Material Memories

On Friday the 24th November, the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation organised and ran a Postgraduate Training Day on the theme of ‘Memorable Objects’ at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The aim of this event was to generate and foster an interest in object-based research methods and to think about how the skills acquired could be used in the postgraduates’ own research. We brought together postgraduates from various disciplines (including anthropology, art history, psychology, history, cultural heritage management, and more) to facilitate discussions and to further understand the centrality and importance of memories and memorial objects. From those who applied, twelve were selected, their affiliate universities represented academics from all over Europe, including, but not limited to, England, Poland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. The program was held in the Pitt Rivers Museum where everyone was free to explore the extraordinary collection of memorial artefacts from around the world. Furthermore, a team of experienced curators and lecturers offered unique insight into the operation of the iconic museum.

Dr Christopher Morton, departmental lecturer in Visual and Material Anthropology, and Curator of Photography and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, showed us the Egerton Papers from the Manuscript Collections, which related to the Benin Punitive Expedition (1897), as well as several albums from the Photograph Collections. While contemplating and analysing these ‘material memories’, Dr Morton effectively illustrated how the meaning/interpretation of the past was, is, and will be constantly (re)negotiated according to the present day needs and purposes. When discussing examples of colonial relicts, he demonstrated that the ways in which we understand and interpret material memories tell us more about the present than the past.    

As the day progressed, Laura Peers, Professor of Museum Anthropology and the Curator for the Americas Collections at the Museum, presented us with two objects and demonstrated how ‘to read what the object itself is telling us’. The first object was an ‘octopus bag’ made by the Subarctic Cree Nation, and the second was a wooden replica of a totem pole made by Coast Haida peoples. On a very practical level, Professor Peers demonstrated how difficult it is to separate the object itself (its material properties) and its contemporary cultural meaning, and theoretical interpretations. Additionally, we were able to discuss whether, and how the museum negotiates its difficult colonialist heritage, and the subsequent new meanings of its collections. We also discussed if, how, and when the museum repatriates objects to their source communities, as well as how and in what ways the Museum collaborates with those communities in a creative and fruitful manner. For most of us, it was our first experience working with and handling museum objects, and I am sure that not only for me, but for many of us, this experience provided inspirational and intellectual stimuli regarding the need to incorporate and account for material objects in our research, and memory studies scholarship in general.

Johana Musálková

DPhil candidate in Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford