Tag Archives: exhibition

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.


Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.

Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.

 Dr.Kala Shreen

Founder & Director,Cultural Dynamics & Emotions Network (CDEN), School of History and Anthropology,Queen’s University Belfast, U.K. www.qub.ac.uk/cden
Chairperson,Center for Creativity, Heritage and Development, Chennai, INDIA, www.cchd.in

 In 2012, a world crafts summit was convened by World Crafts Council in the metropolitan city of Chennai, South India.  World Crafts Council is a non-profit organization, affiliated to UNESCO, that works “to strengthen the status of crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life” as recounted in their web portal.  In a press meet during the summit, the President of the World Crafts Council said, “One of the objectives of this summit is to reinforce the importance of crafts in our society and culture…  Why should crafts take a back seat to other forms of art such as paintings, sculptures, music, dance and films?  Crafts are also works of art in their own way…Therefore, I also feel that craftspeople should be given the same kind of respect and social status that fine artists are given.”

This summit, among other events and activities, comprised craft expositions organized at various renowned art galleries in the Chennai city.  The organizing team of the summit said that they wanted to create an interface between art and craft and had labelled this initiative as the “interdisciplinary art-craft exhibitions series”.  A range of crafts including textiles, puppets, baskets, furniture and home accessories moved into the art space in local art galleries that predominantly hosted art exhibitions comprising sculptures and paintings in the past.  The ensuing circulation and consumption of crafts shall be the focus of my following discussion with specific reference to two examples.

 Furniture Exhibition

An exhibition, held in a renowned art gallery in central Chennai, showcased several works of furniture wherein various art elements were appropriated into their production.  For example, folk art themes were incorporated into home accessories such as wall lights (fig:1).  A set of chairs possessed hand painted back rests.  In another instance, the religious themes of the Tanjore style of painting was utilized on the facade of a wooden wall cabinet (fig:2).  The furniture drew varied comments from the spectators.  For example, the wall cabinet in the photograph received mixed reactions from different people, both positive and negative.

A fifty-one year old art collector, said,

 “I do not like the way the image of Krishna has been cut up here. The Tanjore style of painting which predominantly carries Krishna themes is one of my favourite art choices.  I have many Tanjore paintings in my house.  I admire its beauty in its entirety…The beauty of the face, the expressions on the face… To see this kind of torn up Tanjore painting is a bit disconcerting for me…  I certainly would not like to have this in my house…”

A teenager, fifteen years of age, in response to my question, commented,

 “I think it looks weird.  It is like taking a picture and tearing it up into many pieces and then trying to tape it back to together.  How can that look nice.  I like seeing a whole picture.”

This piece of furniture comprising fractured images of Krishna’s face thus provoked negative reactions to the designer’s aesthetic approach and was regarded by some as a distasteful appropriation of a religious image.  The above comments of select viewers of this piece of furniture also served as a reminder to me of reactions to the controversial appropriation of Hindu religious images elsewhere in the world.  While the appropriation of Krishna’s image did not generate extreme responses with regard to the cabinet, in the case of the Lisa Blue swimwear collection in Australia, the images of Goddess Lakshmi on the bikini and other swimsuits, angered many Hindus. In some cities in India protests were carried out and images of her collection were burned.  Many Hindus clearly did not accept the design aesthetics of the swimwear line, regarding it as a malign appropriation of an image of religious significance to the Hindus.  As a result, the collection comprising Goddess Lakshmi images were stopped from being retailed and the designer had to issue a public apology.  Thus the transition of religious art to contemporary craft or fashion can also lead to debates about social norms.



Basket Exhibition

At another gallery an exposition titled “Antique Chettinad Basketry” was held.  Kottans are baskets made in the villages of Chettinad in Tamilnadu, India.  These baskets, originally used by the Chettiar community for ritual and storage purposes, were appropriated by the exhibition curator into a visual display for public consumption.  At this exhibition, the baskets were mounted on display pedestals and brightly illuminated; kottan weaves were glass framed and hung on the wall; the exhibits were neatly labelled with the kottan taxonomies and pertaining descriptions (fig:3).  The visual display drew some interesting comments from visitors.  One visitor said,

‘I have seen many art exhibitions where paintings and sculptures are displayed.  This is the first time I am seeing crafts displayed like works of art.’

Another spectator said,

 ‘I never thought that baskets could qualify to be displayed in the likes of an art exhibition.’

Kottan baskets were thereby made to downplay their mundane utility and ritual context and were perceived as artistic objects as can be seen from the museum-like display and the above comments of the spectators.


The exhibition of the antique palmyra kottan baskets also brought to light the importance of the constructed settings in the visual display of these objects (fig:4).  A set of small baskets were displayed on an antique chest of drawers alongside traditional Chettinad saris under old black and white photographs of Chettiars.  A pair of large sized baskets was exhibited below an antique painting.  This display scene also comprised an antique chair and a footstool on which were placed a vernacular newspaper and a pair of reading glasses.  An adjoining area consisted of brightly coloured baskets in various sizes and filled with vegetable and fruits.  A section of the adjoining wall comprised a panel explaining the history of the baskets and a photographic depiction of their usage in ceremonies during ancient times in an effort to tease out the baskets’ historical place and age-old use among the Chettiars.


Many of the objects such as baskets, photographs, furnitures and paintings looked old and were used to create the setting of the ancient Chettiar lifestyle.  The visual evidence of aging seen in the objects and the props in the basket exhibition such as rusted lids on the beaded bottles, the chipped portions of the furniture, the termite eaten patches on the frames of the paintings, the black, white and faded colours of the photographs play a significant role in establishing the age and antiquity of the objects on display and projects a heritage value.  It is therefore this ‘age’ factor that places the Chettinad baskets in a privileged contemporary position in the heritage practices of visual consumption.

Thus, I have tried to briefly capture the dynamics of craft production, consumption and circulation in contemporary Chennai during an international crafts event.  Crafts are not static objects with a fixed status or value.  Rather, as seen during the above two expositions, they traverse the shifting boundaries between crafts, art, religion and heritage in their movement across time and space.

Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935

Naga basketry helmet with crest of hair from Upper Chindwin,Burma. Collected by the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition in 1935. American Museum of Natural History 70.0/6374.

Naga basketry helmet with crest of hair from Upper Chindwin,Burma. Collected by the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition in 1935. American Museum of Natural History 70.0/6374.


Bard Graduate Center Presents

Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935
April 4 to August 3, 2013

This remarkable exhibition features an assortment of rarely viewed objects carried on the expedition and collected in the field, including clothing, saddles, weapons, photographs, and film footage.

In January 1935, the Vernay-Hopwood Chindwin Expedition set out from Rangoon to explore the upper reaches of the “mighty Chindwin River” on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History. The three-month expedition gathered the museum’s founding biological and anthropological collections from an under-researched area to the east of Burma’s border with Assam and to the south of Tibet.

Structured as an itinerary,  Confluences explores the complex social life of this extraordinary enterprise through the working relations among participants of every kind, whose encounters shaped the collections that were to enter the museum. The exhibition, in the BGC Focus Gallery, includes a fascinating selection of the objects the expedition carried and collected, including basketry hats, a pack saddle, sandals, indigenous clothing, a pellet bow, spear, crossbow, and knives. These, along with documentation, photographs, and film footage drawn from various departments of the AMNH, are displayed here for the first time. Erin L. Hasinoff, BGC–AMNH postdoctoral fellow  in museum anthropology and AMNH research associate, organized this exhibition in collaboration with BGC graduate students.

Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935 is accompanied by a fully illustrated book by Erin L. Hasinoff.  Published with Yale University Press (March 2013, paperback, 100 color and black and- white illustrations, 128 pages), the catalogue will be available at the BGC Gallery and through the Web site (bgc.bard.edu)

Click here for the full press brochure: 

For more information, contact barnhart@bgc.bard.edu212-501-3074.

Hair Today

Haidy Geismar, UCL

This is a short commentary on the current special exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris’ “Museum of the others”. The exhibition, Cheveux Cheris: Frivolites et Trophies, translated into English as The Art of Hair is curated by Yves LeFur, Director of the Museum’s Heritage and Collections Department and draws on the museum’s extensive collections of objects made from (mainly) human hair and images of people and their hair. The argument is that hair is universally a powerful cultural and aesthetic medium. The result is a series of disconnected objects and images that contain an underarticulated narrative of gender, oppression, violence and power.

The exhibition, on the second floor of the museum, high above the controversial galleries, is first glimpsed through a tantalizing art installation that can be seen from below. I apologize as it is one of the few pieces I seem not to have documented the author of.

In the extensive commentary and slideshows to be found in the media it seems that most critics enjoy the curatorial strategy of juxtaposition between different kinds of object, and different art media. Slideshows such as those in the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily (for the exhibition appeals as much in the fashion media as in the museum and gallery pages) jump from Man Ray’s portrait of the back of Marcel Duchamp’s head, to a 1964 Neal Barr shot of a beauty conscious Texan track club, through to a decontextualized shot of a shrunken head from Ecuador. As I meandered through the first section from 19th century busts of Black and White people, through to documentary portraits of African corn-rows and paintings of Medieval Kings, the take home message seemed to be simple: look, hair! Pithy texts commented made comments such as

In the traditional iconography of feminine beauty, rolling waves of opulent curls are more readily associated with seduction than simple straight hair. For long periods of time the revelation of loose, unfettered hair was confined to the intimate, private sphere. Transferred to the public arena, it can suggest flaunted intimacy or transgression of these codes.

But individual artifacts were not drawn particularly into this narrative, providing the viewer only with the most basic of tombstone labelling.

The exhibition was divided into sections which mused upon the “universal theme”of hair, with sections devoted to metamorphosis and permutation (hair styles long and short), colours and normality (only for women), seduction (also only women), discipline (also mainly for women), a little bit of blurring gender boundaries, loss and removal of hair (mainly women), rights of passage and ornamention, ritual, trophies and the ancestors (the last sections were less gendered, but were the sections that dealt with a genderless other).


My attention was really caught in the transitional moment of the exhibition, which was a series of photographs by Robert Capa and a video (produced by the Museum) of French women, collaborators, having their heads shaved and being paraded by members of the French resistance in the town of Chartres, in 1944. Here for me was a powerful instantiation of the point made only glibly in the short exhibition texts, that hair is a profound, universal marker of gender and sexuality, and the hair styles are instruments and embodiments of power, and even force.

This point could have also been made in the second half of the exhibition which focused exclusively on the relationship of hair and the human body in contexts that, in the context of the exhibition, can only be catgorized as “primitive”. This is not my term or even that of the museum, but rather the inevitable conclusion of any visitor who moves from historicised and art historical display strategies (with authored creations, years of creation etc) to displays which are labelled only generically as ethnic or cultural. the move is also mirrored as a transition from the representational media of film, photography, painting, and sculpture, to the visceral medium and material of the actual human body. The transition was a shock that again was naturalized rather than critically engaged with in the exhibition. Excuse the lack of images but many of the objects are disturbing, and I feel that they are inappropriate to reproduce. An entire human being in a glass case – a mummy from Chancay, Peru (“1000-1450″), and an entire room filled with “shrunken” heads, one of whom looked reproachfully outwards, lips sewn shut.

It was at this point that the connections being made around hair started to dissipate at least for me. What does a photograph of an African woman by Samual Fosso taken in 2008, a portrait of a buxom blonde being kidnapped by Norman pirates (in a painting by Evariste Vital Luminaise) and a scalp from Tanzania at the end of the twentieth century (“Ce scalp pourrait etre celui d’un Europeen”) have in common? Yes, they may tell us about the violence of cross-cultural engagement and the role of women within it, but what do they really tell us about hair?

Overall the exhibition is impressive in its range and diversity and the attempt to create a universal sensibility out of such a range of objects and media is admirable. How indeed could such an exhibition really be achieved without falling into the inevitable trap of superficial connection? As with many of the exhibitions at Quai Branly, The Art of Hair raises provocations about the limits of cross-cultural representation and display.

Ghosts, Giants and fairies: Classic Faked Photographs a slide show

Does the camera ever lie? A new exhibition shows that photography has been doing exactly that since its inception. From fairies at the bottom of the garden to ghostly visitors, here is a slide show of the best manipulated images (from the BBC Website).

• Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 11 October

Ghost photo: ghost photo 2 from the Met exhibition