Archives of shell

Archives of shell

Modern museums are powerful ontological matrixes: they are the sites where distinctions between natural and cultural heritage are organised. Throughout Europe, Oceania and North America, the management of non-Western material by ethnographic museums defines these collections as cultural artefacts.

This division has deep consequences for the type of knowledge and questions collections are engaged into, and the forms and public roles of museums. So far, ethnographic museums have not responded to the realisation that more-than-human stories gathered in their collections are unfinished environmental stories too.

Objects made of organic and mineral materials offer the basis to explore new, hybrid ethnographic stories. These objects of hair, skin, nut, bones, feathers or shells constantly blur nature/culture divisions. They resist the pressure for uncomplicated messages and clear lines of classification.

Our project uses a shell necklace deposited in the storage area of the ethnographic museum in Stockholm as a media and a site for more-than-human climate change stories.

Objects of wonder and fascination today as they were once for those who collected them, shells are channels of interest for other societies, and witness of violent stories of colonial dispossession. But as non-human entities, they also demand greater degrees of contextualisation. Seashells are so much more than pretty exoskeletons of mollusks. They tell stories of waves, currents, coastal environments, ecosystems, chemistry, changing temperatures and tiny lives of shellfish exposed to environmental disasters. Shells challenge us to do things differently. When looking at shell artefacts, we need to “stay with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016).

This project rethinks the role for ethnographic museums in understanding the Anthropocene. What we propose with this deep history of a Tasmanian shell necklace is that the value of ethnographic collections comes not only from their showcasing of a variety of cultures but also from our common vulnerability to world changing, geological-scale shifts and mass extinction. (Keck, 2019:58).


HARAWAY, D. J. 2016. Staying with the trouble : making kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, Duke University Press.

KECK, F. 2020. Avian reservoirs : virus hunters and birdwatchers in Chinese sentinels posts, Durham, Duke University Press.

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