On the symposium Diasporic Objects

On conflicted (migration) heritage

By Hanne Buckinx

In research for our future exhibition on conflicted (migration) heritage, the team of Castrum Peregrini attended the Symposium Diasporic Objects at the Research Center for Material Culture in Leiden. The symposium depicts the important role of diasporic objects in connecting, groups and individuals today.

Six different speakers: Paul Basu, Héctor Garcia Botero, Wonu Veys, Maja Povrzanovic Frykman, Laura Osorio and Pim Westerkamp discuss how diasporic object mediate relations between human groups across different territories, times and cultures. Paul Basu conceptualizes the dispersal of ethnographic collections in the global museumscape and argues for the recognition of a diversity in diasporic conditions. In the question whether diasporic objects are in state of exile or at home in their diasporic belonging, he suggests to see them in an ambivalent space of ‘inbetweenness’. In museological contexts this means that we should be aware how diasporas of collections and knowledges have become meaningful resources to local contemporary communities, which currently have no access to them.

Regarding to this, Héctor García Botero, explores more specifically the ‘diasporic’ condition of the collection of the Ethnographic Museum of the Central Bank of Colombia in Leticia and the different ways the collection has affected the museum during its renovation project. By researching the ‘practices of location’ of the objects that were collected more than 70 years ago, Héctor intends to prove that the ‘diasporic’ condition of the objects comes from an inextinguishable force that derives from the very core of the museum institution itself.

Wonu Veys, on the other hand, studies two Māori canoes (waka) which are located at the terrain of the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden. In regard to the diasporic status of these objects, Wonu wants to explore what kind of developments made that these objects became museum objects (ones that people can still touch and even use). Moreover, she points out that these diasporic objects are important nodes for an active relationship with not only the Māori homeland, but also are just as equally important in building a home in the host country, and to maintain connections with other people of the same diaspora.

Where Basu, Botero and Veys conceptualize the role of diasporic objects in museum practices, Maja Povrzanović Frykman, Laura Osorio and Pim Westerkamp discuss how diasporic objects help migrants built a home and a sense of belonging in their daily lives.

In regards to Wonu Veys notion of diasporic objects as important nodes for relationships between migrants and the homeland, Maja Povrzanović Frykman argues that diasporic objects do not only serve as signals of belonging, but also are able to reinforce migrants’ personal engagements with the materiality of transnational dwelling, especially through objects of everyday use. In her opinion such objects (carried, sent and received across national borders) facilitate familiar material practices which help migrants to feel at home in different locations. Moreover, Maja argues that these objects are also able to connect migrants and those ones that stayed behind or are located in other countries.

In relation to this, Laura Osorio specifically looks at craft making practices of displaced artisans from the Wounaan indigenous community in Colombia. By looking at their basket making with traditional materials, she discovers that these practises do not only allow them to make a living, but more importantly, the migration of traditional fibers and inks from their ‘original’ home in Chocó to the urban areas, like Bogotá, allows them to reconnect with their ‘original’ home. By actively working with traditional materials and techniques Wounaan artists bring their ‘home’ to the present (they reconstruct their home in the present). In this way, craftship serves as a form of remembering, (by singing old Wounaan songs during the craft making practice, they evocate memories). As a result, diasporic traditional materials (in this case the baskets) play an important role in the Wounaan process of adaptation and the reconfiguration of their social networks, their cultural identity and their individual craft practise.

Pim Westerkamp states: ‘home is where the food is’. He researches the complex relation between migration and material culture (in this case food) and the concept of home possession (in this case silver rice spoons) to answer the question of why and how these objects gave his family both a sense of (be)longing and home, as well as strengthened the sense of displacement. He argues that the objects, the food and the display of it enables his family to long for and to connect with a distant place or time (in this case Indonesia and the colonial time there). Moreover, he also notes that the food enables his family to include and exclude people, hence building social networks. By doing so, his family remembers the ‘home’ country based on nostalgic thoughts/memories with a strong connection between food and the past: the food gives them a sort of feeling of continuation of the past in the present.

In conclusion, Wayne Modest suggests that we should start thinking about ‘random’ (bannale as he calls them) objects in a more complex way and to look at what these objects might mean in an articulation with the present society. He notes that we’re struggling with the idea that objects from the past bring us back into our ‘pastness’, however, this is/should not always be the case. He argues that even though these objects are deeply imbedded in history and deeply imbedded in our ‘pastness’, they’re actually more complexly entangled in our present through negotiations between museums and communities. Therefore he suggests that it is not the only/best way to keep approaching these diasporic objects from a nostalgic perspective, a suggestion that we will take strongly into consideration for our future exhibition on conflicted (migration) objects which we will organize in collaboration with MigrationLab.