Repairing Relations through Research: An Archival Approach to Institutional Accountability

Note: This blog post is adapted from an abandoned journal paper that I originally wrote in 2021.

Can you guess which museum’s archival collections might be depicted here?

Introduction

From the perspective of many people from marginalised backgrounds and historically looted communities, the museum continues to be a symbol of colonialism. Despite renewed calls for decolonisation, repatriation, and restitution, museums are arguably still behind in progressing towards repairing relations with people from these particular communities. As many museums continue to focus on purely representational politics through diversity and equity initiatives (e.g., Rodney, 2020; Williams, 2020; Smith, 2021), it is difficult to image these institutions moving beyond shallow change and committing to something more tangible for those in affected communities.

To resolve this issue, it may be useful to look outwards, and towards the theory and practice developed by social justice scholars and activists (see Genovese, 2016, p. 32); more specifically, we should look at the concept of accountability, and the ways in which those working within museum and heritage spaces can both make amends for harm committed, as well as counteract future instances of harm. It is important to emphasise the need for using external forms of accountability as well, as museums and other institutions will already have internal accountability structures in place for administrative purposes. For this paper, the concept of an accountability framework will be grounded in specific social justice theory and practice and will draw from activists and organisers who are utilising these approaches in their own communities. This framework will utilise archive research as part of a broader auditing of institutional collections and materials that includes the direct input from affected individuals and communities.

This proposed method for accountability can be seen in two ways: as an accountability-based approach to archival research, as well as an archival research-based approach to accountability. To be accountable for one’s own archives would mean that a museum would have a duty towards active consideration of all materials in its passion; this would include developing research into identification of all aspects of cultural objects, documents, and remains, allowing for potential reconnection with the original communities from which these materials once belonged to, with the possibility of eventual repatriation if necessary. In addition, by using a research-focused approach to deliver actions of accountability, museums and institutions can continue to uphold their status as centres of knowledge-making as well as improve their own ethical approach, while also repairing the relations between themselves and those who have been harmed in the past. Prior to further discussion of this proposed form of accountability, it may be useful to examine each component of this framework individually.

Moving Towards the Archives

Interest in archival research seems to have been renewed over the past decade, especially within and among marginalised individuals and communities (e.g., Morris & Rawson, 2013; Bishop, 2017; Araluen Corr, 2018; Henry, 2018). This is not to say that archival research has ever truly “gone away” – archival science has been a field in its own right since the 1950’s (Rumschöttel, 2001, p. 149) and continues to remain an important methodological tool in research, especially with the advent of digital approaches to collecting and analysing archival material (Duranti, 2001; S. Ross, 2012). It should be noted that for the purposes of this paper, the word “archives” will be used to refer to both archival documentation as well as collections held in storage within these institutions.

Archival research has always been rife with internal discourse regarding ethical considerations, a topic which has only become more complex as more marginalised voices are prioritised and heard within the conversation. However, it could be argued that this discourse, particularly the more critical aspects, has also revealed the existing radical potential of the archives. Researchers, many of whom could be considered what Genovese (2016, p. 38) calls “activist archivists”, are now turning their focus onto the problematic histories behind the creation and development of the archives themselves (e.g., Luker, 2017; Karabinos, 2019; Salenius, 2021), and the ways in which these processes have enacted their own forms of marginalisation, restriction, and objectification (McKee & Porter, 2012, p. 60), harms that arguably are continued within the legacies of many museums and institutions.

Alongside this critical turn, researchers have also centred those who are not presented within archives (e.g., Gilliand, 2014; Ghaddar, 2016). These inquiries also examine the ways in which the archive is constructed, with an emphasis on who is not consider “worthy” enough for remembrance (Jimerson, 2009). This also allows for consideration of how archives themselves are not apolitical or neutral, as they are able to define individuals and cultures through decisions regarding classification and curation (Tesar, 2015). Archival research has also found a place within broader calls for decolonisation that have only intensified within the past decade, particularly with regards to institutions that have gained wealth through the transatlantic slave trade (e.g., Weale, 2019; Mullen, 2021; Ross, 2021) In addition, archives have been crucial towards reconciliation for Indigenous peoples in the occupied territories of North America and Australia (Christen, 2011, p. 208). Archives provide researchers with the ability to see the “inner life of decolonisation” (Bailkin, 2015, p. 892), showcasing the complexities of a process that is often enacted through multiple avenues that are eventually flattened into singular events (ibid, p. 885).

Clearly there is a sense among researchers that the archives have a radical potential within them and can be utilised as a liberatory tool in the hands of the marginalised, resulting in the various projects mentioned within this section. By incorporating the archives into a broader framework such as accountability, we can hopefully maximise the potential usefulness of this tool as part of transformative change.

What is ‘Accountability’ for Museums?

Similar to the renewed interest in archival research, there has been an increase in the demands for further accountability from museums and institutions, particularly in light of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests (e.g., Litt, 2020; Trouillot, 2020; Small, 2021). However, “accountability” is a word with numerous meanings and associations (Ely Yamin, 2013), so it is necessary for the purposes of this paper to define what it is, as well as what is is not.

Accountability models already exist for museums and institutions, of course, but these primarily exist for the sake of accounting for financial and non-financial outputs between the organisations and their stakeholders (Overman, 2021). The latter often includes institutions of power, such as government subsidiaries, and this aspect of inherent political nature gives further credence to the need for an accountability framework that pushes for change within the existing system of the museum, and what is possible through this system. Alongside this framework, external work can be continued with activists and organisers pushing to move museum stakeholders to become more politically inclined towards more transformative and substantial processes of change, such as restitution and repatriation.

However, despite working within the power dynamics of the museum, it would not be helpful to attempt to utilise an existing form of internal accountability, especially if it denies transparency to the individuals and communities who have been harmed. Instead, museums should turn towards the work that has been done among social justice scholars and activists on the idea of “active community accountability”; this concept has previously been proposed for use in the adjacent field of archaeology (Fitzpatrick in Carruthers et al., 2021, pp. 14–16), and emphasises the need for the transference of power, particularly decision-making powers, from academics and professionals to marginalised groups and historically-looted communities. Active community accountability combines two different processes: “community accountability”, which calls for the strengthening of relationships across groups by addressing the specific conditions that allow for harm to occur (The Audre Lorde Project, 2010), and “active accountability”, which calls for community connections to be maintained in a pro-active way in order to avoid future harm occurring  (Moore & Russell, 2011). In both processes, the focus remains on the community above all, and this should similarly be the case for an accountability framework for museums and heritage spaces. More importantly, both call into question the power dynamics at play, and how power and resources can instead be redistributed towards the community. This is particularly vital towards holding institutions accountable, as it disrupts the notion of museums as “apolitical” or “neutral” spaces, and instead correctly identifies them as active gatekeepers of memory and connection (Jimerson, 2003). These interventions also force these institutions to break out of the cycle of comfortable forgetfulness, and instead confront their complicity within colonial violence (Elkins, 2015, p. 854).

More than Auditing: Research and Reconnection

So how do we utilise archival research as part of a larger framework of accountability? Again, we must hold the concept of accountability in connection with a broader purpose towards the community and repairing relations between the institution and those who have been harmed. As previously discussed, an active community accountability framework within cultural and heritage spaces requires for a transference of power from the institution (including the researchers involved) to the affected individuals and communities; this includes the ability to make decisions, as well as the ability of refusal. This could also include renewed calls for repatriation and restitution, processes which have been intentionally left out of this framework as they are arguably the desired end point of  substantial accountability; however, the proposed method in this paper is more concerned with bridging the gap between a lack of community engagement and the action of decolonisation.

But who exactly is the community in question? This will vary, of course, based on the materials at hand. Some materials may still pertain to a living or recently living individual, which makes this process of identification simple. However, there is also the instance in which ownership, which is already a contentious topic within archival research (McKee & Porter, 2012, pp. 67–68), is less clear. This may require its own form of research and investigation, but ultimately the goal should be to find the contemporary communities which may share “continuities” with those from the (recent or otherwise) past (Royster in ibid, p. 74). Even if the archival materials in question are related to the long dead, an ethical approach to the archives should consider the ways in which adjacent groups could benefit from this research (Subotic´, 2021, p. 349).

By involving the community within the act of archival research, we move beyond simply “auditing” collections, but begin to “reframe” them. This may include more accurately contextualising materials in accordance with cultural values and traditions held by the community, as well making decisions as to what is allowed to be displayed (if at all). In giving them equal space to engage with archival material, we can begin to “braid knowledge” together (see Christen, 2011; Atalay, 2012), using institutional resources and tools (including methodology and theory) as a means of supporting the community’s appraisal of the material. Moving beyond auditing in this sense also means that we are avoiding the objectification of archival material that echoes Césaire’s (2001, p. 42) view of colonialization as “thingification”; again, this accountability framework asks us to see this material as embodied, and so demands the level of respect and courtesy one would give to an individual or community. Where auditing means to produce a quantifiable consideration of collections, this accountability framework instead moves to encourage engagement with the material in conjunction with the broader community, as well as foster reconnection and reconciliation.

Although this may seem no different than a form of community engagement, the contrast again lies in the power dynamics at play; whereas most contemporary forms of community engagement involve a hierarchy of power and control that places the institution above all (Morse, 2018, p. 171), this framework demands that this is flipped, allowing for the community to hold more power than what would customarily be given to them. This would allow for communities to make decisions on aspects of research that may not have been accessible to them, such as ethical considerations and curation practices, both of which are currently based on very Eurocentric cultural ideas (Christen, 2011, p. 189; McKee & Porter, 2012, p. 73; Genovese, 2016, pp. 32, 40). This framework should not be mistaken as an attempt at sideling professionals, or disrupting what some may consider to be “traditional” archival practice (O’Neal, 2014, p. 135). Archival skills are key to this approach, and professionals will be vital to its success; however, this collaboration must be reframed as a service towards the communities that are finally being centred in these conversations, in which professionals use their skills in accordance with the needs and desires of the community in question. Here, considerations can also be made regarding the need of diversifying the professional pool available, as it would be ideal to have archivists from the particular communities as part of the conversation and research.

It should be noted that each archive is unique, and it could be problematic to generalise a particular single approach to handling archives overall (L’Eplattenier, 2009, p. 68), just as it is problematic to assume that one particular approach is suitable for every group or community (Christen, 2011, p. 209). However, as McKee and Porter (2012, p. 60) suggest, all archival materials can and perhaps should be seen as the embodiment of people and communities, both living and dead. As such, the institution that holds the archives must still be held accountable to these people and communities and would likely necessitate some form of accountability framework similar to the one proposed in this paper, regardless of the unique particulars. Perhaps if there is one variable to consider in planning research, it may be that some archival materials are more sensitive in nature than others and will require a more thoughtful approach in engagement; more specifically, in who gets to engage with the material, and why. Again, this is an area in which the transference of decision-making powers to the affected communities will be vital, as cultural sensitivities and traditions will need to be acknowledged above all. In addition, there is always the risk of negative exposure from archival research that will affect the most vulnerable (MacNeil, 1992, p. 166); as such, the very act of archival research may need to be placed in question and discussed with the communities beforehand.

Ultimately, this framework necessitates a constant dialogue between the institution and the community, turning the archives into what Gilliand (2014, p. 1) calls a “negotiated space” which can also allow for collective identity work to flourish (Butler, 2009). Such dialogue is arguably vital for the building (and rebuilding) of any relationship, particularly one in which adversity and harm is involved (DeTurk, 2006); however, in the case of accountability, it is essential that this dialogue and engagement persists beyond the confines of any particular research project, as the final goal of this framework should be the avoidance of any future harm as well. Accountability will not erase harm, but in practicing it, institutions can become more pro-active in reducing its impact (Bonsu, 2018).

Conclusion

Archival research is not the one answer to achieving a more accountable form of museum practice; as previously mentioned, accountability comes in many forms, and there are many that could be utilised in order to minimise harm within this particular setting. In addition, the pathway towards accountability should be multi-faceted and multi-vocal, allowing for multiple voices to take precedence in conversation as well as multiple forms of action to occur concurrently. For example, the proposal discussed in this paper did not touch upon other adjacent avenues of inquiry, such as auditing collections on display. This paper, in that case, should perhaps be seen less as a tutorial towards accountability, and more of a provocation for museums and institutions to begin the urgent and necessary task of rethinking their goals and values, and the ways in which these notions can be reframed within a broader sense of community and communal benefits. In addition, this paper asks that museums view the concept of community as synonymous with more ethical practices, particularly in the case of greater transparency and open dialogue. However, institutions must also refrain from getting stuck at just conceptualising means of accountable, and instead take action towards accountability – as Shara (2020) writes, it is moving from “feeling sorry” to “doing sorry”.

The main goal for holding institutions accountable for past and present harms should be repatriation and restitution, but these processes will likely never happen with the promptness and speed that is demanded of them, particularly given the complexity of decision-making processes within museums (Morse, 2018, pp. 173–174). In the meanwhile, this proposed framework can be utilised as a way to pro-actively engage with the affected individuals and communities and begin to mend and strengthen relations. In focusing on the archival material held within institutions, this framework is targeting one of the more problematic aspects of the museum as a whole. Collections are ultimately the continuation of colonial hoarding and are already the cause of recent disputes (e.g., Nwakunor, 2021; Salisbury, 2021; Winters, 2021). This also does not take into consideration the amount of material that is unknown to the public, as seen in more recent cases of repatriation (e.g., Justinvil & Colwell, 2021; Pilkington, 2021; Veal, 2021). Following Nakata (2012, p. 103), we can instead transform archives from storehouses into points of access. We can (perhaps literally) reveal these “skeletons in the closet”, and at least provide a starting point for difficult conversations to occur, as well as provide a way forwards for tangible action to make amends.

McKee and Porter (2012, p. 60) suggest that the archives exist as a liminal space between people/artefacts and researchers, building upon Glenn and Enoch’s (2008, p. 24) conception of the archives as a place in which “reciprocal cross-boundary exchange” can occur. With this in mind, as well as Hicks’ (2020, p. 234) assertation that the museum cannot truly decolonise but instead become a transformative place of thinking and doing, perhaps we can set a destination upon which accountability may take us, in which these institutions are no longer colonial hoarders or gatekeepers, but instead contemplative spaces in which once hidden away materials can be reunited with the communities from which they came, reconnections can continue to be made, and conversation can occur. For if we cannot undo the harm that has been inflicted by museums and institutions for hundreds of years, then we can at least repair the relations and move forward together for a better future.

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The Archaeology of Memories and Mementos: An Archaeologist’s Review of “I Am Dead”

Please note that this blog post contains spoilers for the game “I Am Dead”.

One of the opening images for the game, and arguably one of my favourite death-adjacent topics to explore via fiction – what will your legacy be after you die?

So, one of the things I was most excited to get to post-PhD was my ever-increasing backlog of video games (damn you, Nintendo Switch sales!), and I was particularly excited about tackling the long list of indie games. One of these was, of course, the subject of this blog post: I Am Dead, a game made by Hollow Grounds and originally released in 2020. I had known that it was, by all accounts, one of those cute little indie games with a fun “hidden item”-type of puzzle mechanic.

You can imagine how surprised I was to find out that it was secretly one of the best archaeology games I’ve ever played!

Not to get too sentimental but this game really touched a lot of my perhaps more overly-optimistic viewpoints regarding archaeology – the tangibility of history and past experience!

The game is centered on Morris Lupton, a recently deceased inhabitant of the fictional island town of Shelmerston and previously the curator of the local museum. He is tasked with finding a new guardian for the town in order to stop its imminent destruction by a long-dormant volcano. To do this, Morris must travel around the town and invoke its local spirits by finding items hidden away connected to various memories of the deceased held by their still-living friends and family.  

It’s a very sweet and short game that really touches upon the idea of legacy – both in what we leave behind in our work and passions, as well as within our interpersonal relationships. This is further emphasised in where the game takes place – we do not join Morris right after death, but some time later. He is quite content with his afterlife, and much more concerned with the fate of the living who still remain in Shelmerston. But Morris also gets the unique opportunity to see how much of a difference he has made as the island’s lone curator, particularly in the way in which his work has helped shaped the memory of the island itself.

One of my favourite moments of connection within the game – revisiting the memory of a prehistoric person’s birth, and also finding the very artefact used during this. Would we have known how it was truly used?

So, yes, there is an obvious archaeology component here with the museum, particularly with the final level which is split between the exhibitions of the local museum and Prehistoric Shelmerston. But what I find more interesting, perhaps, is the idea of memory here, particularly the way in which memory interacts with material culture.

The archaeology of memory isn’t a new concept, with a variety of sub-types that have been thoroughly discussed in previous literature; this includes collective memory, public memory, and social memory (Van Dyke 2019, p. 208-209). But what is perhaps closer to what is being illustrated in this gameplay is the idea of “problematic stuff” (Buster 2021a and 2021b), which describes the sort of everyday “mundane” object that is ultimately the focus of much emotion and sentimentality. Buster originally explored this idea through discussions with healthcare professionals and end-of-life caregivers as part of the Continuing Bonds Project, as it became apparent that many people placed particular emphasis on the material objects that were left behind by the deceased. When viewed from a more archaeological perspective, this concept sheds a different light on some of the artefacts that are often found in what may seem to be “random” places, particularly within the Iron Age of Britain. Funerary traditions during this period of time continue to be difficult to determine due to the “invisibility” of the dead within the archaeological record (Harding 2016). And yet many Iron Age sites exhibit deposits of rather mundane items. Perhaps we have been missing part of the puzzle by overlooking these objects, which may be representative of personal objects that, unbeknownst to modern day archaeologists, embody many memories and emotions.

I Am Dead can be seen as a demonstration of the power of memory, as well as the ways in which memory become embodied into these “problematic stuff” – we see first-hand how these random objects become important through association of past events and interactions by the living. What to us is just a lost glove, or a buried box of beer, or a badge, are to others memories of finding a beloved treasure, or teenage antics, or the start of a beautiful friendship. It asks us, as archaeologists, to consider the things – that perhaps seem so small at first glance – that are inaccessible to us in the present day, but may transform rubbish into something much more meaningful and important.

You can buy I Am Dead now for the Nintendo Switch or for PC via Steam.

References

Buster, L. (2021a) ‘Problematic Stuff’: Death, Memory, and the Interpretation of Cached Objects. Antiquity 95(382), pp. 973-985.

Buster, L. (2021b) Why Couldn’t Iron Age People Throw Some Stuff Away? Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/iron-age-britain-houses/

Harding, D.W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollow Grounds (2020) I Am Dead, video game, Nintendo Switch. West Hollywood, CA: Annapurna Interactive.

Van Dyke, R.M. (2019) Archaeology and Social Memory. Annual Review of Anthropology 48, pp. 207-225.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Benevolence of the Billionaires, or Why are So Many Mansions Museums?

My first real job in the heritage sector was in high school, when I was a volunteer (and then paid) docent at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, NY. As you may be able to gather from the name of the museum, this was originally owned by the Vanderbilt family – descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a railroad empire in the United States in the 1800’s (Robehmed 2014). The property now known as the Vanderbilt Museum, originally called the Eagle’s Nest, was built by Cornelius’ great grandson, William K. Vanderbilt II. The Eagle’s Nest was the Vanderbilt summer home, and would eventually serve as storage for much of Willie K. Vanderbilt’s collections from his excursions around the world. Vanderbilt eventually decided to open up a museum in order to display his various specimens and artefacts, starting with the Hall of the Fishes in 1922. During the late 1930’s, Vanderbilt also opened a lower museum of natural history called The Habitat, with the central piece involving a taxidermy whale shark. The entire property eventually became a public museum in 1950, eventually adding artefacts from Charles H. Stoll’s Arctic expeditions (in the aptly named Stoll Wing) and a planetarium. Today, it serves its original purpose with an additional focus on the life of the Vanderbilts, with guided tours and events centred around the private lives of Willie K. Vanderbilt and his family.

The main building of the Vanderbilt Museum, circa 2011 – 2012ish.

The conversion of mansions, or other property from the rich and famous, into museums and other cultural centres is much more of a common occurrence than you’d think. Technically, it falls under the definition of “historic houses” – places of living that are ultimately transformed into heritage centres, and a practice that has its roots in Victorian era philanthropy (Young 2007). Although not all historic houses are spacious mansions as seen at the Vanderbilt Museum, many are – which makes sense. After all, who will have the resources available to transform (to various extremes or not) a living space into a heritage space? The rich and the famous, of course.

And there’s specific baggage that also comes with that – a feeling of being beholden to the people who once owned these properties, who are responsible for the creation of these museums and heritage spaces. Looking back, I think about the ways in which I was trained to talk about Willie K. Vanderbilt as though I knew the guy, like he was a good friend. And how, in retrospect, his entire museum collection reflects a coloniser sensibility – for example, much of the Memorial Wing (dedicated to his only son who died in a car accident) consists of trophies from Vanderbilt’s time in Africa, including both artefacts and hunting trophies. His “ethnographic” collections are mostly from Indigenous peoples, and include the display of human remains. And yet, we were encouraged to emphasise the “coolness” of being a wealthy white settler who owned shrunken heads to our visitors. We openly flaunted his wealth through our guided tours, without critically engaging with how the wealth was made. But its this one form of benevolence, in donating his properties and collections to create a public museum, that overshadows all of this.

This benevolence of the wealthy in the form of heritage cultivation and preservation expands beyond providing the funds and the property for use, of course. How many museums have various wings and exhibitions named after donors? The Sackler Family alone has multiple wings across various institutions: the Met Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and many more – although not for long, hopefully, now that they are facing criminal charges for their role in the opioid crisis, which you can learn more about via P.A.I.N. (Cascone 2020).

Ultimately, these historic houses and donor wings illustrate the ways in which capitalism entrenches itself into the collection, preservation, and display of cultural heritage. By yielding power via financial contributions and other resources, wealthy donors can influence the ways in which not only these institutions are developed, but also how their own legacies are remembered. Critical engagement of these “gifts” is vital if we want to make these heritage spaces more progressive – especially if we eventually want to get rid of capitalism along the way as well.

References

Cascone, S. (2020) After Purdue Pharma Reached a $225 Million Settlement With US Authorities, the Met Says the Name of Its Sackler Wing Is ‘Under Review’. Artnet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/sacklers-name-museum-met-1917814

Gress, S. (2015) Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Arcadia Publishing.

Robehmed, N. (2014) The Vanderbilts: How American Royalty Lost Their Crown Jewels. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2014/07/14/the-vanderbilts-how-american-royalty-lost-their-crown-jewels

Young, L. (2007) Is There a Museum in the House? Historic Houses as a Species of Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 22(1). pp. 59-77.

Community-Led, Community-Run: The Blathers’ Approach to Museum Curation

In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!

And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.

Blathers: “The cultural development of Wakame (my island in Animal Crossing) is a worthy endeavour indeed.”

In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.

The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.

Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).

What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).

As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.

At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…

References

Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.

Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.

Fischer, H. and Jansari, S. (2020) International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Podcast. British Museum. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/britishmuseum/august-23-podcast-ep-mixdown

Kreps, C. (2006) Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies (eds S. Macdonald). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 457-472.

Mutibwa, D.H., et al. (2020) Strokes of Serendipity: Community Co-Curation and Engagement with Digital Heritage. Convergence 26(1). pp. 157-177.

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Instagram Museum: Visitor Participation in the Age of the Selfie

Visitors taking a selfie at the Museum of Ice Cream (Photo Credit: Laura Morton)

Have you ever heard of an “Instagram Museum”? Often temporary, these pop-up exhibitors are often part-art gallery, part-immersive experience, but all about the selfie. Although the Museum of Ice Cream, which first opened up in NYC in 2016, is arguably the most famous of these Instagram Museums, it wasn’t the first – for that, we turn to the Renwick Gallery in 2015. There, a exhibition called “Wonder” became hugely popular due to the Instagram-friendly environment. Although the exhibition quickly embraced the popularity, with new signs stating that photography was encouraged, it should be noted that the exhibition was never intended to be an Instagram hot spot (Pardes 2017). The trend continued throughout 2017 and 2018, with many pop-up exhibits following in the footsteps of the Museum of Ice Cream and more or less opening as a series of interconnected photo-ops, mostly about food (DeJesus 2018).

In some way, we can see the popularity of these exhibits as a logical continuation of visitor participation in museum spaces – specifically art museums. Art inherently asks the viewer to engage through the senses, with some pieces taking this further than others through immersive experiences, of course – but what about other museums? Specifically, scientific and historical museum spaces? These museums already have their own forms of participation – think of natural history museums which have displays of animal bones for guests to pick up, or of history museums that have re-enactors speak to guests in period-specific characters. Ultimately, Instagram Museums are taking the next step, moving from simply engaging with material and placing the visitors in the material (which, coincidentally, is also perfect for a selfie!).

Woven thread artwork by Gabriel Dawe at the “Wonder” exhibition at the Renwick Gallery (Photo Credit: Rachel Barron)

So, what are the implications of these spaces, specifically with regards to the future of museums? For starters, I’d say that it marks a shift in the level of participation that is desired by some visitors – that immersion is key, which has also been seen in the popularity of immersive art collective places such as Meow Wolf. “Wonder” curator Nicholas Bell probably states it best: “It’s like this new first-person narrative of the museum experience” (Judkis 2016). And while many museums will want to further capitalise on this trend for the sake of marketing and raising tourism, I also think it raises an interesting new perspective by which future museums could be intentionally designed and curated around. Again, visitor participation is nothing new – but, to take Bell’s phrase, how can we shift the perspective to a first-person narrative? And, more specifically, what does a first-person narrative mean to a museum whose exhibitions are more “objective”? Imagine this perspective as applied to a science museum, in which an exhibit is tailored to engage the visitor in an immersive experience focused on the evolution of humankind. As we find ourselves able to conjure up images and videos of faraway things in an instant thanks to the Internet, how do we allow museums to take it a step further with regards to providing a new perspective to visitors?

To end this blog post, I should point out that I originally drafted this prior to the 2020 pandemic, so the question of what these immersive experiences may influence in museums moving forward is even more complicated. As I write this post, a majority of the United States and the United Kingdom have re-opened to the public, albeit with many new safety and health measures installed. Although the unfortunate reality is that some of these participation-friendly will continue to operate as usual – perhaps with the bare minimum of occasionally sanitising exhibits – many of these museums will find that they will need to drastically change with the times, thereby ending the forward momentum of this trend. As museums, generally speaking, struggle to survive during a pandemic, how will they also contend with the changes of visitor engagement and participation? What does it mean to a curator that visitors are contexualising their museum experience through protective screens, masks, and the heavy burden of a world in crisis around them?

References

DeJesus, E. (2018) Fake Food Museums are Our Greatest Monuments to the Brand Hellscape of 2018. Eater. Retrieved from https://www.eater.com/2018/12/21/18151663/fake-museum-of-ice-cream-pizza-instagram

Goldburg, G. (2017) Double Scoop of Fantasy at Museum of Ice Cream in SF. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.sfchronicle.com/style/article/Double-scoop-of-fantasy-at-Museum-of-Ice-Cream-in-12216063.php#photo-14127511

Judkis, M. (2016) The Renwick is Suddenly Instagram Famous. But What about the Art? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-renwick-is-suddenly-instagram-famous-but-what-about-the-art/2016/01/07/07fbc6fa-b314-11e5-a76a-0b5145e8679a_story.html

Pardes, A. (2017) Selfie Factories: The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/selfie-factories-instagram-museum/


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.