A first encounter

November 2019

Meeting the shells in real life.

Christine Hansen, Chief Investigator for the project, was in Sweden in November 2019. It was the first time for the core members of the team to meet in person, after months of contacts via emails sent from Stockholm and Launceston (Tasmania). The visit was the opportunity to take stock of the groundwork already achieved and, most importantly, to visit the collections of the Museum of World Cultures in Stockholm and in Gothenburg to decide on the next steps. 

The encounter with the precious Pacific artefacts proved both emotional and decisive for the project. 

The ethnographic museum in Sweden has a permanent collection of around 100,000 objects collected all over the world, carefully assembled, catalogued, preserved and researched, silently indifferent to the shifting ordering principles and curatorial priorities imposed on them over the years. 

Objects made out of shell are among the most fascinating materials brought to Europe by early collectors. Often barely transformed by the hands who first took them into human worlds, they are obviously marked by the value that was once placed on them and by the history of global expansion that moved them across continents. But their naked beauty makes it less easy to forget that they have their own, “wild” character. Their inclusion in human societies has not fully humanized them: their story started before the human gaze, and they remain “other”, also a thing of nature. The strength of their integrity may explain why they were one day collected from a beach, and perhaps even allowed to be the source of their own meaning within human networks.  

The project “Objects and Culture and Science” engages precisely with the “otherness” of ethnographic objects. It attempts a turn to a broader vision of the stories that ethnographic material can tell us about the world. 

What makes the project new and exciting is that it will give a greater space to natural sciences and open up the space for ethnographic material to be both “objects of culture” and “objects of science”. The point is not that life and physical sciences will deliver definite answers or that their conclusions can simply be displayed along what is already known of their cultural background. Rather, the aim is to introduce the neglected objects into vital discussions on the world-remaking forces triggered by climate change. The project brings together science, traditional knowledges and the humanities in a dialogue to explore the multiple forms of inheritance that meet in these objects.

In Stockholm and Gothenburg, the team was given generous access to many fragile shell objects kept in archive boxes.

It was decided that a modest shell necklace hailing from Tasmania would be the focus of attention during the first months of the project. The exquisite blue shells entered the Swedish museum collection in 1905. Today, such shells are emblematic of Tasmanian Aboriginal traditions and are enrolled in narratives of cultural survival. 

Among the activities scheduled in the coming months are a field visit to Tasmania and an experimental workshop in August 2020. Gathering around the necklace at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm, the event will experiment with the practice of deep listening in the museum, prompted to reflection by a curated soundscape in another type of exhibition encounter.

Published by Hélène

Project assistent

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