Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review Essay: “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge”

This critical examination of the 2013 double issue of Museum Anthropology Review (MAR), entitled “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge,” (volume 7, numbers 1-2) was written by our spring 2014 class on the Anthropology in and of Museums, as part of the Museum Studies MA Program at New York University.  Contributors included Brittany Darrow, Christina Fernandez, Mary Kate Gliedt, Houda Lazrak, Jacqueline Masseo, Maria Montenegro, Edward Ovadek, and Laura Williams; and the project was overseen by our professor, Dr. Sabra Thorner (who facilitated class discussion on the journal issue and its broader context in Anthropology and Museum Studies, and had a final editorial role over the contents).  We’d like to collectively thank Barbara Mathé, Museum Archivist and head of Library Special Collections at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, who planted the seed for this idea and participated actively in several conversations about this issue’s contents and significance; and Jim Enote, Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni, New Mexico, who was a guest speaker in our class during the process.

In this review, we address the issue’s prominent themes and discuss the collection’s contribution to the field of digital repatriation and return. Our first concern was to define terms and unpack metaphors, and we found anthropologist Haidy Geismar’s concluding commentary to be our most helpful guide (see her essay, “Defining the Digital”).  She outlines three defining characteristics of the digital.  The first is that digital objects are born digital, and thus, their production and preservation depend on constantly changing forms of hardware and software.  The second characteristic involves translation into and out of binary code; through minute changes in coding, very different objects are created.  Thirdly, as metadata is permanently attached to digital files, the distinction between an artifact and the information about that artifact is increasingly difficult to discern.  Geismar emphasizes that the digital is a process rather than a fixed materiality; as such, digital collections present a unique set of circumstances, issues, and solutions, for museums and source communities alike.  These qualities were central to the case-studies addressed in this review.

The study of digital collections emerges originally from the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that endowed native tribes and communities with the right to request return of human remains (and associated objects) held in publicly-funded U.S. institutions, but more importantly, ushered in a sea-change in museums’ commitment to more collaborative and inclusive engagement with “source communities.”  Digital collections emerged as a possible solution to repatriation—increasing source community access to objects and knowledge in contexts when analogue repatriation was perhaps impractical or impossible.  Images, films, objects, and texts have been digitally “repatriated.”  With this in mind, this issue of MAR examines how digitization influences methods and forms of knowledge production, and how digital objects move within and across different cultures of knowledge management and preservation.  Scholars, activists, community members, and museum professionals are together investigating and analyzing what digital repatriation means in terms of ownership, access, the production of knowledge, the maintenance of personal and collective identities, and the negotiation of power relations.

As objects and knowledge become increasingly inseparable, some scholars raise concern about the blurring of boundaries between originals and their copies.  Philosopher Walter Benjamin argued for the aura of a unique, original object (see his 1931 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”)—a sensation or atmosphere that it constructs, emanating from its singularity and its relation to the genius or divine inspiration of the maker.  Applying the notion of the aura to Indigenous objects held in public museums, source communities make claims to have their objects returned because these objects make their cultures, languages, knowledges, and lifeways, tangible.  The creation of digital surrogates raises important questions about the significance of original artifacts.  Many of the articles in “After the Return” acknowledge these complexities.

“Collaboration” is one of many strong themes in this issue: in its simplest form, pointing towards the working together necessary to achieve a larger goal.  Collaboration can be an effective strategy to improve both museums’ and Indigenous communities’ access to objects and information.  Yet it is important to remember that collaboration is an ongoing process, not a fixed destination: it must be striven for via listening and respect; it can also go awry when goals are understood differently by different parties.  “Contact zones,” is perhaps a more helpful metaphor in understanding the coming together of different peoples or communities, to establish ongoing relations amidst legacies of colonial power relations, including inequality, conflict, and/or coercion (see Clifford 1997).  We argue that every example of “collaboration” might be rethought as a negotiation between multiple viewpoints.  In the “contact zone,” struggle and negotiation may in fact be productive, enriching communities’ access to their objects of cultural heritage, and/or improving museum collections at the same time (see Srinivasan, Enote, Becvar, and Boast 2008 for an example of a “contact zone” in action).

One successful example of this in the MAR volume is the FirstVoices Initiative (see the article by Smith, Wells, and Brand), in which the provincial government of Vancouver Island endowed the Ehattesaht Chinehkint community with legal property rights to the contents of a digital language archive (see also Leopold, Sarkar, this volume).  Yet collaboration also occasionally breaks down, as evidenced by the article by Shankar and Hooee on the return of cultural heritage materials to the New Mexico pueblo of Zuni from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  In this example, Zuni elders refused a proposal to raise funds to acquire the infrastructure and tools needed to store the Doris Duke Storytelling Collection, resulting in no increased access to tapes imagined by project coordinators to be important in a language revitalization project.

These examples illustrate that “repatriation” is not an uncomplicated or inherent good; nor are communities necessarily unified in their desires/needs for further or reinstated access to artifacts originating from their homeplaces or made by their forbears.  Collections and their (potential) processes of return are so contested precisely because Indigenous communities and museums have had conflicting structures, systems, and strategies for accessing (and controlling access to) knowledge.  For many Indigenous peoples, objects are alive and therefore, must be treated with respect.  Different communities have different restrictions for the access to and use of traditional knowledge—based on the nature of the object or knowledge (if it is sacred or secret); and/or the age, gender, initiation status, or cultural origin of the person wishing to have access.

Putting objects, photographs, and other culturally-significant materials online challenges native communities who are often striving for more control, and/or reinstated ownership or custodianship, as they try to devise strategies of sharing and privacy consistent with traditional protocols (see the article by Anderson and Christen for an innovative strategy on this front).  In the Introduction to this MAR issue (see Bell, Christen, and Turin) the editors favor the idiom of “return,” rather than “repatriation,” as a linguistic emphasis on the processual nature of shifting relationships between public institutions and source communities.  “Return” is not a conclusion of a relationship or a solution to a concrete problem, but rather, an initiation of decentering the authority of museums and other holding institutions, an impetus to develop strategies of shared custodianship of objects, and value for other ways of storing and transmitting knowledge.  As Jim Enote argues in the Introduction, digital return is not just about sending copies of material culture home to communities of origin, but also about reinstating their legal control and enabling their cultural oversight over Indigenous ways of knowing.

Control can be shared between a museum and a community; it can also be ceded by an institution to an original source community.  In their article “Sound Returns,” authors Reddy and Sonnenborn mobilize four case studies in which musical recordings were returned to communities all over the world, in various ways, in order to illustrate successful transfer of power from the Smithsonian archives to local hands.  This labor can strengthen fragile communities—as they regain access to cultural forms that may no longer have been prevalent or current—and, in some cases, provide specific financial boon (in the form of royalties) to the original sources of these musical forms.  These efforts of return have also inspired dialogue about what is appropriate for public access, and what should be restricted (how, and under what terms).

In other examples, it is debatable as to whether power is being returned to communities in any meaningful way, or rather, if a particular project perpetuates community dependence on institutions.  For example, the Tlingit-Smithsonian collaborations via 3-D digitization technologies (see the article by Hollinger et al) illustrates a successful coming together of a national museum and a native community, in which original artifacts were returned to the Pacific Northwest, and replicas retained by the Smithsonian.  While this article celebrates the positive outcomes, for our class, this example in particular raised important concerns and questions.  The infrastructure required to conduct three dimensional scanning and printing is expensive and owned by the National Museum of Natural History: does a project like this reinforce the power of the Smithsonian, as native communities remain dependent on the national institution to use (and/or benefit from) this technology?  If original objects were damaged or destroyed, the replica would still exist in museum collections; yet what are the implications of this on long-term power relations between the community and the museum?  Thinking through this collectively, we return to Zuni elder Jim Enote’s words once again: a digital replica is not equal to an original; and technologies such as these might in fact reinforce the colonial power relations of old, allowing museums to retain originals and return aura-less surrogates to communities.  Enote’s caution illustrates that while one technological innovation—3D printing—was an exciting development for one “source community” (Tlingit), it was something to be suspicious of for another (Zuni); there is no singular solution to return (whether in the form of digital surrogacy, or shifting ownership) for all Indigenous peoples whose objects currently reside in museums.

Several digital repatriation projects outlined in this volume bear witness to the advantages of digitally returning culturally significant material to Indigenous groups.  However, hardware and software developments may also impede the successful return of tangible and intangible culture.  Hooee and Shankar’s experience with the Doris Duke Zuni Storytelling Collection illustrates that outdated hardware and information systems can prevent access to language revitalization resources.  Although audiocassettes containing Zuni story recordings from the 1970s are physically present at Zuni, the obsolete playback technology is too outdated for the community to listen to the tapes.  The current information system at the Zuni Public Library also lacks the infrastructure to store a digitized version of the recorded stories.  In this context, digital return is not a uni-directional process, traveling only from museums to source communities, but rather involves the flow of knowledge and representations in many directions and via multiple technologies.

Indeed, greater emphasis on the diverse set of challenges posed by digital technology is needed.  Colonial legacies embedded in collections; the expense of hardware and software maintenance and migration; geographical remoteness of many communities from urban centers; Indigenous restrictions of access to traditional knowledge; and the limited digital literacy of many in these communities represent just a few of many challenges in implementing digital “return.”  Several essays in this volume fail to acknowledge these social, political, and economic conditions, embedded in and central to the projects they describe.  For instance, how are Indigenous representations altered in a museum when 3-D objects are exhibited hand in hand with original ones (see Hollinger et al)?  Do colonial legacies subtly recreate power structures in the relationship between Smithsonian professionals and Inuvialuit culture-bearers as they produce a virtual exhibit of the MacFarlane Collection (see Hennessy et al)?  Should digital surrogates of objects provided by the NMAI to native groups be used to create local community exhibitions (see O’Neal)?  This volume presents a collection of success stories.  And while these are important to acknowledge, equally important to recognize is that each collaborative project between Indigenous groups and large public institutions is faced with a unique set of challenges (see Dobrin and Holton, for an example).  These limitations should be addressed in scholarly publications to prepare the stakeholders of future initiatives to creatively problem-solve, fully aware of the efforts that have gone before them.  Native communities’ needs must be considered on a case-to-case basis.

Further, the title of this special issue, “After the Return,” leads one to believe that the heart of the issue will be to discuss the effects that digital return has had on these communities.  However, while the majority of articles discuss a specific digital repatriation project, not much attention is given to what actually happens after the return.  How are Indigenous communities integrating, rejecting, adapting, contributing to, and responding to the advent and proliferation of new digital technologies?  For example, in the article “The Inuvialuit Living History Project: Digital Return as the Forging of Relationships Between Institutions, People, and Data” (Hennessy et al), the authors focus on the process of creating a digital archive, emphasizing the importance of the relationships forged during the project.  If the topic of this particular issue of MAR was to discuss what happens after the return, this article, among many others, falls short of that task.  Too much emphasis is given to how these digital repatriation projects came to be, not interrogating what their role has become within the relevant Indigenous communities.  The focus was on process, not on outcome, and indeed perhaps, as the authors of the Introduction assert in their favoring of “return” over “repatriation,” the emphasis on process was quite purposeful; nonetheless, there is something here that leaves the reader unsatisfied.  We can only begin to know the importance of these digital repatriation projects through studying how effective and useful they actually are to the communities going forward from the moment of “return.”

This special issue of MAR discusses the implications of digitally (and otherwise) returning objects, knowledge, and other forms of cultural heritage from museums to the Indigenous communities from which they originated.  This is a significant effort in a defining moment in Museum Anthropology and related fields.  “Contact zones,” take many forms: efforts that have improved various stakeholders’ access, such as the international collective Reciprocal Research Network (see Rowley), or using a 3-D printer to reproduce Tlingit artifacts for museums when originals have been returned to their source communities (see Hollinger); and some that have illustrated how complex access can be as a goal, such as Zuni recordings held in the Library of Congress with limited accessibility both in the Library and in Zuni (Shankar and Hooee), or the Smithsonian Folkways recording process and its concern for degrees of knowledge within Indigenous communities (Reddy and Sonneborn).

Overall, the articles in this volume illuminate the complex nature of digital “return.”  Museum anthropologists have only just begun the investigation into its practice and possibility.  Their attempts have been innovative and intriguing, and the future of the field can be glimpsed in their successes and failures.  The digital mediation of our social lives, as Geismar tells us, is no longer emergent, but rather, already well-established.  Taken as a whole, the articles in this issue of Museum Anthropology Review (2013) prove that “return” is both a metaphor and a genre of social relations worth examining, one that wields the potential to revolutionize both the future of museums and the representations of Indigenous peoples, ushering in partnership, respect, power-sharing, and collaboration as foundational to all future endeavors.

Works Cited

Bell, Joshua, Kimberly Christen, and Mark Turin, eds. “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge.” Special Issue, Museum Anthropology Review 7, nos. 1-2 (2013).

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1931.

Clifford, James. “Museums as Contact Zones.” In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. 188-219. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Srinivasan, Ramesh, Katherine M. Becvar, Robin Boast, and Jim Enote, “Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum.” Science, Technology & Human Values 35, no. 5 (2008): 735-768.


Best of Material World Blog: Landscape and Place

Patrick Laviolette (EHI, Tallinn University, hosts of EASA2014)

In terms of providing reflections on the material dimensions of place and landscape, here are some links to what I feel have been amongst the more provocative postings on the blog over the years. Many of the authors to the links below implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly ask: how do we depict our spatial experiences through the digital medium of blogging?

In Feb 2007, Graeme Were put up a piece simply entitled ‘Footpaths‘ by Kate Cameron-Daum. It is an eye-catching post which stirred my own curiosity on methods of walking, particularly in the countryside. Similarly, Peter Oakley’s observations at Tyntesfield house in A Roof with a View, reflects upon the postmodern condition of a heritage site standing below some scaffolding.

With some contrast perhaps, Dimitris Dalakoglou’s research summary on roads in the border region of Albania and Greece talks of movement, fixity and transgressive ‘materiality’. In a stunning photo-montage, Tony Whincup’s Water on Water project equally raises politically charged issues over morality, national agendas and cross-cultural understandings.

David Sutton’s post Looking Good gives MW readers an informative review of Cristina Grasseni monograph Developing Skill, Developing Vision (Berghahn, 2009) — a book about the environment and so much more. Similarly, anthropologist and curator Claire Melhuish provides a review of the exhibition ‘Land Architecture People‘.

In keeping with the themes of design and urban space, Jo-Anne-Bichard & Gail Knight posted a ‘toiletscape’ piece that is both fun as well as seriously challenging at the same time. Aliine Lotman’s research synopsis on ‘Dumpster Diving‘, waste and disgust in Barcelona equally captures much of the essence to approaches grounded in material culture studies (i.e. those which are anthropologically informed whilst also being innovative, inter-disciplinary and ethnographically rich).

Similarly, an in-depth posting in our ‘Occasional Papers Series (no.3)’ by Sabrina Bradford & Abby Loebenberg recently sparked the possibility of rethinking the impacts of hurricane Katrina. Theirs is a multi-media reflection on ‘disaster landscapes’, a theme which resonates with my last two selections from MW blog postings.

Matt Voigts (picking up on a reoccurring public transport meme which Aaron has also identified as one of his favourites) sent a digest on memorialisation cycles. It is a telling personal account in the vein of ‘contemporary past archaeologies’. In seeing a ‘ghost-bike‘ relic, he reveals how things of mourning can create social affects upon both our historical imaginaries as well as the design possibilities for urban planning.

And at around the same time, Francisco Martinez & Larissa Vanamo offered us an astute interview from a few years back with the fascinating and controversial ‘doomsday prophet’ Pentti Linkola.



Best of Material World Blog: Museums, Exhibitions, Archives, Memorials

– Compiled by Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center) 

Since its inception, Material World has treated museums and archives not only as repositories of material culture, but as material culture–that is, material products as well as producers of culture and social memory. As institutions, they are sites of collection and exhibition, acts that have their own material and materializing dimensions.

Here are some of our favorite posts about museums, exhibitions, archives, and memorials:

Graeme Were reviews the Musée du Quai Branly a year after it opened.

Anna Weinrich examines two permanent museum exhibitions in Australia featuring Aboriginal culture and collections by a foundational anthropologist, testing out the new museology against the politics of Aboriginal voice.

Diana Young discusses her curatorial efforts to enliven museum collections in dialogue with Aboriginal artists.

Bethany Edmunds reviews two British exhibitions of Pacific material, reflecting on the role of language in framing both historic and contemporary art and material culture.

Gabriela Nicolescu writes about the aesthetics and ideologies behind changing representation of peasant culture in the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant.

The History Rising project brings together artist and curator to explore the architecture and design of exhibition space, technology, and furniture.

Paul Williams investigates the global trend for museums memorializing atrocities.

In one of the innovative formats on Material World, a conference report details the papers given in a conference called “Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies, and Creativity.”

Matt Voigts discusses London’s vernacular “Ghost bikes” in the context of other urban memorials.

Anna Haverinen explores virtual memorials as means of mourning online.

Christopher Pinney writes about the salvaging of an individual’s photographic archive after monsoon flooding.

Corinne Kratz shares a link to an online archive of publications by Ivan Karp, one of our most prolific and insightful anthropologists of museums and exhibition practice.

And finally, I include one of my own book reviews to call further attention to Museum Pieces, the important 2011 publication by Ruth Phillips that brings togethers essays from her entire career working in and thinking critically about museums.


Mundane Objects: Materiality and non-Verbal Communication by Pierre Lemonnier

Haidy Geismar, UCL

The latest issue of Hau has a symposium on Pierre Lemmonier’s latest book, Mundane Objects, with commentary by Bruno Latour, Chris Ballard, Tim Ingold, Paul Graves-Brown, Susanne Küchler and a response by Pierre Lemmonier. The series of comments essentially sum up a “state of the art” comment on material culture theory, which Tim Ingold pithily sums up to date:

Perhaps there is something to be said for going back to the anthropological debates of the 1960s and 1970s on such themes as symbolic condensation, the distinction (or lack of it) between ritual and practical-technical actions, and how to do things with and without words. Arguably, our understandings have not been much advanced by subsequent approaches to material culture, for example by treating it as a system of signs whose meanings could be read off from the objects themselves, by entering them as candidates for social life but only as tokens of exchange among human beings, or by focusing on their consumption at the expense of their production.Nor—and here I agree wholeheartedly with Lemonnier—is there anything to be gained from leaving the heavy lifting to such philosophical juggernauts as “agency” and “materiality.” Most agency-speak is as tautologous as the functionalism it replaced: where before, if the presence of a thing has effects (and it would not be present if it did not), these effects were attributed to its functioning, nowadays they are attributed to its agency. The argument is no less circular, and equally ridiculous, especially coming from the mouths of celebrity philosophers. The concept of “materiality” is just as vacuous, no more so than when the abstraction that led from materials to materiality is followed by a counterreification from materiality to materialities, leading to the absurdity of describing a thing made from many different materials as an assemblage of multiple materialities. We have had more than enough of both agency and materiality, and they have got us nowhere. We need to go back to basics. But do we start with objects or affects, artifacts or materials,communication or participation? In each of these pairings, Lemonnier opts for the former. I opt for the latter (Ingold 2012). I wonder whether there might be some way of putting these two perspectives together. Now, that would be an advance.

In other commentary, Latour applauds Lemmonier’s emphasis on techniques and technology as a way to subvert the ethnocentric preoccupation with a crude object focus that comes with many contemporary theorizations of materiality, recognizing the very plasticity of the material world and Susanne Küchler provocatively thinks through the nascent material qualities of computers and other interactive digital technologies.



Material culture in Hungary and everywhere else

Daniel Miller, UCL


Krisztina Fehérváry 2013 Politics in Color and Concrete: socialist materialities and the middle class in Hungary. Indiana University Press

Léna Pellandini-Simányi  2014 Consumption Norms and Everyday Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan

Hungary is a good place to take stock of the current state of material culture studies. Because Hungary is simply a good emblem of `anywhere,’ in that it represents neither a vanguard nor a backwater, but works as simply another ordinary place. That is significant to me because the material culture studies that I guess I have always wanted to promote are precisely about this same ordinary whether as blue jeans, or domestic interiors.

Fehérváry’s exemplary scholarship, both historical and ethnographic, takes us through both socialist modernism and post-socialist consumer modernism in the development of contemporary Hungary. We see the discrepancies between the creation of demand and the problems of actually fulfilling the expectations that these gave rise to, a problem in both socialism and capitalism. We see unexpected links between modern organicist appeals to nature and older socialist appeals to collectivism. Above all this leads to her ethnographic sense of the contemporary middle-class. The middle class is always beset by contradiction and ambivalence. It is there is the very words `middle’-class. But it is rare to see the routes and reasons so carefully laid out, or its consequences.

Central to this is the appreciation that the built landscape as a palimpsest of various historical periods works to a quite different temporality. It means that having considered how it expresses a relation to ideology we than have the additional problem that as times changes the built landscape becomes at once both anachronistic and yet maintained as the landscape of the present. Her book shows the impact this has on ordinary people’s understanding of their worlds and the betrayal of successive ideals. While also grounding foundational notions of normality and morality, creating what she describes as the normal state of abnormality. These are obviously important issues that can be generalised across the world as people in all regions struggle to literally build their modernity and aspirations in the teeth of failures of all kinds.  I was particularly impressed by the way she blends the descriptions of these material worlds with a sense of humanism and poignancy in respect to their impacts upon ordinary people.

Pellandini-Simányi tackles several of the same themes concerning the normative foundations of contemporary consumption but relates them more to current concerns with `over-consumption’ and sustainability. Rather than using historical and ethnographic sources she focuses on the underlying issues of consumption norms and their moral foundations in a given society. This is a more general, comparative and sociological book though some of the material is from her own research, also in Hungary. What is particularly valuable about that part of the book is that she looked at households which sometimes spanned three generations so she could observe the way these norms change over time.  As in the best of material culture studies this again excavates the most taken for granted aspects of what simply looks appropriate in the same way that Bourdieu examined taste. She has far more emphasis on change compared to Bourdieu with a focus on the reasons that something so engrained is nevertheless subject to change even if this is simply the replacement of one generation by the next. At the same time, as with Bourdieu she retains a strong sense of the link between the normative and practice. She makes good use of comparative studies of how norms of consumption change over time including the Osella’s excellent work in South India, while not ignoring the pressures from commercial institutions. I admit that in some ways I would have liked to see more of her own research findings which here get a bit buried within the more general discussion. But along with Elizabeth Shove she makes an important contribution to seeing consumption as normative pertaining to local ethical debate. She ends with what she calls a qualified liberal approach Habermas and Rawls.

These books are very different with Pellandini-Simányi looking to more sociological debates and Fehérváry exemplifying the depth of engagement and scholarship found in classical traditions of anthropological ethnography. But both speak to the way in which contemporary material culture studies, whether based in Hungary, but equally it could have been Argentina or Australia retain this driving ambition to expose the lightness of materiality. That objects seem to contain a kind of cultural gravity that makes them a heavy burden – they want to remain grounded and foundational and taken for granted as the landscape we live within. It is only by refusing to accept this and giving them an almighty academic kick, that we can excavate underneath to find that actually they came to be there through quite historical, cultural and sometimes fleetingly fashionable reasons. Without this consciousness we lose the ability for introspection with regard to our own material foundations, and granting us this consciousness is the greatest boon that such modern material culture studies has to offer the world.


Things in Culture, Culture in Things

Emily Brennan, UCL Anthropology

Approaches to culture theory 3: Things in Culture, Culture in Things

Edited by Anu Kannike and Patrick Laviolette, 2013, Estonia: University of Tartu Press.

TiC coverThis volume addresses the dynamics of materiality over time and space. In cross-cultural, multi-temporal and interdisciplinary studies the authors examine how things gain meaning and status, generate a multitude of emotions, and feed into the propagation of myths, narratives and discourses. The book is divided according to four themes: soft objects, stoic stories, consuming and the collectable, and waste and technologies. The first section discusses the meanings of the lived environment on the individual and national levels. The second section provides specific examples on the role of things in identity construction. The third section focuses on historical and contemporary aspects of consumption and collecting. The phenomena under scrutiny in the fourth section are moral dilemmas associated with and representations of dirt/waste and advancements in science and technology. Presenting diverse case studies of material culture, the volume points to rich interdisciplinary approaches in cultural theory.

Things in Culture, Culture in Things aims to present an unconventional compendium emphasising the ‘storying of things’ in material culture. It has been published in response to the fourth annual autumn conference of the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory (CECT) which took place on the 20th to 22nd October 2011 in Tartu, Estonia. Contributions are from Hungary, Finland, India, Sweden, Germany, Canada, the UK, and Estonia from departments including sociology, anthropology, English literature, cultural studies, archaeology, journalism, information and communication studies, linguistics, history and behavioural sciences; this gathering is exciting whilst bringing a challenge in finding threads of connection with which to introduce and structure the book. The result is an over-arching vagueness which frames the chapters.

The book is broken down into four sections: Soft objects; Stoic stories; Consuming and the collectable; and Waste and technologies. The first section, Soft Objects, starts with a chapter from sociologist Stephen Harold Riggins: an ethnography looking at the home of an artist influenced by the punk scene. The chapter is entitled The natural order is decay: the home as an ephemeral art project, and simultaneously reflects on Riggins previous auto-ethnographic work. This is followed by Carlo A. Cubero’s chapter on the diasporic sounds of the African kora, combined with ethnographic filmmaking as method; Placing objects first: filming transnationalism. The section ends with Rowan R. Mackay’s chapter Beware of dreams come true: valuing the intangible in the American Dream which discusses the relationship between the tangible and the intangible.

Stoic Stories follows. These chapters are described in the introduction as “arduous and touchy” (Laviolette in Laviolette and Kannike 2013: 22). Susanne Nylund Skog’s chapter The travelling furtniture: materialised experiences of living in the Jewish diaspora looks at how memories materialise in narratives through domestic furniture. This is followed by Timo Muhonen’s A hard matter: stones in Finnish-Karelian folk belief. Muhonen separates individual stones from archaeological monuments as powerful individual units in folk belief. An embroidered royal gift as a political symbol and embodiment of design ideas by Kirsti Salo-Mattila is the final chapter of this section and investigates political history through artefact analysis.

The third section, Consuming and the Collectible, begins with Maria Cristache’s chapter entitled The ‘vintage community’ in Bucharest: consumers and collectors. This Romanian ethnography suggests that a hybrid form of consumption is at play, whilst emphasising the experiential over mnemonic aspects of vintage clothing consumption. Roosmarii Kurvits’ chapter follows: The visual form of newspapers as a guide for information consumption looks at the relationship between visual form, linguistics and national identity through newspapers in Estonia. This is followed by Visa Immonen’s chapter entitled Design for individuality: the Jordan Individual toothbrushes and interpassivity in material culture which discusses gender and individuality in toothbrush design and consumption in Finland. The final chapter of this section focuses on colonial collecting: Collecting the Nagas: John Henry Hutton, the administrator-collector in the Naga Hills by Meripeni Ngully.

The final section of the book is Waste and technologies. The section begins with Waste and alterity in ‘speculative fiction’: an assessment of the de- and re-evaluation of material objects in selected dystopian novels by Brigitte Glaser is a literary analysis which focuses on waste and related ideas in fictional works by Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. This is followed by Toilet cultures: boundaries, dirt and disgust from Remo Gramigna which uses the toilet as an entry point to the nature culture debate, a discussion of typology, and ‘human waste’, before moving on to a discussion of boundaries, dirt and disgust. The final chapter of the book is the only one written collaboratively; The social childhood of new ambivalent objects: emerging social representations of new biotechnologies by Maaris Raudsepp and Andu Rämmer.

There are some fascinating chapters here. The content is extremely varied and shows the complexities inherent in interdisciplinary material culture. Whilst it is difficult to find continuity in the volume this is not surprising and perhaps less problematic if one considers it as a diverse posthumous collection of work rather than one which is meant to work together. The occasionally eccentric content of the book is amusing in the narrative context in which the volume is set.


The Distributed Effects of Alfred Gell

Distributed Object

Book Review:

Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell.

Edited by Liana Chua and Mark Elliot

Berghahn Books (London & New York), 2013



By Fiona P. McDonald (University College London)


According to Georgina Born in Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell, “we all have our own Alfred Gell” (p. 130). Therefore, I too must admit to having my own Alfred Gell—one more clearly understood to me after exploring an entire volume dedicated to what can best be summarized as profound scholarly reflections on the distributed effects of Alfred Gell’s endeavor to identify an anthropological theory of art in his Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998). Distributed Objects is a captivating pendant piece to Gell’s original publication. It is not meant as a guidebook to understanding Gell’s work; rather it is a collection of complex studies that capture distinct engagements with Gell’s ideas around an anthropology of art. A sound understanding of (or at least an attempt at having read!) Art and Agency is suggested in order to fully appreciate the depth to which each chapter in this volume unpacks Gell’s work.

Comprised of eight chapters—seven written by academics from Britain’s leading institutions, plus one chapter by Gell himself—Distributed Objects represents a remarkable breath of engagement with Gell’s oeuvre across a variety of disciplines. From anthropology, ethnomusicology and literary theory, to contemporary art, as well as performance, archaeology, material science, and art history, the scope of disciplinary expertise in this volume is extraordinary. The entire volume is book-ended by two overview texts. The first is the Introduction, where the editors Liana Chua and Mark Elliot contextualize their own understanding of Alfred Gell—a summation that eases both seasoned and novice readers through Gell’s oeuvre and the density of research that follows throughout the volume. The final text drawing a close to Distributed Objects is by Nicholas Thomas, who presents a succinct Epilogue that is itself a truly distinguished review of this volume. It leaves the reader with a somewhat buoyant view when looking ahead to identify and understand future spaces where the distributed effects of Gell can be located within a museum context.

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The Noodle Narratives: A worthy successor to Sidney Mintz?

Adam Drazin, UCL Anthropology, and convener of the MA program Culture, Materials and Design

noodle-narr_custom-dc422cdcd6e7173a5488bf859f8972c5329257eb-s2-c85In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Aloud (, the book the Noodle Narratives was compared to Sidney Mintz’s classic study Sweetness and Power (  In Sweetness and Power, Mintz famously shows how sugar underwrote and structured the capitalism of slave labour and factory labour in the British Empire, and convergently set out what class meant in the British Empire in consumption.

Is this comparison justified?  Are noodles the capitalist staple infusing our contemporary world system?

For Frederick Errington, Deborah Gewertz and Tatsuro Fujikura, noodles represent ‘Big Food’.  They a staple food, made from wheat processed to have flavour, carbohydrates, just enough protein, an unimaginable (and unnecessary) shelf life, and adaptability of consumption.  The authors illustrate their capacity for cultural shape-shifting.  From Japanese noodle museums, they are heritage.  Among American students and convicts, they provide for sensitive, personal and memorable moments.  In Papua New Guinea, instant noodle-based entrepreneurialism forms the basis of kinds of private enterprise which anthropology has for a long time identified as potentially deeply significant moments of local sociocultural change.

There is no doubting the globalism and social ubiquity of pre-processed instant noodles, nor their simple technical ingenuity.  This book is very successful at demonstrating the way that a loved and personal commodity is associated in many different parts of the world with groups of people among whom underprivilege resides with aspiration.  Even this book itself will be ‘loved’ by many readers, on account of the noodle contagion.  The book also draws attention to the shifting nature of inequality as a global issue, but does not necessarily manage to provide answers.  While relatively clear forms of class, based on production and consumption, provided a clear architecture for Mintz’s devastating critique, the ideologies of inequality with which the Noodle Narratives deal are less clear.  The significance of the global uniformity of the technical production, and materials, of processed noodles are clear, but the prolific translation of these into ideas of what society is in localised contexts through cultures of knowledge, is more murky.

The reader of this book will be left with many intriguing questions about globalism and how anthropological ideas can travel.  Aside from being a good exploration of the role of materials in consumption, the book is an illustration of how the power and cultural influence of notions of ‘cheap’ and ‘processed’ remains undervalued by anthropology, and of how many cultural concepts such as these require to be unpacked and expanded by contemporary material culture studies.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family History of and through Objects

By Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center)

After knowing about the book for a couple of years, I finally found the time to read The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), Edmund de Waal’s evocative exploration of his material patrimoine. The book traces its author’s geographical, archival, and emotional wanderings though the past century and a half and across the globe as he pieces together the story of his family, largely through its accumulated—and then mostly alienated—collections. Where objects are no longer extant, de Waal reconstructs their once-presence from lists, ledgers, account books, registries, catalogues, photographs, letters, memoirs, and novels.

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Book Review: Museum Pieces by Ruth Phillips

Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums

Ruth Phillips (2011, Montreal: McGill-Queens’s University Press)


Reviewed by Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center)

“Canada’s collaborative models of museum practice have arisen as organically from its history as the canoe or the snowmobile.”

The first sentence of Ruth Phillips’ long-awaited volume of essays on museums and indigenous people encapsulates a number of her analytical perspectives: it delimits the general institutional field of her study and suggests that particular collaborative practices are characteristic of their national context and their slowly evolving forms. But by invoking iconic modes of both indigenous and settler transportation, Phillips also implies that the museum itself is a form of technology—an engineered machine for achieving specific goals. She even materializes her own contributions to the field by invoking the polysemous term “pieces” to describe the essays contained herein. Throughout the book, she draws on Actor Network Theory to argue for the vital agency of museums (and essays about them) as key players in movements for effective social change, and the value of public controversies for spurring positive developments in institutional policy and protocol. Long a tool of colonial and imperialist ideology, Phillips advocates for the postmodern museum to be a broker and mediator of renegotiated postcolonial relationships—the museum as both beneficiary and sponsor of changing government attitudes toward indigenous peoples.

Likewise, the subtitle of the book communicates central themes within her larger argument. By focusing on developments in Canadian museums over the past fifty years, Phillips calls attention to the country’s cultural and political particularities while demanding a greater recognition for Canada’s role in exporting its innovative methodologies to museums worldwide. Her use of the term “indigenization” operates at multiple levels. On the one hand, it suggests that developments local to Canada—birthplace of multiculturalism as national policy—have a unique flavor (and American readers may note, by contrast to general conditions within the U.S., the strong influence of federal funding, government task force reports, and nation-wide initiatives on largely publicly funded institutions). On the other hand, it calls attention to the positive impact that Canada’s indigenous people have had on transforming national institutions—indeed, on forcing them to operate with indigenous principles in mind to a certain extent. In this latter sense, Phillips’ choice of “indigenization” over an appropriate alternative such as “decolonization” signals an important shift of focus from institutional actions toward indigenous artists, curators, and activists who demanded change. Finally, by hedging the subtitle with “toward,” she implies that the work of institutional transformation is unfinished business, and she offers the essays as both documentation of past developments and prompt to future ones.

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