Repatriating Histories. Pathways in the History of Museums and Collecting
In recent years, European societies have started to question the history of colonial collections in Europe’s museums. How did these objects get to Europe? Why are so many objects in storage, and what does it mean to preserve an object? Whose knowledge counts, and which stories were hitherto left out? This course expands traditional fields of the history of museums and collecting by combining new material culture research with an understanding of Colonial and Global History, Science and Technology Studies (STS), and cross-cultural ‘object biographies’. It will focus on the entangled history of European museums from a postcolonial angle, in particular the movement of objects and images between Europe, Asia and Africa; from ancient artefacts, entering the racial and canonical hierarchies of Western museums for the purpose of nation-building, to objects moving out of Europe back to their origin and source communities. At stake are material biographies of empire, and the questions they raise not only about historical experiences but about the including and excluding mechanisms of museums today. The lecture series is committed to hands-on teaching methods, building on collaborative work in novel approaches to object biographies and the politics of museum storage. It will show how the historical disciplines that undergird museum and heritage studies have evolved over time, supporting students to approach them critically as legacies of colonialism, and find ways to center ethics and inclusion. While its angle will be historical, the lectures will use historical enquiry to be led by the question of how learning about the past enables us to create a future in which museums and heritage practices create support systems not only for community-led grassroots efforts but also more equal partnership with the Global South in the age of repatriation. This series will further show ways forward beyond conceptual frameworks that depend on Western epistemologies. Participants are expected to engage with curatorial (group) exercises on site.
Lecture 1 | Poster | Heritage, Preservation, Destruction. Trajectories of an Entangled History | Monday September, 18, 5 pm | Salle Favard (ENS, 46 rue d’Ulm, 75005)
What does it mean to ‘preserve’ heritage and material culture from a historical angle? This introductory lecture will take a diachronic view of indigenous ‘heritage’ practices from the nineteenth century to current destruction and conflicts and illicit trade. Taking a global angle from Asia to Europe, it will focus on movement in and out of today’s ‘Middle East’, where archaeology and tangible heritage have always played key roles in memory formation and nation-building. What did local resistance against colonial field work, and local engagement with material culture in the Ottoman Empire look like? How can historians move beyond teleological narratives that prioritizes institutionalised knowledge? What happened to ancient objects, for instance, if they did not end up as trophies in museums? Treating preservation and destruction as historical phenomena, which were rarely exclusive, but rather connected and identified in crucial ways, the lecture will argue that a historical understanding of ‘heritage’, a Western ‘invention’, is crucial for a better assessment of contemporary heritage discourses. Heritage sites have often been created by way of processes which segregated material culture and the societies around them. These realities defy and challenge the disciplinary baggage, canons and categories as well as prevailing methods and concepts in the history of heritage. How can historians acknowledge records and sources outside of the conventional and imperial archive?
Lecture 2 | Archaeology, Power and Imperialism | October 11, 2-4 pm | Salle Ferdinand Berthier, U207 (ENS, 29 rue d’Ulm, 75005)
Archaeological excavations that took place in the Ottoman Empire were closely interlinked with imperialism, colonial extraction, and racial ideology. Yet the Ottoman Empire is still not considered a semicolonial space that deserves examination through the lens of uneven imperial power structures between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, notwithstanding the well-known fact that European Orientalism colluded with cultural and economic ambitions. European powers, in other words, used archaeology as a tool for imperial expansion. This lecture, which will draw on Lecture 1, will reassess the history of archaeology in the wider context of colonial history and the scientific disciplines that were closely interlinked with archaeology in the nineteenth century, including race science and ethnology. Many of the objects in questions are e.g. held in the Louvre today. It shows why debates around colonial legacies and repatriation cannot afford to address antiquity collections, ethnology collections and human remains as if they were separate issues.
Seminar 3 | A ‘Backstage’ History of Museums | November, 23, 10 am-12:30 pm | Salle d’Histoire (ENS, 45 rue d’Ulm, 75005)
Museums put only a fraction of their collections on display. Yet the history of collecting has been centred around issues of museum display. This kind of discourse leaves out from our museum histories millions of objects that have been gathered but seldom or perhaps never been shown. It presents the museum as an organized and stable space, in which only museological ‘results’ are visible, not the intermediate stage of their coming into being. As a result, important historical, epistemological and semantic aspect of the history of these collections are eliminated from our discussions. Historically, the ‘backstage’ of museums have been areas that performed important functions and fulfilled intentions that reveal deep purposes of the museum that go well beyond a mere history of display. Backrooms, for example, often included archives, study rooms and libraries not open to the public, which have been and still are centres of scholarly pursuit. Turning attention to the vast reserve shelves can also cause a shift in our understanding of colonial museum collections today: Museum storage not only re-enacts and perpetuates imperial possession, but also challenges us to rethink questions around repatriation.
Seminar 4 | Master Class with Practical Exercise | December, 12 or 13 | ENC, 65 Rue de Richelieu, 75002
What other stories can be told about the ‘journeys’ of museum objects, from their violent removal and illicit trade to their repatriation? How can we use counter-archives to rethink the varied agencies which surround cultural heritage preservation practices? This seminar will draw on the preceding lectures as well as new methods in ‘object biographies’. It will teach students that re-engaging with such histories can also lead to more inclusive contemporary heritage and preservation practices today.
Seminar 5 | There are plans for a complementary site visit to a local storage unit in a Parisian museum (space limited).