Order of Multitudes

The Violence of Collections

Ricardo Roque is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, where he also heads the Research Group Empires, Colonialism, and Postcolonial Societies and teaches in the Doctoral Programs in History and Anthropology. His research examines the history and anthropology of human sciences, colonialism, and cross-cultural contact in the Portuguese-speaking world, from 1800 to the twentieth century.

Michael Faciejew: Your research looks at the intimate alliance between knowledge production and practices of violence, at the intersection of the histories of collections, colonization, and race. How did you first become interested in collections and museums and how has your approach evolved over the years?

Ricardo Roque: My interest in museum collections and collecting initiatives came from an interest in the materiality of both knowledge and power. I was originally trained as a sociologist, so I came to the history of collections and museums with a lot of social theory in my toolkit, which influenced my historical work. I began reading a lot of Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholarship, which emphasized how practice and socio-material relations impacted knowledge production. This was insightful because in the critical study of colonialism and race at the time—the late 1990s—there was excessive focus on the textual and on the discursive, as if knowledge belonged to an almost intangible realm. This emphasis on materiality that I saw in STS was a good way to bring more complexity into my scholarship and into colonial studies.

A second motivation for my work on collections came specifically from my archival research, as it often happens where something you come across in the archive shifts you away from one thing and towards another. My encounters with the archives that feature in my second book, Headhunting and Colonialism (2010), were really important. I didn’t initially think that I would study collections, but I realized that the historical study of collections of human remains was a suitable way to connect violence, colonialism, and race science. I realized that the study of skull collecting and headhunting, in particular, paved the way for investigating scientific, colonial, and Indigenous cultures of violence within a single analytical field. This allowed me to develop a narrative that addressed race science and colonial violence as well as their mutual connections with Indigenous societies.

In more recent research I further explore the materiality of the inscriptions associated with colonial “scientific” collections in museums. I have also begun to explore other kinds of knowledge and archives—Indigenous stories and concepts, for example—that tend to be ignored or excluded from this associated data. The longevity of past forms and materials of colonial race science in the present is another issue I am now exploring.

Michael Faciejew: You recently wrote a piece for the History of Anthropology Review on “enslaved remains,” which discusses the anthropological collection of human crania assembled by Joseph Barnard Davis. Can you elaborate on how skull inscriptions served to reinforce slavery and racist forms of governance?

Ricardo Roque: My research on skull inscriptions is an attempt to theorize the material life of intellectual artifacts in a way that shifts the conversation on scientific inscriptions away from paper alone. For my book Headhunting and Colonialism, too, I paid attention to inscriptions and to the fact that objects and collections were meant to exist in connection with paper documents of many kinds—from labels, to catalogs, to correspondence, and all types of documentation that were sent from collectors to museum curators and scholars. This world of paper inscriptions cannot exist separately from the collections because it indexes scientific value. The ontological condition of a scientific collection—which includes, for example, calling its objects “specimens” and its contents “data”—will not typically hold without paper documentation. This demonstrates the importance of text, and even the materiality of paper, in the knowledge practices of the museum. I realized, however, that these practices include not just paper but also texts in different material forms. Think of inscriptions made on collection objects themselves. In fact, almost every single object that qualifies as a “specimen” in the museum (whether human remains or not) is inscribed with a mark (typically numbers, or words in the case of skulls) directly upon it. So the museum object doesn’t exist without the graphic sign. In craniology these graphic signs—text especially—are connected to racial theory and racist thought. We tend to think of paper as the privileged or even exclusive material upon which ideas about racial categories are recorded, but in fact the reference itself can sometimes be that very material. It’s worth considering what this practice of inscription—which was done on many, many skulls collected by colonial agents, phrenologists, and anatomists supporting race science over two centuries—means both epistemologically and politically. 

Using the example of the Barnard Davis collection, my piece in the History of Anthropology develops the hypothesis that these inscriptions should not be treated separately from processes of power. I suggest that museums belong to the same category of institution as Michel Foucault describes in reference to prisons and hospitals, with their practices of recording and examining their living subjects. These disciplinarian structures still function after death. In a similar way, museums standardize their inscription procedures with regard to the racialized and criminalized dead. For this reason it’s so common to find the skulls of criminals, destitutes, “savages,” rebels, or enslaved persons recorded and overrepresented in anthropological collections. Cases of human skulls and human remains thus classified and labelled belonged to a similar regime of institutional power. Many of them are also anonymous—they may have come from cemeteries, through the grave-robbing of those people perceived to be on the margins of humanity or society. Hence museum inscriptions have not only an epistemological significance, but also a political one. The point of the article is to reveal specifically that enslavement is something that continues procedurally in the museum, through different material practices including, importantly, through inscriptions on human remains.

Michael Faciejew: Your 2010 book Headhunting and Colonialism discusses the circulation of human skulls in anthropological museums across Europe. Can you explain the emphasis on “circulation” in this research?

Ricardo Roque: My approach to circulation joins two different notions. First, there is the conventional idea of physical mobility in space and time. This kind of mobility increased exponentially in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and it became the focus of study in the 1990s and the 2000s in fields like sociology and historiography that were concerned with globalization. Second, there is the epistemic circulation of things. In this regard I look at circulation as a process of translation, with changes and twists in knowledge formation. This expands the idea of circulation from how things move to processes of assembly as well as practices of inscription, writing, archiving, and documenting that follow the physical mobility of objects. Therefore, I pay attention to all the little changes in the papers and documents that move from one place to another. In the collections I study, it’s important to look at these two modes of circulation together because when objects enter the museum they don’t necessarily become epistemically “immobile.”

Yet, in addition to movement, there are also other modes such as concealment and protection. With human remains especially, there is often a scientific culture of secrecy and protection of data. The analysis of circulation in collecting thus also has to attend to protection procedures and attempts made to contain and control circulation.

Thinking more deeply about this in our current digital age, the way that knowledge from the archive is transferred into data in digital formats should also be mentioned. We should think more about the knowledge that has been accumulated and about the documents that follow objects, which embed racist concepts and colonial violence. What should we do with this associated documentation and how should we treat the transfer of this sensitive data into digital form? There are many considerable critical and reflexive positions about the colonial histories of objects themselves, but not so much about the colonial histories of the archives that exist alongside the objects. As consumers of data, what should we be allowed to see and read? In various digital projects today, the concern is primarily with the transfer of old data, as if the data were politically neutral. The ethics of the visibility of human skulls and bones themselves tends to be carefully surveilled, but not so much of the written documents associated with them. This shows the political discrepancy with regards to objects, paper documentation, and information.

Michael Faciejew: The racialized theories you study exist in relation to all kinds of material evidence—card collections, human remains, documents, etc. What critical strategies do you employ when working with material culture?

Ricardo Roque: Much of my work is at the scale of a jeweler. I work with microscopic details to develop analytical concepts and interfere critically with assumptions of objectivity in relation to specific constructs in colonial and racial theories. I am inspired by the method of microhistory, to use Carlo Ginzburg’s term, which considers how much we can come to understand by focusing on a fragment with a view toward analytical generalization. Another method in my critical approach is to reveal the sheer contingency of the evidence, materials, or collections involved in colonial and racial knowledge; and how they are made by several people collectively over time. When studying the history of race in science, diving into these contingencies is also diving into the manufacture of a kind of powerful yet deceitful object—the notion of race. So it is through both the inspection and revelation of contingency that the violence, elusiveness, and illusion of the construct is revealed, in what would otherwise be considered an expression of objectivity.

Finally, in my approach, I am concerned with writing itself as a method. A critical approach to this topic requires us not just to research, but also to write against the violent discourses that we find in the archives and in association with the skulls in museums. It requires us to produce effective counter-histories of colonialism and race science, or counter-discourses as anthropologist Michael Taussig would put it. I am also concerned with bringing a narrative style together with a conceptual style to seduce the reader and counter some of the assumptions that exist in racialized forms of knowledge.

Michael Faciejew: In your project on “Indigenous Colonial Archives,” how is the epistemological framework of the “archive” questioned? What is the role of microhistory in this work?

Ricardo Roque: The project on Indigenous colonial archives is still at an early stage of development because of the pandemic. I can offer some preliminary remarks about the premise. The notion of “archive” tends to be discussed through the work of the colonizer. Meanwhile, the silencing of Indigenous voices in the archive is often explained by the European production, organization, and preservation of the archive. The dominant narrative is thus that the Euro-American colonizer is the archivist and that, while so-called Indigenous people save and record the world through oral narratives, they don’t actually engage the preservation of paper documents on their own terms. A main point of this project is to turn these conventional ideas about archives on their head by recognizing Indigenous people as themselves archivists of colonial history. The project considers the possibility that, in the course of interactions with Europeans, many Indigenous groups and communities generated their own forms of archiving written documents. This is not just about writing practices, of course, but also about uncovering modes of recording and archiving the colonial past that may be surprising.

In several case studies, the project looks at the Portuguese colonial empire, which is interesting because of its very large timeframe (from the sixteenth to the twentieth century) to locate vernacular cultures of archiving that stand outside this notion of the colonial archive as simply the work of the colonists. Despite the broad temporal framework, we’re trying to examine small but very meaningful and revealing stories—again, the microhistory approach. One case study, for example, is related to rural communities in Goa, where village records have been kept since the sixteenth century; another is the archives of East Timorese royal lineages and chiefdoms, or so-called kingdoms in East Timor, some of which kept old Portuguese language documents to this day. In the latter case, I am particularly interested in evidence of the past kept by families associated with the exercise of authority.

Michael Faciejew: Since the 1970s, and especially in recent years, the question of repatriation has become urgent for all collecting institutions. How is this conversation unfolding in the Portuguese-speaking world? How have institutions responded?

Ricardo Roque: It’s important to contextualize this question in a wider debate in Portugal on how to cope with the legacies of Portuguese colonialism. Portugal was a dictatorship for most of the twentieth century, having been involved in a colonial war in Africa since 1961 and having kept its colonies until the democratic revolution of April 1974. Thousands of people died on both sides. Only with the revolution was political decolonization begun with the liberation of African countries, such as Mozambique and Angola. In Portugal, there has been a lot of public ignorance and silence about this past, and for decades it was difficult to talk openly and even in families about what actually went on. Only recently have there been more open debates about these issues—countering the mythologies of Portugal’s Age of Discoveries and the idea of a benevolent and non-racist empire. Yet it entails a lot of work to shift stubborn ideas, ingrained in the Portuguese mindset by many decades of nationalist discourse and education.

Because of this difficulty to cope with the violent Portuguese colonial past, the idea of repatriation is typically addressed as a problem. I emphasize “problem” because it is not treated as an opportunity. A visibly public debate on the repatriation or restitution of collections is very recent. I believe this public visibility was very much a consequence of the Macron report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage only four years ago, which pushed Portuguese journalists, museum directors, and the government to take a position. Another aspect to consider in this visibility is the depth and quality of critical historical research and growing activism. We see Portuguese activists and academics who are promoting a larger conversation about repatriation and decolonization. There are many people with a different agenda who want to seek forms of repair and decolonization that go beyond simply granting independence to the colonies. My impression in Portugal is that when institutions talk about decolonizing, some sidestep the issue while only a few others address it more openly. As you might expect, there is a defensive side and a more open side. The skeptical, defensive, silencing, and dismissive side is still more institutionally powerful.

Yet I remain hopeful. One thing we need to know is what is in the museum. In Germany, for example, there was a government program to address colonial history by researching what is contained in museum collections. This hasn’t yet happened in Portugal. There is no government involvement on the issue, and there is very little public knowledge about what museums have in their collections and how the objects got there. To remedy this lack of information, ICOM Portugal is beginning to promote an online questionnaire for museum curators and directors on the content of non-European collections. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. There’s a long way to go.