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Friday, December 8, 2017

Accessing the Bonaparte Collection at the National Anthropological Archives, Part Two

This post is the sixth and final post in a series of blog posts written by George Washington University students in Dr. Joshua A. Bell's anthropology graduate seminar Visual Anthropology: The Social Lives of Images (Anthro 3521/6591), Fall 2016 graduate course. Dr. Bell is the Curator of Globalization in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Department of Anthropology. Students in this course chose a collection that features visual materials (drawings, film, photographs, or paintings) from the National Anthropological Archives, and researched its material, thinking through the scale and scope of the collection and situating it within the wider discipline of anthropology. These collections are available for research at the National Anthropological Archives.

For part one of this blog post, please click here.

Box 4, Series 4: Hindus, Colonial Exposition, Amsterdam 1883,  Photo Lot 80-52: Prince Roland Bonaparte photograph collection of Mongolian, African, Chinese, Indian, and American Indian Peoples, National Anthropological Archives
It is because the questions discussed in part one were uppermost in my mind that I decided to narrow the scope of my research, and concentrate on the box titled, Series 4: Hindus , Colonial Exposition, Amsterdam 1883. If race was the organizing principle of this collection, then this box, which contained the photographs of three men from India—Aroonachelem, Yazambarum and Ramazamy—intrigued me the most. Following this logic, I, like them, was ‘Hindu.’ While I was never subject to the gaze of the colonizer, my subjectivity—particularly my sense of nationality and race—has been produced very much through the devices of British colonialism, and its lingering, ghostly presence in the postcolonial spaces I grew up in. Yet, I found that through the process of archiving—in the ways that these images had been obtained, preserved and now produced for study—the collection had accrued other meanings: race was no more the object of study, the object of study here was the colonial interest in race. An episteme had shifted, and so had the gaze: if these photographs had once helped produce subjects of the colony for scrutiny, now they offered the empire itself for study. And it was in the very materiality of the contents of that box that it became most evident to me that the ‘might’ of the empire had always been fiction. The brittle documents in the series, the wear and tear along the edges of the mount, the fading album covers and other signs of material tiredness were testimony to temporal shifts—to the idea that like the documents it had produced, the empire too was subject to decay.

From right to left, V.P Yazambarum,
V.P. Aroonachelem, and Ramazamy,
Box 4, Series 4, Photo Lot 80-52,
 National Anthropological Archives
Even as the photographs of the three men photographed in Madras and Kuttack make it possible to invert the gaze and make the empire an object of study, they also make evident a social network that emerges through the process of archiving and connects Bonaparte, a French anthropologist in the 19th century and his three Indian subjects to an Indian anthropologist in the 21st century. Joanna Scherer (1992) writes that only by studying the “interrelationship” of the photographer, the subject, and the viewer can one study the sociocultural meaning of images. One could add to her list the archivists, who have made ledger entries noting the addition of the photographs to the collection, converted the accession files to microfilm for preserving the data, and those who have preserved and organized the albums, giving the documents its current sense of order.

Frontal, Profile pictures of V.P Aroonachalem,
Box 4, Series 4, Photo Lot 80-52,
National Anthropological Archives
Edwards and Hart (2004) write that objects in an archive accrue new layers of meanings because the discursive practices of the archive—a combination of anthropological, photographic and curative practices (Edwards & Hart 2004: 51)—alter the relations of these objects to each other, and in changing the ‘order’ make it possible to reconfiguration the very meanings of the objects in the archive. Series 4 contains two sets of fading black and white images—two frontal and one profile pictures—of each of the three men. While both sets had been donated in 1888, each of them followed a different route to the archive: Bonaparte donated the first set to the Department of Anthropology, as a record of his study of the races. In 1974, this passed into the NAA. However, accession files show that papers were mislaid in the division and therefore documentation that should have been part of this accession cannot be found. The second set was acquired by the Washington Anthropological Society, and filed as a ‘Rare book’ in the NAA in 1888. The box I examined also contained a frail, yellow document with two pages: the first page was a document signed when Bonaparte donated the first set of photographs, the second page, a list of the ‘biographical’ details of the subjects of Bonaparte’s photographs . It is the social network that emerges through the circulation of these
material objects within the archive that enable the assembly of the box through which the past accrues layers of meanings and materializes as a tangible object of scrutiny for the present.

Seal included throughout collection,
Photo Lot 80-52,
National Anthropological Archives
Buckley (2005) evokes Edwards (2001) to write that “images of colonial life continue to ‘perform’ and ‘provoke’” even after the colonial regime has faded into history. Series 4, along with the other series in the collection, performs the work of the past in the present, and through this performance turn the past into a site for critique. So, while Photo Lot 80-52 might betray a colonial past, it is not determined by it.  Instead it becomes a site, where the viewer can participate in the discursive practices that consistently reconfigure the meaning and social work of images.

Shweta Krishnan, Ph.D. Student, Anthropology
George Washington University

Akou, Marie. 2006. “Documenting the Origins of Somali Folk Dress: Evidence from the Bonaparte Collection.” The Journal of the Costume Society of America. 33(1): 7-19.

Bonaparte, Roland H. H. 1886. “Note on the Lapps of Finmark (in Norway), Illustrated by Photographs.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 15(2016): 210-213

Buckeley, Liam. 2005. “Objects of Love and Decay: Colonial Photographs in a Postcolonial Archive.” Cultural Anthropology. 20(2): 249-270.

Dirks, Nicholas. 2001. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Orelove, Eden. 2016.  Photo Lot 80-52, Prince Roland Bonaparte Photograph Collection of Omaha, Kalmouk, Hindu, Khoikhoi, Somali and Surinamese Peoples, circa 1883-1884. National Anthropological Archives.

Edwards, Elizabeth and Janice Hart. 2004. “Mixed Box: The Cultural Biography of a Box of 'Ethnographic' Photographs.” In Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart eds. Photographic Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, 47-61. London: Routledge.

Scherer, Joanna C. 1992. "The Photographic Document: Photographs as Primary Data in Anthropological Inquiry," In Elizabeth Edwards, ed. Anthropology and Photography, 32-41. New Haven: Yale University.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (Winter):3-64.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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