Museums and Anthropology: Colonial and post-colonial collections seen through museums, art and history
Location SOAS Senate House - S208
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 11:00
Sessions 3


  • Vibha Joshi (Tuebingen University/University of Oxford) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

The panel brings together different disciplinary approaches to engaging with museum objects in their historical contexts, ranging from imperial, colonial and postcolonial eras to contemporary reimagining.

Long abstract

Presentations are by artists, anthropologists, museum curators and ethnographers who engage with local and global histories through study of object collections in public and private museums. Themes include: artistic exploration of the logic of permanent display and out-of-view storage of objects in a Victorian museum (Buerger); questioning the de-contextualization of an object in the process of its transfer from its creator/user to becoming an artefact in a meticulously catalogued collection (Schauffer) ; dialogue between curator and designer/maker on the art/artefact dichotomy, asking how a more holistic representations of objects can be achieved (Stoke-Rees & Leonard); visual artist's photography of magical objects taken during residency at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic and addressing diverse histories of formerly forbidden rites /belief systems (Hannant); curatorial strategy for displaying trade artefacts in a family-run museum in the politically sensitive India- Pakistan border region (Gupta); curatorial strategy for decolonizing collections and display in the National Museum of Kenya in order to communicate local histories and cultural identities (Wright); Re-engaging with Naga of north-eastern India from whom objects in the Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum were sourced during the colonial period and the effects of such engagement, including sharing with the people the digital images of the objects (Joshi); discussing the complex relationship between Danish colonial trading history and local notions of modernity and development with regard to the restoration of heritage buildings in Serampore, India, in a collaborative project of the National Museum of Denmark (Wolff).

Recognising the different historical trajectories, we seek also to identify similarities of method and explanatory framework.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Great Expectations - A Portrait of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum (UK)

Author: Sabine Buerger email

Short abstract

The Wisbech & Fenland museum's Victorian collection remaining virtually unchanged until today is exemplary of an object-centred approach. An exploration of its collections focusing on Wisbech born abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and the original manuscript to Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'.

Long abstract

"We have a preeminent role in making the collections accessible to all, enabling people to gain an understanding of things which are important to the social fabric of our society. And the fine balance which one has to achieve as a curator is that you present the information about an object without actually trying to detract from the object or distract from the visitors' view of the object. - By this I mean, we want people to look at the object and not just read the label."

(David Wright, Curator Wisbech&Fenland Museum)

My paper is an introduction to 'Great Expectations', my video and photographic portrait of the Wisbech & Fenland Museum, one of the UK's oldest purpose-built museums, which opened in 1847. Selected photographs and video clips will offer insights into the Victorian collection, which has remained virtually unchanged until today, assembling abundant objects ranging from an Egyptian mummy's hand via Oliver Cromwell's death mask to Charles Dickens' original manuscript for 'Great Expectations'. My talk will explore the museum's history and contemporary relevance through its collections and archive, whilst curator David Wright will expound - in the video - on the curator's role in dealing with histories through objects. Local and imperial past merge in Wisbech born Thomas Clarkson, a central figure in abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. Clarkson's chest, owned by the Wisbech Museum, was chosen by the British Museum for their 'Teaching History with 100 Objects' initiative. http://www.sabine-buerger.de/ge.html

PDF Download PDF of paper

Fishes out of water

Author: Dennis Schauffer (University of KwaZulu Natal) email

Short abstract

The issue of decontextualisation in the display of African cultural artefacts in two private collections in Durban, South Africa and how such displays could be presented more appropriately through a postcolonial approach.

Long abstract

The proposed paper intends to deal with the issue of decontextualisation of African cultural artefacts as displayed in two collections : The Phansi Private Museum and The Killie Campbell Collection, both in Durban KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The western mindset prompts the curator to list, research, identify, display in gallery lighting, meticulously number the holdings, and create catalogues. But in this attempt the artefact itself all too often looses its status as an object of significance within a living, inconstant and ever-changing culture and becomes instead an exotic object of mild curiosity The generative spirit that drove the creator of the artefact is silenced and the artefacts themselves remain like fish out of water.

Practice, Process, Performance (refuse, art, artefact)

Authors: Emily Stokes-Rees (Syracuse University) email
Matthew Zeke Leonard (Syracuse University) email

Short abstract

Examining an exhibit of hand-made instruments, this paper highlights possibilities in breaking down the art/artefact dichotomy. Presented as a dialogue, we draw attention to the potential of collaborative, cross-disciplinary work, exploring shifting boundaries in curating art and anthropology.

Long abstract

Presented as a dialogue between two professors who are also committed practitioners: a curator and a designer/maker, this paper takes as its premise that, "the art/artefact dichotomy remains with us, denying many objects comfortable homes in art, anthropology, or history museums. Moreover, it runs the risk of alienating the individual viewer within a mass of academic debris, simultaneously blurring aesthetic appreciation and proper contextualization." Through the discussion of an exhibit of hand-made instruments previously displayed exclusively as art objects, and re-interpreted (in an art gallery) from an anthropological perspective, we attempt to destabilize perceived divisions between art and ethnographic museums. In other words, distinct from these objects' previous lives as 'art' and 'craft', this exhibition focused on the fluidity of practice, process, and performance, creating a hybrid aesthetic/ethnographic appreciation that we hoped might complicate traditional boundaries.

This dialogue also considers the evolution of curatorial practice, focusing particularly on what we perceive as a rapidly growing interest in interdisciplinary projects that blur boundaries between art, anthropology, and other disciplines. Moreover, it addresses the idea of 'object-as-critique', in which the exhibited instruments unintentionally provoked an intense questioning of some of the ideologies and biases embedded in the display: How can we move towards more holistic representations, collaborative approaches, and away from the fetishization of traditional art (and ethnographic) collections? This discussion thus foregrounds the 'conversation' of curation - between curator and designer/maker, objects and space, and between art and anthropology, pointing to the transformative power of objects, independent of their disciplines of origin.

Enchanted encounters: reaffirming a magical heritage.

Author: Sara Hannant (City, University of London) email

Short abstract

As artist in residence at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, I photographed one hundred magical objects. This material evidence eloquently speaks to a broad range of magical activity and, by extension, addresses the diverse histories of formerly forbidden rites or everyday worship.

Long abstract

As artist in residence at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, I photographed one hundred magical objects ranging from spells, charms and curses to ceremonial artefacts and the tools of wayside witches. This remarkable selection presents material evidence that eloquently speaks to a broad range of magical activity and, by extension, addresses the diverse histories of formerly forbidden rites or everyday worship.

The museum first opened in 1951, the year in which the Fraudulent Mediums Act repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (a punitive measure intent on criminalizing practitioners of witchcraft). Many of the items displayed in this museum, therefore, embody prohibited and persecuted belief systems.

Depicting the artifacts emerging from the darkness allowed me to research how these objects enduringly manifest and convey their potency. Dramatic lighting bestows a power to each image that evokes the significance the object might have had for its owner or maker. Because it is the nature of photography to seize and preserve, images are inevitably associated with history while my approach explores the creative and magical potentials of representing the past to the present.

The stories that accompany the photographs intertwine narratives allied to esoteric traditions and folklore with social, political, and cultural conditions. Encounters with this material at art, anthropological and occult events in New York, Oxford, and London have awakened audiences to reconsider their understanding and use of similar objects and to share previously silenced narrations, which reaffirm a magical heritage.

Making a museum: Reimagining borders

Author: Latika Gupta (Jawaharlal Nehru University) email

Short abstract

My paper focuses on a family-run museum of pre 1947 trade goods in Kargil, Ladakh. I will discuss the curatorial strategy, process and display interventions in a museum of things; the curator as 'outsider'; the value of ethnographic fieldwork;and the politics of remembrance embedded in the display.

Long abstract

My paper focuses on the curating of the permanent exhibition in the 'Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artifacts', a family owned and run museum in Kargil, located on the border of India and Pakistan; a Shia majority district in largely Buddhist Ladakh, itself located in Sunni dominated Kashmir. I will discuss the curatorial strategy, process and display interventions in a museum of things as varied as textiles, uniforms, shoelaces, soap, buttons, geometry boxes, telegrams and medicine prescriptions (dating from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century when the borders between India and Pakistan were closed). I will discuss the role of a curator as 'outsider', the value of ethnographic fieldwork for collecting oral narratives to underline relationships between things and the people who used them, in order to activate historic objects to make them relevant to contemporary audiences. The use of oral and photographic documentation alongside the objects allowed the museum to become a space that prompted a reimagining of the popular association of Kargil with the 1999 War with Pakistan, with which it shares a border. My paper will discuss how multiple registers of 'value' can be inserted as a curatorial strategy into 'things' to highlight the importance of trade and the coming together of individuals and communities, with an emphasis on cosmopolitanism. This is an unusual case study of a curatorial project that has the potential to lead to an alternative reading and understanding of borders, and the politics of nationhood.

Decolonising the National Museums of Kenya

Author: Kristina Dziedzic Wright (Seoul National University / University of Leicester) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses permanent exhibits about Kenya's history at the Nairobi National Museum. Analysis focuses on the legacy of colonialism in the National Museums of Kenya and curatorial strategies to decolonise the collection, exhibition and interpretation of art and cultural heritage in Nairobi.

Long abstract

The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) was established during British colonial rule in 1910 by a group of enthusiastic naturalists under the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society. As the central repository for objects of cultural, artistic, and scientific interest to the country, the NMK is responsible for preserving, studying, and promoting national heritage, leading conservation efforts, and developing cultural tourism. NMK's flagship institution, the Nairobi National Museum (NNM), underwent extensive modernisation and expansion from 2005 - 2008 with funding from the European Union. This paper will trace the history of NNM and current curatorial strategies to decolonise the collection, exhibition and interpretation of art and cultural heritage. Analysis will focus on two permanent exhibitions at NNM: Historia ya Kenya (History of Kenya) that was opened to the public following the EU-funded renovations and plans presently underway to develop a permanent exhibition about the history of art in Kenya. The permanent art exhibition was initially conceived in the context of the 2005-2008 renovations, but limited funds have heretofore precluded its realisation. The stated goal of the permanent art gallery is to trace the development of Kenya art from prehistorical rock art through modernism. Because Kenya entered modernity through colonialism, the history of modern art in East Africa is arguably intertwined with the history of Empire. This paper will consider how an object-centred approach to these entangled narratives is enabling Kenyan curators to communicate their own histories and develop an indigenous cultural identity.

Colonial museum collections, heritage and representations of the self : A case study of Naga textiles in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Author: Vibha Joshi (Tuebingen University/University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

This paper focuses on community engagement with the photographs of Naga objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum's PRM) colonial collections and the repercussions and reverberation of the effect of such information being brought back to the community.

Long abstract

During the colonial period, between1921-1935, six detailed monographs were published on the Naga peoples of present North East India. by British officers cum amateur anthropologists using the guidelines in 'Notes and Queries' prepared by the RAI. In addition many artefacts were collected from different Naga communities for western ethnographic museums, especially in the UK and elsewhere in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, just before much material cultural heritage was destroyed during religious revivals and the actions of British and Indian security forces, first to annex the region and later to suppress the nationalist movement.

Over the past four generations, most Naga have converted to Christianity. Now, however, many cloths and accessories from the so called 'heathen past' and colonial period have become part of a treasured cultural history for the Naga. The paper provides an example from fieldwork of how a Naga community responded when shown research photographs of older textiles/cloth. The paper discusses the various nuances of such engagement with past heritage for the community (and for the anthropologists); methods of cultural control and cultural appropriation, and negotiations that invariably surface in the course of this recognition of pre-Christian heritage and the manner in which knowledge of lost heritage takes on a life of its own outside museum precincts . It examines the ways in which museum collections have come to be viewed in Nagaland. The ongoing collaboration has already resulted in two indigenous publications and a visit of members of the women's group to PRM.

Revisiting Serampore's colonial heritage in India and in Denmark

Author: Bente Wolff (National Museum of Denmark) email

Short abstract

How are local notions of modernity and development linked to colonial history and the restoration of heritage buildings in Serampore in West Bengal, India? And can the complexities of this relationship be conveyed to a Danish museum and film audience?

Long abstract

The Serampore Initiative is a 7-year engagement of the National Museum of Denmark with Serampore in West Bengal, India. The city, which is located in an area locally referred to as "Little Europe on the Ganges", was once a Danish trading colony.

The project comprises a varity of elements: building restoration, historical archive studies, sociocultural surveys of local citizens' relationships with colonial heritage buildings and their present-day understandings of Serampore's history. These undertakings all depend on active collaboration with partners from West Bengal, whether local grass-root groups, academic colleagues, media contacts, architects and craftsmen, as well as state government officials and legislators who not only have to give their formal consent, but also allocate public funds, for the restoration projects to happen.

Local understandings of colonial history and heritage as they appear in Bengal news media, popular history books, field interviews etc. often differ from opinions expressed in Danish public debates.

Two museum exhibitions are presently in the making, and a documentary film (Denmark by the Ganges) has already been produced under the Initiative. The film discusses the complexities of colonial history in the past, and in today's popular memory (in Denmark and Serampore, respectively). It also takes up local notions of cosmopolitanism, modernity, development and humanistic values that are inscribed into the popular history of Serampore. But can it be conveyed to a Danish museum and film audience that colonial history and Danish heritage buildings may have very different meanings in India than what is expected in Denmark?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.