Reckoning with History - Research Center for Material Culture

Collections Under Duress

Shifting Concepts

Reckoning with History | RCMC Annual Conference | 2017

Panel Description

Arjun Appadurai (2016) has noted that if non-European objects have generally been made to tell stories about distant places and cosmologies, their journeys of displacement, relocation and rehabilitation have remained largely untold. Rather, such objects are made into ‘testaments’ to fixity, of both Europe’s superior figure and a variety of others as its always belated shadow. But if we shift our focus from origins and endpoints to the journeys in between, how might ethnographic collections reveal more complicated stories about colonial relations, un/intentional trajectories and transformations? Moreover, how might attending to objects in transit lead us to a richer and more nuanced understanding and conceptual vocabulary of the colonial conditions of their production and their affective possibilities in the present?

Ethnographic objects with their stretched-out histories, layered relations and multiple registers of value surely complicate, if not completely undermine, totalizing dichotomies of us/them. Instead, they open up to ongoing histories of connection, at times violent, intimate, convivial, oppressive, emancipatory, collaborative, combative, sympathetic, transformative, and so on. In short, objects reveal that what lies between ‘us and them’ is an entanglement that refuses a certain kind of foreclosure. And yet our conceptual vocabulary often falls short in the task of disclosing the varied complexities of such entanglement. How does the colonial transform concepts of gifting, exchange, migration, sharing, and responsibility? (How) can we develop a new vocabulary for addressing these relations and interactions that bears a sense of responsibility to the past, and also to claims for justice in the present?

  • Arjun Appadurai, Dictionary of Now #4: Sharon Macdonald, Tony Bennett & Arjun Appadurai – THING, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, 10 October 2016.

Abstracts & Participants

Chair: Prof. Wayne Modest, RCMC

Revisiting the Deaths of Hintsa (video)
Professor Premesh Lalu, University of the Western Cape

What does it mean to engage in an effort to step out of the shadows of the colonial archive? How might the colonial archive limit our efforts at constituting a postcolonial episteme as a work of thinking ahead? These questions animated an earlier work on the killing of the Xhosa king, Hintsa, in 1834 and the mission to return his skull in 1996, with the onset of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Neither a history that lends itself to a discourse of truth, nor simply one that sustains a notion of reconciliation, I propose to explore how, in the controversy surrounding the death of Hintsa, we might rethink the colonial archive and nationalism by way of the problem of the problematisation of race. With this question, I mean to specifically ask how the critique of colonialism might offer itself as more than a repetitive negotiation with neo-colonial benevolence. To the extent that the discourse of history locks us in a wager with the colonial archive and nationalism, I wish to inquire into whether the museum formed around a colonial inheritance offers a different orientation to a postcolonial episteme.

Professor Premesh Lalu is Director of the Centre for Humanities Research, the DST-NRF Flagship in Critical Thought in African Humanities, at the University of the Western Cape. He has published widely in academic journals on historical discourse and the Humanities in Africa and is a regular contributor of public opinion pieces in local and international newspapers. His book, The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the Shape of Recurring Pasts (2009) argues that in order to forge a concept of apartheid that allows us to properly formulate a deeper meaning of the post-apartheid, what is necessary is a postcolonial critique of apartheid. His current research on the theme of a post-apartheid practi ce of freedom is focussed on the memory, technology and the human condition. Lalu is a board member of the international Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes and Chairperson of the Handspring Trust for Puppetry in Education.

Reckoning with history and refocusing the ethnographic by zooming in on the muliwai (video)
Dr. Philipp Schorch, State Ethnographic Collections Saxony

One of the key anthropological questions remains: How can we co-create knowledge across boundaries? This is a methodological question which, at first sight, seems to solidify the orthodox self-other-juxtaposition. However, Hawaiian scholar Manulani Meyer speaks of the muliwai, a place where fresh water and salt water meet; where the river flows into the sea. It is a habitat where marine life congregates as the muliwai ebbs and flows with the tide, changing shape and form. Metaphorically, the muliwai is a location and state of dissonance where (and when) two elements meet, but it is not ‘a space in-between’, rather, it is its own space, a territory unique in each circumstance, depending on the size and strength of the river, the width of the opening, and the strength of the rain. Rather than being a threat to its inhabitants, this living, breathing, and changing muliwai is a source of life and potentiality. Methodologically, I want to argue, anthropological inquiries seem most meaningful if they capture and open the locations and moments of the muliwai as the own space of potentialities arising from in-between worlds, which might be considered in ontological, cultural or other terms. Anthropology’s main concern, however, should not be how it (re)defines the perceived difference of others – e.g. in cultural or ontological terms – but rather how the anthropological inquiry itself is done with them. In this paper, I draw on a collaborative ethnography in the doing, which attempts to refocus ethnographic museums through Oceanic lenses and set course towards the muliwai, the own space in-between people, things, places and knowledge across their global connections – past, present and future.

Dr. Philipp Schorch is Head of Research and Exhibitions, State Ethnographic Collections Saxony, Germany, and Honorary Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia. He received his PhD from the Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, and held fellowships at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg – Institute of Advanced Study, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, and at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, Germany (Marie Curie, European Commission). Philipp is co-editor of the volumes Transpacific Americas: Encounters and Engagements between the Americas and the South Pacific (Routledge, 2016) and Curatopia: Museums and the Future of Curatorship (Manchester University Press, 2018).

The Netherlands and Islam: on the in-betweenness of collections (video)
Drs. Mirjam Shatanawi, Research Center for Material Culture

The point of departure of this paper is the idea of different types of museums, including the so-called universal museum, as a discursive chain. In other words: what goes in the glass case in one museum, goes out in another. In the 19th century, when museums in the Netherlands transformed from multidisciplinary cabinets of curiosity into institutions that became more and more specialized, processes of inclusion and exclusion started to unfold. In the course of this development, western and non-western objects that once were exhibited together now became separated. Museums for western culture, among them museums of European art or antiquities, and museums for non-western cultures, like Asian art museums and museums of ethnology, started to function as communicating vessels. In the Saidian sense, each type of museum was showing a self-image of Europe. This paper will examine this development and what it means for museums today. The main emphasis will be on Middle Eastern and Islamic collections. Made up of objects from ‘in-between’ regions, the destiny of these collections have illuminating stories to tell on how identity and culture are defined and negotiated.

Mirjam Shatanawi is curator for the Middle Eastern and North African collections at the National Museum of World Cultures, The Netherlands. Among the exhibitions she (co-)curated are The Sixties: A worldwide happening (2015), Sacred Places (2014), Escher meets Islamic Art (2013), Palestina 1948 (2008-2010), and Urban Islam (2003-2006). Her current research interests include the representation of Islam and Middle Eastern art and cultures in European museums. Her book Islam at the Tropenmuseum (Arnhem: LM Publishers, 2014), provides a historical analysis of 150 years of collecting Islamic artefacts at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

Archives, traces and memory. Living memory of slavery in Martinique (video)
Dr. Christine Chivallon, CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research), France

This presentation seeks to engage with the wide-ranging debate on the ‘archival turn’ by exploring the archive’s potential to tell ‘something of the past’. It sets the results of anthropological fieldwork in Martinique on the memory of slavery into dialogue with the theories of the Martinican writer Édouard Glissant and the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. From very different perspectives, both writers suggest that memory is the womb of the historical condition. The ‘traces’ of living memory supplant archival documents, allowing access to the imprint left by past events whose presence today is to be found in expressions of remembering. The descendants of participants in a nineteenth-century anticolonial uprising in Martinique interviewed in my work on the memory of slavery allow us to question these concepts in the situated field of memorial practice. Their experience testifies to a memory bound to the recollections of this originating scene of violence, while demonstrating how access to the archive gives the latter new life, infusing it with the subjectivities and emotion that it is its role to exclude. On the other hand, the problem of the anthropologist’s writing of this experience remains unresolved since it of necessity operates a transformation, itself becoming an archive, thereby compromising, as it does for Glissant and Ricoeur, the aim to let memory feed the process of discovery of ‘traces’ of the past.

Christine Chivallon is anthropologist and geographer, Research Director at the CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research) in France. Her studies focused on materiality, space and identity, mainly in the Caribbean societies and through Caribbean migration in Europe, including research on memory of slavery. Among her work (in English) : The Black Diaspora of the Americas. Experiences and Theories out of the Caribbean, Kingston, Ian Randle Publishers, 2011 (first published in French in 2004) ; “On the Registers of Caribbean Memory of Slavery”, Cultural Studies, Vol. 22 (6) pp. 870-891, 2008. « Universal or Specific Creolization? Perspectives from the New World », Cairn International, 2015.“Between History and its Trace : Slavery and the Caribbean Archive”, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 24 (1), pp. 67–81, 2016. Her last book is L'esclavage. Du souvenir à la mémoire. Contribution à une anthropologie de la Caraïbe, Paris, Karthala, 2012.