CFP: Tracing temporalities, unearthing collections

How do we trace the relationship between time and collections? What are the ethical challenges of researching collections in museums and earth archives?

When:  April 2023

Where: Berlin and Potsdam

How to apply?

Submit your abstracts (max. 250 words) by 31 October 2022 by emailing: tina.palaic@etno-muzej.si.

A limited number of applications from early to mid-career scholars can be fully funded.  

The participation in the workshop requires COST Action Membership. 

Collections are sites for preserving traces of the past for the future. Acquired, cared for and interpreted in museums and archives, they have been developed concurrently with scientific disciplines. In geosciences, collections of geological and stratigraphic specimens extracted from territories worldwide have served to mark deep time. They contribute to the scientific imaginary of a nature that can be contained and classified. Ethnographic collections that originally intended to represent non-European societies, have presented peoples and cultures as if frozen in time. This ahistorical gaze is entangled with coloniality that continues to affect the classification and interpretation of collections, both ethnographic objects and those acquired in earth archives, terrestrial environments comprising records of past human and evolutionary activity.

Collections are neither inherently stable nor neutral, and their temporality raises multiple ethical questions regarding their acquisition, preservation, interpretation, and restitution. Research on collection histories has revealed the legacies of appropriation and knowledge asymmetries, as well as highlighted the importance of repatriation and repair. It sheds light on the ways in which collections and archives are frequently enmeshed with histories of violence and imperial extraction. Scientific collections, including geological specimens and ethnographic objects, are also entwined with illicit practices of knowledge production in which samples were unethically extracted from environments. The appropriation processes have also left ambiguous traces of scientific practice and voids in the spaces and societies of origin. The reconstruction and representation of nature or society from collections follows specific classification and categorization standards that can be ethically problematic as they entrench colonial relations of  knowledge production and circulation. ollections seek to tell a coherent story about “nature” or “culture” from traces of social lives and geological formations. However, the incommensurability and complexity of the environments from where these traces originate defy and challenge those classificatory efforts and measurement practices. Although collections are kept to span through time, their objects are not timeless but require vast amounts of energy, materials and infrastructures. The cost of prolonging the lives of artifacts and keeping collections stable in museums and scientific archives, presents ethical challenges in terms of resource management, preservation and sustainability.

In this three-day workshop, organised by the COST Action “Trace as a Research Agenda for Climate Change, Technology Studies, and Social Justice” (TRACTS), we aim to critically explore the ethics of collections in museums and geological archives through the lens of temporality. The event seeks to initiate interdisciplinary exchange between the disparate fields of inquiry in the critical studies of different forms of collections and archives by considering the ethics of acquisition, preservation and use. We welcome presentations focusing on, but not limited to studies on:

  • Ethical dimensions of temporality in the collections and archives
  • Historical inquiry into collections as traces of violence and expropriation, and how collecting as an extractivist practice can relate to a legacy of colonialism and exacerbated accumulation
  • Ethics and politics of keeping and losing objects
  • Morality of accumulation and the challenges of (not) acquiring collections
  • The moral economy of collections and collecting beyond the extractivist paradigm (e.g. through practices of solidarity and exchange)
  • Studies focusing on the imaginaries of management and control in the collection and earth archive as well as the ways in which they might become contested and destabilized
  • How emerging unknowns associated with collections activate traces in unexpected ways
  • Ethics of maintaining collection infrastructure in terms of sustainability as well as societal and scientific role of collections
  • Novel, ethically-informed research approaches for tracing, using and caring for collections
  • Perspectives on the temporality and history of collections that activate their potential for ethical, non-extractive knowledge production

Organizers

Magdalena Buchczyk, Hermann von Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HZK), Berlin

Martín Fonck, Institute for Advanced Studies in Sustainability, Potsdam

Tina Palaić, Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana

Tomás Usón, Institute of European Ethnology & IRI THESys, Humboldt University of Berlin

Workshop plan

The first part of the event will focus on social, historical, and cultural traces in collections. By highlighting a range of archival, museum and university material, the symposium will investigate the ethical implications of working with unsettling traces in collections. The speakers will consider the importance of thinking through temporality in collections, from provenance research, entangled histories, and the long-term historicities, including the relationships between carbon footprints and collections (through habits and technologies of preservation). Additional focus will be on museum practices and curatorial knowledge in former socialist countries in relation to museum collections, with an emphasis on the peripheral concepts of understanding the »other«.

The second part of the workshop will address the “sources” of collections by centering geological collections containing traces of strata sedimentation and geomorphologies. Building on the notion of earth archives, i.e., places of atmospheric deposition containing a vast amount of data of the past millennia, we expect to problematize the efforts of representing nature based on the traces these massive archives offer. We aim to reflect on the traces these earth entities leave along their way, and how these “clues” and (im)possibilities to engage with a distant past allow the construction of common futures. The geological trace, under this view, is more than stratigraphic data produced, contained, and performed by researchers and scholars. It is primarily the temporal sediment that sustains our (un)common worlds and leads to speculative anticipations of those to come. 

By connecting these seemingly disparate lines of inquiry, types of collections and temporalities, we aim to develop new cross-disciplinary approaches to the ethics of collections, collecting and trace in the archive.