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Conferences & lectures

(Dis)placing Affect: Cold War Narratives in Ethnographic Collections at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Date & time
Friday, February 10, 2023
12 p.m. – 2 p.m.

Registration is closed


Sowparnika Balaswaminathan


This event is free


Craig Farkash



Ethnographic collections at natural history museums are assemblages of awkward objects (Lehrer & Sendyka 2019). Embodying a combination of the scientific intention of their collectors, the imperialistic context of their translocation, and the colonial racism underlying the concept of cultural exhibiting, these objects tend to be narrativized with brevity even when the curatorial intent is to contextualize and problematize their heterotopic reality. Even more obfuscated are the affective components of these collections, which are elided partly because of the difficulties of locating the intimate in these objects deadened by classification, but also because of the extant curatorial emphasis on wonder and curiosity.

In this talk, Sowparnika Balaswaminathan will juxtapose the intimate and the political in a particular ethnographic collection at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), and ask what narratives are made possible when ethnography is unanchored from its “culture area” setting, and if an emphasis on exploring the affective relations between cultural objects and their communities could open up anticolonial possibilities.

About the speaker

Sowparnika Balaswaminathan is an Assistant Professor in Religions and Cultures at Concordia University, Montreal. She received a PhD in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego, and was a Peter Buck postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC. Her work examines the politics of heritage, the ethics and aesthetics of artisanal labor, and religious art traditions in India.

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