“The Notion of Interlocution in Biographic Research Approaches”

Luisa Marten, LMU München

Efforts to decolonize museums and their collections are manifold and much needed. Particularly Anthropologists are working towards a reappraisal of the historical development of ethnographic museums. This also holds true for university archives, as the case of the Universitätsarchiv at LMU Munich (UAM) shows: Here, records of German explorers as well as their local or Indigenous interlocutors (among them, handwritten diaries and letters, photographs, maps, ethnographic objects etc.) recount the co-creation of academic knowledge in the early 20th century.

Some of these records are part of dispersed collections, which are distributed among various German libraries, archives, private households and museums (among others, also the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum). Ethnographers and collectors have always relied on local expertise to acquire items and knowledge. Yet, Anthropology’s interlocutors, who have paved the way for interpretive and material exchanges, appear—if at all—mostly anonymous or are silenced in academic publications. This is despite the fact that they played formative roles in the cross-cultural generation of knowledge, the development of collections and ultimately the establishment of academic disciplines (Said 1989). While information on Western collectors is comparably easy to come by, information on the local or Indigenous contributors is scarce.

Biographic approaches have proven to offer a fruitful strategy to address this paucity. Biographic research approaches offer to combine the multimodality of sources (images, diary entries, oral history, collection items, archival records, online engagement etc.) and the collaboration of research participants across multiple sites, from both collecting institutions and local or Indigenous communities.

Placing the analytical focus on the notion of interlocution – conceptualized here as the communicative encounter and engagement between foreign researcher and local or Indigenous individual – sheds light on a specific situational context and its associated entangled lenses (Schorch and Kahanu 2015). By reassembling, reactivating and redistributing historical material among actors, communities and societies of origin, interlocution can be re-evoked, which enables the reevaluation of old and the creation of new knowledge.

This approach aims to decenter the provision of information, to facilitate the multivocality of its representation and to allow for the dissection of the political conditions, institutional leverages and personal relationships that have underpinned the production of scientific knowledge across space (regions) and time (generations). By accounting for the agency of both Western collectors and Indigenous interlocutors, biographic research designs offer a significant and concrete methodological frame through which to work towards the decolonization of the histories and practices of ethnographic knowledge production.

Luisa Marten, M.A. studied Social Anthropology with focus on Visual Anthropology at LMU Munich where she will start her PhD in March of this year. As research assistant in the ERC project „Indigeneities in the 21st century“ (www.indigen.edu), led by Philipp Schorch at LMU Munich, she works on archival ethnography and dispersed collections and will continue this work throughout her PhD research.

(Photo: private)