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Beyond Inequalities. Museums as Experimental Hubs for Balancing Inequalities


Roberta Colombo Dougoud, Fanny Wonu Veys

Session presentation

Ethnographic collections assembled the material heritage of colonized peoples that were considered as vanishing. Museums preserved, documented, studied, and exhibited the material culture of the Other for the future. Collecting was a one-way relationship resulting from colonial inequality: artefacts with their contextual information went from the producers and original users to museums. Over the past 40 years, both the physical ownership of objects and the right to represent meanings have become contested. In this changing power relationship, museums are no longer the only voice of authority. Perspectives of Indigenous peoples are increasingly valued as knowledge systems in their own right. New paradigms create a critical and reflexive museology, that presents Indigenous peoples in a more respectful, collaborative and balanced way. But can museums, which were built on inequality become places for renegotiating those very same inequalities? The panel would like to investigate the changing relationship between ethnographic museums and originating communities. Papers should deal with issues related to new forms of knowledge sharing and collaboration and/or the role of contemporary Pacific artists in displaying historical and contemporary collections.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Re-engaging collections: the Eric Mjöberg and Yngve Laurell Australian collection at the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm

Aoife O'Brien (National Museums of World Culture)

During the early twentieth century, Sweden actively participated in the large scale anthropological and natural history collecting expeditions characteristic of the period. Between 1910-11, Swedish ethnographers Eric Mjöberg and Yngve Laurell visited the Kimberley region of Western Australia collecting ethnographic objects and natural history, also making photographic and audio recordings. They collected utilitarian objects, clay/mineral samples, drawings, sacred/ceremonial objects, with Mjöberg also controversially collecting human remains. Over 1,000 objects and photographs from this expedition were accessioned into the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. Focusing on this collection, this paper initially considers aspects of colonialist and racist ideologies that frequently informed such expeditions and influenced they types of information recorded and material collected. It then considers the potential for this collection to (re)connect Sweden with Aboriginal Australians, to generate mutually beneficial dialogue, reciprocal relationships and knowledge exchange. The 2004 repatriation of human remains from this expedition marked a positive first step to creating such connections. However, these connections were not maintained and opportunities to use the collections as a point of contact were not utilised. Recent contacts between the museum and Aboriginal Australian communities and artists, and researchers have the potential to reawaken and reinvigorate these collections.

Contesting Obligations. Curating an Exhibition on a Problematic Chapter of Samoan-German History in Germany.

Hilke Thode-Arora (Museum Fuenf Kontinente)

Between 1895 and 1911, three groups of Samoans travelled to Germany with Völkerschauen – ethnic shows, a wide-spread form of Western entertainment at the time. There were high-ranking persons in each of the three groups. Two thirds of the Samoan collections in the Five Continents Museum in Munich originate from the Marquardt brothers (the impresarios of these shows), and from the state gifts which high chief Tamasese, one of the travellers, gave to the Bavarian royal family in 1910. In a three-year research project and a resulting exhibition, these artefacts were contextualised. Written, image and material sources in European, New Zealand, Australian and Samoan archives were analysed. But the main focus was on tracing descendants of the Samoan travellers and including their perspectives. Furthermore, Samoan-New Zealand artist Michel Tuffery graciousy contributed with works from his Siamani-Samoa series, commenting on the Samoa shows.

The paper explores the conceptual planning, the pragmatic organisation and the resonance of the exhibition, taking into consideration contesting obligations towards the Samoan descendants and community, towards the mainstream Munich museum visitors with no prior knowledge of fa’a Samoa, and towards the Bavarian government expecting an exhibition with strict cost control but large audiences.

On Separations and connections: female fibre skirts (liku) and tattooing (veiqia) of nineteenth century Fiji in museums

Karen Jacobs (University of East Anglia)

Ethnographic collections are material and social assemblages of fragments – they involve selections made by people who have their own agenda, indicating that no museum collection is objective or neutral. Liku, fibre skirts worn by women in nineteenth century Fiji, were closely related to the veiqia, the tattooing of, their female wearers, yet became alienated in museums where they were translated, classified and sometimes further exchanged. Separated from their original context they are potential connectors that have the ability to cross temporal and spatial separators and can express different ontologies. One important project in this regard is the current Veiqia Project. Seven women of Fijian heritage (two curators and five artists) with a particular interest in veiqia, which continued even when liku were no longer actively worn, looked at, and beyond, museum collections of liku and veiqia. Including personal stories and family connections, they have generated an indigenous archive driven by personal, artistic and relational connections as such emphasising that there are alternative epistemologies to what is currently recorded in museums. Based on exhibition projects in New Zealand and Fiji, this paper will illustrate the new artworks and questions they produced.

Rethinking museum conservation, authority, and materiality: Marshallese weavers and weaving at the Smithsonian

Ingrid Ahlgren (Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University)

In June 2018, a group of Marshallese weavers came to the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum through the Recovering Voices Community Research Program (CRP). The two-week visit comprised an important part of a larger scholarly and conservation project concerning a collection of late 19th and early 20th century clothing textiles from the Marshall Islands. The CRP visit provided a physical and intellectual space to collaboratively contemplate the ongoing value and legacy of these woven mats, both for the Marshallese artisans that originally crafted and used them, as well as for the museum’s collections staff. The weavers shared several pieces of information about the mats’ traditional construction, social histories, and associated beliefs that have had crucial implications for their ongoing storage and care. Of particular interest were the concerns over the introduction of standard conservation – but non-indigenous – materials (like Japanese rice papers) in stabilizing repairs that complicate important geographic and ancestral material linkages to Marshallese land and identity. Discussions ensued over traditional authority in weaving and, therefore, authority in conservation treatments such as reconstructing areas of loss in the mats. This paper will discuss how indigenous knowledge vastly improves a museum’s ability to care for cultural objects, but also raises tricky questions concerning the balance of conservation needs, and indigenous desires and expectations.

‘Owning’ waka: Fostering and Mediating Relationships

Fanny Wonu Veys (Museum van Nationaal Wereldculturen - National Museum of World Cultures)

Since 2010 there are two Māori canoes (waka) on the museum terrain of Leiden’s Museum Volkenkunde. An important icon of Māori culture and indeed of New Zealand, the waka is the obvious object and symbol around which to collaborate. The waka tētē kura is available for general use, making it possible to actively experience aspects of Māori culture. The waka taua is used for Māori cultural purposes. The Māori principles and ideas that inform behaviour and customs relating to waka (kaupapa waka) have been introduced. Within the Netherlands, the Museum Volkenkunde and the Njord Royal Student Rowing Club (Njord) share the responsibility for the kaupapa waka, while the legal ownership of the waka taua remains with Toi Māori Aotearoa, a charitable trust and umbrella organization supporting contemporary Māori arts nationally and internationally.
In this paper I will first examine what how the museum’s engagement with Maori material culture triggered the development of the waka project. Secondly the nature of these museum objects that can be touched and handled will be addressed. The museum waka are the nodes for an active relationship with the homeland, but are equally important in building a home for themselves through the relationship with people of the host country, and people of the diaspora. To conclude, this paper will question what it means for the museum to hold these canoes in terms of ownership, authority and access.

The Creative Cultural Transmissions Practices of Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia

Haochen Lin (Academia Sinica (Taiwan))

In recent years, the relationships between museums and originating communities have become varied. In New Caledonia, a new kind of “museum” has appeared: the Tjibaou Cultural Center, led by the indigenous Kanak community. The center claims to express contemporary Kanak culture through contemporary art performances and transformed ethnic identity and perspectives into the architectural design. Additionally, gestures of traditional cultural exchange have been held on a daily basis so as to create and strengthen alliances with local and international communities.

This paper gives a case study of the art practices and heritage works of the center and discusses how it has responded to the sociocultural needs of the Kanak community. The research has found that although many Kanak objects were collected during the colonial era and preserved in ethnological museums, the community hasn’t asked for general repatriation. Instead, they have “invited” the ancient objects to be temporarily exhibited in the center, “renewing connections” with contemporary artworks and performances. At the same time, the center actively collaborates with artists on the island and throughout the wider Pacific. The artists’ interventions have become a medium for connecting with local communities (especially the youth) and sharing cultural knowledge and perspectives. By enacting these experimental and creative practices, the center has become a new intermediary place for cultural transmission and connections.

Negotiating inequalities: the role of contemporary Pacific artists in museums

Sylvia Cockburn (University of East Anglia)

In the 21st Century, the relationships of power between museums and originating communities are shifting and continually being renegotiated. Within museum efforts to build meaningful and ongoing relationships with indigenous peoples, contemporary artists occupy a unique role. Artists often position themselves as outsiders to the museum in order to interrogate its institutional and epistemological structures; but, as creative practitioners, artists also operate within a visual and material framework that allows them to be insiders to the space. This dual role enables artists to navigate and mediate relationships between anthropologists, museums and indigenous communities on multiple levels. But how well do the expectations and goals of artists in these museum encounters meet the intentions of both the institutions they work with, and the communities they are aiming to represent? This paper considers the role of the artist within museums through the perspectives of contemporary Pacific artists who work with museum collections as part of their practice. Drawing on interviews with a number of artists conducted as part of my doctoral research at the University of East Anglia, I consider the issues and spaces where artists see their roles in the museum as contested, generative and/or mutually beneficial.

Alternative histories in the presentation of Indigenous Australian collections: Brook Andrew's intervention at MEG

Roberta Colombo Dougoud (Musée d'ethnographie de Genève)

In May 2017 the MEG (Musée d’ethnographie de Genève) inaugurated the exhibition "The Boomerang Effect. The Aboriginal Arts of Australia". The aim was not only to highlight one of its finest collection, but also to debate important issues such as the legitimacy to expose some objects, alternative forms of collaboration with local communities, the sharing or restitution of knowledge and objects, and the role of ethnographic museums as arenas for discussion and negotiation of inequalities.
Brook Andrew, a prominent contemporary artist of Wiradjuri and Celtic descent was invited to do a residency. With several interventions he questioned ethnocentric attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and showed that the dominant narratives are often misinterpretations. By challenging the normal modes of museum display, Brook Andrew called into question our way of interpreting and consuming narratives and ideas.
In the paper I shall present Brook Andrew’s intervention in the exhibition and I shall discuss if and in which way his collaboration can be considered an experimental hub for balancing inequalities.

“We are alive”: The Te Pahi Medal as an object of museum transformation and Maori reconciliation

Deidre Brown (University of Auckland)

Holly Anne Diepraam

The return of the Te Pahi Medal (1806) to Aotearoa New Zealand was a watershed moment for the two museums and two hapu (Maori subtribes) involved in its repatriation. The engraved silver medal was especially forged to be given by the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, to the paramount chief of the Bay of Islands, Te Pahi, in 1806. Lost to his people, the medal dramatically resurfaced for sale at Sothebys auction house in Sydney in 2014, leading to a high-profile campaign of direct protest and legal action, in tandem with less public negotiations between hapu representatives and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Auckland Museum, to have the medal returned. The medal now exists in a state of tapu (sacredness, restriction), is ceremonially passed between iwi (tribes) as it moves between museums, and is always accompanied by kaumatua (elders) on its travels. This paper describes how the museum-hapu partnership was formed, comparing it to the partnership between King and Te Pahi themselves, and explains the unique tikanga (values) and kawa (protocols) that guide the medal’s care and display. It also considers the embodiment of Maori values within an object that is of European manufacture and the medal’s role, as a museum-held taonga (Maori treasure), in revealing and (to a certain extent) healing inter-generational Indigenous trauma.