28 May 2014

Senior Curator positions at Museum Victoria, Australia...

MV/0018 – Senior Curator, Pacific Cultures

Classification: Grade 5; Value Range 1
Position type: Full-time; Ongoing
Number of Positions: 1
How to apply: Submit your an online application, including your covering letter, resume and a statement addressing each of the key selection criteria. You may also submit your application by post.
Contact information: Please contact Richard Gillespie                                                 
Applications close: Friday, 4th July 2014

MV/9261 – Senior Curator, Indigenous Collections & Community Engagemen

Classification: Grade 4; Value Range 1
Position Type: Full-time; Fixed term for two years
Number of Positions: 1
How to Apply: Submit your online application, including Resume, Covering Letter and a statement addressing each of the Key Selection Criteria. You may also submit your application by post or fax.                                                                                                                   
Contact information: Please contact Richard Gillespie                                                                                                                        
Applications close: Friday, 4th July 2014
For full details for both vacancies visit the Museum Victoria website. 

What is the use of knowledge about Africa and Ife? Reflections on a masterpiece exhibition

Ife and Beyond - sculpture of a rider © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo courtesy Museum for African Art/Fundación Botín. Photo: Rose-Marie Westling, Världskulturmuseerna.

The exhibition Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria has now, under the name African Masterpieces: theHistory of the Kingdom of Ife – arrived in the Museum of World Culture inGothenburg. It is a rich and fascinating exhibition with extraordinary historical works of art – over 100 sculptures in metal, stone and terracotta from the 12th to the 16th century that tells about the civilization of Ife, ancestors to Yoruba, one of the largest groups in today’s Nigeria.  The exhibition was produced by the Museum forAfrican Art, New York and Fundación Botín, Santander, Spain in cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria and has previously been shown at the British Museum as well as in Houston, Virginia and Indianapolis. 

In Gothenburg we showed it together with a photo exhibition by Swedish photographer Jens Assur with the ironic title “Africa is a great country” that show photos of contemporary everyday Africa in large uneventful exposures. 

One of Jens Assur's photo's that featured in the exhibition "Africa is a great country"

Through these exhibitions the museum wants to challenge the audience's image of Africa. But what does it mean to give a truer picture of Africa? Can ethnographic objects be used to achieve this?

In the conversations taking place in the exhibition hall it is often reiterated how little we know about the kingdom of Ife. There are few certain answers given in the text panels, there are a lot of 'perhaps' and 'it might be'... One reviewer thought that this was one aspect that makes the encounter with the exhibited sculptures so strong. There is room for an open sense of wonder.

This has made me think. What roles do and should knowledge play in ethnography exhibitions?

It has been pointed out how African art and crafts are often caught under concepts like ‘tribal art’ or ‘world art’, both terms pointing to something that is essentially different from ‘our’ art.

Knowledge on the other hand is always unanimously portrayed as something beneficial. I would contest this. I think this exhibition puts the finger on why I should be contested. The humble presentation of possible interpretations of the past opens a space for the beholders own reactions and interpretations. The problem with people like Leo Frobenius who couldn't imagine that these sculptures were made by Africans was that he was too sure about what he knew – that the white race was the only people who could create art and civilisation. This rigid knowledge meant that Africa was for a very long time only understandable as a past and undeveloped place.

A person that is openly and consciously ignorant does not have to explain away what he actually sees. It seems as if knowledge is not such a straight path to understanding the world as all the appraisal for knowledge would suggest. (One can of course counter by saying that Frobenius was simply wrong, that he didn't know anything about Ife). My point is that what is cast in stone is closed for interpretation and therefore it cannot move us in the same manner. It might be that the distance to Ife makes us aware of how little we can actually know for sure about how other people live or have lived.

When we speak about what we know it seems as if 'we' denotes the collected expertise on the subject. Most exhibitions of ethnographic objects connect to an array of research fields. What we think we know or don’t know thus depends on what perspective one uses. There seems to be comparably little art history or archeological knowledge about the particular Ife objects and the particular location where they were found, compared to for example Egyptian or Classical Greek objects. Yes. But there is considerable knowledge available on Yoruba culture and the West African trade circuits of the time. From a materialist historical perspective one can say many things about how Ife could rise in its specific location at that specific time, and also about how riches that can foster a court culture came about through the incorporation of West Africa in the large Muslim world system, where ideas, products and riches moved over vast distances in Africa and Asia.

Knowledge about ethnographic objects is often formulated in terms of myths and symbols. Like the above mentioned 'tribe' myth is a charged word, with connections to the same Eurocentric epistemological frames. Other cultures believe in myths. But maybe we risk making the distance between them and us much wide by understanding myths to literal. As Bruno Latour has put it: A modern is someone who believes that others believe”. Yoruba culture is much more complex and articulate than it might seem when myths are taken as literal stories about animals and spirits. The 'myths' of the Yoruba religion can be said to express conceptions of the foundational principals of existence that share traits with Taoist philosophy. Yoruba traditions are still a valid and rewarding perspective on life for millions of people around the world.

According to the philosopher Emanuelis Levinas one of the most common mistakes in the Modern scientific paradigm is to assume that respect for others is connected to knowing the other. Maybe this is stronger in my native Sweden than in most places: racism is best countered through information campaigns, if people only knew better they would behave better. It is a very Socratic point of view. Levinas argues that this is a fallacy. The problem is that we encounter the world from an epistemological point of view. When meeting something foreign we have been schooled to view it as an object that we must understand and explain with the help of knowledge. But other people aren't objects, Levinas states, they are subjects. When we stand face to face with an other the most relevant question is not what we know or might know about her. The encounter creates a direct relation, and a relation includes a responsibility for the other. The question is not 'who are you?', but 'how can we take care of each other?'. Knowledge often functions more like a shield than a connector, hindering an open and encounter and relation. The security of knowing how others are, why they are different, protects us from being truly moved.

The old sculptures from Ife are open for encounters. We seldom get the chance to encounter history as powerful as this. Whatever prior knowledge one have this encounter makes it obvious that other people enjoy, suffer and live in similar ways, and that we have a responsibility for their room to do this. This insight can be deepened by further knowledge about the conditions and conceptions of the others. But first of all it can make us doubt those who say we are more developed than others, and handle our knowledge in ways that does not make others into objects for or knowledge or ignorance.

Klas Grinell, Curator, Museum of World Culture.

27 May 2014

Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grants programme deadline approaching

The Ruffer programme provides £50,000 annually for travel and other practical costs to help curators undertake collection and exhibition research projects. Since the scheme’s inception in 2012 the programme has helped over 100 curators and researchers undertake such projects across Asia, Africa, America and Europe. Full details on the programme and some of the awards they have already made can be found on the Art Fund website

Applications under £1,500 can be accepted at anytime, while applications over £1,500 are only considered three times a year. The next deadline for large applications is on Wednesday 4 June. 

Powell-Cotton Museum Win Guardian Cultural Pros Pick ‘Most Inspiring Museum’ Award

Staff of the Powell-Cotton Museum attend the awards night in London © Simon Callaghan Photography 

On Wednesday May 14th a group of Powell-CottonMuseum staff and trustees attended the Museum and Heritage Awards in London. The Museum had been nominated for the Guardian sponsored cultural pros pick award, for the nation’s most inspiring museum. Already amazed to have reached the final five of the competition (out of nearly 400 entries!) we were revelling in being part of such a prestigious event, without any expectation of actually winning the award! Winning was just the icing on the cake (as the award was presented by Sue Perkins, a cake related turn of phrase seems appropriate!). Whilst those of us there to hear our name called were shocked and amazed, we were obviously delighted to have won.

The cultural pros pick award is voted for by the public. It is a testament to our supporters, visitors, friends and fellow museum professionals, all of whom tirelessly promoted us during the voting period that we not only won, but won with 33% of the vote! This award isn’t just about a single exhibit or event, but recognises the immense hard work of our entire team, both those the public see and those they don’t, who make the museum the place that it is, and provide the experience that visitors felt was so inspiring.

Winning this award is brilliant for our museum team and a well-deserved moment of recognition for our hard work and passion for the Powell-Cotton, but it is only the start. The challenge now is to build on this success. With the opening of a new Arts Council funded gallery in October this year, several new temporary exhibitions and a number of innovative projects to improve our collections behind the scenes, continuing to inspire museum visitors remains central to what we do. Inspiration is about innovation, and moving forward we hope that the Powell-Cotton Museum continues to do both these things, and prove itself a worthy winner of this great accolade. 

Inbal Livine
Collections Manager
Powell-Cotton Museum 

23 May 2014

Loaning a Matakau Ancestor Figure

This month Birmingham Museums loaned its Fijian Female Ancestor Figure to the National Gallery of Australia for the forthcoming Atua exhibition.

1918A17.24 Fijian Ancestor Figure © Birmingham Museums

The figure was bequeathed by Captain Norman Chamberlain in 1918 along with 27 other Fijian objects. It was collected in 1877 / 1878 by his father, Herbert, and uncle, Walter who had bought the Fijian island of Naitauba and its cotton and copra plantations. 

The figure is one of only a dozen or so in existence and features a shell bead necklace, fibre skirt -or liku- and tattoos on the mouth and hips. To the back of the figure, a label reads “Figure from the mountain district of Viti Levu – (the tatoo about the mouth shews the married woman), HC”.

While the figure itself was sound, specialist conservation work was required on the fragile skirt which travelled separately in a custom-made box with integrated supports.

Travel Crate for the Ancestor Figure © Birmingham Museums

Following the exhibition tour, the figure will go back on display in Gallery 33 at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Adam Jaffer
Curator of World Cultures
Birmingham Museums

23 May – 3 August
National Gallery Australia

15 May 2014

Call for Papers: Trans-Atlantic Dialogues on Cultural Heritage: Heritage, Tourism and Traditions

13-16 July 2015, Liverpool, UK

Trans-Atlantic dialogues on cultural heritage began as early as the voyages of Leif Ericson and Christopher Columbus and continue through the present day. Each side of the Atlantic offers its own geographical and historical specificities expressed and projected through material and immaterial heritage. However, in geopolitical terms and through everyday mobilities, people, objects and ideas flow backward and forward across the ocean, each
shaping the heritage of the other, for better or worse, and each shaping the meanings and values that heritage conveys. Where, and in what ways are these trans-Atlantic heritages connected? Where, and in what ways are they not? What can we learn by reflecting on how the different societies and cultures on each side of the Atlantic Ocean produce, consume, mediate, filter, absorb, resist, and experience the heritage of the other?

This conference is brought to you by the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage (IIICH), University of Birmingham and the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy (CHAMP), University of Illinois and offers a venue for exploring three critical interactions in this trans-Atlantic dialogue: heritage, tourism and traditions. North America and Europe fashioned two dominant cultural tropes from their powerful and influential intellectual traditions, which have been enacted in Central/South America and Africa, everywhere implicating indigenous cultures. These tropes are contested and linked through historical engagement and contemporary everyday connections. We ask: How do heritages travel? How is trans-Atlantic tourism shaped by heritage? To what extent have traditions crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic? How have heritage and tourism economies emerged based upon flows of peoples and popular imaginaries?

The goal of the conference is to be simultaneously open-ended and provocative. We welcome papers from academics across a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, art history, architecture, business, communication, ethnology, heritage studies, history, geography, landscape architecture, literary studies, media studies, museum studies,
popular culture,  postcolonial studies, sociology, tourism, urban studies, etc. Topics of interest to the conference include, but are not limited to, the following:

The heritage of trans-Atlantic encounters 
Travelling intangible heritages
Heritage flows of popular culture 
Re-defining heritage beyond the
The heritage of Atlantic crossings 
World Heritage of the
Atlantic periphery 
Rooting and routing heritage
Community and Nation on display
Visualising the Trans-Atlantic world

Abstracts of 300 words with full contact details should be sent as soon as
possible but no later than 15th December 2014 to