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Reflections on ‘orphan collections’

Baja California Norte, ritual tablas, possibly Cochimi (© Museum of Us, San Diego)

If there is something I learnt from studying anthropology, is that what is implicit is often more important than what is observable. For a long time, I have been attracted (mildly obsessed one could say) with the notion of absence, silence, and all that is unspoken. There is no need to rehearse here the cultural relevance of metaphors and the need to understand what is said without being said, but certainly, these notions have haunted me for a while. As anthropologists, we know that certain concepts are not directly translatable from the original languages, and one has to become totally immersed in a culture in order to understand the nuances, connotations, and unspoken truths uttered through complex symbolic idioms that, to an outsider, are as idiosyncratic as they are straightforwardly unintelligible. Yet, somehow, we manage to grasp their meaning, elusive as it may be, which we try to convey to our intended public through an approximate process of interpretation. Then suddenly, the ungraspable reveals itself, in its elusive clarity. In sum, there is always something behind the visible, and surely, we can get to it when and if there are interlocutors that can explain to us the otherwise inaccessible meanings and significance of practices, idiomatic phrases, objects, or representations. But what happened when no one is there to tell us, explain to us, and guide us to see what in other circumstances would be invisible?

Manuel Arellano, 1711, Chichimeca de la Provincia de Parral (Chihuahua) (© Museo de America, Madrid)

Working in museums we often come across things that have a note on provenance, geographic, ethnic or else. This makes interpretation and repatriation somewhat easier. Objects are identified as culturally significant, common, or exceptional, whether their uniqueness is extraordinary, or simply odd. Communities’ repatriation claims are underpinned by the understanding the certain objects have a distinct social relevance due to religious, or other factors. Increasingly, objects are being returned to their legitimate owners, or their descendants because there are communities that are ready to embrace them again, that can elicit implicit meanings from them, and that can make them speak once again in a familiar language that has been muted for a long time.

But there are also entire collections that will never be reclaimed. There are simply no descendants that can either revive their significance, or their active role in society. These ‘orphan collections’ live in a state of limbo, between the well-intentioned ethics of conservation, and the absence of meanings once attributed to them, which with luck, one day will be uncovered once again through careful research and study. In the absence of knowledge directly associated with certain objects and collections, we are left to reconstruct meanings through alternative evidence. Not being able to access living peoples is no obstacle to reconstructing object’s meanings, as archaeology teaches us. But the silence that surrounds these objects, while creating absence of meaning, also creates absence of presence. In other words, these objects will never be openly displayed in museums. There is neither sufficient, nor comprehensive knowledge about these collections to justify their exposure to the public. They belong to dead cultures, and dead cultures, unless they are the usual suspects, do not generate any financial return. Attention to these collections would radically shift museum narratives, obsessed with populist, mediocre messages and trite stories of grandeur and splendour.

My recent work on images of Baja California Indians made me realise the immense gap there is between collections from these cultures and those we know much about. The absence of Baja California objects in displays outside Mexico is shocking, and this should make us reflect deeply not only about the motivations that push us to investigate and research certain parts of the world better than others, but also to reflect upon their role in museums. What good do they do if the little we know about them will never be shared?

Perhaps rethinking museum collections in light of the notion of absence could be productive, and with the best intentions even challenging. We rightfully stress the importance of species disappearing by the day, entire ecosystems vanishing under our eyes, but no one talks or thinks about the absence of entire peoples and how they and their rich heritages disappeared over time from our history and from our memory. The invaluable lesson that orphan collections are teaching us is that although they may be silent, they still carry a great deal of significance for us all today. They make us reflect upon the extinction of entire cultures, and the effects that climatic and other factors have on the disappearance of civilisations that may hold the key to unlock their implicit meanings.

Orphan collections are there to stay, but if we want to share a sense of awareness of what we have done and continue to do to our fellow humans, perhaps we ought to consider reviving the public interest in lost worlds and previously unseen heritages. If properly curated, orphan collections may convey, if not the original meanings they were supposed to carry, at least the message that only through absence we can appreciate what we are and what we have.

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