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Objects in the Contact Zone
The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things

Eva-Maria Troelenberg

One of the major challenges facing art history today is the issue of globalization with its cultural implications - both regarding retrospective historical narratives and contemporary methods. As scholarship and museum audiences alike are becoming more and more internationalized, a (self-) critical analysis of disciplinary standpoints seems more important than ever and is at the center of ongoing discussions within and beyond academia.

The initial and primary aim of this group project is to adapt the notion of the "contact zone" and connect it explicitly to the object. Our project starts with the perspective that non-European objects, which are shown and stored in our museums or collections, and that are reproduced, described, analyzed and categorized through visual media and arts, are situated in a contact zone. The contact zones under consideration create particular conditions of perception and reception, resulting both from the object’s own aura, provenance, or biography and from the recipient’s predisposition and intentions. We thus reject simple models of "stimulus-response", "influences" or essentialist theories of "exoticism" or "Orientalism". The project follows a potentially asymmetric, but basically reciprocal or polycentric working hypothesis of transculturation, thus also seeking to break up its own initial East-West binary. We are looking at various case studies which can shed significant light on the production of knowledge in such contact zones.

Our examples deal with the interrelation between particular objects or groups of objects and their cross-cultural reception as mediated through museums, collections, publications or other visual or performative cultural practices in the colonial and postcolonial age. We are mainly focusing on exchange processes within the larger modern Mediterranean and its global connections.

Together, our case studies can bridge the theoretical space between cross-cultural studies and visual culture phenomena and may also induce critical reassessments of established narratives, categories and key terms such as the very idea of "transculturation" itself. As our work is embedded into questions of institutional history as well as into the history of science, knowledge and representation, our overarching research queries have developed significantly towards fields such as:

  • museum theory and exhibitions in cross-cultural context
  • agency theories for polycentric and transcultural art histories
  • political and social functions of aesthetic differences and convergences
  • critical approaches to canon and chronology in art history
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