Monday, August 03, 2015

Museum Anthropology Leaders: Boris Wastiau, Director, Musee d'ethnographie de Geneve and Tenured Professor, Department of the History of Religions, University of Geneva, Part 1 of 3

Exclusive Museum Anthropology Blog Interview with Dr. Boris Wastiau, Director, Musee d'ethnographie de Geneve and Tenured Professor, Department of the History of Religions, University of Geneva.

This interview is the seventh installment in our series, Museum Anthropology Leaders, where blog intern Lillia McEnaney interviews various anthropological museum professionals.

This interview was conducted over written email correspondence. 

This is Part 1 of 3

1. When in your education did you decide to pursue the anthropology of art and museum anthropology? Why? 
Truly, until after my Ph. D. fieldwork had I only considered becoming an academic. I liked museums a lot, but I had never given a thought at working in one, thinking they were reserved territory for art historians. It happened one day that a curator I had met at the RMCA (Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium) faxed me a job vacancy. I applied and got it. That was in 1996. I never wanted to work outside the museum field ever since! We are so lucky to be doing what we do!

2. While working as the curator of ethnography at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, you worked on the exhibition ExItCongoMuseum. Many have cited this exhibit as a pioneering foray into critical curatorship. Can you explain on this project for the readers and discuss how you went about structuring it? 
I was the author and curator of that exhibition. I had never worked on the topic of colonial appropriation of African art and ethnographic collections, but it was clear that many members of the public were in demand of explanations about the provenance of the collections. At that time the RMCA was a superb example of denial. A panel with a text signed by the then director stated that every single artefact, like every natural history sample, was the product of scientific research and that everything had been paid for to the former owners! A blatant lie! Harsh criticisms of the museums revisionist attitude had been voiced already, in Belgium and elsewhere, like in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. I realised that all I knew about colonialism was what I had been taught during my M. A. at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia. When the director asked me to become in charge of the re-display of our 125 masterpieces that were back from a tour in the US and Europe, I accepted with the demand to publish an essay on the collection. He knew too late what was coming up! I invited a guest curator, Toma Muteba Luntumbue, an artist, to produce some installations. He himself called for the collaboration of another half dozen artists, regardless of their origin, to work on, around, and in the museum. That came as a blow. There appeared cracks in the walls of the institution, disbelief, sometimes a glimpse of hope for change... I for myself started researching the provenance, the means of appropriation of the masterpieces and their “social lives” ever since they had left Congo. How they had subsequently been used, abused, interpreted, described, etc. I worked on the contrast between the free movements of artworks from the colony to the metropolis, while the artists were debarred from following up their creations, so to speak, to travel to Europe. I showed that only a tiny fraction of objects had been collected in a scientific context. The vast majority of objects collected in the colonial period, there as in most ethnographic museums in Europe, were brought by the military, the missionaries, administrators and civil servants, traders, collectors and artists, not scientists. The museum in this field had never been scientific, only colonial.

3. Which book, project, or exhibition have you worked on that you are most proud of? Why?
My Ph. D. thesis (Mahamba. The transforming arts of spirit possession among the Luvale-speaking people of the Upper-Zambezi), subsequently published in 2000 at Fribourg University Press. This is the most researched and elaborate text I ever produced, based on an incredible fieldwork experience among the Luvale people of Northwestern Zambia. Traditional fieldwork in small-scale societies is out of fashion now and our academic culture has turned monographs into decorative items on study shelves for some. With no experience whatsoever of communication then I completely failed to make my work known, but I am very proud I contributed, if modestly, to classical anthropology. Having just been offered a tenured position of professor at the University of Geneva in the department of History of Religions, I am glad I will start teaching about it next September (2015). 

4. What was the most challenging book, project, or exhibition that you have worked on? Why?  

The same, I guess: years of fieldwork and writing at an age when it is very difficult to foresee where your work will take you –a very individual work too. Most meaningful for a broader audience, ExItCongoMuseum, the exhibition and the essay, about which I still receive frequent correspondence. The most challenging project: the MEG!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

NAGPRA Awards $1.5 Million for Repatriation of Ancestors' Remains and Native Objects

Indian Country Today Media Network, July 23, 2015
Remains of more than 300 ancestors could soon return home, thanks to copy.5 million in grants awarded to 15 tribes and 16 museums under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Tribes received a total of 37 grants, the National Park Service (NPS) said, with the rest going to museums that will help identify, document and return ancestral remains and cultural objects to their place of origination. The grants range from $2,407 to copy76,753.
“These grants address the basic desire to have stewardship over one’s own heritage,” said NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis in a statement. “The NAGRPA process provides the opportunity for ancestral remains and cultural items to be returned to American Indian and Native Hawaiian peoples.”
Besides repatriating more than 300 ancestors, the grants will enable the return of “numerous funerary and traditional items to Indian tribes across the United States, travel by Indian tribal representatives to consultations with museums holding potentially affiliated remains and other cultural items, specialized training for both museums and tribes on NAGPRA, and the development of a tribal coalition to collaborate and facilitate the repatriation of significant collections currently in museums,” the NPS said.

More here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lecture Oppurtunity: Ranger Explains NAGPRA’s Impact on Mesa Verde

The Cortez Journal 

Park Ranger Lara Lloyd will present a thought-provoking talk about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and how it impacts Mesa Verde on Thursday, July 30.

The program, titled “Race, Science, and Burials: The Impacts of NAGPRA on Mesa Verde,” begins at 7 p.m. at the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park, and is free to the public.

The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act served as a catalyst for a change in relations between the Native American nations, archaeologists, museums and federal agencies. Mesa Verde National Park illustrates those changes on a world stage in which visitors experience the results of more than two decades of consultation.

Lara Lloyd works summers as an interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde National Park. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and a master’s from Northern Arizona University, and has worked on archaeological projects in the Southwest and Belize. Her research interests include human-environmental relations, exchange, and archaeological law. In the winter, Lara teaches in the Cultural Science department at Mesa Community College in Arizona.

More here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

France Returns 32 Cultural Relics to Chinese Museum


The 32 gold items came from tombs in Dabuzishan in Lixian County, Gansu Province. The tombs belonged to residents of Qin, one of the small kingdoms during the Spring and Autumn period (770 BC-476 BC) of Chinese history. In 221 BC, the king of Qin united China's kingdoms, founded the Qin Dynasty and became the country's first emperor.

Gold ornaments may have been used to decorate coffins or for horse armor, said Wang Hui, head of the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

The Qin people might have had exchanges with middle and western Asia. At that time, Chinese took bronze and jade as symbols of wealth while people in middle and western Asia valued gold more, Wang explained.

The tombs were badly looted during the 1990s and a large number of relics, including the gold ornaments, were smuggled abroad.

These relics had been donated to the Guimet Museum in Paris by Pinault and Deydier when China approached France for their return in 2014. French law forbids national museums giving away their collections.

Through careful negotiation, however, the two sides found a way out. The donations were withdrawn and the artifacts were returned to their previous private owners, removing the legal barrier to getting them back to China.

"This is just the beginning for the return of the large number of smuggled Chinese cultural relics being scattered across the world," said Wang.

Establishing a chain of evidence with archaeological analysis and technological authentication and facilitating this return through international cooperation sets a good example, he believes.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage will negotiate with more countries and aim to prompt more smuggled relics' return to China through diplomatic and legal means, according to Li Xiaojie.

More here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

South Dakota State Historical Society’s Sioux Horse Effigy Returned

Press & Dakotan
July 19, 2015

Representatives of the South Dakota State Historical Society announce the return of South Dakota’s Great Sioux Horse Effigy to the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.
The effigy was returned to the museum collection storage area of the Cultural Heritage Center. Immediate plans for redisplaying the effigy include a special Return Celebration Oct. 10-12 at the Cultural Heritage Center.   

“We are pleased to relate to the citizens of South Dakota that the effigy has returned to us in excellent condition, with no damage and no signs of wear,” said Jay D. Vogt, director of the State Historical Society.   
More here

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Call for Proposals: Smithsonian Institution's Recovering Voices' Community Research Grant Program

On July 15, 2015 Recovering Voices will begin accepting Community Research Grant applications for 2016. Each year Recovering Voices, an initiative of the Smithsonian Institution, supports community scholars in their efforts towards language and knowledge reclamation and revitalization. 2016 will be no different.

The purpose of the Community Research Grant program is to support indigenous communities in their efforts to save, document, and enliven their languages, cultures, and knowledge systems. These grants bring groups of community scholars from around the world to the Smithsonian to examine specific objects, specimens, and documents related to their heritage and to engage in a dialogue with Smithsonian collections and archives staff in order to recover and revitalize their language and knowledge.

Thus far, Recovering Voices has supported eight separate community research visits with two more planned for Fall 2015. The impact of these research visits on the community has been significant. Likewise, the visits have also been invaluable for the Smithsonian collections and archives records. With each visit, new knowledge and important information about the objects and documents is garnered and added to the records. The result is that the historic collections at the Smithsonian are revived and updated, as are the language and knowledge systems of the visiting community scholars.
This year, several supplemental documents have been provided to assist applicants in preparing proposal materials. Included in those documents are example budgets and budget justifications, both of which are required components of the application. Also important to note is the change in the application cycle. In the past, Recovering Voices held 2 calls per year. Moving forward, Recovering Voices will open the call for proposals once annually. Projects selected for funding will be for the whole of 2016. The next call for proposals after this will take place in July 2016, and subsequently July 2017.

The 2016 Community Research Grant call for proposals will close on September 15, 2015. Each proposal can request up to $10,000. Interdisciplinary projects are encouraged. The guidelines and materials required for the application package are all included on our website, To learn about past grant-funded projects visit our Community Grants page. You will also find information about recent projects on our blog.

Monday, July 06, 2015

British Museum on High Terror Alert to Protect Priceless Antiquities from ISIS Fanatics

Express, UK
July 2, 2015

Neil MacGregor, the museums outgoing director, revealed he is considering "all eventualities" due to the "range of threats" in the past two years.

Treasures which may be considered as idolatrous by lunatic ISIS fanatics must be protected, he added.

The revelation comes as museum workers at Louvre in Paris expressed their concerns that the iconic French gallery might also be targeted by "cultural terrorists" in copy-cat style attacks.

Phillippe Marquis, a curator at the museum, said he agreed Western museums were at high risk.

He said: "We are now in a new world. We need to have long lasting policies and strategies in order to cope with these problems."

Mr MacGregor, who announced his resignation in April, said the museum had not increased security since the reported ransacking of ruins, but it was constantly reviewing how it could best secure its antiquities in London and around the world.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Feds Petitioned to Investigate Sale of Native Objects by East Coast School

Sealaska Stories in the News 
June 26 2015

Sealaska Heritage Institute is asking the federal government to investigate whether the planned sale of a Native American art collection by a Massachusetts school is legal under repatriation laws.

The Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) is moving to sell the collection, which contains 1,100 objects, including 125 works of Native American art representing fifty-two tribes in the United States and Canada that have been accessible to the public through the Peabody Essex Museum.

The sale may run afoul of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAPGRA) because the school receives and/or processes federal student aid funds, wrote SHI President Rosita Worl in a letter sent on June 22 to David Tarler, a program officer in NAGPRA’S Training, Civil Enforcement and Regulations Division.

“I respectfully request that an investigation be undertaken immediately to forestall the sale of any Native American objects until a determination can be made if ANTS has fully complied with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” said Worl, former Chair of the federal NAGPRA Review Committee. “Should the collection go into private hands, an important part of the artistic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of Native Americans will be lost.”