Talk Title: The Legacy of Data: Infrastructure, Material Durability, and Museum Catalogs
Abstract: This talk details how objects collected during ethnographic or anthropological research (from North American Indigenous communities in particular) became scientific tools and sources of evidence in museums in the 19th and 20th centuries. I argue that to understand how colonialism operates as both a productive and reductive force, it is necessary to investigate how documents and data remain durable, especially in the context of cultural heritage in large federal repositories. I argue that card catalogs, for example, have politics. I consider the formulation of ethnological categories and classifications from a perspective that seeks to destabilize the existing normative claims to evidence and objectivity. Bridging a gap in literature between anthropology, information studies and media studies, I will develop two key ideas: First, that the origins of media technologies used to catalog humanity is an under-examined yet crucial history; and second, that contemporary claims to knowledge authority are built upon the standards that have organized the remains and material objects of North American Indigenous peoples. Documents — what Annelise Riles (2006) has called “the artifacts of modern knowledge” — shaped the development of anthropology but also our relationship to understanding history and human beings. I show how as material culture became specimens in the museum and mined as a resource for scientific knowledge extraction, the legacy of past practice and epistemology was written in to documentation as categories, naming conventions, incorrect tribal affiliations and more.
Bio: Hannah Turner is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Making Culture Lab at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) at Simon Fraser University. She received her PhD in 2015 on the topic of knowledge infrastructures and museum cataloging from the University of Toronto. Her research has explored histories of ethnographic documentation and decolonization (Knowledge Organization 2017, Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, 2015) and the computerization of museum catalogs (Museum Anthropology, 2016). She is currently working on writing a media history of early ethnology and Virtual Reality in museums, and understanding the social and ethical issues when documenting museum objects using 3D scanners.