Politics and Poetics of Display
What happens when different items meet in a museum display? Does it matter which things that are assembled together, in what way they are arranged and labeled? Are there predominant tropes and patterns for displaying Sámi matters? Which actors are commonly brought into dialogue when Sámi issues are represented, what stories are told, and what are the means for articulating them – moreover, what remains silenced and uncontextualized?
A man is gazing out from behind the glass, in what appears to be an old black and white photo. Leaning towards us, sharply bent, arms resting on his knees, with a firm yet ambiguous expression on his face; he is the one catching our attention, although he is sharing the pictorial space with several others. The picture is enlarged, so that we seem to occupy the same area as him, even if the room he is sitting in is carved out of snow and ice. The realism is enhanced by real life objects surrounding the picture, items made of natural materials, like bone, tusk, wood, hide and fur. A coat is hanging to the right, a valuable, lavish outfit. Has it once been among his belongings, in a different time and place?
Still, some of the pieces may have retained the power to reach out to us from behind the screen, to stop the viewer in her tracks and invoke an arresting sense of uniqueness – beyond the simplifying structures governing their exhibition.
The display doesn’t give much concrete information, neither about the photo nor about the man and the context. A short text in the same glass cabinet indicates that he was an angakoq, explained as “the shaman of the Inuits.” The photograph is part of an installation at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. Here various items, photographs and pictures from different times and places are combined with texts, symbols, labels and other design elements to communicate “shamanism as a common trait among the Arctic people.” On the opposite side of the photograph another representation is mounted, a drawing of a man absorbed in drumming: “The Sámi called the shaman a noaidi”, a wall text explains. The more general message conveyed is that of shamanism as the same unchanging practice, involving the same actors and elements, in every Arctic society throughout time. Among other things, the installation materializes a narrative that leave little space for women and children, despite rich source materials that testify to their presence – in both Sámi, Inuit and other Arctic contexts.
The components of the installation work reciprocally to validate and situate each other – individually they signal various life worlds, differently located in time and place, but their diversity is effectively subdued under a unifying code and mode of display. The conventional glass cases are, arguably, among the chief instruments for generating this conformity. Preventing touch and prioritizing the gaze, they turn the display into a picture.
Still, some of the pieces may have retained the power to reach out to us from behind the screen, to stop the viewer in her tracks and invoke an arresting sense of uniqueness – beyond the simplifying structures governing their exhibition. Such an arresting encounter may spark curiosity to move beyond the exhibition and consult other sources, study the specific items, and find tools to reflect critically upon the politics and poetics of display.
Photo: Monica Grini