these affordances in today's museum practice? Is it possible to implement them in an exhibition display, when dealing with historical periods and poorly documented situations? And how can we do that while retaining precision and depth in the historical analysis? This presentation will outline considerations and possible curatorial solutions that are currently being explored by the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) in Copenhagen and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam ahead of an exhibition at both venues in 2020-21.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.