Diverse Perspectives from Implicated Communities (Roundtable)

Since East Central Europe (ECE) did not have its own overseas colonies, there has yet to be sustained conversation on the relevance of “the colonial” to museums and other heritage sites in the region, and there has – to our knowledge – been little attempt to connect with source community members to consult about the treatment and interpretation of relevant collections and sites. Paired with a session where “internal” local representatives of minority groups in Poland discuss how they would like to engage with and be represented by museums, this session offers a window onto the experiences of individuals representing “source communities” – as well as those with more tangled connections of affinity, adjacency, or proximity – who have worked with museums and heritage in other parts of Europe. A key goal is to help ECE practitioners understand the possibilities and anticipate the challenges of engaging with the full range of communities relevant to the multiple, relational histories of their sites or collections.

The topics we will explore include: the practical, political, and person challenges and benefits of trying to gather and curate the knowledge, relationships, and emotions that diverse community members bring to collections that implicate their cultural groups; the value of using arts-based practices for illuminating and presenting collections; questions of collaboration, dialogue, and the different vectors of teaching and learning as knowledge about objects is produced.

Panelists' abstracts:

Carine Ayélé Durand
Decolonising collections: a renewed dialogue with the originating cultures for fair exchanges
The Ethnographic Museum of Geneva (MEG) is resolutely engaged in a proactive process of decolonising its practices and the history of its collections. An assumed and committed decolonial approach represents a real challenge in a country that did not have colonies as such, but which nevertheless has a rich and complex colonial history. MEG aims to demonstrate that decolonisation concerns all countries, regions and institutions whose citizens have pursued colonial practices, sometimes even after declarations of independence. With this in mind, MEG wishes to sensitize its audiences and partners on the colonial roots of its collections, the knowledge it has produced and its museology. The general objective is to engage, from our Swiss and European reality, a translocal dialogue and fair exchanges with the descendants of those who were colonised. This dialogue is based on three foundations. The first is to shed light on the history of the Museum's collections by deepening our knowledge of the provenance of the objects, in particular their motive and the way in which they were acquired. The MEG will undertake to inform culture carriers of the presence of sensitive objects in its collections. The second is to re-establish the link between "source communities", from the five continents, and the collections or archives that concern them, with the aim of reappropriating their heritage. The point here is to gather around the collections in order to strengthen the voices of the descendants of those who created the Museum's objects, to co-construct new knowledge and new interpretations. The third is to promote exchanges with artits and artisans, with the aim of generating new artistic creations, and to encourage researchers, but also culture bearers and audiences to look to the years to come and work together to shape a decolonial future.

Rado Ištok and Léuli Eshrāghi
Placing Slovak Collections into Great Ocean Relationality

In this presentation, Rado Ištok and Léuli Eshrāghi chart the first ocean-going outrigger vessel between the colonial collections of Ancestral Belongings in Slovakia and the many Indigenous archipelagos of the Great Ocean where they originate. Unpacking the prestige, racial bias and epistemic violence implicated by creating ethnographic museums in the 19th and 20th centuries in Slovakia and East-Central Europe, we place these long languishing collections back into constellation with Indigenous communities and diasporic/migrant contemporary artists whose capacity to reinterpret and remedy these collections is salvatory and necessary.

Through understanding the historical context which shaped the establishment of non-Western ethnographic collections in Slovakia in the periods of the New Imperialism (1880–1914) and Global Neoliberalism (post-1989), Ištok’s current research considers potential ways of ‘unlearning imperialism’ (Ariella Azoulay) in the present and near future. Ištok’s research further develops methodologies for anti-racist curating of the region’s non-Western collections in the near future, grounded in an understanding of their role in the past.[1] Together we conduct research into Great Ocean collections in the Slovak museums in Bratislava, Košariská, Piešťany, and Martin, as well as Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, with a particular focus on barkcloths.[2]

Eshrāghi will discuss recent artworks made in response to barkcloth and Ancestral Remains collections in museums in Europe, Turtle Island and Australia, particularly the performance paper/s/kin (2018) and the series of mnemonic animated barkcloth or siapo viliata that starts with TAFA (((O))) ATA (2020).[3] In dialogue with other artists and researchers working across the Great Ocean, Eshrāghi will provide an understanding of the Ancestral Belongings’ meaning for Great Ocean cultures and create an artistic response to the poorly researched collections in Slovakia.

[1] Understanding the role that non-Western ethnographic collections played in the past is crucial for imaginaries of multiple futures. How are we to acknowledge the presence of the non-Western collections in Slovakia without reproducing a Western-centric museum of world cultures? How do we curate the collections in a context which is, unlike the metropolises of Western Europe, largely homogenous, with very small migrant communities and restrictive immigration and asylum policies? Engaging with heritage from their regions, contemporary artists could, in part, compensate for the lack of experts on non-Western collections in Slovakia.

[2] See e.g. Peter Mesenhöller and Annemarie Stauffer, eds., Made in Oceania. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Social and Cultural Meanings and Presentation of Oceanic Tapa Cologne, 16–17 January 2014, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2015.

[3] These works comprise new writing, moving image and animated drawings reflecting on Indigenous futurisms, data sovereignty, non-colonial museology and community-driven cultural memory initiatives in the Great Ocean and its diasporas. The second in the series can soon be accessed at Subspace.art and the third, AOAULI (2020), through ACCA’s platform.

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