EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet

Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012 – 13/07/2012

(W110)

Confident museums of uncertain pasts (EN)

Location R12 (in V)
Date and Start Time 11 Jul, 2012 at 11:30

Convenors

Gabriela Nicolescu (Goldsmiths College, University of London) email
Raluca Musat (UCL) email
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Short Abstract

This workshop aims to open up the debate regarding the way museums and their collections relate to the controversies and uncertainties of their past and of that of the societies to which they belong. How can sheer disquiet of the past ever be displayed?

Long Abstract

Museums always seem to provide their visitors with definite and confident narratives about the past, thus making strong claims towards ordering the present and the future. However, the past life of objects, collections and of museums themselves is full of uncertainties, contradictions and unrest. Although much debated by scholars, these issues rarely make their way into exhibitions and displays.

On the other hand, war, revolution or social unrest impact directly on the life of museums. Their buildings are destroyed, looted or occupied temporarily, their collections affected. Such events usually provide opportunities for new representations of the past. Examples range from classical ethnographic exhibitions to the memorial museums of anti-communism in Eastern Europe, or the newly opened impressive spectacle buildings of museums in the field of art.

This panel invites papers that engage with the way such institutions reflect or come to terms with the traumatic events and contested moments in their past and that of the societies they claim to represent. How do they effectively deal with the inherent uncertainty and continuous social unrest? Can uncertainty be socially accepted and exhibited? Papers are welcome across the whole range of museums from anthropological or historical institutions to military or scientific ones. We also encourage discussions on other forms of visual representations (e.g. performances, photography exhibitions, installations, and events). Presenters could also focus on the life of particular objects or collections that leave or enter museums in times of historical rupture or engage with the social practices affecting their collections.

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Tall stories: cannibal forks

Author: Alana Jelinek (University of Cambridge)  email
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Short Abstract

Museums tend to present simple narratives about the objects on display within a sometimes conscious and explicit, sometimes unacknowledged and implicit, over-arching narrative or politics. This paper describes an art intervention that highlights the uncertainty and contestation within one display.

Long Abstract

Museums tend to present a simple, reductive narrative about the individual objects or types of object on display within a sometimes conscious and explicit, sometimes unacknowledged and implicit, over-arching narrative or politics. This paper by artist Alana Jelinek describes one art intervention done in 2010 at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge, that highlights the uncertainty, multiple narratives and layers of interpretation behind one contested object in the collection, namely, nineteenth century Fijian cannibal forks.

Historically, the Museum presented a narrative of evolutionary progress across its archaeological and anthropological displays. This theme and the politics that surround it was dismantled or disrupted more than 20 years ago with the new set of Museum curators who together share different ideas about 'race' and evolution. Nevertheless, the current display for Fiji contains 3 'cannibal forks' which are described as 'Cannibal Forks, used by High Chiefs and Priests, Nineteenth Century Fiji'. In other words, these objects are presented without reference to current interpretation and scholarship which renders problematic such an easy or simple understanding of the object, its use and history. Describing the 150 year long history of contested interpretation around 'cannibal forks', Museum curator Dr Anita Herle remarks on the 'stickiness' of the term, saying she can think of no other object with a name that so inaccurately reflects its use that has remained current or so universally applied. All other museums with 'cannibal forks' in their collections name them as such, including the Fiji Museum in Suva.

Critique, catharsis or collaboration: interpreting uncertain pasts through commissioned artist interventions in the museum

Author: Miranda Stearn (Courtauld Institute of Art)  email
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Short Abstract

Museums seeking to interpret uncertain pasts, and to acknowledge that uncertainty, have frequently turned to contemporary artists. This paper examines these commissioned interventions and their contexts, what they achieve that could not happen without the intervention of an artist, and the implications for museums, artists and audiences.

Long Abstract

Over the past two decades museums seeking to interpret uncertain pasts, and to acknowledge that uncertainty, have frequently turned to contemporary artists. In this paper, I shall examine some of these commissioned interventions and their contexts, exploring examples where the intention around inviting an artist into the museum is part of a deliberately revisionist strategy to tackle uncertain histories. I will consider motivations that shape these projects and the role of the commissioned artist within the gallery. Central to my investigation will be the question of why artist interventions are considered a particularly appropriate and effective strategy in the context of post-colonial museum and gallery practice, what they achieve that could not happen without the intervention of an artist, and the implications of this practice for galleries, artists and audiences.

Within these contexts I shall explore the role of artists as invited curators, particularly those artists working in the tradition of institutional critique. The notion of invited critique can seem inherently contradictory, asking the artist who takes on the role of curator to come 'inside' the institution and thus jeopardise the external position which might previously have been seen as a prerequisite. Looked at more positively, the increased frequency with which the critique has been brought into the museum reflects the convergence of this challenging artist practice with revisionist, self-reflective trends emerging within museums, and an awareness that by inviting artists to take on the role of curator, they can be enlisted as enablers, facilitators or partners in this process.

Museums of rural life: contested peasants

Authors: Gabriela Nicolescu (Goldsmiths College, University of London)  email
Raluca Musat (UCL)  email
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Short Abstract

By telling the history of two museums exhibiting rural life in Bucharest, Romania, this paper engages with the interplay between the social sciences governing exhibition making, history and politics, and its effect on the representations of the peasantry.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses the intricate life, intersections and conflicts of two museums exhibiting rural life and culture in Romania, from the beginning of the twentieth century to the post-communist period. The Museum of National Art, founded in 1912 by an art historian, later transformed into the Romanian Peasant Museum by an artist, and an open-air museum - The National Village Museum-, founded in 1936 by a renowned sociologist. These two museums have proposed competing ways of exhibiting and imagining the peasantry, which in turn reflected the socio-political transformations of the Romanian state from a semi-democratic to a totalitarian communist regime. After the fall of communism, The Romanian Peasant Museum, proposed a new, yet equally controversial interpretation of post-communist rural Romania, showcasing an idealised image of the peasant frozen in an immemorial past.

This paper shows the competition between disciplines over the representation of the peasantry in different historical/ political contexts. It will answer the following question: who is the peasant that both institutions tried at the same time to represent and to avoid?

Ascertaining the future memory of our time: Dutch museums collecting relics of national tragedy

Author: Irene Stengs (Meertens Institute)  email
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Short Abstract

Drawing on three 21st century national tragedies, this paper investigates how Dutch museums seek to create the future memory of our time by preserving objects pertaining to extraordinarily emotional events. Hereto, the paper looks into the role of existing collections representing national tragedies of the past.

Long Abstract

This paper investigates one specific way in which people seek to create the future memory of our time: by preserving objects pertaining to extraordinarily emotional events. In the Netherlands (2010) a fierce debate evolved surrounding the preservation of the corpora delicti involved in three national tragedies: the pistol that killed politician Pim Fortuyn (May 2002); the knife that the assassin left in the chest of filmmaker Theo van Gogh (November 2004); the car aimed at the Queen and the royal family during the 2009 Queens Day celebrations, but killing seven members of the audience instead. Although differing in political background, social context and outcome, the assassinations evoked a similar, widespread public outcry and sense of crisis among the Dutch populace.

The upheaval started when the bereaved of the 'Queens Day Tragedy' learned about the interest of the CODA museum in the wrecked car for possible future exhibition. Similar plans and emotions surrounded the preservation and possible future exhibition of the pistol that killed Pim Fortuyn in the Rijksmuseum in its function of 'Museum of Dutch National History'. Consequently, also questions were raised about a possible exhibition of the knife.

A central argument in the controversy comes from the Rijksmuseum, which considers the pistol comparable to the 'relics from Dutch national history' (vaderlandse relieken), whose preservation and exhibition are among the museum's core tasks. Taking this argument as point of departure, I will discuss the said relics as sensational forms (cf. Meyer 2006) that inform the creation of contemporary secular relics.

Warsaw's new Jewish museum: building a new history

Author: Robin Ostow (Wilfrid Laurier University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper will examine the ways in which the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is musealizing the difficult Polish-Jewish past. Three strategies will be foregrounded. They include activities in which Jews and non Jewish Poles work together to create inclusive communities around producing and maintaining Polish Jewish history.

Long Abstract

Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews, scheduled for completion in late 2012, was conceived in the mid 1990s by two Polish Jewish historians. The early years of the project's development were difficult, and support for the project was disappointing. But in 2006, with a commitment by the Polish government and the city of Warsaw to provide $38.5 million, an architectural plan, and an established Jewish curator from New York, work began on the concrete structure, the permanent exhibit, and outreach programs. This paper will examine the ways in which the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is musealizing the difficult Polish-Jewish past. Three strategies will be foregrounded. The first is the museum's refusal to make the Holocaust the organizational center of the historical narrative. The second is the project of having students, artisans and volunteers in eight communities in Poland rebuild the painted ceiling of a destroyed eighteenth-century wooden synagogue which will be one of the major installations. The third strategy is the creation of two internet portals which allow users to upload, download and share information about Polish Jewish history and to make contact with each other. The paper will conclude that, through these activities, the MHPJ is creating a redemptive space in which Jews and non Jewish Poles, who have a painful and burdened shared past, work together to create inclusive communities around producing and maintaining Polish Jewish history.

Collaborative denial: the museums of Heihe (China) and Blagoveshchensk (Russia)

Author: Franck Bille (UC Berkeley)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the ways in which the two museums of Blagoveshchensk, Russia and Heihe, China, collaboratively omit traumatic events from their displays of the past in an effort to foster goodwill, thereby functioning as aspirational and programmatic sites

Long Abstract

The twin cities of Heihe (China) and Blagoveshchensk (Russia) are located right opposite each other across the Amur river. From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, the Sino-Russian border was hermetically sealed and the two cities transformed into sites of relentless propaganda, suspicion and occasional clashes.

Since the normalisation of Sino-Russian relations in the early 1990s, the two cities have sought to emphasize commercial and cultural collaboration. The museums found in the two cities both dedicate considerable wall space to aspects of their mutual history that paint Sino-Russian relations in positive ways. Thus both museums have several rooms retracing their joint collaboration against Japan during WW2 or the exchange of personnel in the 1950s and early 1960s. Great emphasis is also placed on recent sociocultural exchange, with numerous photographs of smiling Russians and Chinese partaking in sports and arts events. However, despite featuring highly in personal accounts of Russian and Chinese interviewees, a number of historical episodes are conspicuously absent; notably the massacre of thousands of Chinese in Blagoveshchensk in 1900, or the attack by Chinese troops of Soviet border guards in 1969.

This paper explores the ways in which these two museums collaboratively omit traumatic events from their displays of the past in an effort to foster goodwill. In skipping over two difficult decades and emphasizing the immediate present the two museums are strongly aspirational and programmatic. In doing so, they maintain a socialist tradition seeking to describe reality as 'on the cusp of becoming'.

Exhibiting disquieting histories: "What We See" as a critique of ethnography's anthropometric past in Cape Town, Basel and Vienna

Author: Julia Binter (University of Oxford)  email
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Short Abstract

This papers discusses the postcolonial exhibition "What We See" about a so called "archive of vanishing races", its aesthetic and discursive strategies of displaying disquiet of ethnography's anthropometric past, and its adaptation to the exhibiting institutions' structures in Africa and Europe.

Long Abstract

The exhibition "What We See. Images, Voices and Versioning" offers a critical perspective on a so called "archive of vanishing races", i. e. casts, measures, photos and audio recordings, assembled by the German artist Hans Lichtenecker 1931 in then South-West Africa. Its main goal is not only to come to terms with an often neglected chapter of ethnography's past, namely the entangled histories of anthropology and colonialism and the physical and ethical abuses that went along with it, but to excavate and rehabilitate the recorded voices that make up a considerable part of Lichtenecker's collection.

Initially curated by Annette Hoffmann for the IZIKO Slave Lodge in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2009, the exhibition came to Europe via the Basler Afrika Bibliographien in Switzerland and was then shown at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, Austria, thus marking the first time that the "messages to Germany" that some of the Namibians had spoken into Lichtenecker's phonograph reached a German speaking audience.

Considering the power-laden dynamics between artefact, curators, collecting and exhibiting institutions, and audiences, this paper discusses the aesthetic and discursive strategies that the exhibition adopted in order to display disquiet of the discipline's anthropometric past as well as of the racist and colonial ideologies that legitimated it. How to unveil ethnography's abuses without perpetuating them by, for example, exhibiting the artefact of these abuses? Moreover, how did the exhibition adapt to the different histories of the exhibiting institutions and their specific needs of critical remembering?

Memory files: online catalogues and digitally embedded discourses

Authors: Cara Krmpotich (University of Toronto)  email
Hannah Turner (University of Toronto)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper critically examines how museums deal with colonial histories embedded within their catalogues in a digital age.

Long Abstract

Uncertain histories, whether experiences of mass murder and violence or difficult histories of colonialism, have received increasing attention in the museum field as objects of study. However, much of this attention is limited to exhibitions: the display of artefacts and interpretation of events for museum publics. Less attention is given to the grounding of difficult histories within a core aspect of museums - the catalogue. As museums increasingly use the web to host their catalogue records, it is essential to understand how this seemingly 'uninterpreted' data contains evidence of these restless and potentially traumatic histories.

Our paper examines how museums deal with histories of colonial inequality that supported the creation of museum collections originally. Of interest are online catalogues used to incite conversation between source communities and museum staff, encouraging geographically and culturally disparate groups to converse in more accessible ways. We question access and notions of formality, and critically engage with values about property and classification that on-line presences require. We argue that museums' approaches to these issues are rooted within colonial histories but have become normalized within memory institutions. We question if this history of colonialism is being replicated online as part of a larger process of digital colonization manifest in the informational and material processes of ubiquitous computing. In what ways does the exchange of information on-line follow existing social, economic and political fault lines that originate in colonial histories, and more importantly, are there new characteristics of colonization within our digital world that need to be understood?

This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.