Reckoning with History - Research Center for Material Culture

Reckoning with the colonial

Thinking through concepts of debt, responsibility, blame and justice

Reckoning with History | RCMC Annual Conference | 2017

Panel Description

Collecting practices that gave birth to ethnographic collections in Europe may have been multiple and varied, but they all largely emerged under European colonial aspiration, rule and expansion. How then do we reckon with the colonial and its enduring presence not only in material objects, but also as erasures, blockages and oversights? The category of the colonial in museum work perplexes and taxes certain attitudes towards and relationships between law, ethics and responsibility, especially across time. If we cannot ‘judge the past’, then we also cannot ignore the profound impact the past may still effect on the present. How can museums move into the future, caring for a difficult past in such a way that fosters respect rather than victimization, repair rather than continuing rupture, cohabitation rather than exclusion? In short, how can museums develop a sense of moral engagement with the past in the present (Attwood & Foster 2003)?

To begin with, we might need to develop a better practical and conceptual vocabulary for dealing with colonial durabilities, and in particular the ways in which some resist closure. What ethical, moral and philosophical work must museums first do in order to transform colonial presence into a more productive platform for shared responsibility and repair? Is repair even possible? If not, what then is possible? For instance, if a moral engagement between past and present must acknowledge violence, and thus the moral burden of that knowledge (Rose 2004), then does not this moral burden also demand that museums hold the memory of that violence within the public presentation of their histories and collections? Can considered philosophical explorations of concepts such as debt (Ricoeur), blame and injustice (Fricker), responsibility (Levinas) and ignorance (C. Mills) help us to rethink issues of museum ethics and moral responsibility with respect to the colonial past? How might such ethically anchored frameworks open up possibilities of transforming museums into more responsible and reparative institutions, or pressure changes in laws to become better instruments of justice?

  • Attwood B and Foster SG (2003) Frontier conflict: the Australian experience. National Museum of Australia Press
  • Rose DB (2004) Reports from a wild country: Ethics for decolonisation. UNSW Press.

Abstracts & Participants

Chair: Dr. Henrietta Lidchi, NMVW

Injustice Past, Justice Present in the Post-Colonial Ethnographic Museum (video)
Professor Margaret Urban Walker, Marquette University
The ethnographic museum in the twenty-first century is a dense site for exploring issues of redress and repair for injustices, historical and continuing, that are posed by colonial pasts. There are moral questions about just (or unjust) and responsible acquisition, just (or unjust) ownership and control, and the just (or unjust) distribution of powers to present and represent the objects themselves or the communities that are invested in their representation. Beginning with the recently consolidated international framework for reparations, I extend the discussion to two core facets of justice that underlie obligations of repair, accountability and reciprocity. I believe that accountability has dominated in the formation of principles of just repair in European-dominated contexts while reciprocity remains recessed. Yet practices of reciprocity can directly confront not only the material exploitation and plunder, but also some of the moral insult of denigrating the agency and competence of previously colonized peoples, most so non-European peoples, that is at the center of colonial histories and that can continue to influence practice today.

Margaret Urban Walker is Donald J. Schuenke Chair in Philosophy Emerita at Marquette University. She is author of Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2007); Moral Contexts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing (Cambridge University Press, 2006); What is Reparative Justice? (Marquette University Press, 2010). Margaret Walker’s work focuses on post-conflict and transitional justice, moral repair, and reparations. In the past decade, she has published many articles on reparations and reparative truth-telling in the aftermath of conflict, repression, and historical injustice, and has been an invited contributor to research projects with the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Apology and Doing Justice (video)
Professor Ann Rigney, University of Utrecht

Demands for apology and the public withholding of apology have become a regular feature of public debates about historical injustice without its being clear what a ‘full’ apology might actually entail. In my talk I will sketch the genealogy of the practice of public apology, critically engage with the narrative schemata of reconciliation that sees apology as an imagined closure, and then argue for its more modest significance as part of a larger dynamic.

Ann Rigney is professor of Comparative Literature at Utrecht University and convenor of the Utrecht Forum in Memory Studies. Her many publications in the field of cultural memory studies include AudioVisual Memory and the (Re)Making of Europe (2017; edited with A. Erll), Transnational Memory: Circulation, Articulation, Scales (2014; edited with C. De Cesari), and “Reconciliation and Remembering: (how) does it work?” Memory Studies (2012).

Anthropology, African history and decoloniality (video)
Professor Ciraj Rassool, University of the Western Cape

In arguing against the understanding of colonialism as prescribed time, this presentation will make an argument for approaching coloniality as epistemic and disciplinary, as incorporated into the very structures, classificatory order, and practices of the museum as locus of government and stewardship. In distinguishing between different disciplinary practices of anthropology, as tribe, race, exotic, ‘non-European’, and also as effort at substantive, empathetic cultural engagement, in European and African (and other Global South) settings, we will insist that its main record on the African continent is that it was an instrument of conquest. In considering the epistemic challenge of rethinking the anthropology museum, this presentation will ask about the potential of the history museum and history in the museum. This will require an engagement with debates in historical studies, including about the significance of African history, about histories and publics, the production and contestation of history, and the importance of rethinking authority and expertise. It is in such epistemic and disciplinary confrontations and contestations that the potential for the decolonial resides.

Ciraj Rassool is Professor of History at the University of the Western Cape where he also directs the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies. His latest books are The Politics of Heritage in Africa: Economies, Histories and Infrastructures (New York 2015, co-edited with Derek Peterson and Kodzo Gavua) and Unsettled History: Making South African Public Pasts (Ann Arbor, 2017, co-authored with Leslie Witz and Gary Minkley). He was on the boards of the District Six Museum, Iziko Museums of South Africa, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and the National Heritage Council. He serves on the Human Remains Advisory Committee of the Minister of Arts and Culture as well as the Archaeology, Palaeontology, Meteorites, Burial Sites and Heritage Objects Permit Committee of SAHRA. Internationally, he serves on the High Level Museums Advisory Committee of the Deputy Director General of UNESCO, as well as the International Advisory Board of the Luschan Collection, Berlin.

To Shoot or Not to Shoot (video)
Professor Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Daskigi/Diné), University of California, Davis

Tsinhnahjinnie’s creative work bears witness over 30 years, documenting protest, establishing an archive of friends and family. The title of her talk Visualizing Resilience reflects her view that “Imaging ourselves is of utmost importance. It speaks to the core of envisioning self-determination. Imaging ourselves speaks to our children and on into the future.”  

Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie born into the Bear clan of the Daskigi, and a descendent of the Hvteyievlke band of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Born for the Tsi’naajinii (Black-streak clan) of the Dine’ Nation. Hulleah was formally adopted in to the Keet Gooshi Hit (Killer Whale Fin House), and also adopted into the La̱xsgiik (Eagle Clan) of Metlakatla. Tsinhnahjinnie holds the position of Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California Davis and is Director of the C. N. Gorman Museum.