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Illustrated Report of the Annual Conference 2012

15. Mär. 2013

More than 150 scholars from Heidelberg and around the world participated at the Annual Conference 2012. From October 10 to 12, they discussed the theme “Things that connect – pathways of materiality and practice”.

In the following report, Zara Barlas, Richard Fox, Sabine Neumann and Markus Viehbeck review the lectures by Neil MacGregor, Ian Hodder and others as well as the discussions during the workshops.

Opening of the conference


Questions of the materiality of things, the power these exercise, and their complex relations to human action were the main focus of the fourth Annual Conference of the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context", held at the Karl Jaspers Centre, University of Heidelberg. Titled "Things that Connect: Pathways of Materiality and Practice", the conference was organised jointly by the Cluster's Research Area D "Historicities and Heritage", headed by Monica Juneja (Heidelberg), and SFB 933 "Material Text Cultures". After the welcome address by Madeleine Herren-Oesch (Heidelberg), Acting Director of the Cluster, and an introduction to the concept of the conference by Monica Juneja, the conference took off with a keynote lecture by Neil MacGregor (London), Director of the British Museum. Drawing on examples from the British Museum, MacGregor demonstrated how objects acquire new meanings through the course of their variegated histories, which can be manipulated by a variety of factors and claims including those made by nation states. Tracing the trajectories of meaning, he emphasised how the knowledge embedded in objects could be used in multiple contexts, and discussed the uncertainties that could arise from these processes. He stressed the general need to lay bare invented histories which are made to serve particular interests. MacGregor argued that the university has a supremely significant role in this, particularly because the museum, often a state institution, could be constrained by institutional and political factors.

Watch a video of the keynote lecture


Lines of resistance were a key theme of the opening panel, aptly entitled “The Obstinacy of Things”. Contributions emphasised the extent to which prevailing approaches tend to overlook the ways in which objects go beyond the intentions of both their producers and users, as well as their scholarly interpreters. Complexity was also a key theme. While Hans P. Hahn (Frankfurt) emphasised the embeddedness of cultural objects within historically situated practices, Philipp W. Stockhammer (Heidelberg) drew our attention to  the twofold Wandelbarkeit through which objects are transformed at once by human and non-human agencies, a theme further developed through Diamantis Panagiotopoulos’ (Heidelberg) discussion of differing ideas of ‘foreignness’ in antiquity. The second session showcased three case studies of objects, ranging from medieval Japanese picture scrolls with adapted text and image (Melanie Trede, Heidelberg), to the various depictions of Hokusai’s Great Wave on differing media (Christine Guth, London) creating a “transnational identity”, as well as a group of various items from East Asia in a Swiss collection (Hans Thomsen, Zürich) as an example of “histoire croisée”, which provided  insights into the social, political, and devotional implications of one subject matter and how it was transformed and translated over time. One key point was the movement of a motif or the object itself into another cultural or temporal context, where the objects found different reception, absorption and transformation according to the environment.

Panel session


In a session on the cultural dimensions of global commodities, chaired by Roland Wenzlhuemer (Heidelberg), speakers focused on economic and cultural histories, taking interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the cultural and societal implications and associations of these commodities. Using the example of soybean imports in the US, Ines Prodöhl (Washington DC) demonstrated how societal perceptions were interwoven with economic needs and political decisions. Bernd-Stefan Grewe (Freiburg) and Frank Grüner (Heidelberg) spoke about the smuggling of gold in India and trafficking and consumption of opium in Harbin respectively, both emphasising the assimilation of these commodities within their respective societies and histories through processes of trade and cross-border activity. Different aspects of the materiality of manuscripts were discussed in the afternoon panel "On the Use and Re-use of Manuscripts: Materiality, Textual Practice and Changing Values". The first two talks investigated texts from a philological perspective: Martin Delhey (Hamburg) unpacked the intricate history of a medieval Buddhist Sanskrit manuscript from Nepal, while Vito Lorusso (Hamburg) presented three examples of, mostly, Aristotelian texts from the collection of Cardinal Bressarion and their structural organisation. Birgit Kellner (Heidelberg), in contrast, showed how usage of manuscripts can exhibit the attribution of different values, as found, e.g., in the case of Indian manuscripts in Tibet.

Workshop session


A session on the notion of  public justice embodied in objects (chaired by Thomas Maissen, Heidelberg) focused on a series of  institutional practices involving a drum or bell placed near the king’s quarters, offering an avenue of complaint for those who felt justice had been thwarted. Monica Juneja cited examples of travelling narratives and their recasting in South Asia to shoe the ways in which ideals of justice and good governance rendered through objects adapt to conditions in specific localities. Antje Flüchter (Heidelberg) and Rudolf G. Wagner (Heidelberg) developed similar arguments in their respective treatments of European reports on the Mughal court and Chinese institutions of public justice. Things in the domain of religion were addressed in the panel "How Material is the Immaterial? Sacred 'Things' Transferred". Peter J. Bräunlein (Göttingen) explored notions evoked by Kuka'ilimoku, a Hawaiian war god, kept in the ethnographic museum of the University of Göttingen. Udo Simon (Heidelberg) investigated the complex relation between materiality and immaterial aspects of religious texts by examining critical settings such as the touching, disposing, and translating of the Qur'an. That also a bride can be an object was shown by Astrid Zotter (Heidelberg) in her talk about recent changes in marital practices in urban Nepal.

Forum discussion


Reflecting on the use of paper in various cultures, a panel introduced by Agnieszka Helman-Wazny (Hamburg) dealt with its ancient and medieval history, tracing the pathways of paper through scientific research methods on paper material. The appropriate use of various paper materials, sizes and forms to mediate a second level of meaning transcending the ‘meaning’ of a given text through the choice of paper in medieval Islamic societies was elucidated by Rebecca Sauer (Heidelberg). The panel was concluded by Carla Meyer (Heidelberg), who emphasised the “silent upheaval” of paper in medieval European society by tracing the few medieval sources in contrast to the widely recognised invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Contemporary artistic practices were explored in their historical and cultural contexts in a session chaired by Gerald Schröder (Bochum/Heidelberg). Franziska Koch (Heidelberg) investigated the concept of les objets sonores in Nam June Paik’s early TV works, which enabled subjects to connect with objects in new ways, challenging traditional concepts of material artworks and alluding to the artist’s theoretical fascination with “interdeterminism and variability”. In discussing the works of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Birgit Hopfener (Berlin) argued that these artists adopted the “real” to critically examine the relation between life and art and to negotiate the ambiguity between passive and active. Schröder added that these two artists are dealing with real traumatic experiences in China and could perhaps be seen as a contribution to a process towards recovery.


The second keynote lecture, delivered by Ian Hodder (Stanford), conceptualised the relationship between things and humans in terms of entanglement conceived of as a complex and ever-increasing net of interdependencies. This view, Hodder showed, can not only offer a theoretical background for reading developments at archaeological sites such as ?atalhöyük in Turkey, but also for world history – a position which in its apparent scope and directionality was questioned in the subsequent discussion. The evening poster session featured a series of outstanding presentations from students and researchers working in the Cluster, the Material Text Cultures SFB and the Department of Digital Humanities. Topics ranged from magical amulets in Roman Egypt (Laura Willer) and representations of Genghis Khan in German literature (Jule Nowoitnick) to the creation of a computer platform for compiling and cross-referencing metadata associated with archived video and images (Matthias Arnold; Eric Decker; Cornelia Knab). In keeping with the broader trends of the conference, the poster presentations were resolutely cross-disciplinary and trans-regional.

Watch a video of the keynote lecture


A panel on “Material text cultures on the move” brought together ancient coinage, whose legends and images transcended Greek communities settling at the edges of the defeated Persian kingdom after the campaign of Alexander the Great, and medieval diacritics in the Hebrew bible, the Masora, often taking on zoomorphic forms in the presented case study. Julia Lougovaya-Ast (Heidelberg) closely examined cases of development, adaptation, amalgamation and exploitation of coinage, while Hanna Liss (Heidelberg) explored commentaries in the Bible forming pictures with words. Thus, both case studies showed the shifting forms of text and image in relation to their function. Focusing on the metamorphoses and placements of texts in early China, Paul Nicholas Vogt (Heidelberg) explored bronze vessels, taking up inscriptions as “materialised messages” of royal ideology. A wooden tablet (gaodi ce) was presented by Guo Jue (Western Michigan) as a “materialised death ritual” and the question by Enno Giele (Heidelberg) of the relationship and function of bamboo versus wooden slips as a vehicle of administrative documents showed various metamorphoses of meaning and provided access to the life and characteristics of the objects on differing media.

Poster presentation


The afternoon panel, "'Votive Stupas for the (Post-)Colonial Nation State' – Inquiries into the Performative Practice of Cultural Heritage", discussed the transformation of religious sites in colonial and post-colonial contexts. Michael Falser (Heidelberg) provided the historical context for the two succeeding papers by explicating the spread of replicas of the temple that commemorates the awakening of the Buddha. In her case studies of the transference and relocation of objects from Buddhist and Hindu temple sites in Java, Marieke Bloembergen (Leiden) showed how things connect or exclude people. Falser concluded with his investigation of the colonial exploration of Angkor Wat and the performative importance of heritage sites for nation-building projects. In the panel “Things that connect, divide, and transform: The materiality and performance of religious conversion in the early modern period”, speakers discussed the significance of material objects in cultural construction and performance of religious conversion. Tobias Graf (Heidelberg) highlighted the importance of the turban, kaftan and circumcision in conversions to Islam in the early modern Ottoman Empire, which simultaneously contributed to the identity of “Turkishness”. Manja Quakatz (Münster) similarly focused on the importance of material objects in the conversion of a Muslim man to Catholicism under the Holy Roman Empire, showing that the convert functioned as an object, playing an essential role in the staging of the triumph of the Christians over the Turks. Gauri Parasher (Heidelberg) explored the significance of dress as a definition of identity in legal cases in the French settlement of Pondicherry, India. Sacred spaces of three religions were linked in a panel showing the dynamic process of adapting the Roman Mithras cult in architecture and imagery in different areas (Darius Frackowiak, Heidelberg), the forms of root-taking of Nestorian Christianity in central and eastern Asia concentrating on art and architecture with the example of the bilingual Nestorian Stele (Matthias Aulenbacher, Heidelberg), as well as the contrast of originally “shared ‘religious idiom’” that developed into a “nationalisation” and “denominalisation” of sacral sites that could be observed in the Near and Middle East in the 20th century (Robert Langer, Heidelberg).


The academic section of the conference concluded with a roundtable discussion chaired by Birgit Kellner (Heidelberg). Participants included Joseph Maran (Heidelberg), Sarah Fraser (Heidelberg), Aloka Parasher-Sen (Hyderabad) and Markus Hilgert (Heidelberg). The discussion was wide-reaching, but there was general consensus on a series of concluding points, including the importance of more nuanced attention to cultural complexity, the historical transformation of meaning and the ‘entanglement’ of human beings and things—both material and otherwise. Also, contributors seemed to agree that, however useful from an heuristic perspective, the Actor Network Theory associated with figures such as Bruno Latour went ‘too far’ in erasing the gap between inanimate objects and their thinking counterparts. Following the roundtable discussion participants in the conference were treated to an extraordinary performance by the Duo Seidenstrasse. The pair, Zhao Chanyuan (zheng and vocals) and Benjamin Leuschner (marimbaphone and percussion), brought together an assemblage of instruments and musical sensibilities from Europe and Asia. The lecture-recital opened with the haunting sounds of Wüstenhochzeit, a piece exploring Arabic influences on Chinese music, and proceeded through a series alternately sad, playful and romantic. Crossing boundaries of genre and tradition, the duo’s performance was a fitting conclusion to the conference. The pair was called back to the stage for a rousing encore.

Roundtable discussion

Additional Information

About the Annual Conference 2012

The 2012 Annual Conference “Things that connect – pathways of materiality and practice” of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” was organised by Prof. Monica Juneja, Prof. Birgit Kellner and Prof. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos on behalf of Research Area D “Historicities & Heritage” in cooperation with CRC 933 “Material Text Cultures”.

Research Area D “Historicities & Heritage” is one of the four research areas at the Cluster. It focuses on how objects, texts, languages, concepts and spaces have been reconfigured over time in creating entangled histories and memories as well as situating materialities of exchange.

The Collaborative Research Centre “Material Text Cultures” at Heidelberg University is a new project funded by the German Research Foundation. It involves some 80 scientists from over 20 disciplines. They investigate script-bearing artefacts from societies in which the mass production of written material is largely or entirely unknown.

Its speaker is Prof. Markus Hilgert, Professor of Assyriology/ Sumerology at Heidelberg University.

Prof. Monica Juneja is speaker of Research Area D and Professor for Global Art History at the Cluster “Asia and Europe”.

Prof. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos is deputy speaker of Research Area D and Director of the Institute of Classical Archaeology at Heidelberg University.

Prof. Birgit Kellner is deputy speaker of Research Area D and Professor for Buddhist Studies at the Cluster “Asia and Europe”.

Annual Conference Poster

About the Authors

Zara Barlas is PhD Candidate of the Graduate Programme for Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University.

Richard Fox, trained as an anthropologist and historian of religion, is currently a researcher at Heidelberg University’s Collaborative Research Centre “Material Text Cultures”.

Sabine Neumann is PhD Candidate at Heidelberg University’s Collaborative Research Centre “Material Text Cultures”.

Markus Viehbeck is Assistant Professor at the Chair of Buddhist Studies of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”.


  • Participants at the conference