Engaging with Past Lives: Developing Reflexive-Creative Methods for Decolonial Futures

Museums of natural history, world cultures (formerly and sometimes still known as ethnographic museums), anatomical and medical museums hold bodily remains from ancient but also more recent history. They are traces of past lives and bear witness to the livings relationship to the dead but also to remaining structural unequal power relations. Departing from an ongoing long-term collaboration with colleagues from the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHM Vienna) and the research project TRACES1 (Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages with the Arts. From Intervention to Co-Production), this paper analyzes how the human story of these bodily traces, incites new ways of research methodologies based on interdisciplinary (artistic, ethnographic, historical,…) approaches, and can be opportunities for transmitting difficult (imperial/colonial) heritages. How can the collective but also personal engagement with collections of human remains evoke changes in present institutional structures, foster future collaborations and build new relationships? Can it contribute to deconstruct (neo)colonial systems that are lingering on? What are the ethical implications in engaging with these collections – Some individual’s remains at the NHM Vienna were collected under violent and ethically questionable circumstances. To shed light on this collection’s histories, the paper unravels how Viennese collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries were entangled in the networks of the Imperial (Mapping and categorizing the inhabitants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and Colonial Project (Collecting and classifying human crania from overseas). Stressing Vienna’s function as a center of knowledge transfer with easy access to human corpses2 between Eastern and Western Europe. The paper focuses on examples from a series of creative-reflexive public engagements with the NHM's human remains collection. By doing so, it discusses if and how the analyzed formats can contribute in building ethical-reflexive and decolonial futures.

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