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Objects on the move - Circulation, Social Practice and Transcultural Intersections

Coordinator: Monica Juneja, Professor of Global Art History at the Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies

In 1873 visitors to the newly opened Architectural Courts of the South Kensington Museum in London were overwhelmed to behold a model, 33 feet in height, of the richly sculpted Eastern Gateway of the Great Stupa at Sanchi in India. The Sanchi site itself had been rediscovered and excavated by colonial military officials and archaeologists earlier in the century. The palpable physical presence of a life-size copy of its gateway in the heart of the imperial metropolis now brought the empire to the doorstep of those who could claim authority over its cultural possessions. What did the movement of objects, both real and as simulacra, from the imperial peripheries to the centre signalise? What forms of authority did the display of objects in the space of the museum and their classification as ‘art’ assert? In what ways did the experience of viewing these objects shape notions of possession and identity among inhabitants of the metropolitan centre, how were they constitutive of discursive understandings and artistic practices at the sites of their new location? How have such colonial practices impacted contemporary understandings of the object and the forms of its display today both in the West and in the young post-colonial nations of Asia?


These and similar related issues will be addressed during the sessions of this summer school which takes as its starting point the premise that objects are seldom mere objects – inert, mute or purely utilitarian. Rooted within human and social contexts, they animate the life worlds of societies, past and present, and transmit a gamut of meanings. When on the move, they are subject to appropriation, display, reuse, causing their meanings to undergo radical changes. Not infrequently objects become the site of contesting interpretations, conflicts or productive dissonances born out of the space they occupy at the intersection of cultures. The study of the manifold transactions centred on things has attracted practitioners of a range of disciplines – from economic to religious and art history, branching out into material culture, museum studies, anthropology and psychoanalysis. Eminent representatives of many of these areas will lecture and conduct seminar sessions during the summer school.


A central concern of the themes to be discussed is the transcultural mobility of objects with a view to understanding the entanglement of local and global power structures and the workings of a complex economy of relationships across national and cultural boundaries. The case studies, which all use objects as a prism for coming to grips with these relationships, will cover a range of subjects: economic networks woven around the movement of commodities, the patterns of consumption and specific local cultures, intersecting norms and transactions centred on practices of gifting, activities such as collecting, displaying and curating, all of which harness the mediality of objects to their changing contexts. This diverse range of subjects is meant to provide a larger picture of interconnections across national boundaries, while underlining the asymmetries and tensions that characterise the field of global exchange and mobility. Conflicts surrounding competing claims and definitions are rooted in shifting meanings and values attached to objects as they move from one context to another.


A perspective that reinserts transcultural relationships into the study of art, curatorial practices, gift giving or collecting, destabilises our notions of traditions as coherent and homogenous, of nations and cultures as firmly bounded units. Globally intersecting histories of objects also make us rethink categories such as the opposition between art and artefact, the haptic and the optic, the technical and the artistic, once so central to aesthetic theories. Such distinctions had shaped the formation of important disciplines in Europe, for example art history, which relegated all non-Western art to anthropology.

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