Discussing Anti-Racist Activism in Museums at the SIEF 2021 International Congress

The 15th SIEF Congress of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (Société Internationale d’Ethnologie et de Folklore) took place online in June 2021, organised around the theme “Breaking the Rules? Power, Participation and Transgression.”

Scholars, activists, heritage practitioners, artists and other creative professionals from a range of employment sectors and subject disciplines were invited to convene panels, present research papers, design posters and contribute to AV sessions that examined the dynamics, modes, arenas and implications of rule-breaking and other forms of transgression within different socio-political, economic and cultural contexts.

Conference Programme

Following the call for papers, more than 100 panels and roundtable sessions were arranged and grouped according to several inter-connected sub-themes and streams, including the following topics:

  • Archival practices, data collection and issues of access
  • Bodies, affects, senses and emotions
  • Digital lives and the use of ICT as a vehicle for activism, resistance and alternative actions
  • Cultural encounters, heritage and property
  • Environmental issues and human/non-human interdependencies Performance, narratives and knowledge production
  • Spatial politics and practices – particularly within the context of urban studies, urban life and public space
  • Material culture and museums
  • Policies, borders and issues of securitization
  • Power asymmetries and epistemic conflicts within academia
  • Issues of health and medicine, considered in the midst of the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic

In view of the continuing global coronavirus pandemic, all the keynote lectures, panels and roundtables were presented online and made available to delegates via a live-streaming platform as well as recorded videos on the SIEF conference website. Additionally, as the congress was originally due to be hosted by the University of Helsinki, an alternative online cultural programme featuring short films about the host city, music performances, and pre-recorded videos about broader aspects of Finnish history, culture, society and the arts helped to create a communal sense of being immersed in “Virtual Helsinki.” 

Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki

The live programme ran from 19th – 24th June 2021, with presentation abstracts and post-session recordings uploaded to the SIEF website at https://www.siefhome.org/congresses/sief2021/. A number of the recorded discussions have already been made public and can be viewed as embedded videos within the online conference programme. Eventually, the full set of recorded sessions will be freely accessible from the website at a later date.

Keynote Lectures

The opening keynote on “Slow Activism: Lessons from Citizen Scientists” was presented online by Professor Kathrine Borland (Ohio State University, USA). A key focus of her lecture considered issues of collaborative practice and knowledge co-production beyond academia – especially research that evolves over a long-term process of listening to and respecting people’s ideological, spatial and cultural differences within both rural and urban communities. There was also a specific call to folklorists to draw on the practices of rural citizen scientists in order to re-imagine their research role as that of a “Citizen-Folklorist” – i.e. someone who serves as a documentarian for groups and communities adept at telling and sharing their own stories.

Other keynotes were presented throughout the week-long programme and included contributions by Indigenous Sámi scholar Professor Sanna Valkonen (University of Lapland) discussing expressions of Sámi heritage and identity via music and the visual arts; archaeologist, environmentalist and African Heritage Studies scholar Dr Susan O. Keitumetse (University of Botswana), who presented case studies about community-led heritage guardianship and conservation initiatives in selected Botswanan nature reserves and national parks; anthropologist Professor Ellen Hertz (University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland), who spoke about “Rules: Pros and Cons” within 21st century societies facing environmental destruction, massive inequality and the decline of democracy; and Molly Andrews, Emerita Professor of Political Psychology at the University of East London, who discussed her long-standing social science research interviewing East German dissident activists since the late-1980s.

Panel Mat05: Museums as Spaces for Anti-Racism

My specific contribution to the congress was to co-convene a panel session and present a research paper about “Museums as Spaces for Anti-Racism,” organised in partnership with social anthropologist Dr Anna Rastas (University of Tampere, Finland). An extremely positive response to the call for papers enabled us to feature eight speakers’ presentations about museum practices in different countries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, split over two sequential panels on 22nd June 2021.

Session 1: Mat05a

Anna’s paper “On the challenges of collaborative and anti-racist strategies in museum work” opened the discussion and set out the objectives of the panel to explore articulations of race, anti-racism and decolonial activism within contrasting museum settings. Her case studies summarised the collaborative curatorial approaches used for the  “African Presence in Finland” action research study and exhibition project at the Finnish Labour Museum, Werstas, and more recent international research for the Academy of Finland funded project Rethinking Diasporas: Redefining Nations (2015-2020). This was followed by papers from Dr Carmen Levick (University of Sheffield, UK) and Dr AnnCristin Winroth (Umea University, Sweden), respectively discussing how constructions of national identity and collective cultural memory are explored within both fictional and real exhibition settings. Carmen critiqued the colonial and post-colonial aesthetics and socio-political tensions addressed in Hannah Khalil’s play “A Museum in Baghdad” (2019), while AnnCristin showcased the curatorial approaches used to collect and display personal stories from members of minoritized (indigenous, religious and ethnically diverse) communities, as part of the heritage preservation project “Priority: Minority” at Västerbotten County Museum, Sweden (https://www.vbm.se/en/utstallningar/prioritet-minoritet/).

The first panel concluded with an overview of findings from a collaborative research initiative led by Professor Lorena Sancho Querol (Coimbra University, Portugal), who spoke on behalf of a team of curators and social scientists from Brazil and Portugal involved in the ECHOES project. At its heart, the project analysed the ways that national historical and ethnological museums (re-)interpreted and ‘de-codified’ colonially sourced collections illustrative of the long-standing African presence in both nations. A key question posed throughout the investigation was to examine the extent to which heritages have been repressed, erased, reframed and/or re-articulated over the course of institutions transitioning from exclusionary to inclusive narrative (re-)interpretation practices.

Session 2: Mat05b

The second panel featured four presentations, opening with a film-based review by Dr Orson Nava (Ravensbourne University, UK) who discussed and showed extracts from his internationally acclaimed documentary “Decolonising the Curatorial Process.

Additional papers by Charlotte Engman (Umea University, Sweden) and Dr Alexandra Ross (University of Glasgow, UK) discussed the theories and methodological approaches each had applied to their respective research on representations of African and diaspora heritage within Swedish museums (Engman), and the inclusion of marginalised voices and narratives within exhibitions about the history and legacies of apartheid in Simon’s Town Museum in the Western Cape, South Africa (Ross).

To conclude the panel, I presented my paper “Troubling Spaces,” which featured a critique of four ‘politically aesthetic,’ anti-racist and decolonial interventions by African and African Diaspora artists who have displayed art-political installations in museums and galleries throughout Europe. The case studies foregrounded included commissioned installation pieces and experimental works from the oeuvres of Berlin-based interdisciplinary artist and academic Grada Kilomba (b. 1968, Lisbon); British film-maker Isaac Julien, CBE RA (b. 1960, London); Gabonese-French contemporary visual artist Owanto (b. 1953, Paris); and Senegalese artist-curator and scholar-activist El Hadji Sy (b. 1954, Dakar). During the illustrated talk, it was important to emphasise the necessity for culturally diverse creative partnerships, and to advocate for a greater number of anti-racist interventions led by artists and curators of colour (with Global South and diasporic heritage) within museums and galleries in the West. Additionally, the need to pursue decolonial initiatives that consider more nuanced articulations about Black/Brown people’s lived experiences of race and racism in Europe, as well as the inclusion of more artist-led approaches to (re-)interpreting colonially sourced object collections and their archives were recommended, citing El Hadji Sy’s successful research residency and art-political exhibition outputs at Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum in 2015 as a case study of best practice.

Screenshot of a selection of contributing speakers during the SIEF 2021 conference panel session on Museums as Spaces for Anti-Racism.
(Clockwise, from the top left: Anna Rastas; Alexandra Ross, Carol Ann Dixon, AnnCristin Winroth; Charlotte Engman; Orson Nava.)

It was both insightful and encouraging to listen to and engage with this group of scholars, and also to respond to informed questions posed by conference delegates during the audience Q&A. Each participant spoke with passion and conviction about their commitment to continue progressing anti-racist scholar-activism via museums, heritage and the arts, and the inspiring examples of internationally collaborative knowledge co-production shared throughout the conference left me feeling hopeful about more accelerated and expansive positive change throughout the culture sector and creative industries in the future.

Carol Ann Dixon, Ph.D.
Researcher and Education Consultant
Website: https://museumgeographies.com
7 September 2021

Web Links and Further Information

SIEF 2021 Congress Home Page: https://www.siefhome.org/congresses/sief2021/

SIEF 2021 Keynotes: https://www.siefhome.org/congresses/sief2021/keynotes

Museum Geographies: https://museumgeographies.com/

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