Interview by Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell: Your book is a manifesto of sorts of what the digital – as a relatively new domain – does for more traditional objects in museums, how the digital as a different constitution of relations is and isn’t unique, what the digital does (and doesn’t do) to our understanding of heritage, and how by engaging with these relations and configurations we can begin to see museums anew. Could you comment on what prompted you to write this book?
Haidy Geismar: Over the course of my research career, since starting in around 2000, almost all the practices I have been involved with in museums have migrated into the digital: collecting and archiving, discussions about property rights, community and artist interventions, and new forms of display, are all increasingly situated within digital media. I was struck however by the lack of continuity between previous practices and these new digital projects. There seemed to be an assumption that the digital provided “a way out”, particularly for the complex legacy of the ethnographic collection. My own empirical observations however, were showing how many digital projects were in fact reproducing concepts and issues that already existed. The case of digital repatriation is a great example, which you explored in a great series of workshops that you and Kim Christen convened at the Smithsonian which was published in the collection “After the Return”. Digital repatriation burst out of the reproductive affordances of digital media and was quickly embraced as a way for museums to redeem themselves by sharing collections and supposedly giving up sovereignty or ownership over indigenous cultures. As the papers in your collection explore, this promise was not always borne out in practice. Instead the digital came to afford a continued negotiation between source communities and museums/archives, and it became yet another site of contested sovereignty, in which the history of collecting, and of colonialism, could not be forgotten. I wanted to write a book that tracked between the digital and the analogue and argued for a ethnographic perspective on the digital that placed it in a context beyond its own.
Joshua Bell: One of the aspects that I enjoyed about your book is that it situates the digital within museums in a longer history – can you comment on the importance of historicizing the digital?
Haidy Geismar: Really to continue my answer to your first question, historicizing the digital is not only important in order to argue for an empirical approach to digital media and practices. It also exposes the powerful ideologies that inflect our perceptions of digital media in the present day. As Lisa Gitelman has observed in relation to new media, the discourse of “newness” has powerful effects, in part obliterating historical perspectives, and in part importing presentist values that in fact obscure facts about processes of mediation and its trajectories.
Joshua Bell: To illustrate your object lessons you principally focus on four objects (a box, an effigy figure, cloak and pen) from a variety of institutions (UCL’s study collection, the MET, the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt). How did you come to choose these examples? In answering this, I was hoping you might also reflect on the strengths and potential issues with a comparative approach?
Haidy Geismar: In some ways these objects were chosen by happenstance – they were the projects that I worked on as part of a variety of circumstances: collaborations with artists, invitations from curators, projects with students. I wanted to examine the different ways in which projects emerge in museums and the interconnections between individual and institutional pathways. I also wanted to highlight a growing perspective in the anthropology of material culture in museums which looks not just at formal collections but on technologies of museums (display, preservation and so forth) as objects in their own right. This is why I juxtaposed two projects that focused on ethnographic collections, with two projects that focused on the technologies that constitute collections. This slippage is in fact an affordance of digital media – when you look at a digital image of a museum object through a collections website, you are looking both at an image of the artefact, and also at a snapshot of the classificatory system, representational system and knowledge that has been collected around the object. So the comparative approach is really about highlighting the ways in which objects and knowledge systems are interdependent. It is, as you note, also about arguing for analytic approaches that do not assume the digital to have a single meaning in all places, and to unpack the cultural assumptions about the nature of the digital that are often implicit (for instance that the digital is by definition about openness, transparency, and accessibility).
Joshua Bell: Following from this one of my favorite chapters in the book is about the project around the ‘orphaned’ cloak “Te Ara Wairua” in the UCL collections – I was hoping you might expand on some issues you articulate in this chapter about the forms of collaboration enabled by the digital.
Haidy Geismar: This project started as a remote collaboration between artists and researchers working at Massey University and staff and students at UCL. We aimed to explore collaboratively the nature of collections and it led to a number of different projects. Te Ara Wairua was prompted by a conversation betwen Kura Puke and myself about our Maori taonga in the collections, and she was particularly moved by my characterisation of the cloak as orphaned because we had so little information about her provenance. The project started as an attempt to create kinship for the cloak, absorbing her into new whakapapas (the Maori term for genealogy). In the project, technology was imagined as a route to create not just connectivity but spiritual connection. The term Wairua emerged within Puke’s practice as a way to highlight the ways in which digital communication can forge energetic pathways filled with spiritual power (mana), tracing and tracking lines of whakapapa, and restablishing what was always there but had, until then, been invisible to us. For me, it was a cultural theory of digital connection that was really different to the usual ways in which ICTs are described. We worked online for most of the project, and even when Kura and her collaborator Stuart Foster came to UCL to create an exhibition, our most important interlocutors were in New Zealand, in Taranaki. We used immersive media to destabilize the relations of ownership and accountability that surrounded the cloak, and also importantly for me, challenge our understandings of what made technology “work”. In this case, what “worked” was not to have perfect communication or visualisations within the technolgoies that we used, but that the technologies facilitated social connection and the challenging of intentions to connect between people, in turn activating the cloak itself as a transmitter of Wairua. It made me shift away from many of the values that I as an anthropologist and museum professional were used to working with to define successful projects and really established a cross-cultural analytic frame for us to work in that was not predefined by the digital in any narrow sense. We now have a bit of kit in the collection that can facilitate hook-ups to the cloak from anyone in Aotearoa who wants to dial in using a mobile phone.