Exhibiting Anthropology beyond Museum Collections
Location SOAS Senate House - S108
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 11:30
Sessions 2


  • Inge Maria Daniels (University of Oxford) email
  • Gabriela Nicolescu (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Adam Drazin (University College London)

Short abstract

This panel discusses examples and techniques for exhibiting contemporary anthropological research without drawing on museum collections. The aim is to explore the huge potential of exhibitions to engage the general public in current debates and have an impact on policy making.

Long abstract

This panel explores how contemporary research in anthropology may not only be shared more efficiently with the general public but also influence policy makers through exhibition making. It aims to demonstrate that exhibitions are not only tools for disseminating information but also vehicles to fine-tune research and a potential source for future action and change.

The ongoing emphasis placed on 'ethnographic objects' in museum collections has limited anthropologists in their experimentation with the exhibition format. In this panel we aim to show that by freeing objects from collections or using objects absent in current stores, thereby breaking with conservative methods of care, curation and display, anthropologists may transform exhibitions into complex multi-dimensional spaces that encourage visitors to engage in debates about issues that matter to them. These kinds of exhibitions thus also resemble democratic forums that may entice a variety of stakeholders including policy makers to bring about real change.

We encourage papers that focus on how the everyday material world 'encountered' during fieldwork might be creatively brought to live in exhibition spaces while encouraging visitors' participation. One way to do this could be through experimentation with how the multi-sensory aspect of space might be used more efficiently, but a focus on stories is another way in which one can evoke lived, embodied experience. We are particularly interested in exhibitions that explore contemporary topics such as political ideology, migration, feeling at home, ageing, poverty, social and health care, infrastructure and climate change.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Processing Common Ground: Exhibitions and the Greenlandic Mining Complex

Authors: Nathalia Brichet (University of Aarhus) email
Frida Hastrup (University of Copenhagen) email

Short abstract

In this paper, we explore collection-cum-exhibition-making as a mode of anthropological knowledge production. We argue that exhibition is not just a popularized form of dissemination rather, it is a productive practice and an opportunity to ask new questions and for discussing what world we want.

Long abstract

In this paper, we explore exhibition-making as a mode of anthropological knowledge production. On the basis of ongoing research in the volatile mining industry in Greenland, which includes collection of objects during fieldwork, we argue that exhibition work can be a highly complex and shared analytical endeavor. It invites both fieldwork interlocutors and museum visitors to think along and process common concerns. As such, exhibition is not just a popularized form of dissemination - a reduction of data in simpler format than the research article - rather, it is a productive practice and an opportunity to ask new questions and for discussing what world we want.

One of the ways to materialize this potential, we suggest, is by creatively probing for, using and re-working (cutting, gluing, combining…) fieldwork items and displaying them in suggestive ways that make a set propositions. This process entails several steps, including discussing with others during fieldwork about what objects to exhibit and why, creating what we think of analytical-artistic figures through anthropological analysis and practical processing of collected items, and displaying these in sufficiently undogmatic ways so as to invite exhibition visitors to be intrigued and reflect. In our work, often touching upon environmentally problematic issues, such reflection is key.

In the talk, we will exemplify some of these moves in order to argue that fieldwork and collecting practices alike are truly generative activities where subjects and objects come into being through encounters, whereby all involved may be moved and transformed.

Museum-making in Filipino Migration

Authors: Deirdre McKay (Keele University) email
Gabriela Nicolescu (Goldsmiths, University of London) email
Mark Johnson (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

Short abstract

Curating Development uses 'museum as method' to explore the lives of migrant care workers in a participatory exhibition-making process. Working beyond the museum, we explores how curatorial strategies sustain migrants, advance public understanding of migration issues, and support NGO advocacy.

Long abstract

'Curating Development' works with migrants from the Philippines, largely female, doing care work in London and Hong Kong (www.curatingdevelopment.com). It culminated in an exhibition that reversed the typical museum practice of displaying artefacts and artworks from existing collections (Thomas, 2010). Instead, project participants shared their own store of social media images, sentimental objects carried with them, and gifts to be sent home to family. They made these into art, accompanied by video installations and drawings from collaborating fine artists, intended for public display as a single collection and archive - their own museum of migration. With this approach, we extended Andre Malraux' work on Museum without Walls/Musée Imaginaire (1965), taking the work beyond the museum's walls. Our exhibition enters migrant's private spaces, their dreams, their contributions to family and country. Rather than using our archive as a store, their creating, curating and displaying from within it became a way to make hidden things public and foster debate.

Our analysis evaluates the outcomes of this exhibition-making process for participants. For them, and for the wider Filipino community, our curatorial methodology gestured towards new ways of visualising migration and thus approaching migration policy and regulation. We show how this happened - through the making-public of what was usually hidden, private and individual. In breaking the museum's walls, the collaborative arts process shifted migrants' understandings not just of their role in development in the Philippines, but of the collective impacts of their practices of investment and self-care.

Getting (Un)Comfortable with(out) Things

Author: Christy DeLair (Colgate University) email

Short abstract

Focusing on the exhibition Unsettled Conditions: How We Talk about the Environment and Our Place in It, this paper explores the challenges — and opportunities — of creating exhibitions around contemporary social issues and anthropological theories in a small academic museum with limited collections.

Long abstract

Focusing on the exhibition Unsettled Conditions: How We Talk about the Environment and Our Place in It, this paper explores the challenges ¬— and opportunities — of creating exhibitions around contemporary social issues and anthropological theories in a small academic museum with limited collections. The Longyear Museum of Anthropology at Colgate University, while rich in local archaeological materials representing Haudenosaunee communities and eclectic collections from around the world, lacks associated archival records or ethnological notes and has not continued to develop in the direction of current faculty research or teaching interests. Curatorial staff, noticing a deep disconnect between the anthropology museum and anthropology faculty, sought to reconnect the museum to contemporary anthropological discussions, to inspire visitors to think critically about material culture in their own lives, and to provide a space for community members to think through current issues. With the aim of being more responsive to current issues, museum staff and student curators decided to create an exhibition on environmental degradation and climate change using a combination of collections, media, dynamic interactives, and community stories and objects. This paper explores the difficulties and decisions in curating an exhibition on current issues with limited collections materials, the process of collecting stories and objects from community members, and reflects on the responses from visitors to the experimental format.

Exhibiting Nodes of transnational Mobility and Migration: Mobile Research, developing relational tools and assemblages of art works

Author: Michael Zinganel (Tracing Spaces) email

Short abstract

Investigating the effects of the transformation of road-side infrastructures we developed strategies of embodied mobile experience, applied relational tools, produced our own assemblages of artifacts and established a continual rhythm of research, dissemination, and re-evaluation.

Long abstract

In a project, investigating the recent effects of the transformation of major pan-European road corridors, connecting the former East and West of Europe, we choose to drive the entire triangle between Vienna, Tallinn and the Bulgarian-Turkish border several times with a van. At places where the flow stops, we applied live mapping as a relational technique to gain information from mobile experts from a wide range of mobilities: from shipping to (forced) migration. We produced and exhibited graphic representations and other items collected on tour at selected social condensers, to trigger further feedback from people encountering these installations: e.g. at the canteen of a logistic company in Sofia, at the exit of a ferry-boat terminal in Tallinn, or during a guided bus tour to the Austrian-Hungarian border station.

Intending to privilege narratives from a variety of individuals' experience we augmented maps with graphic novels and audio tracks, included "objects trouvés" and works by other artists, that we transported to and collected at our a stationary lab in Vienna: This led to a continual rhythm of research, dissemination, and re-evaluation taking place almost simultaneously, which effected methods of research and representation, and the concept of the final exhibition in Vienna: walking from room to room, from North to South and back, like we drove during our trips, through an assemblage of research findings, reference works and artistic representations, representing the many shades of grey we encountered during our tours.


Exhibiting echoes, shreds and shadows

Author: Yann Laville (Musée d'ethnographie de Neuchâtel) email

Short abstract

This paper presents how the Ethnographic museum of Neuchatel deals with conceptual topics, research and innovative scenography without overlooking its more "classic" collections

Long abstract

Since the 1980s, the Ethnographic museum of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) has grown famous for developing exhibitions on contemporary, transcultural and often conceptual issues.

In all these cases, connections with scholars and researchers from outside of the museum have been particularly important and fruitful. In all these cases, topics have led to question standard museum collections and to develop new acquisition policies aiming at documenting the present time. In all these cases, specific, theatrical displays have been invented in order to serve the content, to make the visit more thrilling and to escape the mere logic of contemplation (windows, hangings).

It must however be stressed that the classic, ethnographic part of the collections was never forgotten along the way. It has been constantly reexamined, reinterpreted and mobilized in accordance with the new projects. To a large extent, knowledge about ancient objects has helped to shape, validate, broaden or put in perspective thinking about present issues.

In this paper, I will present some examples of this dialectical process in relationship to recent exhibition projects. I will notably focus on our threefold project on Intangible cultural heritage which tackled the issue though the metaphors of echoes, shreds and shadows.

This trilogy is particularly relevant in this panel as it belonged to national research project.

If time allows me, I will also say a few words on our latest project L'impermanence des choses (the impermanence of all things) which questions the very notion of a "permanent" exhibition and shows how ancient objects may be involved in a constant process of reinterpretation and questioning.

'I felt I could step through the photograph' - Photography, Exhibition Design and Atmosphere

Author: Inge Maria Daniels (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

Through an ethnographic study of the processes involved in the making as well as the reception of one particular exhibition experiment, this paper will explore the possibilities of exhibitions to generate understanding of academic research by experimenting with the evocative potential of space.

Long abstract

Through an ethnographic study of the processes involved in the making as well as the reception of one particular exhibition experiment, this paper will explore the still largely unexplored possibilities of exhibitions to generate understanding of academic research by experimenting with the evocative potential of space. Its larger aim is to challenge the supposed distinction between entertainment and education that many museums try to uphold and re-evaluate imaginative play as a form of knowing.

The exhibition concerned, entitled 'At Home in Japan - Beyond the Minimal House', that I co-curated with the professional photographer Sue Andrews, was held from March until August 2011 at the Geffrye Museum, a historical museum of the home in East London. Drawing inspiration from historical examples of experimental uses of life-size photos in exhibitions as well as contemporary immersive installations that successfully evoke atmosphere, I will discuss a number of innovative visual and spatial techniques that we used to produce 'spatial hapticity'. Throughout the paper I will also draw on evidence from our visitors' study to demonstrate how the photography that we employed had a visceral effect on visitors by encouraging 'embodied viewing'. Moreover, by allowing visitors to use their own cameras many were enticed to engage in mimetic play, and I hope to show that by tapping into their imagination these visitors may be thrown into a new conception of their lived and imagined worlds.

Escaping Walls: Exhibiting Migrant Everydayness in Anti-Immigrant Arizona

Author: Kristin Koptiuch (Arizona State University) email

Short abstract

Just as migrants escape border walls, "Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix" escapes the confines of classroom, museum, minoritized city spaces. Materialized as an exhibition, this ethnographic collaborative engages viewers with vibrant visualization of immigrants' everyday imprint on Phoenix's cityscape.

Long abstract

Just as migrants escape border walls, "Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix," a student-faculty ethnographic collaborative I direct, escapes the confines of classroom, museum, minoritized city spaces. Materialized as an exhibition, this project engages viewers with vibrant visualization of immigrants' everyday imprint on Phoenix's cityscape. Flying below the radar of official planning instruments and public acknowledgement in anti-immigrant Arizona, migrants have nonetheless transformed our collective urban environment (20% of Phoenix is foreign born, 65% from Mexico). Ethnographic documentation brings everyday themes (migrant portraits, artifacts, events, neighborhoods, businesses, landscapes) to community attention at a time when immigrants are increasingly demonized, criminalized, denied due process, citizenship, human rights: Migrants revive stagnant neighborhood economies emptied by urban sprawl's centrifugal pull. They bring vivid, magical-realist redesign, adding colorful cultural flair to the city's subdued design palette. Migrants turn iconic fast-food joints into taquerias, defunct mall anchor department stores into swap-meet mercados, their children into made-Americans. Migrant planners-from-below transnationalize Phoenix urbanism with local outcroppings of global religions, cuisines, cultures. Their insurgent urbanism supersedes Phoenix boosters' defensive vision of sundrenched, monocultural uniformity, embracing a complex transnational urban future. Anchored by enlarged and projected photos accompanied by short evocative accounts, our exhibit integrates video shorts, sonic atmospherics, website projection, researcher storytelling, and interactive portraits for viewers to affirm solidarity with migrants. Displaying artful photographic ethnographics offers diverse audiences a visually rich (en)counter-narrative to open fresh outlooks for envisioning collective urban futures that embrace the transformative, potentially subversive power of the city's defacto diasporic remaking. www.VisualizingImmigrantPhoenix.com

Embodying the artefacts - participatory exhibition methods as museum curation

Author: Orly Orbach (Goldsmiths ) email

Short abstract

Working with themes of migration and displacement, I employ a range of tactile techniques and participatory processes to allow visitors to re-attach meaning to museum artefacts and collections through embodied means, enabling museum-audience to personally connect with archives and histories.

Long abstract

My participatory museum interventions employs tactile, sensorial and embodied methods to materialise histories with the help of different publics. My work asks of museum visitors to invest their energy and emotion in the process of uncovering lost histories, or stories rarely told. Working collaboratively with diasporic communities and migrant groups has made me experiment with participatory processes of materialising stories.

Museums today are keen on public participation and experiential learning. Museum education is necessarily physical, bodies are seen as "potent resources for learning" (Hooper-Greenhill 2007). The artefacts in museums, however, remain detached from visitors. According to Kreps, this is because scientific methods of museum curation detach objects from social life in order to make them "ethnographic" (Kreps 2003). In contrast to the detached, 'scientific' method that prioritises the conservation of artefacts, I suggest that certain histories, especially difficult or painful histories, should not be transmitted in detached and objective ways, but that for ethical, as well as practical reasons, should be deeply rooted in personal experience, and communicated through embodied means.

In my work, I reverse the detached process of curation, by making museum exhibits through social interaction, employing collaborative exhibition-making methods that are also improvised events, moments of discovery, theatrical spectacles and personal engagement with histories.

Projects include 'Eat Your Own Identity Card' at the Jewish Museum, 'Edible Histories' at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood, and 'The Collaborative Diary' commissioned by the Anne Frank Trust.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.