Talking about the tyranny of language, Walter Benjamin argued that if things could speak they would complain of our ignorance of the sensuous ways that things “speak” through their material properties. Drawing on 16 years of engagement with collections from the Papuan Gulf, Joshua A. Bell (Smithsonian Institute) explores what cross-cultural histories can be told through objects (artifacts, scientific specimens and photographs). Doing so, he constructs histories that bring to the fore the intimate material realities of colonialism, the scale and scope of indigenous agency in shaping collections and thus demonstrate how critical museum collections are for historical research. Sponsored by the Friends of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and by donors to the Shepard Krech III Lecture Fund.
Dr. Joshua A. Bell is Curator of Globalization at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Combining ethnographic fieldwork with research in museums and archives, his work broadly examines the shifting local and global network of relationships between persons, artefacts and the environment. Since 2000, he has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Purari Delta of Papua New Guinea and worked on collections from the region found in museums globally. His most recent books are the co-edited volumes, The Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives (2015, BGC), and Tropical Forests of Oceania: Anthropological Perspectives (2015, ANU).