In conversation with Carine Ayéle Durand, Chief Curator and Head of Collections, Ethnographic Museum of Geneva (MEG)
with contributions from Floriane Morin, Curator of the Africa Department and Roberta Colombo Dougoud, Curator of the Oceania Department, MEG.
My discussions on material culture with Durand have spanned two years, from our first meeting in Bern at a conference. These talks have revolved around general impressions of the museum as contested platforms, the subtleties of museum relationships with their publics and on how objects take on newer meanings within museums. The story of a pair of Totems arriving in Geneva from Alaska in the 1950s was one of the fascinating accounts of objects in mobility she related to me. This transfer exemplifies how some objects become iconic within new settings.
It is a known fact that the inclusion of a majority of objects to ethnographic collections stem from mechanisms of colonialism. On the other hand, there have also been interchanges between source communities and collectors that go beyond the image of despotic imperialist and a subjugated population. Looking at the foundations of ethnographic collections, however, “...things identified as fetishes were collected as ethnographic evidence; conversely, things collected as ethnographic evidence were often depicted in illustrations or exhibited in the museums as fetishes” (Fabian 50). Recognising these actualities beg the questions: How are contemporary cataloguing, filing and indexing changing? How does an exhibition design feed into the way an object is understood?
In “The Materiality of Museum Politics”, Peter Bjerregaard argues that “ethnographic museums may profit from new perspectives in the anthropology of art and material culture that focus on the agency of objects rather than on objects as cultural identity markers or cultural communicators.”
Our conversation also sees the need for a fortification of collaborations between museums and source communities. We explore the intricacies strewn between human and non-human agents. How do we accurately comprehend the semiotics of objects? With “Thing-Power” Jane Bennet, illuminates the positive, creative power of things, how they are active, expressive and altogether productive. In understanding the nature of things, Bennet describes this kind of materialism as that, “which fleshes out an ontological imaginary of things and their powers. Thing-Power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly” (Bennett 349).
The philosopher, Spinoza, claims that all things are animate in different magnitudes. For example, a falling stone could be considered vibrant or alive. Can we then, through an object in a museum, identify crucial spots where the human and the thing overlap?, where we can duly acknowledge the non-human as vital, or to borrow Bennet`s term, "vibrant" players in intercultural connections.
A hopeful indication comes from Floriane Morin who underlines the importance of ethical documentation and the need to “compensate for crude, geographical and functionalist categorisations”. Ethnographic museums are indeed not only places for the recollection of a colonial past; they are also places that could help to shape a future.
Totem poles standing in the Museum’s gardens in 1978. Image credit: MEG/Ville de Genève
ZJ: Are there any measures being taken to liberate your collections from the Procrustean rule of categorisation?
CAD: I would say that now, with the strategic plan being introduced, there is definitely a will to examine these categorisations and then question it and then criticise it. Definitely. The measure being taken -here again, Floriane is going to lead this- is to go back to this provenance information we have and then detail it and try to see what is there and try to update it, because sometimes collections can be totally frozen in time regarding categorisation like provenance… regions …geographically. Geographically we still find many many catalogues cards with West Africa, Dominion, and the likes. So, this is the first measure being taken. In which way the collections have been categorised, Geography, the name of the donator… is there a name of the artisan who made it? For example, …sometimes you realise that there is none. So, it is like observing the database and then correct what we think must be corrected because many of our catalogue cards are still very offensive today regarding geography, name of people, name of population all these things need to be updated and then this is the second measure being taken and the way to do it ... the way to correct this, is to try –it is a wish- to work as closely as possible with the source communities concerned. First is to observe what happened, be transparent about it, try to correct it and involving as much as possible, the source communities in the process.
FM: To remain pragmatic and put your question in its historical context, I can tell you that when the collections went online in 2003 (which was really early for full web access, with photos, of a museum collection), the emphasis was on performance and not on the quality of the information transmitted. The original inventories were transcribed into a home-made database, created by Grégoire de Ceuninck (head of information technology at the MEG), according to the wishes and priorities of the curators then in office. The standard inventory form did not, for example, include a field to indicate the identity of the creator of an item. This was not considered a priority by the majority, I imagine, whereas many works in the collections are signed by artists and others are documented down to the name of their creator. I make a parenthesis here to remind you that if the original inventories and the databases that have digitised them are so descriptive and poor in identity information about an object, it is not because the original information does not exist, it is because it has been considered by museum professionals as being of no interest.
ZJ: Recent discussions about representation have centred around a critique against the Western hegemonic depiction of other societies through a so-called Western, scientific lens. So, here, it was largely a case of selecting whatever information was presumed to be most significant.
FM: Objects have not always arrived anonymous and disconnected at the museum. Quite the contrary. But this lack of scientific rigour and respect for the biography of the object included in the collections has long led people to believe that no data originally accompanied them. Fortunately, some of them could be recovered, particularly from the archives. This is a bit like the battle I have been waging for the African collections since I took up my post ten years ago: to take the objects out of their "categories" imposed by my predecessors and recontextualise the reasons for their presence in the museum. A concrete example of a "category" that the MEG database has generated is the "function" field. I arrived only in 2010 and did not participate in it, but my colleagues had worked for many months to build this functionalist thesaurus that grouped the collections into large families of "uses". As they had never been able to reach a consensus, this thesaurus was accompanied by another "free" field where a second "function" could be added. Today, when it is used, it is at your fingertips and I plan to remove it from the public version of the database.
Now we want to do what other museums have done before publishing their databases...check and correct them. But it's complex. To compensate for crude, geographical and functionalist categorisations, we are writing as many "cartels" as possible so that objects are accompanied by constructed text rather than dry columnar information. This desire to always be as specific as possible, as close as possible to the object and its history has become our guideline. To this will be added, within the framework of our Strategic Plan, a critical specification of the mode of acquisition, and a priority to the multiplicity of views on the collections.
ZJ: That is laudable! (to Durand) What are your thoughts on the requirements of an object to be fully itself without being prone to taking on other attributes that do not belong to it? Another dilemma it faces is its reduction by way of an economy of description as Floriane mentioned, the information on an object has been consciously sifted in the past .
CAD: I do not understand what you mean by taking attributes that do not belong to it… the object you mean.
ZJ: This follows from problems of misrepresentation in categorisation… as a curator, what are your thoughts on how objects should be accurately, or should I say, fairly represented. When does the biography of an object begin, when does it end? Which spaces has it traversed and what kind of changes has it undergone or caused throughout its journey? How do different kinds of spaces such as religious, domestic or institutional, manifest in the life of an object?
CAD: I am very concerned myself about the multiple ways of seeing or representing an object. Sometimes I am struggling myself with the idea that an object could not be fully itself because I don’t really know what will be truly this self. I think there could be many ways of engaging this object. So of course, for me as a curator, what I would like to see, or to put in a catalogue card, is all the interpretations…or all the selves, many selves, not mainly one self. I will give you a specific example. We try to work with different carvers from Alaska around a totem, a pair of totem poles that were collected in the 1950s. To me as a curator, I can say this object is totally itself because I know exactly when it happened (when it was made), when it arrived in Geneva and how people in Geneva became very concerned, interested and how they began to see them as a symbol of MEG and the symbol of the ethnographic museum in Geneva. You know, this is the self that this totem has, and then when you compare….and start convoking other people and gathering other people around these totem poles, you realise that they have many selves. You know, these totem poles are the reminiscence of a way of carving that is no longer the same today for the carvers. When they see the totem poles today, there they see differences, they see other stories. So, our job should be- this is what I am interested in- to convoke all these stories, and all these selves and then put them on the table and show them to the audience. I tell the story around the totem, not the totem speaking, it is me speaking and saying the totem is this way, and someone else would say, to me, the totem is that way… and even looking at the totem, even through the carver`s eyes, I would see things that I would not normally see if I am not a/ the carver. You know. I am struggling with this idea of the object being fully itself, because it depends on who is talking and if the object could speak by itself then maybe we should have this carver`s eye to be able to listen to it, see it, or to feel it. I have been involved- for like a week- in weaving, basket weaving. After that, I could tell, when I was in the storage, looking at objects, and looking at baskets I could see many things that I would have never noticed before. The object speaks to me in a different way. But if I didn’t have the relationship with the making of the object, I just don’t see certain things.
School children around the crate of the newly arrived totem poles, May 1956. G. Barbey wearing a white beard can be seen in the background. Image credit: MEG/Ville de Genève
ZJ: It is a matter of evaluation standpoints, isn’t it? I find the idea of multiple perspectives interesting. This would translate to some intricate work for the curators who set out to work on including the different lives of an object in its biography.
CAD: A way to do it, which colleagues have been doing for many years now is to gather different people around the object. It could be a delegation made up of elders, artists, craft persons. Many museums have been doing it for many years now, just in order to put all these views, multiple voices around the object.
David A. and David R. Boxley (on the right) observing the techniques mobilised to carve Sidney Campbell’s poles, 26 November 2018. Image credit: Johnathan Watts/MEG/Ville de Genève.
ZJ: If we agree, According to Christoper Tilley, that the meaning of an object is born when the object is used towards a purpose by a group, is there a potential that objects can carry on multiple meanings and be presented as such, that is, the meaning an institution such as a museum accords it and the other meanings it has within cultural contexts. On multiple meanings, there`s this notion that once an object gets outside its original context it is being defamiliarised, which is what -if we go by that notion- museums do.
CAD: Exactly! This concept of meaning is what I would like to examine more…. Because this is something, as curators/academics ...this is something we really cling to in terms of concepts. What do objects mean in terms of rituals etc. This is something I still cannot grasp, but I think if we focus so much on meaning…. I cannot explain it…. we lose this idea of the self of an object, as we were talking about before, you know.
ZJ: I think I understand what you mean. If we are ascribing meaning in the singular, to an object then it assumes a fixity that makes it impossible to claim multiple selves… except if we were talking about multiple meanings…which would make more sense… A singular meaning cannot complement multiple selves. Singular meaning is delimiting.
CAD: Yes. I would be very much interested (something I have never done before) many people have done it before me…studying the social life of these objects without us humans giving meaning to it…like biologists have been doing it for years… to see how living organisms are relating to something else. Sometimes I go into the storage, I see all these objects and I wonder how these objects are interacting… one with the other…
ZJ: Not in Night at the Museum” fashion (Laughter)
CAD: In the sense that they could be exchanging molecules…or something happening in there. I can’t know and I don’t know. The kind of parallel lives that they have with ours as we as humans keep giving meanings to them.
ZJ: I am often asked about my work with objects and talk about the agency of the objects come up …Sometimes I cannot help but grapple with the idea of the propensity of objects being self-constituting as well. Can they do things on their own? In terms of biodeterioration, the development of microorganisms within an object outside of human interaction...interference.
CAD: Exactly, that is what I meant. You know there are people who have been looking closely at these things…concerning conservation, for example, when there is mould on an object or insects inhabiting … and of course things are happening here and then they just move from one object to the next…and why this object and not the other. I know people have been studying this…doing this kind of work and there is who works on biocides on objects. So, she does exactly this. But sometimes I think as Anthropologists, we tend to focus heavily on people and humans around the object. And then of course as humans, we are controlling things, in a way it is not a categorisation, when we put an object in a storage and then we control the climate, the temperature and the humidity to make sure that these objects stay… in a sense that they do not get too mouldy. That they stay the way they are, you know.
ZJ: In terms of preservation too, I was once working with wooden objects that were preserved with chemicals ...perhaps some sort of fumigant before this method was discontinued. Even though I had a mask and rubber gloves on, I have this reflexive habit of touching …rubbing my face all the time. That was me being I broke out in hives! That was me having a reaction to an object …an attack by an object (Laughter). Effects of preservation!
CAD: Even objects are not as innocent as we think, they are lively…even affects your state of health.
ZJ: That’s true! If you could design a new classification schema for the objects you work with, what would it look like?
CAD: I would love to find this kind of relation stuff, you know, like, a schema like the way objects are related to their places of origin. To the places where they have been. Transiting through … and to the place where they end up and to the places where they might go next. It will definitely have to do with what your research is about, this idea of moving…considering that the place where these objects are now…doesn’t mean that they will remain there forever. They are going to move again and again and again. And even with the huge move of our objects, we just think oh my god, it is such a huge move from one storage to another…which is just like two miles away. But when you begin to think on how they got here, the effort (exertion?) that it took to get them to Europe…and they are just going to keep moving.
ZJ: We tend to always focus on the transnational mobility of objects, now you make me think about the slightest mobility of an object…however short the distance it has travelled. It could just be from one storage to another as you have mentioned. The conditions would be different.
CAD: Totally, because they are not the same conditions. Again, talking about relationships between objects, before we did this move, we had objects that had been "seating" together for years… For 15 years and during the move we decided that we had to arrange them differently to get space… so it’s a situation of “sorry, you have been together for many years but we are going to have to separate you. You are going to be much better on this side of the room” (Laughter) And this is still mobility.
ZJ: The lives of objects, if we paid more attention, will be very instrumental to a better understanding populations as well. In another way, it is conceivable that through objects we can possibly engender a kind of thinking that aids our interactions as humans. The significance of objects in human thinking as Jane Bennet and other Materialists propose.
CAD: Yes of course! Emmanuel Kasarhérou, from New Caledonia, said many years back that objects were Ambassadors. Ambassadors of their cultures, ambassadors of their people. And he said this way before the debates about restitution, and he said if you consider an object to be an ambassador, then it has perfectly a right to be on another continent but it has to stand for us, in a sense that it is representing us. I think it is a nice concept. My Colleague Roberta can expand on that.
RCD: Noteworthy and inspiring is the perspective developed in New Caledonia which considers the Kanak objects stored abroad as ambassadors of Kanak culture. In the 1980s, at the bequest of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, French anthropologist Roger Boulay undertook an extensive project to locate the Kanak collections in Europe and metropolitan France. The aim was not to carry out an exhaustive inventory of what is known as dispersed Kanak heritage’ but to build a database of the major museums holding Kanak artistic heritage. This project led to the exhibition De jade et de nacre. Patrimoine artistique kanak rst presented in Nouméa at the Musée Territorial de Nouvelle Calédonie from March to May 1990 and then in Paris at the Musée National des Arts Africains et Océaniens from October to December of the same year.8 In order to prepare for the temporary return of dispersed heritage to New Caledonia, Roger Boulay and Emmanuel Kasarhérou, the exhibition curators, undertook a series of visits to different communities so that they could not only explain the exhibition aims and contents, but also understand people’s expectations and anticipate their reactions. Emmanuel Kasarhérou was willing to display a gwâ mie, a head of Kanak currency, held at the Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel (MEN) that had been donated in 1910 by Maurice Leenhardt. He had received this extraordinary piece from the Misikoéo (Miyikwéö) clan, Kasarhérou’s clan. When elders from Kasarhérou’s family saw the object they were astonished by its artistic and cultural value. They did not ask for the final return of the object to New Caledonia because they did not know the reasons, or the conditions in which it had been offered. Given its symbolic importance, the elders thought it had been given to Maurice Leenhardt probably following a conversion to Christianity. They declared that they could not go back on a given word. Rather, they were grateful to Switzerland to have kept the gwâ mie and to have allowed them to see it. In the discussion between the Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture and the elders, it was determined not to actively seek the return of any of these objects, many of which have spent up to 150 years away from New Caledonia (and which, according to traditional beliefs, may be dangerous in cases in which the conditions of acquisition are unknown). As Emmanuel Kasarhérou explained in an interview to Anna Paini and Adriano Favole in 2007, these objects had indisputably left; nevertheless, they should not be considered as an absence, as something that was missing. They were far away because they had been sent in order to accomplish a specific task, that of becoming messengers, ambassadors who create connections and open paths. Having travelled and been exposed abroad, these objects should be considered as ‘ambassadors’ of Kanak culture, employed to let the rest of the world know that Kanak exist. 
ZJ: Yes, this might be another way of looking at it with the emphasis on representation…also the ways in which the objects were acquired also deserve all the scrutiny.
CAD: Of course.
ZJ. This notion of objects as ambassadors brings to mind John Peffer`s idea of diasporic objects. His idea is to create a map of the movement of objects- just as we have a movement of people, objects too travel and take on different characters, different personas. His essay recommends a concept for the history of African objects across space and time as vehicles for “diasporas” of images.
CAD: That is very interesting!
Anthropology (and the humanities in general) is already -through philosophies such as Critical Post Humanism- bridging the nature/culture divide. To give a few examples, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Tim Ingold and Rosi Braidotti fly the flags for deconstructive undertakings determined to surmount the anthropocentrism of modern humanism. As it appears, the task for museums lies -among other tasks- in taking up responsibility by engaging in this model of deconstruction; providing full-bodied narratives and establishing an object`s history in all fairness.
 Christopher, Tilley. “Ethnography and Material Culture." In Handbook of Ethnography (2004)
 Reference to fiction fantasy, Night at the Museum--Battle of the Smithsonian. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 2009.  This section was culled from Roberta Colombo Dougoud`s article, "Tides of Innovation in Oceania. Value, materiality and place”. With kind permission by the author. See, (http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n2395/pdf/ch03.pdf for full article and references.
Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347–372.,
Bjerregaard, Peter. “The Materiality of Museum Politics: Reflections on Objects and Agency in Contemporary Museum Practice.” ICME PAPERS. 2006
Christopher, Tilley. “Ethnography and Material Culture.” Handbook of Ethnography, edited by Paul Atkinson, SAGE, 2007, pp. 258–272.
Dougoud, Roberta Colombo. “Kanak Engraved Bamboos: Stories of the Past, Stories of the Present.” Tides of Innovation in Oceania, 2017, pp. 115–138.
Fabian, Johannes. “On Recognizing Things. The "Ethnic Artefact" and the "Ethnographic Object": L'Homme, No. 170, ESPÈCES D'OBJETS 2004 pp. 47-60 EHESS Stable
Peffer, John. “Africa’s Diasporas of Images.” Third Text, vol. 19, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355.