What do contentious ‘objects’ want?
Possibilities of dealing with contentious ‘objects’ in collections and museums as well as different forms of returns were discussed at a conference in Florence. A report.
A longer version of this text in German in available here: Was wollen umstrittene ‚Objekte’?
Between 21st and 22nd of October 2016, the conference „What do contentious objects want? Political, epistemic and artistic cultures of return” was held at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, part of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft since 2002. The event was organised by Felicity Bodenstein and Eva-Maria Troelenberg from the research project „Objects in the Contact Zone – The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things“ at the Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz, in collaboration with Damiana Otoiu from the research project „Museums and Controversial Collections. Politics and Policies of Heritage-Making in post-colonial and post-socialist Contexts“ at the New Europe College Bucharest.
It was an attempt to cover a wide range of perspectives: archaeological and ethnographic artefacts and art works as well as human remains were discussed. It also dealt with European, African and Oceanic entanglements along with national socialist, colonial and socialist contexts and their afterlives. Case studies of returns (some of which had not yet been accomplished) presented by lecturers of different disciplines, were framed by two lectures on theoretical approaches to ‘objects’ and their agency. Among the speakers were archaeologists, art historians, ethnologists, lawyers, historians and an activist.
Felicity Bodenstein´s description of this encounter as ‘contact zone’ seemed slightly daring. In her short introduction to the conceptual framework of the conference she also made the suggestion to talk about ‘cultures of return’ instead of ‘practices of return’. The ‘objects’ in question could be seen as materialisation of contradicting values, which are expressions and producers of social injustice, asymmetric power relations and politics of recognition and belonging at the same time. To embark on a process of return entails involving oneself with the negotiation of these values. This requires reciprocity – and therefore stands in contrast to the often unilateral, accumulative process of appropriating ‘objects’ for the collections. It is through these new sets of values which have to be elaborated that it might be possible to speak of ‘cultures of return’.
Object biographies and their consequences. Bodenstein also emphasised that there is not only one, often violent moment of appropriation in the life of an ‘object’ in a collection, but many phases of it. It was one of the potentials of object biographies to show these different layers. Many of the research projects presented at the conference were investigations into different stages of life of ‘objects’. Noémie Étienne (Universität Bern) followed the history of ‘life casts’ which are on display at the Shako:wi Cultural Center today. They had been commissioned by Arthur Caswell Parker between 1906 and 1915 for the New York State Museum and had not been dismantled until about 1990. Parker had grown up as son of a Seneca in the Cattaraugus Reservation in New York and was a self taught anthropologist. It was through friends and family of Parker´s that these casts became part of dioramas to be exhibited in the museum. Étienne interprets the fact that these dioramas also showed Iroquois cultivating their land as a political declaration of their right for land.
Unfortunately, she did not talk about the role of these models as part of a self determined presentation of the history of the Oneida and the details of the handover from the New York State Museum to the Shako:wi Cultural Center.
Returns. By contrast, the presentations of Larissa Förster (Humboldt Universität Berlin), Cressida Fforde (Australian National University) and Major Sumner (Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority), Ruth E. Iskin (Jerusalem) and Lucas Lixinski (University of New South Wales) focussed exactly on the negotiations, realisations and aftereffects of returns. Förster showed how the annonymisation of human remains – which was in no way coincidental, but a deliberate process at the time of appropriation – can be ruptured through the process of repatriation. The remains of Nama and Herero for example were resubjectified in the process of repatriation from German collections to Namibia by associating them with anti colonial resistance fighters.
Cressida Fforde and Major Sumner talked about repatriations already accomplished and yet to be realised of specific human remains of the Ngarrindjeri. The Ngarrindjeri used skulls of their close relatives, often especially wise or brave ones, to drink water out of them. Collections which annexed these often classified them as works of art rather than as human remains. This was and is played out as argument against repatriation demands.
Art, illustration or human remains. Demands for repatriations of Toi moko, tattooed skulls, to the Māori were and are being declined with the same reasoning. The Rouen Museum, France, in negotiation with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), wanted to give back a Toi moko in 2007. But they were hindered from doing so by the French national government. Only after passing a new bill, in which it is argued that one is dealing with human remains, repatriations from various French collections could take place in 2011. However, after the repatriation, the Rouen published a 3D-Photography of the skull and still shows a drawing of it on its website. The organisers of the conference used that very same drawing for their conference layout, too. Apart from some introductory remarks from Felicity Bodenstein that it had been difficult to find a fitting design for the conference, there were at first no comments about the use of the image. In between the presentations of the lecturers, the conference title and the image were projected on the wall, every participant had the image embedded in the flyer with the program in front of her_him. But in the afternoon of the first day, after a presentation, one person stood up and questioned this usage. Te Herekiekie Herewini, manager of the Karanga Aotearoa repatriation programme at Te Papa, pointed out that this way of dealing with the remains of his ancestor bared any respect and asked how and with whose permission the image had come to be used in this way. Suddenly, the whole space, in which mostly western academics had just harmoniously discussed sensitive ‘objects’, was questioned. The organisers apologized if they had acted offensively. They had asked the Rouen Museum for permission. Indeed, it was their copyright which one could read at the back of the flyer, no further image description.
Soon it was declared that this was a perfect example of what was discussed here. The chair of the panel interjected that images had different effects on people, that people were affected differently. June Jones, who is working on repatriation in Birmingham, stated that she does not have to be Māori to find this usage of the image disrespectful and offensive.
Power of decision making and interpretation. A resolution of the World Archaeological Congress from 2005, The Tamaki Makau-rau Accord on the Display of Human Remains and Sacred Objects, proposes the following for questions concerning the use of images: “Any person(s) or organisation considering displaying such material or already doing so should take account of the following principles: 1. Permission should be obtained from the affected community or communities.” It is remarkable that peopled did not act this way in that concrete case, especially since the Rouen repatriation had gained such prominence. Moreover, Herewini and Jones had submitted an abstract to make a presentation at the conference, too, which had been declined, although they could cover their travel costs themselves. (Instead, there was a presentation of a German academic on the object biography of the life cast of Māori chiefs). So, there had already been contact established with the people who would have had the authority to decide upon the usage of the image – it simply was not recognized.
Good will and social justice. Herewini and Jones eventually did give their presentation – following a suggestion of a participant of the conference – replacing a lecturer who could not make it to the conference. Here, they also clarified that the position of Te Papa concerning the drawing on the website of the Rouen Museum had always been clear. There are just no legal means to stop them from using the image. It is a matter in which one can only appeal to the good will of the concerned. Maybe it was also such situations which Laurajane Smith (Australian National University) had in her sight when she was formulating her rather harsh criticism against new materialism and the agency of things. She insisted that it is humans who do something with things. Object centred approaches would too often neglect power relations and questions of authority. Struggles concerning cultural heritage were always also struggles of social justice. Here it was claimed that these two perspectives don´t have to contradict each other, which can also be grasped in the terminology, as for example with Appadurai´s social life of things. But maybe Smith was also making a statement to remind everyone that these issues are not just academic discussions. In fact, negotiations concerning cultural heritage are of much more direct relevance mostly for those who have been plundered. In Austria, there are many ‘objects’ stored which have been the centre of repatriation claims too, also from the Māori. Last year a Toi moko from the Weltmuseum Vienna was repatriated and negotiations with the Natural History Museum Vienna are ongoing.
Sophie Schasiepen is currently IFK Junior Fellow and concerned with human remains from colonial contexts in museums and collections as part of her PhD research.