Topic: Exodus Stations project reexamines the heritage of colonial collecting, through contemporary art and the renegotiation of museological objects display.
Appeared in: Sean Lowry and Simone Douglas (ed.) 2018, Anywhere V.II, Parsons Fine Arts, School of Art, Media and Technology, New York and Victorian College of the Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne
Artistic research work in museums of material culture becomes a more and more present cultural initiative. My project had as its starting point a fascination for some of Portugal’s museums of material culture – ethnologic, geologic, natural historic museums – which forcefully catapult the visitor into a past epoch, due to decades or even century old display. They seemed to me to be museums of museology, where one can follow the intricate paths that are founding the broad discipline of anthropology. Places like the museum of The National Geographical Society in Lisbon are conserving their constituent colonial heritage: they were founded, designed and guarded intact during almost a century in order to keep together numerous captures collected in the overseas colonial territories. It is not only the display space of these collections that remained untouched (encapsulating the mummified objects behind the flat show cases), but also the viewer’s gaze is directed to induce an archaic museologic experience. The viewer finds himself trapped in a hermetic universe, with a hierarchic and often authoritarian display. In the first two images attached to this text we can see the main hall of the Society of Geography with the occasion of the Colonial Congress in 1930. In the third image, we see the Hall as it is today, whereas the side walls host – as 100 years ago – the same display structure, labelling system and objects.
My research and curatorial project EXODUS STATIONS is inviting contemporary artists to work with museological archives and to contribute to a critical reconsideration of national patrimony, to issues connected to colonial collecting practices, archiving, restitution, acquisition policy, migration of objects. The project will unfold in the museums, while integrating artistic work into the existing museological situation and aiming to a more contextual, critically aware and performative approach to the museologic object. In focus are ethnologic colonial collections – if private or public. The project is situated in the broad field of de-colonisation study as it follows mostly collections that have been formed or are heritage of colonial collecting and is dedicated to an experimental and conceptual display in museums which re-negotiates for the broad audience the inherited identity of objects.
The project also observes the way in which the museums themselves regularly involve contemporary art in order to reformulate or reshape publicly their own symbolic capital and image in a specific cultural milieu and to create their cultural and geographic sphere of influence.
The artistic interventions in the museums, which are constituting EXODUS STATIONS take place in a number of ethnologic museums in Germany, Portugal and France. The artists follow mainly what happened to the objects and in which way has their nature, their integrity and their form been affected or modified due to their understanding as objects of research or collected items, due to their dislocation, their incorporation into a museologic discourse and into the national patrimony. As the collected objects themselves have changed (both physically and ideologically), the figure of the museum has also shifted significance and these mutual transformations appear through the lens of these artistic works.
The project is also concerned with visual aspects of intellectual history. Recent practices of employing contemporary art in display strategies and information transmission have the capacity to make visible not only the physical patrimony, but also the immaterial heritage that museums transport. Through specific archival investigation, researcher-artists reveal the necessity to reconfigure cultural spaces of appurtenance of objects and documents found in museums, cultural representations of them, information around them, memories and narrative content that can be related to a colonial context and which have been neglected by museologic display or historiographic narratives. This project searches therefore to contribute to what has been called in specialised literature the ‘post-ethnographic museum’1 – by the means of contemporary art.
Each invited artists will start by having a residency in the museums, during which he will closely participate at the activities of the museum, will research in the archive of the museum and have intensive exchanges with the museum’s curators. The artists are proposed to study on concrete objects what will be called ‘the immaterial/virtual museological object’, which represents the complex parcourses that an object has accumulated in its history of circulation. Making visible to a museum audience these trajectories, reveals the meaning which have been attached to this object and the necessity to reconfigure cultural spaces of appurtenance. This series of residencies will be followed by exhibitions of these artists in the respective museums, whereas the newly produced artistic objects will be integrated and reconnected to the existing museologic historic pieces.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY LISBON – A CASE STUDY
The most important national Portuguese museum that houses colonial collections is the NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY LISBON, owning presently around 36.000 objects. The collection is formed by research campaigns in the Portuguese African colonies Mozambique, Angola and Guinea, organized by various ethnologic missions shortly before and after its founding in 1965. These missions have been one of the most important authorities in writing the end of the Portuguese colonial empire and legitimizing the Portuguese colonial wars.
The artistic case study that EXODUS STATIONS will organise in this museum is a research on the Makonde sculpture collection and the documents around it that the museum houses, which has been a founding material of the institution. Around 1957, during the colonial regime in Mozambique, the wife of the museum’s founder and herself an anthropologist, Margot Dias, started to construct a study of the Makonde folks, which culminated with an exhibition in 1959 which itself determined the founding of the museum of ethnology by Jorge Dias in 1965. The three largest Makonde collections exist today in the NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY LISBON, VOELKERKUNDE MUSEUM LEIPZIG and in the MUSÉE QUAI BRANLY, PARIS. The project is honoured to offer a framework to the researches of the contemporary Portuguese artist Catarina Simão. She is currently elaborating for EXODUS STATIONS #4 a complex of works that constructs a comparative perspective on the way the Makonde pieces and documents have been stored, archived, interpreted in these three museums and the ideological and political differences that determined in both contexts the treatment of the works. Following these two museolgic discourses, larger political agendas and strategies of colonial information dissemination are being revealed.
The conceptual tradition in art can offer an intrinsic and contextual perspective on the nature and identity of any given object. The project intends to demonstrate that conceptual art can make a significant contribution to the discipline of ethnology in regard to display methodology by bringing into visibility specific historic information which layered in time the identity of an object. Art can be also revealing the alterations that often collecting and exhibiting have caused upon the identity of the object.
Seen from the perspective of the museum, the project proposes also to follow the way in which display architecture and the visual scaffolding of information/museum design is constantly changing due to critical artistic practices. In this sense, the project also traces the way in which the involved museums modified their discourse in order to reshape publicly their own symbolic capital and implicitly their political status and agenda.
Considering the fact that we can no longer think in terms of fixed geographies and of “cultures” understood as immutable entities, objects also result as holding different identities according to the meaning that is given to them. It becomes interesting to access contemporary art that, by its conceptual nature, can render visible the multiple strata and the ideatic content that form the identity of an object. In this way, not mainly the object, but mostly the way it has been interpreted by the museologic ideologic apparatus will emerge. The invisible structure that puts meaning into circulation and that remains actually back stage gains prominence in this conceptual approach: we learn about the object not so much by considering it as an homogeneous piece originating from a certain culture, but mostly by the way it has been assimilated, traded, used in its circuits of movement. Issues like property rights on the objects (and the criteria to establish these) are being uncovered by the artist’s work with the museum’s archives.
Regarding the present concern in new museology for methods of de-colonising the object, I propose to address the object as a performative presence, that overpasses its identity as museologic object. Contemporary art has brought not only the performative qualities of the objects to the forefront, but has also affirmed an object that is actually not fully graspable and knowable. Contrary to museums which seem to want to ‘tame’ the mystery of objects (by subordinating them to categories and reducing them to some predefined qualities), conceptual art works with the hermeticism of objects – as their creative power. Conceptual art brought a performative approach to the objects by extracting their meaning from their agency, rather than from their qualities – as museologic display seems to do. As has been shown by Candice Lin2, acknowledging the agency of objects over humans, is a political insight, that destroys the paradigm of power as we know it (humans instrumentalising objects). She talks about the object as a hybrid being, resulted from a ‘creol’ identity, one that is the result of mixing, in which the categories are by nature not fixed. Reminding of Donna Haraways hybrid beings, she draws back to the co-evolutionary interpretative model, that envisions the subject-object relationship as a reciprocal creation. In this sense, objects seen as hybrid formations and as a result of plural interactions, undermine one-sided relations of power between object and subject.
One of the main objectives of this project is to elaborate cross-disciplinary methodologies and concretely follow ‘what art can do’ in the field of ethnologic museology. The project’s intention is not only to produce this row of case-studies in France, Germany and Portugal but also to connect the involved artists and curators to initiatives done previously in this field, through international meeting sessions, a constant web presence and regular presentations in Portugal, France and Germany that intend to crystallize methodologies and to evaluate outcomes.