Category Archives: Objects and visual analyses

Veiled Truths by Hossein Fatemi

"Mayha." Credit: Hossein Fatemi/Panos Pictures. Reposted from the New York Times.

“Mayha.” Credit: Hossein Fatemi/Panos Pictures. Reposted from the New York Times.

The New York Times recently ran this photo essay by the Iranian documentary photographer Hossein Fatemi of diverse women in Tehran posing behind veils of one sort or another, accompanied by a short commentary critiquing the imposition of the hijab on secular women there. While the piece ran in the “Review” (opinion) section of the Sunday print edition, it was featured online — without the commentary — as a “Fashion and Style” slideshow.



Tracing continuity between childhood and adulthood: body attachments and practices that persist in a growing self

Valentini Sampethai, Goldsmiths University

One day in the summer I turned eighteen, I was sitting on the deck of a boat with my friend Danae listening to the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. At some point, she turned and said to me, “Isn’t it sad, we’re not teenagers anymore?”.

We both agreed that none had felt any significant difference, nor had assumed any particular air of seriousness after our symbolic entry into adulthood. Already childhood had become idealized, a focus of nostalgia, although probably none of us had had a trouble-free childhood without its dark moments of fear, pain, and anxious questions. Still, childhood has been the largest chunk of our lives so far, and for a lot of us, the foundation for who we are today. This period of time is simultaneously irretrievable and yet very near; there exist moments when one can glimpse the children we used to be, when things like Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, or our all-time favourite toys make their way into our life.

These transformations, the momentary back-and-forths, and the ways childhood experience is integrated in a body alongside the emerging adult identity constitute my focus here. This, then, is a study of people I grew up in constant contact with, and of parts of our childhood’s material culture that transcended their status as mere objects: for whatever reason, we separated them as special, and for a while they were an extension of our bodies, constantly attached to us. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, most of us are now away from home, scattered in different places, leaving our toys behind or taking them along. Our choices about what to do with them poignantly reflect our sense of identity and continuity between the past, the present, and the future. The toys, smelly, worn out and overused, serve as visual reminders encapsulating our process of becoming.


My study, based on my undergraduate dissertation, brings together explorations of the body, selfhood, and material culture; through these the themes of memory, attachment, continuity and becoming are examined in terms of the process of growing up.  My study of the continuing attachment to childhood toys in adulthood and their incorporation in the present endeavors to show how these categories are all inter-related, placing the individual body at the center of a network of relationships and stories that produce a self and a subjectivity.

Drawing from Van Wolputte I take selfhood to imply “a body-self that […] extends in space and time, in material culture, in animals, and in the bodies of others” (2004: 252). Thus, the body is treated as a place where stories, images, and memories reside (Belting 2011). As years of everyday conversations and shared experience with the girls –I played with their toys and they played with mine when we were small- made it difficult to relegate life to the level of academic discourse, I found Csordas’ viewpoint on embodiment particularly useful:

“Embodiment […]is situated on the level of lived experience and not on that of discourse; embodiment is about “understanding” or “making sense” in a prereflexive or even presymbolic, but not precultural, way (Csordas 1990, p.10).” (Van Wolputte 2004: 258).

Hence, I will be focusing on ordinary experience and preoccupations of everyday life; situations that may be paradoxical, funny, moving, ridiculous, familiar, or uncertain, general in that many of us experience them but particular in that we do so in diverse ways.  

Attachment to Soft Toys and the Creation of Bodies Invested with Life

“Like most little boys, he has had toy animals to play with, but though he loves them all, his best friend has been his Teddy Bear, called Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh, for short. The funny thing is that Pooh doesn’t like being called a Teddy Bear now […]. You see, what they both feel, and what I feel too, is that Pooh is really alive and does things, but a Teddy Bear is just a toy which sits about and does nothing”

A.A. Milne, The Christopher Robin Story Book (1966: v-vi)

It is probably impossible to count the instances in our childhoods in which we were exposed to some sort of story where magical objects, animals and toys talk. An obvious one of the 1990’s was Toy Story, and then there were old fairy tales, Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, where objects are companions that interact with the heroes and even are their best friends. It is not hard to imagine, then, how this belief in magic and animistic thought was something we were open to as children, taking care of our favourite toys as if they were real, saying good night to them and worrying about how they would feel if we neglected them. Since children are allowed to believe in magic, we were able to be more explicit about the importance of objects in everyday life, an apt example to Miller’s claim that “…material culture matters because objects create subjects much more than the other way around. It is the order of relationship to objects and between objects that creates people through socialization whom we then take to exemplify social categories” (2008: 287). Toys were magical because they represented a world of new possibilities, where we could create a person from our imagination, a friend that we could carry everywhere with us and on whom our shared experiences would become inscribed in the wear and tear of overuse. As Winnicott suggests,

“the thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is found to be reliable” (2005: 64).

Such objects, due to their constant attachment to children’s bodies and the love we infuse them with, come to acquire a substance and become consanguineous to us; we remain attached to them and our parents cannot decide to throw them away because they are a part of us. They become synonymous to us and to home; my granddad, when my brother and I left home for university, placed the teddy-bears we each had in their house on his library with our names written on them, the toys serving as a presence and a reminder of an absence simultaneously.

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)


Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad's library. (Photo taken by me).

Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad’s library. (Photo taken by me).

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

“the object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated. […] It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating […]. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own” (2005: 7).

Hence, that toys are important to most children is not a statement that needs further discussion; however, sometimes they are so loved and so firmly situated in a network of relationships and narratives of shared experience, that they survive adolescence and remain important in adulthood.


From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: "Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).

From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: “Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).



 Introducing the girls and the toys

Eva and Georgia are twins who have been my best friends since we were babies, and to them, toys are family.

Mema and Memos, matching dog and cat backpacks, were given to them as a present when they were five. Three years later the toys got married and had children. Mema took her name from the word “Beba” (meaning “baby girl”), a term of endearment for Eva when she was small. Naming Memos with the male equivalent of Mema was Eva’s idea, a result of their being a pair, one for each twin. Since Memos was given to Georgia and Mema to Eva, each is the respective mother of her toy, but they are very attached to both.

Rebecca, their other favourite toy, is a soft doll that my mum, who is Georgia’s godmother and an old friend to the girls’ parents, bought for Georgia when she was small. She is also part of the family as she is Georgia’s daughter, and the story is that she is now grown up and studying to become a doctor. Notably, Rebecca has her own teddy bear.


Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

When I asked the girls –rhetorically- if they would ever give these toys away, Eva almost shouted “Never!” and they both outright rejected the idea. I asked if they are saving them for their children, to which Eva replied, seriously but with a hint of a smile showing she knew the situation was slightly comical, that she would not do that either because she would not entrust them to anyone, what if they ruin or lose them?

Fair enough, the girls are very careful in their handling of their toys nowadays; although in the past they slept with them now they put them aside because they are so tattered they might damage them. Mema, by far the most used and loved of all, has a ripped ear and a broken zip with a great story behind it. When, one day they were in kindergarten, the zip broke, they were so distraught in their crying that all the other children there started to cry with them. This aptly shows how clear Eva and Georgia make that these are not mere toys, but so important and loved that they should be treated as live beings. Even when they were small, that distinction was apparent: they never played with them as they – or we- played with Barbie dolls, but rather they were constantly there, like a part of the family that they would not lower to that level of playing like they did with other, generic toys. As they commented, now they actually play with them more than when they were children, but this form of play consists of creating and maintaining a network of relationships and family ties, getting everyone present to play along with them. This is seen in how family links transcend the limits of Eva and Georgia’s family, making me Mema’s godmother, a guy we know from a summer holiday Rebecca’s no-good boyfriend, and Mema’s dad a constant mystery but rumored to be Eva’s first (and ex) long-term boyfriend.

When, still with the idea of childhood nostalgia in the back of my head, I asked them the abstract, and supposed-to-lead-to-analysis question of what the toys mean to them, Eva just looked at me for a while and simply said: “We just love them very much, they are like our children”. That was the final point clarifying that these toys are not symbols or nostalgic memorabilia for an innocent and idealized past self, neither are they representative of an idea; it is the toys themselves they loved, and love, and will love as they were and will be growing up and experiencing relationships, break-ups, university, in parallel with Memos, Mema, and Rebecca.

For the past two years, the twins have been separated for more than a few days for the first time, Eva studying in North-Eastern Greece and Georgia at home in Athens. Initially Eva had taken Mema with her, but in the end they brought all of the toys to their family home in Athens so that they can be together as a family and because Memos was sad without Mema. One could expect that in separating the twins, the toys belonging to each would be separated too, but ultimately, the story about the relationships between them was too strong, and perhaps the girls did not want to increase their separation by expanding it to the toys. Anyway, Eva comes to Athens often, and Georgia and their older sister Anna visited her in the North some weeks ago and of course brought Mema along.


Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls' older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls’ older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

What is notable is that their relationship to their toys has not changed. They remain equally important and played with, way past their conventional place in time; however, it is not that the girls perpetuate their sense of childhood selves through their holding on to their favourite toys, rather that the toys have become so essential that they are a stable point of continuity across time. Furthermore, as this is primarily a form of play that Eva, Georgia, and-to a lesser extent-Anna engage in, it is a practice of their own that enhances the strong bond of sisterhood between them.

Consequently, the girls and the toys develop alongside each other, a link constantly sustained in the narratives weaved by the girls in parallel to their own social relations and life events; the toys, when considered as live beings, are dynamic and familiar like friends that you have shared a lifetime with; as material culture they are objects of utmost value, bearing the visual marks of stories, adventures and mishaps that are safe from obsolescence because they are encapsulated in something tangible, soft, and smelling of home.

That should make it understandable why they are still so important and why the girls are indifferent that this is not what is expected of ‘mature adults’; if growing up involves learning how to love and care for someone else and if, as Miller says, “possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people” (2008: 1), then the girls, who love their toys even if they are old now, may have something to tell about building profound social relationships and also, about the fluidity of age categories, which can be shaken up by different performances, much like what Judith Butler (1990) suggests may happen with gender.

Conclusion: Playing, Cultural Experience and the Collective Imaginary

Play, an embodied state that is “always a creative experience, and […] a basic form of living” (Winnicott 2005: 67), does not necessarily involve toys or objects made for children; it may be found in any sort of “creative relation to the world” (Milner 1952 cited in Winnicott 2005: 52), practiced by adults and children alike. As a form of living and a state that, in its freedom and creativity, is thoroughly fulfilling, it is very important in the production of a self with passions and interests of one’s own pursued in play, positioned at the center of a network of relationships with objects and people. If “the body and experiences of embodiment are produced in the doings of people by social and cultural rituals that are personal and communal” (Waskul and Vannini 2006: 7), and there is a “collective imaginary” (Belting 2011: 56) of intersubjectivity connecting the girls and their toys with a shared stock of memories or images, the toys, as receptacles of all these memories still being created, are very important in defining the bond of the girls and everyone included in the network of relationships.

If  “the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object) […], the same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in playing” (Winnicott 2005: 135). Thus, the girls’ toys may have been one of the first elements used in building a network of relationships involving family and their friends, loved ones, even acquaintances who made an impression; in sustaining their role in adulthood, they become yet another thing that bolsters the bonds between them and what is important in their lives.

Finally, I wish to emphasize how the twins’ attachment to their childhood toys is not a case of nostalgia and passive clinging to the past. Rather, it is a dynamic process of creating relations and narratives that weave inextricable links between the past and the present, thus allowing for a growth that holds on to what they do not want to forget or let go of. The girls have managed to incorporate something of ‘the past’ into the present by keeping it alive and loving it, thus creating a complex “aesthetic” (Miller 2009:296); and this ability to maintain a close link with the past while living in the present is an enviable art.


Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. By Linda Woolverton, Paige O’Hara, and Robby Benson. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson. Walt Disney Pictures, 1991.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Csordas, Thomas J. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18.1 (1990): 5-47.

McLoone, Paul, and Feargal Sharkey. Teenage Kicks. By J.J. O’Neil. The Undertones. Castle Communications, 1993.

Miller, Daniel. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

Milne, A. A. The Christopher Robin Story Book. London: Methuen and, 1966.

Milner, Marion. “Aspects of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1952): n. pag.

Toy Story 3. Dir. Lee Unkrich. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack. WaltDisney, 2010.

Turner, Terence. “Bodies and Anti-bodies: Flesh and Fetish in Contemporary Social Theory.” Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Ed. Thomas J. Csordas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U.P., 1994. 27-47.

Waskul, Dennis D., and Phillip Vannini. “Introduction: The Body in Symbolic Interaction.” Introduction. Body/embodiment: Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. 1-18.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 2005.

Wolputte, Steven Van. “Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33.1 (2004): 251-69.

What is a photograph

what is a photograph


The current exhibition at the International Center of Photography, New York, asks “What is a photograph?”

Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art. A new generation of artists began an equally rigorous but more aesthetically adventurous analysis, which probed photography itself—from the role of light, color, composition, to materiality and the subject.What Is a Photograph? brings together these artists, who reinvented photography.


A New Government Breaks With The Past in The Papua New Guinea Parliament’s “Haus Tambaran

Ryan Schram, University of Sydney

The 2013 session of the Parliament of Papua New Guinea (PNG) ended with drama from an unexpected place. After months of stories from PNG of mobs and armed gangs torturing women and men they accused of sorcery, and a campaign of symbolic mourning by women across the country against violence, most of December was given over to a media scandal about a decision by the Speaker of Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc, to remove carvings and statues he considered demonic from the parliament building.

The lintel and facade of the National Parliament Building, October 2013 (Credit: So Much World, So Little Time

The lintel and facade of the National Parliament Building, October 2013 (Credit: So Much World, So Little Time[/caption]

On December 6, a normally quiet time in PNG before Christmas, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported that the Speaker of Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc (Finschhafen, Morobe Provnice) planned to remove a lintel of 19 ornately carved faces from iconic facade of the national Parliament House.1 Objections came in from all quarters – from academia, unions, churches – and the Post-Courier, but the speaker’s staff continued to work, erecting scaffolding around a group of carved poles representing the nation’s diverse woodworking traditions in the main entrance hall of the building. Zurenuoc insisted that he would “cleanse” the building all “ungodly images and idols”2, not only these works, but all of the decorations in the building. It was part of his plan to “reform” and “modernise”3 Parliament itself. Critics accused the Speaker of magical thinking about merely artistic and “cultural” objects. They attributed his efforts to millenarianism, animism, religious fervor, and even foreign interference from Israel. Many said his actions would damage national unity because they brought religion into the state in a new and divisive way.

The lintel after it had been removed, damaged by Parliament workers and discarded. (Credit: Andrew Moutu, Facebook: Sharp Talk[1])

The lintel after it had been removed, damaged by Parliament workers and discarded. (Credit: Andrew Moutu, Facebook: Sharp Talk[1])

One reason why this issue seemed to catch fire has to do with PNG’s famously byzantine political machinations. Yet, as a bit of summertime political theatre, it also caught the public’s attention both domestically and internationally. In December two separate conferences were held by the National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG)4 and the National Cultural Commission5, and an international network of anthropologists rallied online to support their colleague, Andrew Moutu, the director of NMAG, who has been challenging the action in court. It was a dispute over symbols on several levels: not only whether Christian or indigenous symbols should be used for national institutions, but also whether either of these kinds of images could still express a credible national identity, and one could still gave credence to the secular belief that there are no gods or ghosts in the constitutional machine, that symbols were merely objects. These kinds of disputes have come up several times in the history of PNG’s iconic ‘spirit house’ (haus tambaran).

Papua New Guinea’s Men’s House

As PNG prepared for independence from Australia in 1975, the territory’s government held a design competition for a permanent home for parliament. They wanted a grand building in the government district of Waigani that would symbolize the country’s future as a free nation. The design by Cecil Hogan entitled “A Modern Haus Man (Men’s House)” envisaged a complex of three buildings under a sharply steeped roof over the central hall, creating a profile evoking a haus tambaran (spirit house) of an East Sepik province men’s cult. The other buildings referenced places of male leadership found in other regions. Archie Brennan, a lecturer from the national arts school, was selected to manage the process of producing decorative artwork for the complex which would reflect different artistic traditions from around the country. Mimicking the painted bark facades of spirit houses, Brennan designed an intricate, colorful mosaic based on drawings by the renowned artist Mathias Kauage and others for the building’s front facade. It combined cultural motifs, symbols of the nation’s resources and future progress, and excerpts from the preamble to the constitution. Students from the school and carvers produced the lintel of nineteen faces for the front facade. Brennan also oversaw the creation of an assemblage of wooden poles entitled “Bung Wantaim” (Coming Together), placed in the front foyer. After four years construction and 23.4 million kina (approximately US$25 million then), the building opened in 19846.

The Parliament Building and flags of PNG’s provinces (Credit: ABC)

The Parliament Building and flags of PNG’s provinces (Credit: ABC)

From the beginning, the design and artwork of the building was controversial. Students from the University of Papua New Guinea protested the opening over the expense. Many other criticised that such a large building and grandiose design was chosen as opposed to a project that could be built in stages. Critics read it as a monument to the country’s new leaders, and suggested that the design really only symbolised the Sepik region of Michael Somare, the first prime minister, and not the country as a whole. Architects also faulted the use of indigenous design and artwork. One of the design competition’s judges, Balwant Saini said that indigenous styles and images were stripped of their original cultural context in order to make a political statement about national unity. The whole thing was a “cultural abortion.”7

As an attempt to plan a national identity, the haus man design and artwork is by its nature heavy-handed. It draws an explicit, rather simplistic analogy between the men’s house and the parliament. It leaves itself wide open to satire. Letters to the editor by readers of the PC over the last few years regularly poke fun at the haus tambaran image.

In a 2012 letter to the PC lamenting ethnic violence and lawlessness, Riwi Rindi “Let us not think as our so called leaders from the haus tambaran but as real Papua New Guineans. … The regionalistic thoughts are not from our fathers or a Melanesian way of thinking. It is a thought introduced by our so called leaders in the haus tambaran which is now beginning to eat away the fabric of this nation.”8 The author suggests that parliamentarians don’t deserve to be associated with the virtues of traditional leadership, and subtly reminds his readers of the Sepik roots of the supposedly national building.

Another letter-writer in the PC decried the influence of ‘millionaire’ donors on politics, saying those elected are beholden to them “in order to stay on the comfortable chairs of Haus Tambaran.”9 Writing a letter from the “Works Compound” (a Port Moresby housing compound for Department of Works staff), Robert Akunaii wrote a letter to the PC recently to lament the corruption of public spending. He writes: “[At independence] the Haus Tambaran was built with the finest materials and even the size of the building is huge, it is one of the best Parliament House amongst the Commonwealth Countries … [Today] Waigani has become a synonym for graft.”10

Among the many ironies that people play on, one is that parliament supposedly represents a Christian nation, yet its members can be quite wicked. In a 2008 speech in Parliament Francis Awesa MP remarked that “it was ironic that parliamentarians prayed for God’s guidance at the start of every session in a building dubbed Haus Tambaran.”11 In a 2010 opinion article in the PC, Isaac Lupari called for a parliament with a more “Christian environment.” He quipped that “the National Parliament changes people;” members are “converted” to a religion of corruption when they enter the building. Citing the country’s Christian principles in its constitution, he suggested that not only should its national legislature not be housed in a traditionally styled building, but that since the haus tambaran came from the Sepik, it could never be a national symbol anyways.12 The Christian critique of the state often sounds exactly like the traditional critique of the state. As Riwi Rindi says: “They are called leaders when in fact they lack all the leadership traits that makes a person be a leader.”

Some people see a deeper meaning in the building. For instance, Peter Pere, a pastor of the Port Moresby Church of God said that many public sculptures in Port Moresby, including Parliament House, were traditional idols that offended God and brought God’s curse upon the country. This was based on research for a forthcoming book “relating to Haus Tambaran and political leadership of Sir Michael Somare and his reign in his 40 years in political leadership.”13 For the pastor, traditional artwork should never symbolise a modern, Christian nation; in his worldview, traditional forms were by definition pre-Christian, and hence, evil. Awesa, in the speech cited above, also suggested that the traditional styles of sculpture in Parliament invited demons to enter.

10-toea stamp for the opening of Parliament House in 1984. (Credit: Stampmall

10-toea stamp for the opening of Parliament House in 1984. (Credit: Stampmall[/caption]

These critics of Parliament don’t just question whether the metaphor of the building’s design and decoration is apt. They impose their own alternative meanings on traditional forms, connecting traditional ancestor and spirit worship associated specifically with men’s cults and men’s initiation rituals in many parts of the country, including the Sepik region, and pagan worship of Satan. Because the nation-state of PNG continues to celebrate non-Christian institutions, even in a token way, leaders in effect reject the salvation offered by Christianity, and the modernity and membership in the global Christian community this brings. For the independence generation, tradition was a key symbol of the new nation because it distinguished the country from Australian society and the colonial past. They did not, of course, have any desire to perpetuate traditional forms that prevented economic growth. In fact, many early politicians were hard anti-traditionalists. Yet then everyone mostly seemed to agree that traditional art, stripped of its original meaning, was still appropriate as a symbol for a uniquely Melanesian nation. For revivalist Christians like Peter Pere, though, colonialism and independence are in fact the same step in a totally different story, the advent of Christianity in PNG and the beginning of a totally new kind of society.

Cleansing House or Cleaning House?

Somare was the country’s first prime minister, and also most frequent, leading four governments between 1975 and 2011. Being the so-called father of the nation has been double edged. He has been a fixture of politics, but his longevity has made the public anticipate the rise of the next generation of politicians all the more eagerly. In 2011, after months absent from the capital for medical treatment in Singapore, a group of parliamentarians led by Peter O’Neill (Ialibu-Pangia, Southern Highlands Province) changed the government, yet under a questionable application of procedure. Both sides obtained court decisions and orders bolstering their claims to a parliamentary majority. For months, the national media, unable to decide who was legitimate, referred to two governments, two governors-general, two police commissioners, and so on. Finally, a compromise was reached that placed O’Neill’s faction in power just in time for the 2012 general election. Claiming the mantle of the next generation, O’Neill and his supporters cemented their victory in the election. Since returning to office, O’Neill has formed quite possibly the broadest coalition in history – of parliaments, everywhere. By the end of 2013, the official opposition consisted of 6 out of 111 members and the government has 105 (although press reports suggest that groups within the government can still block legislation).

At the height of the crisis, the government formed by O’Neill met in Parliament. The session was boycotted by the Somare government. Theo Zurenuoc, one of O’Neill’s supporters, rose to speak on the dark days facing the republic. Poreni Umau, a reporter for the PC was in the gallery that day and wrote the following:

“I believe that this house (parliament) is cursed,” Mr Zurenuoc said. > > He went on to relate to parliament where on one Sunday, he went to pray in > parliament and saw 19 designs on the wall of the building. > > He said that he was taken aback by these designs saying that they represented > the 19 provinces and these designs may be evil spirits that have brought curse > to the parliament house. > > He said that he went ahead and began praying against the evil spirits, > rebuking them out of the house. > > […] > > He also spoke out against Sir Michael . . ., alleging that the Grand Chief > [as Somare is also widely known] and his followers were agents and > facilitators of evil. “I must say it here. I do not fear anyone. They are > agents and facilitators of evil,” he said.14

Zurenuoc’s prophecy recalls a lot of religious rhetoric one finds in PNG, but it also brings together all of the common critiques of the building. Amidst the monuments selected by Somare to represent the nation, Zurenuoc turns the building from a spirit house into his own private chapel. Where many see mere symbols of the national community, he wills himself to see more than meets the eye, the hidden powers behind the public image. What’s needed, he suggests, is not simply new people in power, but a new system and a new spirit – led by Christianity. After O’Neill and his group were returned to office, Zurenuoc was elected as Speaker of the ninth Parliament of PNG. From early days, he declared his intention to “restore, reform and modernise” the parliament, as he said in a speech at the Centre for Democratic Institutions at Australian National University during a workshop on parliamentary management.15 In that speech, he clearly distinguished himself from the independence generation of Somare. That generation’s approach to policymaking was derived directly from a traditional cultural system, and clashed with the principles of democracy. The traditional ethos had led to official corruption and ethnic favoritism, and his generation must break with this a build a rationally managed parliament based on formal procedures. Rather than pork-barrelling, every member should serve the public interest alone.16

After his first year in the Speaker’s office, Zurenuoc took an opportunity for an act of symbolic nation-making of his own by dismantling artwork that, for him and many others in government, represented the bad old days in more than one way.

Church and State

The response to Zurenuoc’s action was swift. The director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, anthropologist Andrew Moutu said that Zurenuoc’s actions a “perverse political form of millenarianism” and potentially illegal because the artwork was national cultural property.2 The Catholic archbishop of Port Moresby, John Ribat, called it a “disgrace.” He said that the Zurenuoc should have properly sought the input of “mainline churches, anthropologists, historians and educationists before going ahead with his action, as they are ones who can give a balanced opinion on the importance of our cultures and traditions”.17 The statement, like many, implied that Zurenuoc’s personal beliefs were fundamentalist. The reaction, especially internationally, seemed to play on primitive imagery twice over.18 Zurenuoc not only believed in the traditional spirits of indigenous beliefs, but also that they were demons from hell, too. PC editorials compared Zurenuoc to the Taliban, and his actions harmful to democracy.1920 In other words, when they called on the prime minister to intervene, implicitly, it was to rein in a zealot acting illegally. While the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Council of Churches, claiming to represent mainstream belief, condemned Zurenuoc2122, several pastors from Pentecostal churches spoke out in favour, one calling the removal “the work of God.”2324

“Please Stop!” The front page of the PNG Post Courier on December 13, 2013.

“Please Stop!” The front page of the PNG Post Courier on December 13, 2013.

The situation became quite tense, it appears. On December 11, O’Neill said in an interview with the PC that work has stopped, then it commenced again.25 The speaker’s office issued no statement, while the PC published a front page story on the issue every single day for two weeks.26 MPs current and former made their stances known. Many prominent members gave support to Zurenuoc, saying he had the authority to act and endorsing the religious meaning as well. Others, including former Speakers and current members, opposed him. The PC ran a picture of Somare on the front page with the headline “‘Please Stop!’: Sir Michael Appeals for End to Desecration.”27 The PC editors accused the speaker’s staff of intimidating reporters on the parliament grounds.28

Finally, on the 18th, Zurenuoc took out a eight page advertisement in the National, a competing newspaper. He toned down his spiritual interpretation of the artwork, saying:

While the carvings are harmless and lifeless wood, they symbolically represent > ancestral gods and spirits of idolatry, immorality and witchcraft. I am not > making this up. I am paraphrasing what the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare said > on the eve of Independence. (In the book Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes: The > Masterpieces Exhibition of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art > Gallery, edited by Barry Craig, published in 2010.)3

He wanted to “modernise” Parliament by installing works that would symbolise what he said were the true sources of national unity, the constitution, the Bible and (oddly) Michael Somare. He announced a plan to erect a National Unity Pole which would combine these and the word ‘unity’ in the 800 indigenous languages of the country. His plan was still steeped in religious language, but carefully avoided anything that smacked of animism, instead attributing that view to Somare and anthropologist Barry Craig.29

On December 27, O’Neill called for a debate in parliament over the fate of the artwork.30 Meanwhile, the issue was debated all over Port Moresby. NMAG held a conference on the topic with several academic and religious speakers.4 Another conference was sponsored by the National Cultural Commission.5

If one looks only at the positions taken by politicians and editorialists, the debate revolved around proving that one’s position was the most consistent with Enlightenment rationality. On Twitter, Deni ToKunai (@Tavurur) tweeted:

My people have a custom of chasing evil spirits away every NY. We bang > saucepans. The Speaker should invest in crockery. Seems to work > #PNG31

For his part, when he finally did speak up, Zurenuoc took the emphasis away from what he wanted to remove, and talked up his own vision. His National Unity Pole would consist mainly of words, of God and the law, not to mention a single abstract noun in 800 different languages. In other words, it would be an expression of pure rationality, ornamented only by a single eternal flame. It seemed calculated to present him as moderniser, working according to his stated plans for parliament, instead of a renegade. Readers of the PC, however, expressed a much broader range of views. While opinion was split, there was much more openness to change.

People’s House

Between December 6 and January 15, the PC published 21 letters and opinion pieces on the issue. A quick read shows a nearly even split in opinion among the 20 authors. Nine supported Zurenuoc, nine opposed him, and two others expressed a neutral view. The trustees of NMAG32 and a linguistics professor at Divine Word University33 both strongly opposed the speaker’s actions as destruction of cultural heritage. Joseph Walters, the pastor of a popular Pentecostal church, endorsed Zurenuoc and called on churches to support him.34 One tour operator said that cultural heritage was good for the tourism business.35 The other writers, though, actually did want to discuss whether and in what respect PNG was Christian, which traditions still mattered and what would really represent them as a nation. They engaged directly with the question of whether or not the carvings were good, evil or maybe something else. The realm of public discourse was a lot wider.

One strand uniting them is a Christian critique of Zurenuoc’s focus on objects. These authors more or less agreed that PNG was a Christian country, for some even a country founded on a covenant with God, as Zurenuoc claimed. But they said that true reform would come from conversion of parliament’s members. In a sense, these writers make the same kind of critique that PNG people have always had of their government. The dismantling of the decorations was just as empty a gesture as putting them up.363738

Related to this was a position articulated by a few against the speaker. As Nema Yalo writes, “It is contrary to … Christian faith to despise other religions and superimpose Christianity.”393640 The supporters of Zurenuoc were not ready to believe that the state should be neutral on religious questions. In the words of one writer, calling for tolerance is an “atheist’s” view.41 If the state paid respect to culture, or other religions, it would be breaking the first commandment.42

Some people wanted the objects removed because they were part of the past, not because they were evil. Two letter writers recommended that they should be removed, but donated to NMAG. They represented the traditional cultures of PNG, and should be respected as such, just not in Parliament.4344 One author compared the faces and poles to the ritual objects of the Old Testament Canaanites.44 Another author, tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that women had polluted the national haus man. Typically women are forbidden from entering men’s houses, and men’s affairs are officially secret to women. By building a men’s cult building as its national legislature, PNG chose to follow the rules that come with this. Yet this society has always embraced gender equality too. “Don’t you agree?”, the author winks, “[I]f we follow customs and traditions we have ourselves to blame for the traditional misdemeanour and a breach of the cardinal rule – women are out of bounds from the Haus Tambaran.” IF PNG really wants to live up to its own ideals, it needs a change. “I propose we build a new Parliament House with a new design and get rid of the Haus Tambaran full of evil spirits.”45

Blessing or Curse

With Parliament away, the criticism of Zurenuoc’s actions in last two months has focused on its religious underpinnings and its implications for a secular, liberal democracy in PNG. As Parliament reconvenes in February, it is possible that another narrative will come out as members of parliament take a stand. Zurenuoc’s speeches during the recess indicate that his stance is good populism as well as moral politics.46

When one looks more closely at people’s reactions, it becomes clear that one can’t explain the scandal purely as a war of ideologies or mere manoeuvring. Zurenuoc has reopened an even bigger question in the minds of many grassroots people. Is it possible at all for there to be a symbol of the national community? For Zurenuoc, the answer seems clearly to be yes. Christianity can transcend all of the different communities of the country more than any traditional expression. While he has a lot of support, people’s views are much more nuanced in their answers.

Zurenuoc’s critics want people to come together as fellow citizens with rights to their beliefs and respect for each other. It’s hard to argue with this liberal vision, especially given that any alternative is bound to exclude someone. So why are people debating the carvings? The real conflict at the heart of this issue is not between religious unity and secular tolerance. There is a deeper difference over what you can and can’t debate in the modern public sphere. Let’s for the moment assume that Zurenuoc was within his authority to hack off a piece of the Parliament facade – and that still remains to be seen as many different laws apply. If he could though, many people wanted to say he shouldn’t simply because basing policy on the supernatural is out of bounds. The carvings could not be evil, because they were symbols and nothing more. Even Zurenuoc himself ultimately conceded that the works were “lifeless wood.” You can believe whatever you want about them, but that’s all it is, a personal belief.

And yet, these tenets of the liberal modern creed sound pretty hollow to many in PNG, and have for some time. The possibility that there were unseen forces has been, though, if not credible, good to think and good to debate. It’s a debate that is not, at least in a strict sense, rational. It still resonates in part because it draws upon the long tradition of accusing politicians of hypocrisy. It starts as a joke, and becomes a speculation. While officials and experts confidently assert claims to truth, letter writers, tentatively and pragmatically, probe, question and suggest. If it is possible that there are hidden forces in state pageantry, people can then ask an unaskable question. Just why is this constitutional order the right one? The parliament house tangibly embodies the PNG polity more tangibly than the constitution and other national symbols. While the objects that adorn it may or may not have powers of their own, the possibility that someone could take down one embodiment of the collective self and put in place another seems to be what critics fear and others find fascinating. In PNG, “Christian country” and “Melanesian way” are more often than not empty slogans. Politicians flog them to stir up sentiment. Why do people keep talking about them in earnest? Because they offer a chance to rethink things that are often too readily left unquestioned.

  1. Moutu, Andrew. 2013. “PNG Parliament Carved Heads.” ABC News, December 17.
  2. Evara, Rosalyn Albaniel. 2013. “Zurenuoc Banishes ‘Ungodly Images and Idols’ from Parliament: Speaker ‘Cleanses’ House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 6. 
  3. Gerawa, Maureen. 2013. “National Unity Pole a Uniting Symbol; National Pledge to Be Changed House Plans Revealed.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 18. 
  4. Emeck, Natasha. 2014. “Supporters Insist Culture, Religion Can Co-Exist.” The National (Papua New Guinea), January 20. ;
  5. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Forum to Debate ‘Cleansing.’” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 19. Excerpts from this forum can be seen in EM TV. 2013. “Forum Held on Preservation of Culture.” EM TV. December 19. ;
  6. Rosi, Pamela C. 1991. “Papua New Guinea’s New Parliament House: A Contested National Symbol.” The Contemporary Pacific 3(2): 289-323.
  7. Balwant Saini quoted in Rosi 1991, p. 311, speaking at a seminar entitled “The State of the Arts in the Pacific.” 
  8. Rindi, Riwi. 2012. “We Must All Strive for Unity.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, April 11. 
  9. Observer. 2012. “Please Respect Democracy.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, July 18. 
  10. Akunaii, Robert D. 2012. “Corruption a Major Stumbling Block.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, July 4. 
  11. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2008. “Awesa: House of God or Satan?” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, May 21. 
  12. Lupari, Isaac B. 2010. “PNG Resource-Rich yet Spiritually Poor.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, May 7. 
  13. Eroro, Simon. 2011. “Pastor against Sculptures.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, February 2. While Somare has been prominent in national politics for nearly 40 years, he has not actually led the country for 40 years. As discussed below, he served as prime minister for about 17 years on four separate occasions. Naturally he casts a long shadow and this is how readers of Pere’s statement would take it. 
  14. Umau, Poreni. 2011. “Parlt Is Haunted.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 15. 
  15. Zurenuoc, Theo. 2013. “Restoring the People’s Parliament.” ANUchannel, July 17.
  16. See especially minutes 4:15-8:00 of Zurenuoc 2013.
  17. The National. 2013. “Ribat: Leave carvings.” The National, December 12. 
  18. Pearlman, Jonathan. 2013. “Evangelical Christian Speaker of Papua New Guinea’s Parliament Destroys ‘Evil’ Pagan Carvings.”, December 23.
  19. Akane, Milka, and Alexander Rheeney. 2013. “Cultural Terrorist.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 10. 
  20. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Speaker Should Resign from Office.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 20. 
  21. Bauai, Gloria. 2013. “Church Condemns Speaker’s Moves.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 10. 
  22. Bauai, Gloria. 2013. “Council of Churches Demand Face to Face Meeting with Government Parlt Move Fuels Tension.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 17. 
  23. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Walters Supports Speaker.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 23. 
  24. Martin, Melissa. 2014. “Removal of Masks a Work of God.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, January 28. 
  25. Rheeney, Alexander, and Armstrong Saiyama. 2013. “Parlt Madness Ends.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 11. 
  26. The other major English-language newspaper, the National, published only a few news stories, one editorial (favourable to Zurenuoc) and a handful of letters on this issue, compared to the daily drumbeat of criticism of Zurenuoc from the PC. The editorial positions of the two papers often contrast. The differences in coverage among PNG media, though, is outside the scope of this essay. 
  27. Rheeney, Alexander. 2013. “‘Please Stop!’: Sir Michael Appeals for End to Desecration.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 13. 
  28. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Harassment of Our Staff Unjustified.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. December 18. 
  29. Craig has since disputed the way his work his being used in Zurenuoc’s announcement, denying that he writes anything that Zurenuoc attributes to him, and arguing that Zurenuoc is overinterpreting his claims about the cultural and religious significance of carved objects in PNG societies. For his part, Zurenuoc seems not to rely on Craig for ethnographic evidence per se, but is attempting to claim the privileged position of epistemological relativism that ethnographers claim. Ethnographers speak about magic credulously, as if it were real, without being challenged, and then step away from that position and provide an objective explanation of a person’s belief. In a sense, many critics of Zurenuoc attempted claim epistemological authority when they refused to engage with his statements and declared him a maniac. In his supplement, Zurenuoc seems to be turning the tables. 
  30. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “PM Calls for Debate on Parlt Cleansing.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 27. 
  31. ToKunai, Deni. 2014. “My People Have a Custom…” @Tavurvur, January 2.
  32. Violaris, Julius, Andrew Abel, Nora Vagi Brash, Michael Mel, and Peter Loko. 2013 “Leave Traditional Images Alone.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 9. 
  33. Volker, Craig. 2013. “Cultural Terrorism in the Parliament House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 10. 
  34. Walters, Joseph. 2014. “Lutherans, Please Break Silence.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, January 15. 
  35. Folock, Brian. 2013. “Tourism’s Uniquely Iconic Ruins.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 16. 
  36. PNG Tauna. 2013. “Clean the Hearts of Those within the House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 13. 
  37. Concerned citizen. 2013. “Removal of Carvings Not Justified.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 24. 
  38. Lutulele, Robert. 2013. “What It Means to Be Christian Nation.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 31. 
  39. Yalo, Nema. 2013. “The Covenant and the Constitution.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 20. 
  40. Eragairmayal (Moromaule). 2013. “Zurenuoc Should Be Arrested, Sacked.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 20. 
  41. Father’s son. 2013. “Sir Puka, Your Views Are of an Atheist.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 19, 2013. 
  42. EKit Kuu Kange. 2013. “Mr Speaker, You Are Correct.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 13. 
  43. Orlando W. 2013. “Speaker Must Be Very Cautious.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 11. 
  44. Ora, V. 2013. “Relocate Artefacts to Museum.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 17. 
  45. Tubuna, Jijiro. 2013. “Have Women Poisoned House?” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 18. 
  46. EM TV. 2014. “Zurenuoc: Artifacts Removed to Be Replaced.” EM TV, January 7. ;

The Album People – digital photography and social research

Elad Ben Elul, UCL Digital Anthropology and the Album People, Tel Aviv

(An earlier version of this article was published in Interactions.)

Applied anthropology is becoming increasingly visible and the rise of digital anthropology means cultural research is employed for the development and marketing of technology. However, applied anthropology can also be used as an ongoing research tool for service design as an organic part of the work process. This post examines this option by looking at an enterprise called “The Album People”.


The Album People is a London-based service specializing in digital archiving and the preservation of domestic memories. The service was designed as a direct result of a Masters thesis conducted in UCL’s Digital Anthropology department  about the future of the family photo album. The ethnography looked at digital archiving practices among Ghanaian families living abroad. My partner, Alicia Weekes, and I founded it in the hope of helping people build a bridge between their pre-digital and post-digital memories. Our main objectives are to encourage centralization of memories across different platforms, optimize searchability and browsing experience, and preserve materials in sustainable formats and storage outlets according to international digital archiving standards.


Although the Album People is essentially a commercial enterprise, our main aim here is to show how services can be designed following social research, and how social research can continue while the service is being provided. By this second stage I mean how we examine the social significance each collection has to its keepers and how it reflects their ideas about family memories. I will elaborate on these two stages to illustrate the significance of social research for user experience and design as an integral force throughout the design process.

01Table of pictures copy

Social Research Before Design

The role of behavioral psychology, anthropology, and social design in the development of technological products is becoming increasingly visible. Companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and Amazon hire anthropologists to understand the cultural foundations of technological use. As Genevieve Bell, director of Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research, has explained, you cannot invent new products before you understand how people use existing ones [1]. This philosophy guided my anthropological research about the future of the family photo album conducted at the Centre for Digital Anthropology, University College London. I was eager to deconstruct how we think of digital photos and storage in hope of identifying the needs and problems around them.

One of my main concerns with previous research about the topic was the extent to which white, middle-class Western families have been observed for the study of digital family photos. For example, studies by Microsoft’s research labs were conducted with English families (mostly based in Cambridge) about memories, home archiving, and photo frames [2]. This frequent choice has to do with the notion that this group has more access to technology, reflects target markets more accurately, and, perhaps above all, represents a neutral community that can provide universal insights about digital technologies. But these notions are far from true and in fact distract us from discovering more challenging insights. That is because we are all influenced by our local culture, norms, and ideals, which differ from place to place. It is often necessary to step out of our supposedly neutral culture and look at someone “else,” in hope of revealing some new truths that can challenge our design process. The group I chose to observe for this goal was Ghanaian families who live in the U.K.

Ghanaian families in the study used digital technology on a daily basis so they can keep in touch with relatives abroad. They also have a tight relationship with photography thanks to the role it played in the British colonial days, as well as during the founding of the Ghanaian nation. By examining the history of the photos from Ghanaian families in our study and how digital tools are incorporated into an existing culture of sharing and remembering, I discovered practices that I later translated into the Album People service.

For example, Ghanaian families were often frustrated with their mass of photos and their dispersal between various digital and non-digital platforms. Photos arranged in albums or in random batches, framed pictures, mobile phones, computers, memory cards, and online archives such as Facebook all create a scattered family library that is often unwelcome. Ghanaian families also share a sense of anxiety and uncertainty regarding the “safest” form of storage. While some families might reject digital storage as a dangerous terrain and opt instead for printing photos, others embrace it as a disengagement from material hazards. Clouds have further challenged these ideas, as they allow immaterial storage but expose photos to privacy- and ownership-related threats.

During fieldwork I also noticed that while photo management software (e.g., iPhoto) overcomes issues of browsing and searchability, such tools organize only avatars of the actual files. The real digital files are usually scattered around the computer (e.g., “My Pictures” folder), do not contain textual information, and are not properly archived. This mass of digital photos makes it challenging to navigate between the materials. It was clear to me that there is a need for archiving methods that address the media files themselves.

Learning about the universal through the specific of my fieldwork notes was integral to the design of the Album People. For example, I knew right away that home visits to the clients are necessary to make sure the materials do not leave the sight of their keepers and are fully digitized within the safety of their “natural” environment.

Another issue I had to tackle was the difficulty people had locating specific photos. Using metadata and tags on the actual files, just like digital archivists do in institutional repositories, means the photo is forever linked to its textual clues and captions. Moreover, these captions are searchable on any computer search bar, which makes it much easier to find actual files.

With respect to the actual storage of materials, the Album People uses a dual storage approach that includes both the organization of data in hard drives and curation in an online gallery. The use of fully digital formats in place of DVDs is pretty new in this industry, but fieldwork has showed me that DVDs are perceived as a hybrid digital and analog object that does not solve the problems raised. Furthermore, storing photos online encourages sharing and promotes the social experience around photos, when such an experience is desired. When families express more concern about privacy and safety, high-quality USB sticks stored in cherished boxes created a safe “time capsule” or “vault” feeling for the client.

Last but not least, I felt very strongly about the consulting elements of the service and how the home visits I conducted for my ethnography should continue as part of the package itself. When arriving at a client’s home we would have casual interviews to understand the best archiving methods for his or her specific collection. In this sense, the design of personal digital family photo albums required social research not only in the development stage but also as an ongoing value in our day-to-day customer-archivist interaction.

Social Research During the Service

Perhaps the more correct term would be social research methodologies and not social research, as my proposal does not call for some sort of info-gathering of customer experience but rather an optimization of the service through a better understanding of their perceptions. How do we organize our digital photos? What do we keep them for? How do environmental elements such as family, location, and lifestyle change our photo-storing needs? These questions cannot really be answered in full in pre-development research. Instead, we must aspire to constantly engage with those questions and use our interactions with living storytellers (in the form of clients) to further improve our understanding of digital family archives.

How do we organize our digital photos? What do we keep them for? How do environmental elements such as family, location, and lifestyle change our photo-storing needs?

Great aunt’s family genealogy. One of our clients, a career woman with a busy schedule but a strong sense of responsibility toward family memories, hired us to digitize a very old collection kept by her great aunt. As all of the aunt’s family members were dispersed in the U.K., they had no access to the photographs, and since the aunt was not getting any younger, they felt it was essential to preserve in digital formats not only the photographs, but also the stories and information they carry (which were stored only in the aunt’s mind). This challenge required more than mechanical digitization; it also called for in-depth research through interviews and conversation about the individuals in the photos, the dates and locations, and the genealogical structure of the family.

Using metadata (captions and keywords embedded in the files), we managed to bridge the immaterial aural information and the material photographs. The aunt’s mass of photos was organized in folders that reflected the strongest elements of self-definition in this specific family genealogy. By dividing the family branches into folders and assigning numbers to each folder, the digital library became a type of family tree that guides you through the chronological and genealogical story of the family all the way back to the 1870s. The collection was presented online in a gallery so that family members from across the country could access it. I always find it interesting that the aunt mentioned we have digitized only the photos of the dead and that she will soon invite us to do the same for the living.

Chapters of familial life. A very different case involved digitizing a collection belonging to a much younger and smaller family. Young Western families tend to have a weaker bond with their non-immediate relatives and define themselves mainly as a nuclear unit. This influences how their photos are organized, as division by branches is not relevant and there is a need to reflect the chapters and periods of their familial life. The project was booked as a Christmas surprise by the mother (who often ends up as the curator of pre-digital family memories). Before scanning the photos, we sat down with her and sorted the photos into batches. The batches reflected historic segments as she divided them; they consisted of “wedding photos,” “pre-children photos,” “post-children photos,” and “holidays.” Again it was the use of metadata and the digital folder structure that allowed us to design an archive that reflected its keepers. But the only way to know how to design these was through an engaging dialogue with the client. The structure of remembering was incredibly different in this case because it referred to a more immediate personal biography. A simple scanner would never have been enough, and the photos would have ended up messy and disorganized (making them even more likely to be lost than when they were scattered in envelopes and shoeboxes).

Pre- and post-immigration. Families who immigrated from the U.K. or to the U.K. are a very interesting case as well. It is easier for family members who lived in one place all their lives to archive their photos and videos by specific events or years. Families who have immigrated or who regularly move countries, however, tend to sort their photos placing less importance on chronological structure and more on geographical structure. We had a client who moved with his family from Singapore to Scotland, and the archive had to reflect this dramatic change. It was clear the archive (and its memories) were often perceived in two terms: “before we arrived in the U.K.” and “after we arrived in the U.K.” The collection allowed the family to navigate between these two significant life periods and made it easier to categorize photos. Families who live abroad also place greater importance on the cloud version of their archive, for it allows sharing and exhibiting with transnational relatives. This is how digital family albums break the boundaries of time and space and encourage a dialogue around memories among various family members.

These are just a few examples to illustrate how social research takes part in the design and development of the service, as well as during the actual interaction with clients. I believe it is essential that more sociologists and anthropologists become involved in the world of innovation, as it can dramatically influence how we think of things and people. A company can use social research methodologies either with the  help of academics or simply by including a set of values in their toolkit of interactions. Interviews, observation, analysis, and above all, sensitivity to whomever it is that you are serving, can dramatically improve the satisfaction of the customer and the knowledge gathered by the service provider.

In the design of family photo albums, which are such personal and unique collections of stories and histories, the role of attentive social research is key. Although the scanners, online galleries, and metadata software are all available to create a digital collection, these have no meaning without the information provided by the curators. They will supply the flesh and blood (dates, locations, names, relations) to the skeleton (folders, tags, hard drives); it was our role to connect them into a meaningful archive.

Of course, the world of digital photographs is constantly changing and requires many more solutions. It seems as if people are not sure today which memories to document using cameras and which are not worth capturing at all. Some of our customers expressed difficulty during the consultation stage because it was hard to categorize random photos into collective folders. Highly formalized documentation practices (weddings, births, graduations) are shifting into a more spontaneous and random approach. Mobile phone cameras took this even further and we now document ourselves in any situation, even while eating. How do we go about organizing such photos? Such questions should be asked while keeping a tight dialogue with users of various groups. This dialogue is important because domestic archives contain meanings that go beyond personal sentimental values. By counteracting institutionalized and governmental archives, domestic archives are vital to the preservation of identities and histories in the intimate, free  space we call home.


1. Bell, G.‘U are happy life’: Telling the future’s stories. Proc. of the 19th ACM International Conference of Multimedia. ACM Press, New York, 2011, 585–586.

2. Kirk, D.S. and Sellen, A. On human remains: Values and practice in the home archiving of cherished objects. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 17, 3 (July 2010), Article 10.


Elad Ben Elul ( is a digital anthropologist and the co-founder of the Album People, a London-based service that consults with families about the storage of their memories in digital formats. With a background in print and online journalism and a master’s in digital anthropology from UCL, he is a great believer in the application of ethnography and social research outside academia.




Call for photos of intriguing museum display structures

Jes Fernie, Independent Curator, History Rising Project,

We’d like you to send us your photos of museum display structures from across the world.  These could be from your local museum, trips abroad or from your academic research.

We are interested in vitrines, plinths, shelves and general display mechanisms, rather than museum collections.  They could tell a pathetic story of desperation (the spider plant in a regional museum used to disguise ill-maintained vitrines); a humorous dictat (a carefully positioned sign on a piano which says ‘Do not put anything on this piano’); or simply a display structure that shows off a collection in an intelligent and beguiling way.

The initiative is part of the History Rising programme by artist Marjolijn Dijkman and curator Jes Fernie.  

Please send jpegs with museum details to:

History Rising is a subversive and engaging study of museum display in Wisbech, East Anglia. Viewers and participants are invited to reconsider their view of history by looking at the mechanisms museums put in place to create a sense of order and hierarchy within their collections. 

By distancing museum objects from their support structures History Rising forms a critique of the assumptions that are made about how things are positioned, who chooses to display them, and how the social, political and aesthetic choices that are made in the process dictate the language of display.

New work by Marjolijn Dijkman is installed in two public museums (Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery and Wisbech & Fenland Museum) and an artist run space (OUTPOST). Dijkman’s sculptures propose strange and fantastical juxtapositions, alleviate objects from the weight of history and create links with modernism, the heritage industry and the aesthetics of sci-fi.


On the Enclosure of Time

Marjolijn Dijkman, Wisbech & Fenland Museum, 1 Nov 2013 – 2 Feb 2014

International Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman has made a significant body of new work for one of Britain’s oldest museums, the Wisbech & Fenland Museum in East Anglia. When she first visited the Wisbech & Fenland Museum in 2011 Dijkman was immediately taken with the display structures: the wooden and glass vitrines that have remained unmoved for 166 years; the labeling system and the various shelves used to support museum objects.  Each of these elements contain within them their own systems of hierarchy, hinting at what is deemed to be important and what is not.

‘The Present is Now Appearing’, 7 layers of 6mm glass, afzelia wood

During a two year research period, Dijkman visited a large number of public and private museums in East Anglia – from the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Brentwood to the Gordon Boswell Romany Museum in Spalding – looking at the way objects are displayed, which stories are prioritised and who chooses to tell them.

As the visitor moves from the main museum space in the Wisbech & Fenland Museum into the Hudson Room, the change in atmosphere is immediately apparent.  From the relatively dark surroundings of the museum space, with its packed vitrines and eclectic ethnographic and natural history collections, you are greeted with a light and airy space with no labels and a selection of strange sculptural objects. The carpet from the museum area has been extended into the Hudson Room; a devise instigated by the artist to create a sense of continuity between museum space and the neutral white cube environment beyond.

The chain at the top of the steps of the Hudson Room (called Please Don’t Touch) is taken from the design of the chain that binds the hands of the slave in the Thomas Clarkson display in the main museum space.  This chain alludes to the type of barriers often found in museums to demarcate space and time, and discourage visitors from touching exhibits. The chain here is broken and although it is called ‘Please Don’t Touch’, it is manifestly not doing its job; we can walk past it with little chance of being challenged by a museum guard.

Each sculpture in On the Enclosure of Time references a museum display structure.  The objects have gone missing. Has the artist forgotten to install the collection? In What we know of them (Shelves of the World), museum shelving systems have been positioned on the wall in a way that is reminiscent of fungal growth seeping out of a tree trunk. These reference the shelves in the Wisbech & Fenland Museum which display the Waterhouse Hawkins models of extinct dinosaurs.


The little red wooden wedges positioned on the floor are a play on a commonly used museum display system which stops wheels turning in agricultural or transport exhibits, known as ‘chocks’.  There is a suggestion here that we consider the controlling mechanisms of museums: wheels become trapped in time, unable to create a vital relationship with the present, forever repeating the past.

Furniture in museums is often displayed in such a way that deters visitors from sitting on chairs and sofas. The pink, green and yellow sculptures in the exhibition entitled Treasure, Trade and the Exotic allude to the diagonally placed pieces of string that are often attached to museum furniture to deter use.  Here they are transformed into sculptural objects with vibrant colour codes. One of these works is placed underneath a vitrine in the same way that many items in the main museum space are placed underneath display structures. Space is often at a premium in museums as time forms layers of accreted objects, signage and display paraphernalia.


The titles of individual works in the exhibition are taken from museum labels, many of which have a very particular form of didactic expression verging on the surreal.  About 40 Million and 195 – 140 Million are both impossible to imagine and strangely specific; The Beginning and the End is bombastic with ominous overtones; The Present is Now Appearing sounds like a metaphysical tract. The title of the exhibition On the Enclosure of Time references the ambition of many museums to encapsulate time in an effort to present an overarching worldview that is fixed and definite.  Dijkman’s sculptures ask us to look again, to re-consider the parameters of our knowledge base and how it is presented to us.

Marjolijn Dijkman is an artist who lives and works in Brussels and Rotterdam.  Her work has been shown in galleries and public spaces across the world, including The Hague, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Tongin-si (Korea), Marrakech, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Tblisi (Georgia) and Berkely (USA).

Things in Cambridge

The Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) has convened an interdisciplinary research seminar entitled “Things: Material Cultures 1500 – 1900. The brief of the research group is here:

With the dawning of modernity came the age of ‘stuff.’ Public production, collection, display and consumption of objects grew in influence, popularity, and scale. The form, function, and use of objects, ranging from scientific and musical instruments to weaponry and furnishings were influenced by distinct  and changing features of the period. Knowledge was not divided into strict disciplines. In fact, practice across what we now see as academic boundaries was essential to material creation. This seminar series uses an approach based on objects to encourage us to consider the unity of ideas of this period, to emphasise the lived human experience of technology and art, and the global dimension of material culture. It does this by inviting pairs of speakers, often from different institutional backgrounds, to speak to a particular kind of ‘thing’ or a theme that unites disparate ‘things’. Previous ‘Things’ seminars have concentrated on the early modern period generally and the long eighteenth century in particular; this year we have taken the step into the nineteenth century, the era that brought us the mass production of ‘things’. Our aim continues to be to look at the interdisciplinary thinking through which material culture was conceived, and to consider the question of what a ‘thing’ is, with the ultimate goal of gaining new perspectives on the period 1500-1900 through its artefacts.

Here is Simon Schaffer talking about “things” from one of their Mellon conferences:

And here is Edmund de Waal presenting his thoughts on pottery, shadows and archives related to a recent commission for Cambridge University.

The CRASSH website is a rich resource of past talks, many of which are videoed and archived here.

Global Things

Chris Rumford and Alistair Brisbourne, Royal Holloway, University of London

We would like to draw your attention to a new research project entitled ‘Global Things’.

In outline, the project seeks to identify a number of ‘global things’ and explore what makes them global, what this can tell us about the cultural dynamics of globalization, and the relation of individuals and society to that process. The initial seven ‘global things’ chosen are: the rubber duck, the V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes mask, the jumpsuit, aviator sunglasses, the sixties, the keffiyeh and the piggy bank. We are also open to original ideas for other things. What makes the study distinctive is that each global thing will be explored from a variety of perspectives such that their globality is not taken for granted. For the project to be a success we require contributors to tell us of their perceptions or experiences of the things being investigated.  It is important that we incorporate a range of perspectives into our account of what makes the rubber duck or the piggy bank, for example, a ‘global thing’. A full account of the project’s aims and objectives can be found on the webpage.

We are particularly interested to make contact with PhD students, interested in the field of cultural globalization broadly, who are willing to participate in the online project and perhaps also take part in a workshop provisionally scheduled for April 2014. 


Interested parties should contact Professor Chris Rumford (Royal Holloway, University of London) or Alistair Brisbourne (Research assistant, Royal Holloway, University of London) in order to discuss how they can best contribute to the project.


Nike’s Not-so-Pro Tattoo…

… and the continuing legacy of Native appropriations in American fashion.

By Emily McGoldrick (Independent Scholar, New York City) 

Image 1: Nike’s “Pro Tattoo” collection of women’s exercise apparel, before its discontinuation.

Image 1: Nike’s “Pro Tattoo” collection of women’s exercise apparel, before its discontinuation.


When Nike unveiled their Pro Tattoo line of women’s workout gear this summer, a wave of protest followed. The small collection included a sports bra, exercise tights, and a bodysuit decorated with the intricate black line patterns of traditional Samoan pe’a tattoos [Image 1]. Nike launched the garments at the end of July, and quietly pulled them from shelves and online retailers three weeks later. The company issued an apology that stated, “The Nike Tattoo Tech collection was inspired by tattoo graphics. We apologize to anyone who views this design as insensitive to any specific culture. No offense was intended.”

Continue reading