Bringing to light: The dilemmas of displaying contentious historical material

Joan Smith, John Harries, Tal Adler

Research output: Non-textual formPerformance


In the Natural History Museum of Vienna there is a display of more than 8000 skulls ordered upon shelves as one would books in a library. This skeletal diaspora is a remainder from a time when learned Europeans collected skulls from far and wide, often following in the wake of the violent dispossession of indigenous peoples. Our contribution emerges from ongoing academic-artistic involvement with this gathering of human remains through which we seek to enable a critical interrogation of the histories that are both disclosed and occluded by this osteological library. At the heart of this project is the intention to display a full-sized photograph of the display. Wrapping around this photograph with a polyphony of voices which speak to the complex politic of retaining and displaying historic collections of human remains.
In our contribution we specifically reflect on our intention to display this photograph. In other words, we wish to disclose a creative dilemma at the heart of our project. This reflection turns of the question of ethics of making visible, of “bringing to light.” There is, we will suggest, a profound ambivalence to this process. Bringing problematic histories to light is paradigmatically considered to be a good and necessary, a counter to a politics of forgetting or aphasia. Yet, in bringing these histories to light, we risk reproducing forms of violence and dispossession that are materialised in making and keeping of collections of human remains. Once we admit this ambivalence, the question, which we address in our contribution, is how those who are working with and displaying contentious material may craft exhibits which question themselves and the circumstances of their own making. Consistent with our ways of working this contribution takes the form of a performative event which reflects on these issues in both an academic and artistic register. The particular focus of this event is on ways of seeing and not seeing, of veiling and bringing to light and the affective and ethical possibilities and problematics that inhere in our ambitions to make that which is hidden visible.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sep 2017
EventCritical Heritages and Reflexive Europeanisation - Berlin Wall Memorial, Berlin, Germany
Duration: 28 Sep 201729 Sep 2017


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