The Future of Anthropological Representation: Contemporary Art and/in the Ethnographic Museum
Location British Museum - Sackler B
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Jonas Tinius (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email
  • Margareta von Oswald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

Interactions between ethnographic museums and contemporary art have been contentious - appropriative and short-lived for some, a creative and necessary way forward for others. This panel investigates the manifold possibilities, histories, and possible futures of this relation.

Long abstract

Ethnographic museums are no longer mere repositories of anthropological knowledge and ethnographic items, but are opening up as relational research sites. Museums around the world open their stores for (artistic) research collaborations, working towards a relational museum that itself becomes a fieldsite. At the same time, the contemporary art world has appropriated and worked with theories, discourses, and methods formerly associated with anthropological research. Encapsulated in Hal Foster's seminal article on the artist as ethnographer, artistic interest in alterity, indigeneity, and decolonisation has taken centre stage at the biggest contemporary art exhibitions, from documenta to the Venice Biennale. This panel investigates which possible other futures of this relation between ethnographic museums (and their collections) and contemporary art are imaginable, and which histories or traditions of this exchange have preceded the present situation.

We welcome papers, from artistic, anthropological, and/or curatorial perspectives, that may address the following themes: comparative and/or historical case studies of exemplary exhibitions, studies of collaborations between ethnographic museums and artists beyond exhibitions, critical examinations of the role of indigeneity, identity, and cultural appropriation in artistic engagement with ethnographic museums, the role(s) of the curator as mediator, analyses of prevalent theoretical concepts (alterity, 'the ethnographic', Global South, world cultures, decolonisation). We also wish to reflect on pioneering projects investigating this relationship anthropologically, such as the TRACES project or the Humboldt Lab in Berlin.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Modernity and tradition in the representations of Brazil at Magiciens de La Terre

Author: Amelia Correa (University of Copenhagen ) email

Short abstract

This presentation will look upon the Brazilian delegation selected by the curators of the legendary exhibition Magicien de la Terre that took place in Paris in 1989 and reflect upon the representations and meanings of their ethnographic and contemporary works that were on display.

Long abstract

Much has been written about the legendary exhibition Magicien de la Terre that took place in Paris in 1989, blowing the boundaries between art and artifacts and bringing together artists from all over the world. It has received a lot of criticism for exoticising non-western artists, but was also referenced as marking the beginning of a 'global art' era. This presentation will look at the Brazilian delegation selected by the curators and reflect upon the representations and meanings of their works that were on display. The exhibition was composed by artworks classified by the curator as being either magic or contemporary, division that in most cases corresponded respectively to non-westerns and westerns producers. Two of the three Brazilians selected were showing "ethnographic" works: Mestre Didi, from Salvador, presented elements associated with the orishas and candomblé. Besides being an artist, he was also a religious authority. Ronaldo Pereira Rego also showed works representing the Afro-Brazilian religion. The third was the conceptual artist Cildo Meireles, with an installation that thematized the extermination of indigenous populations by European missionaries. This presentation will explore how the selection of the Brazilians combined an exoticized view of the country with a contradictory critique of colonialism, made possible by the selection of ethnographic and contemporary artworks. In that way, Brazil was depicted as combining tradition and modernity, under the thematic umbrella of religion.

Appropriation or Possibility? Museum Ethnography at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Postwar London.

Author: Lisa Newby email

Short abstract

Debates at the ICA about the relevance of museum ethnography for contemporary artists generated conflicting responses in postwar London. Focusing on appropriation, this paper explores how past relationships between ethnography museums and contemporary art impact exchanges in the present.

Long abstract

The interdisciplinary debates that took place at the ICA in London about the relevance of museum ethnography for practicing artists were lively from the outset. This paper will introduce the diverse ways that the notion of cultural appropriation was interpreted by artists and anthropologists at the ICA in the postwar period and the impact that this had on its programme of experimental exhibitions. These debates nurtured a longstanding relationship between the ICA, the British Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute from the late 1940s until the 1970s. This relationship was consistently marked by differences of opinion about art, materiality and representation. In turn, exhibitions at the ICA were experienced in different ways. By the 1970s the debate became increasingly fragmented as artists began to ask different kinds of questions about cultural appropriation and the relevance of museum ethnography.

This paper will examine the influential role that these historical exchanges have played in shaping the different agendas and expectations at stake in interactions between ethnography museums and contemporary art in the present. In particular, how can these histories inform a more rigorous, interdisciplinary account of the dynamics of cultural appropriation in contemporary projects?

The Scattered Colonial Body in the Heart of Rome: Serendipity, Process and Contested

Author: Arnd Schneider (University of Oslo) email

Short abstract

This paper addresses serendipity, process and relationality in a recent research and exhibition project (as part of TRACES www.tracesproject.eu /EU Horizon 2020) which investigated collections of the former African Colonial Museum now in storage in the Museo delle Civiltà), and other museums.

Long abstract

This paper addresses serendipity, process and relationality in a recent research and exhibition project (as part of TRACES www.tracesproject.eu /EU Horizon 2020), where Arnd Schneider together with artist Leone Contini investigated collections of the former Italian Institute of Africa and the Orient / African Colonial Museum. These collections are now in storage in the National Museum of Ethnography L. Pigorini (Museo delle Civiltà), and other institutions in Rome - still inaccessible to the public; and equivalent to a 'Scattered Colonial Body'. Schneider & Contini's fieldwork also included interviews with former settlers of Libya (a former Italian colony), and the critical artistic representation of family memories and practices (e.g. food) against a more general background of amnesia around this period in Italian society. A central focus of the exhibition (in June /July 2017) were the facial plaster masks, executed during expeditions by Italian anthropologists to Libya, in the 1920s and 1930s, often with an agenda of scientific racism. In a series of performances, and installation devices these masks were critically examined, constructed and reconstructed in the exhibition, and like other elements of research and exhibition open up the discussion of this kind of contested, indeed neglected heritage and museum institutions in today's post-colonial context in Italy and beyond.

Humboldt Lab Tanzania - Curating Research for Creative Practice through "ethnographic" objects

Authors: Lili Reyels (Associated via "Humboldt Lab Tanzania" with Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz) email
Sarita Lydia Mamseri email
Paola Ivanov (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin) email
Kristin Weber-Sinn (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin) email

Short abstract

The paper investigates best practices of artistic research from the perspectives of "Humboldt Lab Tanzania's" curatorial and artistic team. The focus being objects stored in Ethnologisches Museum (Berlin) violently obtained by German colonial authorities on the territory of modern-day Tanzania.

Long abstract

Humboldt Lab Tanzania has been a multi-disciplinary Tanzanian-German project placing at its centre objects within the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, that are connected with the wars waged by the German colonial authorities on the territory of modern-day Tanzania.

In this paper we investigate best practices and experiences, results, missed opportunities and challenges of the contemporary artistic research and artistic production within the process of Humboldt Lab Tanzania. In doing so, we take into account artistic, curatorial, historical, ethnographical, political and museological aspects which have been experienced during the project.

Navigating the visible and not so visible issues of contention regarding "ethnographic" objects through artistic research and practice was explored by four contemporary Tanzanian artists and the curatorial team of Humboldt Lab Tanzania. The highly problematic and on-going quasi-political and socio-historical issues and discussions of this project are up for discussion in this proposed paper - as is the reviewing and contextualizing of the travelling exhibition, Living Inside the Story in the Tanzanian-German context, which completed the artistic practice.

The information about the objects - generated from the colonial archives and the Ethnologisches Museum - had been placed at the disposal of the project. Therefore, these attributed provenances made from the colonial period were starting points for examining these object biographies and of bringing them into the present - thus undermining a purely colonial perspective and, it is argued here, to a certain extent helping to decentralise them via creative practice through "ethnographic" objects.

Exhibiting the non-European through Art

Author: Vibe Nielsen (University of Copenhagen) email

Short abstract

Through examples from recent exhibitions dealing with South African art held in the UK and South Africa this paper discusses the dilemmas involved in exhibiting the non-European through art.

Long abstract

The inclusive way of perceiving art, which has dominated the museum world in the last few decades, seems more applicable when museums are exhibiting non-European objects. The relationship between contemporary art and ethnography thus emphasise a dilemma for the post-colonial museum: By including contemporary art in displays of non-European objects, but not in displays of European or Western objects, museums run the risk of continuing a long tradition of exoticisation and Euro-centrism. In light of this, I will discuss how categorisation practices in the museum world still tend to distinguish between art, ethnography and social historical objects, when the objects come from Europe or North America, but to a lesser extent when the objects come from elsewhere. I will base my discussion on recent fieldwork conducted in the South Africa - Art of a Nation (2016-2017) exhibition at the British Museum and the private Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, where contemporary art and so-called ethnographic objects (musical instruments, hunting tools, etc.) were exhibited alongside each other in the Air; Inspiration - Expiration (2016) exhibition, while objects of European ethnographic descent have been left out.

Collaboration between Culinary arts and Ethnography in India

Author: Pratyaksha Rajawat email

Short abstract

Food is the utmost undervalued form of artistic expression in the history of art. Today it has found its place in crowds of contemporary art world. This research paper focuses on the current collaborations between culinary arts, Indian museums, artists and ethnography in India.

Long abstract

Food and art are not separate crafts but instead an extension of each other. Culinary experience can touch upon the purest human emotions bringing their admirers on a journey of exploration and interpretations just like paintings. This research is an analysis of four such examples; A culinary experience at National Crafts Museum, New Delhi (India's prominent ethnographic museum), Café Lota is a quaint and artsy café that offers a contemporary take on regional Indian dishes consisting seasonal vegetables and fruits as per the Indian cultural and health beliefs. Subodh Gupta, a renowned Indian Contemporary artist works around the rituals and symbolism of preparation, presentation, and consumption of food. What's Cooking at Basel? An Indian Feast by Subodh Gupta (2017) is perfect example of an artist work inspired by ethnography where he served typical Indian meals. The Coconut Story: Serendipity Art Festival, Goa, 2017 celebrated the spirit of the versatile coconut, an essential ingredient to coastal cuisines. A selection of Goan chefs and establishments created signature dishes and showcased range of indigenous Goan cuisines. Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan, an Indian video series takes viewers into the world of Indian cuisine. It explores the history behind the cuisine of the Indian ethnic groups in different parts of India, showing discovery of dishes and their significance in Indian history. By analyzing these examples from my country, this paper argues & aims for widespread sustained interest in both collaborations and interaction between culinary art, ethnography and contemporary art world.

Strangers in the Night

Authors: Maarin Ektermann email
Mary-Ann Talvistu email

Short abstract

The project "Artist in Collections" brings into dialogue ten contemporary artists and ten small-scale heritage museums in Estonia. The two fields that have been operating in parallel manner will meet first time on such scale, set in the context of celebrating hundred years of Republic of Estonia.

Long abstract

Long-term project (2017-2019) that we are presenting, sends artists to residencies to museums, where they will research exhibitions, collections, get to know staff members and observe how the museum positions itself in the local community. The artist will then execute a temporary intervention to museum's permanent exhibition, accompanied by public programs in artist's presence.

This project is mostly financed by the 100th anniversary celebrations of Estonia, which will give certain credibility to the experimental approach to the museums. Although we as the organizers will, content-wise, be given total freedom, we will nevertheless have to position ourselves in the framework of the official call of the celebrations - that of "giving gifts" to your country. Gifts function in a myriad of ways - pragmatic Estonians tend to say "give someone fishhook, not a fish". We hope that with this project we'll be gifting neither a fish nor a fishhook but rather new fishing spots. With thinking along and creating new contacts, we want support small, often enthusiast-driven museums that feel constant neoliberalist pressure to become more edutaining and attractive.

The project aims to translate the working methods of contemporary artists to small heritage museums, accenting empathy, not only critical approach, mixing publics and encouraging exploration of places outside capital Tallinn. During this project, we position ourselves as mediators rather than curators, which forces us to reflect on our own experiences - working in the largest art museum of Estonia, operating within the safety net of art world.

Creative Co-production - A Step Beyond Artistic Interventions

Author: Tal Adler (Humboldt University Berlin) email

Short abstract

This talk will portray the problems, shortcomings and inner-contradictions that artistic interventions in ethnographic museums face, and a new model to meet these challenges, proposed by the TRACES research project - the Creative Co-Production.

Long abstract

In recent years, we are witnessing an interesting phenomenon: more and more institutions of cultural heritage that hold contentious collections such as museums of anthropology or history; public and private archives; or education institutions, invite artists for short residencies, to explore their collections, meet the curators and create new artworks based on their impressions. This new museological trend, by now a prevalent modus operandi, is often referred to as an "intervention".

As an artist, I have experienced both being invited by, and have myself initiated creative engagements with such institutions.

A critical analysis of such engagements portrays a series of shortcomings, challenges and inner-contradictions, inherent and almost unavoidable in the usual settings of such hosted residencies and artistic interventions.

Based on my experiences and the above mentioned critical analysis, in 2015 I have proposed a new model for such engagements that can offer more significant and sustainable outcomes. With a team of researchers and cultural workers we have developed this model into the research project 'TRACES - Transmitting Cultural Heritages with the Arts, From Intervention to Co-production'. The new model is called 'CCP' - Creative Co-Production. TRACES, funded by the EU Horizon2020 program, is in its third year.

In my talk, I will portray the problems of the prevalent 'interventions' mode; present the experiences that encouraged the creation of the 'CCP' model; and provide an account 'from the field', looking at the five TRACES CCPs, focusing not only on this model's benefits, but also its shortcomings and future challenges.

Old stories, new voices: anthropology museums and contemporary Pacific art

Author: Sylvia Cockburn (University of East Anglia) email

Short abstract

In recent years, contemporary art has become a widespread tool for the decolonisation and reinterpretation of ethnographic collections. This paper discusses the possibilities and limitations of dialogues taking place between Pacific artists and anthropology museums in the UK and Australasia today.

Long abstract

Museums and anthropology have a long, shared history. Yet in recent decades, the language and practice of anthropology have been called into question within museums, where the colonial legacies and classification of ethnographic collections have proved problematic in efforts to forge meaningful relationships with source communities. Collaborating with contemporary indigenous artists is one strategy increasingly being used by institutions wanting to promote new ways of engaging with museum spaces and collections. Artists today perform a number of roles in museums, from agents of intervention to cultural knowledge holders and expert practitioners. However, to date the full possibilities and limits of these engagements remain critically under-examined.

This paper is drawn from my research into recent collaborations that have taken place between contemporary Pacific artists and museums in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Using data gathered from interviews with artists, curators and other museum professionals, the paper examines how the nature of museum anthropology in these countries has changed in recent years, and how contemporary artists have become a prominent voice in the discussion of museum futures. I discuss several projects which demonstrate that while there is a strong desire by both artists and museum staff to engage in truly two-way conversations about the future of museums, a number of systemic barriers still inhibit community access and engagement. The paper asks the question: how can relationships between artists and museums help forge new understandings of museum anthropology in the 21st Century?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.