Resituating Regional Objects, Reframing “Neutral” Collections

Rural heritage often appears as "out of history", locked in pristine folkloric collections or unspoiled open-air museums. This presentation takes a critical anthropological approach to knowledge production about rural material culture in East-Central European museums. The paper uses the examples of "folkloric" objects as openings into the exploration of global encounters and difficult local knowledges locked in museum collections. It addresses the historical context of two museum collections to interrogate the complex provenance of rural objects within the ruptured histories and charged socio-political landscapes.

Firstly, the case of textiles held in the Horniman Museum in London demonstrates how folklore collections emerged from the difficult past of rural collectivization and deprivation, and how acts of exhibiting traditional museum artifacts across the Iron Curtain served to create certain representations of the modern state. Secondly, the collections of the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin (MEK) highlight the ways in which an anthropological insight can help unlock unconsidered histories and shed light on the manifold political relations that underpinned the movement and display of these artifacts. Through these examples, the paper provides a reflection on the potential of decolonial approaches to the study of rural collections residing in ethnographic museums, paying particular attention to the possibilities afforded by anthropological and historical methods.

By addressing questions of acquisition, movement of objects, their local context of dispossession, and their political performance, the paper challenges the perceived ‘neutrality’ of East-Central European folkloric material and the categories of ahistorical ‘ethnographic regions’ in which these collections have been acquired. Rather than presenting Europe’s people without history, rural objects have a capacity to uncover unconsidered histories, processes social transformation, and displacement of East-Central European rural communities, as well as providing a window into the political lives of objects. These perspectives can point to new avenues for changing museum cultures representing rural heritage.

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