From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy

Eleanor Williams  &  Theophile Desarmeaux,  UCL  Anthropology

magic lantern

The lanternslides exhibited in ‘From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy’ emerge from the depths of the UCL Anthropology Department’s Material Culture Room, part of UCL Museums and Collections.  From this cave of curiosities, the exhibition excavates a medley of largely anonymous ethnographic lanternslides, which were used for teaching anthropology during 1940 and 1950.  Today, a variety of slides are re-cast into three mock lectures that both explore the breadth of the collection and interrogate the use of images for teaching.

Lecture 1: We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia

The first lecture reveals the collection’s cornucopia of slides and questions the images’ instrumentality within a teaching context.  Employing a random number generator enabled the curators to have minimal input in the lecture’s creation.  To select the images, random numbers were applied to the list of slides.  An arbitrary narrative to accompany the images was obtained from Raymond Firth’s 1936 ethnographic monograph We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia.  Pages of the book were selected according to random numbers and text was extracted from the pages’ first indented paragraph.  The curators explore how the encasement of these multi-vocal images within the un-related narrative may manipulate one’s interpretation of the image.  However, the images simultaneously emancipate themselves from and subvert the narrative by visually bringing new meanings to the text.

Lecture 2: Duplicates

The second lecture concentrates on the collection’s duplicated images.  By exploring ‘the duplicates’ the lecture brings to the fore the slides’ materiality and resultant polysemy.  The material disparity of the duplicated images, in terms of their framing, inversion, enlargement and magnification, are examined in the lecture.  The varying material qualities cleave the same slide into two highly different images.  By contrasting pairs of duplicates, the curators explore how their varying materiality offers an avenue through which the images’ polysemy may be unleashed.  The curators question what the implications of using slides with different material properties might be when used for teaching purposes.

Lecture 3: The Image Speaks

The third lecture provides a space in which the most unruly and restive of the lanternslides may be revealed.  The lecture investigates the spectrum of the images’ semantic contents and aesthetic qualities that exists within the collection.  The selection exposes the images that confounded the curators during their exploration, due to their qualities such as blurriness and either under or over exposure.  The images’ incomprehensible nature and their ability to seemingly evade anthropological categorisation, led the curators to question how these slides might have been used for teaching.

[Editor’s note: during their tenure in the teaching collection these slides have largely been separated from any contextual information and provenance. They are thus presented here as they emerge and are experienced within this particular archive, which is of course an archive that rests on the problematic histories of anthropology, photography, and colonialism. If anyone has any commentary or context to add to specific photographs, please either contact us directly or add to the public comments in this posting.]

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