Where do the things in European museums come from? – 5in10 with Mirjam Brusius
Mirjam Brusius holds an MA in Art History (Berlin 2007) and a doctorate in History and Philosophy of Science (Cambridge University 2011). She joined the German Historical Institute London as a research fellow in 2017. Her research interests concern the history of collecting and visual culture across Modern Europe and the Middle East. She previously worked as a Postdoc at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and the History Faculty (A.W. Mellon Fellowship), at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute.
How do you explain your current research projects to your students?
Where do the things in European museums come from? What are their stories and do they tell us more about the people who collected them, or the places whence they came? I’m currently working on a project entitled The Canon under Threat on the life circle of archaeological objects excavated by European explorers in the 19th century and their subsequent journey from the Ottoman Empire to Europe. I’m particularly interested in finds from ancient Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, Syria and Iran), the so called ‘cradle of civilization’, a place that European societies in the 19th century mainly knew from the Bible the veracity of which they sought to confirm with excavated finds from the region. My project tells a different story from previous accounts: objects were lost in transit and many of the finds ended up in storage because they threatened prevailing canonical ideas. Some objects, for example, challenged the biblical canon rather than confirm it. Looking at the difficulties that objects caused upon their arrival in the leading museums of Paris, London and Berlin I focus on the time when objects were in transit when they seemed to have ‘no status’ and their meaning was dynamic and negotiable. In doing so, I want to scrutinize teleological approaches and reconstruct how European canons developed out of moments of insecurity, uncertainty, contingency, indiscipline, and disorder.
In a next step I also want to find out more about local resistance and responses to European exploration. What else did people in the Ottoman Empire do with material culture? In other words, how were material remains recycled and reused in living cultures when they did not end up in museums? These questions gain currency today as museums are under pressure to engage with their collections from multiple perspectives.
Finally, I’m also interested in the origins of photography in Europe but also how the medium developed in places like Qajar Persia and surrounding areas. This is another field that for too long has been dominated by teleological accounts and purely Eurocentric perspectives.
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
We are often in denial of our own biographies and cultural backgrounds and how they inform the research we undertake, not least because they can lead to certain expectations and also false assumptions in respect to authority and expertise. I have a mixed background (European-Middle Eastern, who would have thought?) and while this has undeniably sparked my interest and curiosity about the things I study, it can firstly be overrated and secondly, be more of a hindrance than a help. For many it’s simply easier to know if a person is ‘one of us, or one of them.’
All things considered, it is certainly no coincidence that during my PhD I moved towards topics that address interstitial spaces and things that seem to be at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Just like the objects I study are hard to fit into clear categories, I don’t see myself belonging to a single designated group. This concerns not just geographical but also disciplinary spaces. I tend to shift between different academic systems and disciplines, drawing on ideas in global and colonial history, history of art, Middle Eastern studies, history of science and science studies. I was inspired by my teachers who encouraged this kind of thinking and quietly lead the way to where I am now. Travelling widely to places, including some areas that are now difficult to access, also inspired me. I now have a strong interdisciplinary network of support from colleagues across the world and the exchange of informal ideas and collaborative work keep my research going. Reading more work in the social sciences and having been invited as a visiting fellow by CARMAH, an anthropological project on museums, has lately been particularly enriching as it shifts my focus from objects to people and their motivations, in other words why they care about material culture – or decide to destroy it.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)
In a way I try to tell stories about things that ‘did not happen’, which makes it harder to find archival evidence. I therefore use archives in state institutions or museums to trace ‘background’ stories of the official account, i.e. letters, reports and meeting minutes. It is here where logistic and conceptional problems are reflected that emerged during the excavations or the arrival of finds. This is not as easy as it sounds, not least because files related to archaeology in imperial contexts are sometimes restricted. Coming from the history of photography, I also use visual material and take it seriously as a source in its own right. Once you want to tell a story beyond the institutional narrative of archaeology and museum collections, however, the archive is not necessarily the place to look. For my future projects, field-work and oral histories will therefore become more important.
Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?
I was invited to speak at a conference in Berlin on Orientalism and visual culture, in the eyes of many an ‘old hat’, yet due to Islamophobia the topic has gained currency in a new way. I also attended the indigenous archaeology forum at the World Archaeology Congress in Kyoto where indigenous scholars expressed concern that in spite of all efforts marginalized voices still struggle to be heard. Teaching a course on empire, collecting and museums to a group of clever students in Australia this year has been eye opening in many ways and made me see Europe differently. Finally, being in the middle of London during the Brexit debate can be demoralizing but also a unique opportunity for scholars with an interest in the history of Empire because in a way Britain’s past and future place in the world is at the heart of this debate. I think scholars could – in general – be more inspired by current political change to then help analyze and historicize what’s happening around us.
Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?
Being able to travel does not entail being able to get access. For many academics mobility has not improved in recent years, quite the opposite. While travel restrictions due to violence in the region have indeed influenced the way I framed my research questions, restrictions do not merely apply to war zones. Many colleagues and I are no longer eligible for Visa-free travel in the US because we hold citizenship or visas from predominately Muslim countries. Even where people can still enter, border crossing has been made unpleasant or difficult. This had an effect on US conference attendance and as a result colleagues, in particular those based in the Middle East, are increasingly excluded from academic discourse in the Western world. While some colleagues might still have facilitated access to archives in the region others now face threats and prosecution in their home countries. In the current political climate we need more programmes in order to bring people together from these different parts and work against the isolation many scholars are now facing.
Citation: Mirjam Brusius, “Where do the things in European museums come from?” – 5in10 with Mirjam Brusius, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.12.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8482.