Wednesday 15 February 2012

Royal Anthropological Institute : Discovering disturbing distances

The RAI is the world's longest established anthropological organisation with a global membership. Its controversial history is interesting and unavoidable; The Aborigines [native peoples] Protection Society was initially formed by the Quakers in 1837 to monitor slavery issues in the aftermath of the early 19th century Quaker campaign against the African slave trade.

From this it developed into the Ethnological Society of London (ESL) founded 1848. Their focus was the history of mankind but given the interesting Victorian obsession with colonialism and perceived inferiority of anyone who wasn’t white, in 1863 Richard Francis Burton and Dr James Hunt decided to form The Anthropological Society. This new society was interested in scientific notions of race and with dubious ideology was keen to prove that native people were actually a different species in order to justify slavery.

Despite the difference in their politics, they came together in 1871 under the title The Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland with permission to add the word 'Royal' granted in 1907.

The archive contains all the records/minutes of these early meetings, as well as expedition reports, many (MANY) card boxes of scientific measurements, articles, ‘scrapbooks’, and sketches/photographs taken on expeditions. This archive presents a real sense of overlap, continuity and fluidity within the various London societies. For example, the National History Museum has been able to shed light on many images in the RAI collection simply because some physical artifacts have found their way into Exhibition Row. This hasn’t always been necessarily to the benefit of some items, such as the ESL’s Museum of Crania which moved to the Royal College of Surgeons which was subsequently destroyed in the Blitz.

There is still a continuing sense of battling political wills. The seemingly natural relationship between British Museum and RAI appears strained simply because so little was said about it on a separate library visit to the BM; relations were described as ‘mostly amicable’. Much of the RAI print collection moved to the BM in 1976. I don’t see a problem with sharing resources; more expertise, less resource overlap which has to be a good thing.

There are a number of major concerns with the photo archive at the RAI. The first one is partly a general issue with the difficulty of Victorian anthropology. Some images are so problematic that there would be a problem of using/viewing these images without some sort of context. For instance what would be the purpose of showing three naked native girls in the pose of the classical three graces? To modern eyes, it feels prurient, degrading, to no scientific purpose and wrong. Many of these photos are lacking context but as cultural/historical researchers rediscover the story around them, though still ethically troubling, it gives them a background. However it leaves large question marks about the ‘unshowable’ image.

The other major problem is more practical and resource based. The single archivist has to look after visitors by assisting with research, maintain and catalogue the vast and diverse collection. The problem is that cataloguing is only done on a piecemeal basis. For instance when someone comes to do some research, the archivist will find the information for them and only then catalogue it. Her knowledge is encyclopaedic which has real implications for succession planning; what happens when she leaves? The system for cataloguing is also very old fashioned, with no online database of tagged images; everything is searched on site.

These two issues collide in the modern world. If an unshowable/disturbing image is found and catalogued, then attached to online database so that commercial use can be made of it, how is that right? But the RAI has to make money to support its work. Troubling examples you can purchase are images of Chinese felons and also Isaac Schaper’s ‘Magwane (initiates) lying down in kgotla about to be whipped’. It comes down to personal taste and interest but is it right?

Native societies that intrigued the colonising Victorians continue to disappear as googlisation/globablisation continues - indeed there is no reduction in our interest in 'uncontactable tribes'. There is irony then that RAI images taken in 1800s which were designed to portray stark comparative differences make the modern viewer so uncomfortable. A fascinating archive which documents our natural interest in the 'other'.

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