Order of Multitudes

Recovering the Ephemeral with Sanchita Balachandran

Sanchita Balachandran is the Associate Director of the Archaeological Museum at Johns Hopkins University as well as the founder and director of the nonprofit organization, Untold Stories. Trained in arts conservation and art history, Balachandran has worked both in the field and in major museum institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Harvard Art Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More recently, she has turned her attention to teaching the next generation of museum scholars and to reimagining the potential of museums.

Allison Chu: Let’s start broadly to introduce you to the Sawyer Seminar community. Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your research interests and academic background?

Sanchita Balachandran: I never expected to be in academia. I trained as an art conservator with a specialization in archaeological materials with the idea that I would forever be working on archaeological excavations, helping with the preservation of materials that we find on a site, and also working in museums. Yet I ended up in an academic context and am now the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. I haven’t done any excavation fieldwork in the “field” for quite some time, but I’m immersed in the question of how the surfaces of isolated archaeological objects from disparate contexts might still be excavated. My primary interest is in searching for evidence of the people who interacted with these items, specifically the identities of ancient makers, for whom we often don’t have names—at least not the names that they might have used for themselves.

Allison Chu: Your work addresses race, representation, and the identities of immigrants, migrants, and communities that have historically been marginalized. These themes are hot topics in today’s political climate, but you’ve been working in this space for years. What sparked your curiosity?

Sanchita Balachandran: When I was being trained and first working on what we know of real people in the ancient world within the Western classical canon, these questions about representation, marginalization and dehumanization were not questions I felt I could safely pursue. But at the time, these questions came up for me personally, as a brown woman. Often, scholars of color and women scholars get pushback for doing anything that feels like “me-search,” and I felt that questions of how complex identities come together in a particular context and how oppression or silencing works in different ways would not be welcome as “real scholarship.” But it has become clear to me that trying to be careful and quiet is exhausting, and it stops me from really searching for the sorts of evidence that I am passionate about. With ancient material especially, it’s clear that so much is lost. We are left with such scattered remnants of real people’s lives and their complicated, layered identities. And yet, with the kind of work I do, there are still ways we can approach those people through the things they made–that link and connection is still open. Once you’ve seen those small but still present openings, there’s no way to keep up the academic pretense that “we don’t have evidence” for these people; we just need to search for them on their own terms.

Allison Chu: I’m curious about your experiences as a conservator and someone who works within the museum—what is it like trying to reform a museum from the inside?

Sanchita Balachandran: I’m not sure we can ‘reform’ the museum without acknowledging that “appropriate” museum practices need regular reflection, evaluation and change. I think we need to have a constant sense of vigilance about our accepted practices, and have the courage to change them, to state publicly that the practices we followed in the last decade, the last year, or last week are in fact no longer acceptable. I think that kind of work gives me a sense of growth, but it’s also deeply destabilizing because I realize how many “norms” I’ve learned and passed onto others without really having thought them through. There are moments when I realize, “Oh, this seemingly benign logistical task actually encodes a very particular narrative on this information or makes the information impossible to find.” But such attunement means that there are possibilities for change and transformation, if we have enough awareness, effort, and care. I’m deeply inspired by the scholarship of Indigenous and Black scholars, women of color, LGBTQA+ and disabled scholars who are exposing and addressing so many of the problematic ways that things are set up. As museum professionals, we have to commit to an eternal project, a way of being that constantly engages with rethinking, reworking, and redressing past harms, but also bringing forth a different kind of future.

Part of the work lies in recognizing that people sift the same information over and over again, so how can we tell different and more truthful stories with it? Thinking with Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, I worry about how I do my own documentation. What do I write down, and what do I not see as worth recording? What keywords do I use? For whom do I do this work? It’s something I’m thinking about as I embark on a project called “Excavating the History of the Archaeological Museum,” which tries to understand how early museum collections mobilized ideas about an ancient past that was deeply invested in then-contemporary ideas about whose histories were worth telling, something that of course left out, marginalized, or dehumanized people who were very much part of those histories. Responding to and “re-righting” that narrative is extremely important to me. 

Allison Chu: One way to think about ephemeral knowledge is through documentation practices. How do you see ephemeral histories manifesting in art conservation, and how can scholars responsibly engage with objects that tell multidimensional historical narratives?

Sanchita Balachandran: Having looked at many objects over my career, there are a couple things I know for sure. One is that the object itself is a very incomplete record of all the people that encountered it. I’m specifically interested in the maker’s perspective, and “maker” usually means multiple people in the ancient world. There are so many people involved from procurement of the raw materials to the final finished product. In that process, many of these people’s contributions are erased, not necessarily intentionally. So how can we return to that sense of the ancient object as a dynamic surface that records these ephemeral collaborations, contacts, movements, interactions?

The other thing that is clear is that many of the items that end up in museums are often elite products, or are thought of primarily as the material culture of the elites who commissioned or acquired them. But aren’t those made items also the material culture of their makers? So how can we return this sense of agency and presence to all of the other people these items also stand in for or represent? 

My current work looks at Athenian ceramics associated with the symposium, thought of as an elite Athenian male social space. The objects I study were made between the sixth and fourth century BCE, and I started looking at them because I wanted to figure out how they were made, something I thought would be relatively straightforward because the technology is supposedly known and well understood. But after producing replicas alongside potter Matthew Hyleck and materials scientist Patricia McGuiggan, what I came away with is a deep sense of the embodied knowledge that these ancient people had, how much the things they made have to do with their bodies, their identities, and also their creativity and imagination. And we can even track their minds at work by looking at the drawings still present (but barely visible) underneath the paintings that are so renowned on these pots. I have been using a variety of imaging techniques to track the gestures of potters that are still imprinted on the pots, these ephemeral traces that are intimately tied to one person and his/her/their life experience. And sometimes–under the microscope, or in the x-ray or through computational photographic techniques—these little visions of that person come into view. I cling to these moments, because they feel very real, like I’m with a real person, and then they’re gone! As a conservator, I was trained to try to keep things forever, and I’m just realizing that maybe that’s not what I’m meant to do. Maybe I’m supposed to draw attention to this glimpse into someone’s life, and maybe that’s enough. 

Allison Chu: So how do we preserve these ephemeral physical feelings and moments in history? If we’re trying to tell a historical narrative, obviously you have the drawing left behind, or maybe some fingerprints, but how does that relate to thinking about the larger historical narrative? 

Sanchita Balachandran: I used to think that such moments had to be codified into a history with a capital H, but the more I spend time with peoples’ things, the more I am aware of the power of an individual story, someone’s story in a very particular moment in time and space that I happen to witness. To me this is one of the most profound things we can do as people who attempt to tell stories about the past—to bear witness to a real person and the worth of that person’s life. When I think about why I go to museums, I don’t necessarily go to museums to see the timelessness of something; I go to be drawn into something, or perhaps more honestly, someone’s story.

But I’ve also always had the luxury of being close to these stories because of my training as a conservator and museum professional; I had the keys to go into places where no one else was allowed. But working in a teaching museum has completely rewritten that for me. Because what’s the point of only displaying or storing something away and never touching it? These are and were tactile, active and activated items that still invite touch and interaction; I feel this very keenly. I also see the effect these experiences of being with ancient things have on students every single day—the past is present, and the people of the past are present in tangible ways. 

Allison Chu: It sounds like you’re reimagining what a museum should be then!

Sanchita Balachandran: The students I am lucky to work with push me in that direction. I taught a course in the spring of 2021 where we couldn’t be in any museums due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, talking on Zoom about why we preserve anything, and asking what the point of a museum is, especially during a pandemic when the future is not promised. The work we did in that class led me to write about these students’ visions for the museum of the future, which is rather different from the kinds of monuments we build as our current museums, and questions what an “important” museum collection is. It was frankly very surprising, humbling, and more than anything, a wake-up call about how static our current museums are, how they prioritize visual display and are set up in ways that exclude all kinds of people in both intentional and unintentional ways. I think the power and promise of working with students on questions of what an inclusive museum might feel like is in the ways that they challenge me to build in a more intentional inclusivity in our museum.

This is something that was already in the works in February 2020, following up on a seminar the previous year that invited students to design a new exhibition for our museum space. We had been investigating questions of what an exhibition that prioritized access and participatory knowledge production might feel like, and what it would take to make that kind of space. It was exhilarating to see how interactive, caring, and multi-sensory the proposed exhibition designs were: visitors were invited to “unbox” items from packaging and see them in their incomplete state, or catalog objects as a way of questioning existing classification systems, or add their own labels to exhibition cases. Their projects reminded me of the essential place of delight, play, curiosity, warmth, and openness in museums, and the need to truly believe that everyone is expected and welcome. And I suppose that’s where our work lies, in putting the effort and care into making museum spaces feel as comfortable, safe and welcoming as possible so that people can then be free to ask questions and just be themselves.