Micro Worlds - RCMC
6 November 2018

Micro Worlds

Closed Meeting | 6 Nov 2018 | Tropenmuseum

Museums are increasingly submitted to measures of security to preserve and control the degradation of their collections. These measures have included various techniques to detect the presence of dust or insects, for example through ultrasound. Indeed, ethnographic collections are full of therapeutic devises like dust or insect traps or powder bottles, used to tame small beings in the museum environment.

But, beyond such necessary anxiety, might we productively consider museum collections as sites to enter into relation with small beings? What if we were to think about ethnographic collections differently: as equivalent to microbiological labs or as spaces for the cultivation of small beings? How can we represent the senses of wonder and fear that small beings produce in humans, including in museum collections and for professionals, when they become visible?

Western microbiology has created technologies and techniques to create distance between humans and microbes, including artefacts such as the microscope or the atlas. Indeed, van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, drew the first maps of microbes. Interestingly, he was also a close friend of Vermeer, suggesting links between the birth of microbiology and the emergence of realist painting.  This distancing between microbes and humans is even reflected in the planning of modern cities that create distances between human and nonhuman groups, as is shown by the work of Sammy Baloji on the organization of Lumubashi around the control of sleeping sickness.

Taking ethnographic artefacts as our entry point, this workshop will explore other ways of understanding the interaction between humans and non-humans. Can they offer us tools to think otherwise about different modes of co-existence - human and microbes - within the same environment, as proposed, for example, in Jain cosmograms or Indigenous Australian “dream paintings”? We will speculate on the use of objects in museum collections as “catalysts” for different ways of relating with microbes, or more generally small beings.

This workshop follows on the special issue of the journal Techniques et cultures on “mondes infimes” (2017) and will support the preparation of an exhibition on “micro-worlds” (2021). It will bring together academics from anthropology, art history and science studies to discuss how the effects of size can be visualized combining ethnographic artefacts, microscopic objects and contemporary art. The workshop will conclude with a meeting with the curators of the museum “Micropia”.

This workshop is organized by Dr. Frédéric Keck (Director, Department of Research and Education at Musée du Quai Branly) and is an invitation-only event.