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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 research group seeks to adapt the notion of the "contact zone" as a key term, connecting it to the object: non-European objects which are shown and stored in Western museums or collections, reproduced in Western media or are regarded, described, analyzed and categorized through a Western lens - such objects are situated in a contact zone. This follows approaches of cultural anthropology, while maintaining genuinely art historical solutions as the investigative aim. As such, these contact zones 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. Asymmetrical relations of power can undoubtedly often be observed in such contexts. However, this project rejects simple models of "stimulus-response", "influences" or essentialist theories of "exotism" or "Orientalism". Following a potentially asymmetric, but basically reciprocal or polycentric working hypothesis of transculturation, we are looking at 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


  Project collaborators
Eva-Maria Troelenberg
Sria Chatterjee
Irene Campolmi
Melania Savino
Cristiana Strava
Katharina Upmeyer

Further information
Symposium "After the Global: Constructions of historiography in visual and material spaces" (Florence, 5-6 Jun 2014)

International Workshop "Unsettling Museum Spaces?" (Florence, 27 - 28 March 2014)

International Conference "Images of the Art Museum: Connecting Gaze and Discourse in the History of Museology" (Florence, 26 - 28 September 2013)

Grundsteine islamischer Kunst: Mschatta in Berlin (Eva-Maria Troelenberg)

Mapping the Peninsula: Arabia and Routes of Culture (Eva-Maria Troelenberg)

Ancient Near Eastern Antiquities in the Italian Museums: Travels, Collections, Displays (Melania Savino)

Representing Archaeology in the Turkish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair (Melania Savino)

At home with modernity: exploring place-making on the margins of Casablanca (working title)

On the margin at the museum: some studies in re-presenting histories (Sria Chatterjee)

From Theory to Practice: The Rhetoric of Modern Art Museums in The Global Context (Irene Campolmi)


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