Colonial pasts, archival futures: Reconnecting dispersed collections in Vietnam and Papua New Guinea

Key information

4:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Russell Square: College Buildings
Khalili Lecture Theatre (KLT)

About this event

This presentation introduces the ways in which colonial collections hold important futures for communities in radically different parts of the Asia-Pacific.

Focusing on the challenges and opportunities of connecting fragments of the past (in the form of artefacts, photographs and paper documents) to peoples, I present two examples in which grassroots approaches to collections and their provenancing can transform lives. The first examines a case of digital return of culturally significant objects to a rural community in Papua New Guinea. The second, involves a dispersed French colonial prison archive and its engagement by families of those imprisoned there.

About the speaker

Professor Graeme Were has gained national and international standing within the fields of museum anthropology, material culture and heritage studies.

His research has been recognised at the highest level, most notably in the prestigious invitation to present the biannual Curl Lecture by the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute (UK) in 2011; the 2012 University of Queensland (UQ) Foundation Research Excellence Award for research on digital heritage, participatory design and cultural restitution; and a 2016 gold medal achievement award by the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism for his contribution to supporting Vietnamese cultural heritage.

Graeme’s most recent research has explored the relationship between museums, collections and social repair in Vietnam. Drawing on almost ten years of ethnographic fieldwork behind-the-scenes in key museums in north and central Vietnam, this research reveals the often unacknowledged role museums play in the process of social repair in socialist Vietnam. Through a study of a range of highly emotive objects, such as personal possessions, maps and charts, and pieces of plane fuselage, his research traces the way these objects play an instrumental role in supporting families who have suffered loss or injury in the conflicts against the French and Americans.

The work highlights the transformational nature of museums in the recovery of the past and how their collections seek to develop positive outcomes for individuals, families and communities, beyond the framework of the nation-state.

About the organiser

The PARR (Provenance, Accessibility, Repatriation and Restitution) Working Group is a SOAS-wide network that draws together colleagues with shared interests in grounding SOAS’ decolonising agenda through practical approaches that seek to repair post-colonial trauma and loss. The Network looks at issues surrounding repatriation, encompassing both digital and material dimensions especially in relation to Area Studies and colonial archives (textual, sonic, visual, and material culture). 

PARR is underscoring the necessity of expanding definitions and approaches to repatriation, evolving into rematriating practices that redefine the process beyond the mere physical transfer of objects to source cultures. Instead, the network emphasises a relational process that aims to establish source community-based spaces for co-producing knowledge about collections, creating community-led methods for redefining the value and significance of their material heritage, and building capacity to inscribe this knowledge in ways that are accessible, transferable, and meaningful to source cultures.