Thoughts on the Diasporic Objects Symposium

25-06-2018
On March 1st 2018, the Research Center for Material Culture in Leiden hosted the ‘Diasporic objects’ symposium. This event brought together 6 speakers from different disciplines and geographical regions to discuss around the theme of objects in diaspora. The symposium was divided into two key areas of discussion: Museums and Home. These two areas of discussion were able to bring to the floor interesting issues of contemporary museum practices and the role of museum collections in process of constructing individual and community identities.

The inspiring presentations and follow up questions coming from the audience confronted everyone that attended the symposium with ongoing issues that relate to ethnographic museums and their practices. During the first part of the symposium – where presentations focused on diasporic objects in relation to museums – some of the issues that came up addressed the role that colonial objects can play in contemporary ethnographic museums; for example, how can museums approach these objects and create spaces that enable multiple voices to be heard and not prioritize certain politically ‘legitimized’ voices more than others. Another point that came up related to a museum’s responsibility to ‘source’ communities in regards to the creation and maintenance of communication lines between object’s host institutions (Museums) and ‘source’ communities.

The second part of the symposium – where presentations revolved around the theme of home – brought to light the incredible potential that diasporic objects have of helping migrating individuals create a sense of continuity in the face of their own migration. Speakers in this section focused on the subtlety of everyday objects that are a part of migrants’ material lives, objects that migrants engage with in an almost unconscious way, but are extremely important in building a sense of home in a foreign context/land. 

In this blogpost I would like to briefly explore some of the key questions and reflections that came up during and after the symposium. As the organizer of the event, I am still reflecting on the questions that emerged from the Diasporic Objects symposium; some of these questions were unexpected, incredibly complex, and alluring. Due to my own ongoing thought process, I will not offer any concrete or finished thoughts about the symposium. I will rather use the unfinished/open-ended quality of my personal thought process to give readers some space to resonate, contradict or even divert their own train of thought.

One of the first issues that came up and was touched upon by Professor Paul Basu, was the use of the term diaspora and its implications. One of the problematics of using this term is the resulting process of essentialization of the group of people that compose a diaspora, which can lead to a flattening out of the multiplicity of diasporic experiences and identities that can be a part of a larger and politically ‘legitimized’ diasporic community. This essentialization of diasporic communities can lead museum projects focusing on certain groups of diasporic objects/or people to overly focus on a univocal reading /interpretation of the objects, that is, one authorized by the politically legitimized diaspora community.  

However, this issue presents a very practical obstacle. If in our contemporary context (of constant migration), boundaries of identity are so blurred – sometimes even presenting the unexpected overlapping of multiples identities – how can museum practitioners create spaces where these blurred lines, those ‘not so easy to define’ identities can be heard? How can museums use the potential of diasporic objects to find a balance that on the one hand gives already formed diaspora groups a space to express themselves and on the other hand opens up to, other emerging, more complex diasporic identities? Is it possible to accomplish this through the creative use of objects found in ethnographic museum collections?  Nonetheless, when opening up a museum’s collections to multiple readings, should there be any limits to who is authorized to speak about certain (highly symbolically charged) diasporic objects? If so, who is entitled to make such a decision? Who symbolically and/or practically owns diasporic objects (the Museum, the host country, the ‘source’ community’)? Can a diasporic object have multiple owners?

Connecting with the lingering questions previously mentioned, Wonu Veys presentation, ‘Diasporic Waka in a Dutch museum: Fostering and mediating relationships’ gave us captivating insight in relation to issues of ownership, authority and access that surround the two Maori canoes (Waka) on the museum terrain of Leiden’s Museum Volkenkunde. Due to the peculiar relationship build between the Volkenkunde Museum and Maori communities, where the ownership of the Waka’s is held by Toi Maori Aotearoa but the objects are a loan to the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden, the objects rest in an in-between status, forcing both parties to maintain a relationship and a balance between Māori principles that inform behavior and customs relating to Waka (Kaupapa Waka) and the Volkenkunde Museum’s role and responsibilities as a key culture institution in the Netherlands. Thus, in this particular case, as was mentioned by a conference attendant, Wakas act in a similar way as a gift works within diverse societies. This comment brings up some unsolved questions to me: in a contemporary context, where the ownership of certain museum objects  is no longer so clearly defined – as in the Waka case, where  an object is on loan – how is the responsibility divided between multiple groups? In these cases, where does authority lie?

The issue of authority was touched upon by Hector Garcia Botero’s presentation ‘Negotiating place, meaning and identity in the Ethnographic Museum of the Central Bank of Colombia’ which touched upon the matters raised during the renovation of the ethnographic museum located in the Colombian Amazon. He spoke about the process of re-discovering and understanding the stories behind indigenous objects collected by the religious order of Friars Minor Capuchin in a colonial context. He unveiled the somewhat curious dynamic and authority negotiation that unraveled between a centralized institution (the Gold Museum in Bogotá) and the regional museum (Ethnographic Museum in the Amazon), both of which are owned by the Central Bank of Colombia. In his presentation, he considered the problematics between center and periphery that were evident during the renovation of the Ethnographic Museum.

Regarding the second section of the symposium, which moved the discussions from institutional and community based (medium scale) insights towards individual and more personal accounts of diasporic objects; Professor Maja Povrzanovic Frykman’s presentation brought forth the subtle stories of diasporic objects in the context of transnational dwelling. Her presentation explored migrants’ personal engagements with the materiality of everyday objects that are an essential part of their lives. She illustrated how these migrating everyday objects – that are transported through national borders – help migrants feel at home in different locations. In this way, it is by actively engaging with these objects (through familiar body practices) that migrants maintain their connections with their previous home and those that have stayed behind.

Connecting to migrants’ embodied experiences with diasporic objects, my own presentation focused on the role that diasporic objects play in the reconstruction of a sense of home in the context of basket production among the Wounaan indigenous community in Colombia. Many members of this community have been forcefully displaced from their original territory into urban areas. My own presentation resonated with, as well as contrasted, Professor Povrzanovic Frykman’s presentation, shedding light on the conflictive relationships that migrants can have with diasporic objects. Looking at the basket making practices of the Wounaan, (specifically when referring to traditional fibers that migrate from the Wounaan’s original territory into urban areas) it is possible to see how on the one hand, the materiality of the fibers used in basket making help artisans rebuild a sense of home (through the performance of known basket making skills with traditional material); but on the other hand, these objects also impede artisans from effectively and truly experiencing a sense of continuity with their past home. An example of this is made evident in the natural decay of the fiber (that occurs during transport into urban areas) which acts as a constant reminder of the unsurmountable distance between the artisans and their home, making the experience of rupture more intense.  

The closing presentation by Pim Westerkamp beautifully illustrated the crossroads between diasporic objects, museums and home. His ongoing research that explores the role of food in the performance of the self, in the context of colonial migration between the Netherlands and Indonesia, focuses on his family’s heirloom cooking objects. By looking at his family’s objects, which are very similar to objects found in the Museum Volkenkunde’s collection (such as cookbooks, the tumbukan and traditional rice spoons), he reflected on the intimate relation between culinary objects, his family’s migration and their performance of different selves. His presentation guided us through the way in which diasporic objects, like the tumbukan, create relationships between 5 generations and most importantly, how the objects (through their materiality) have mediated these relationships. The evocative power of the objects that he referred to, not only introduced us to the richness of sensory experiences held within the materiality of culinary diasporic objects, but also resonated with the previous presentations by revealing how the materiality of diasporic objects held in museums can help bring to light new understandings of familial bonds, performance of the self and a sense of belonging.

The final discussion culminated in a series of thought-provoking questions that made the discussion so rich, ranging from conceptual and theoretical concerns to practical ones. Some example of this were: how can museums not only respond to their obligation with the objects in their collections (by looking after them) but also take responsibility for the object’s place of origin (and the communities that created it) as well as the human communities in-between? How can museums circumvent conflicts between the practicality of museum practices (constricted by funding time periods, which lead to less research time) and the contemporary need to give voice to diverse communities, not only to more known and legitimized discourses? How can museums translate the intricacy of theoretical nuance into museum spaces (exhibitions, workshops) while fulfilling their responsibilities with national and international funding agencies, politics and governments?

Other concerns brought to the floor by the audience revolved around the ways in which museums can use their collections to bring forth narratives of commonality of human migration experiences while respecting the political and strategic importance of essentializing identities used by some minority groups. How can museums use their collections to maintain communication with the past while engaging with the political and social turmoil of the present, and keeping their view to the future? All of these are still unresolved questions that can be a starting point to reflect on and produce action within material culture studies. Even though none of us have a concrete solution, it is becoming increasingly important in our current time to not shy away from our political, social and cultural responsibilities in whatever field we work in.

Further information

For those of you who are interested in following up on some of the ongoing projects and events mentioned in the Diasporic Objects symposium, you can have a look at the following resources:

‘Museum as arenas for integration – new perspectives and methods’ project: https://www.mah.se/Forskning/Sok-pagaende-forskning/Museer-som-integrativa-arenor--nya-perspektiv-och-inkluderingsmetoder/

‘Museum Affordances’ and ‘Re- entanglements’ projects: http://www.materialculture.nl/en/projects/museum-affordances,

 https://re-entanglements.net

The Ethnographic museum in Leticia, Colombia: http://proyectos.banrepcultural.org/museo-etnografico/

The Waka weekend at the Volkenkunde museum/RCMC in Leiden: http://materialculture.nl/en/events/waka-weekend-2017

And the RCMC’s annual conference coming at the end of this year with Keynotes by Arjun Appadurai and Lisa Lowe (29-30th November 2018)!