The shell necklace hailing from the southern Australian island of Tasmania entered the museum in 1905. It has never been researched or exhibited.
Photo: Etnografiska museet

Objects of Culture and Science

Research project

Short description

Ethnographic objects are understood as exemplars of culture, but they also capture traces of the time and place from which they emerged, making visible the relationships between humans, non-humans and environments.
This project picks up on such entanglements by exploring the potential for use of ethnographic objects in environmental research. Contemporary issues of ocean acidification, dying kelp forests and eroded coastlines come into focus through the case study of a 115 year old Tasmanian shell necklace. The historic shells provide both cultural and scientific baseline data. By repositioning ethnographic objects as sources of cultural and scientific knowledge, this project explores the opportunity to invite western scientists into museum storehouses, and shines a light on non-Western knowledge systems in communities of origin.

Ethnographic museums across Europe are full of objects with a troubled past, infused with colonial intent. The interests of early collectors, for example, rarely extended to detailed provenance, and the avaricious context of early collecting left the objects tainted by unpalatable histories, not easily rescued even by new taxonomies such as ‘world cultures’. But these collections have lives beyond their historic problems. As archives of shell, fibre, hair, tendon, feather, leather and wood, they also offer environmental snapshots of the place and time of their origin, some more than a century old. 

Through a case study of an Australian shell necklace held in the Swedish Ethnographic Museum, this project explores the opportunity to re-conceive such collections as baseline environmental data. Deposited in 1911, the maireener shell necklace held in Stockholm, carries the story of its collection by the adventuring Swedish policeman Hjalmar Segerlind as well as the deep cultural significance of the Palawa people of Tasmania. Today, the East Australian Current, birthplace of this Phasianotrochus irisodontes, is warming and acidifying at four times the average rate of oceans world-wide. The contemporary maireener shells, dependent on the dying kelp forests, are growing increasingly rare. Now more than a century old, this ethnographic curiosity carries the stories of its origins, both scientific and cultural, into the changing climate future and opens a window into a hundred years of environmental change.

Reconfiguring ethnographic collections as both scientific and cultural not only invites western biodiversity scientists into museum storehouses, it shines a light on non-western knowledge systems in communities of origin, born of deep ties to more-than-human life-worlds. In this exchange, new environmental understandings are advanced and new futures unfold for ethnographic objects stranded in European collections.