i non-detti del museo
On love and longing:
architectures of displacement and museum reasoning
by Nuno Porto
MOA – Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver

For some time now, I have been exploring the notion that museums are institutional agents in contemporary civitas. Museum agency is made manifest by reasoning with objects, that is by bringing objects into the realm of ongoing or emerging social issues, not as illustration but as part of an argument. I would argue that elementary forms of museum work – cataloguing, imaging, storing or exhibiting objects are forms of museum reasoning that might or not engage directly with civic concerns. But it should be assumed that choosing not to engage – making of the museum, so to speak, a world apart – is, nonetheless, a form of museum agency. Within this exploratory framework I will describe a temporary installation at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA)[2], conceived as a mutually illuminating conversation between collections and artwork. Canciones de las Madres – Songs of the Mothers, by Cherie Moses (2005, originally, 2017 at MOA) is a sound installation featuring conversations between three women from the same family: Paz Walton, her mother Llanca and Llanca’s mother, Ida. These dialogues focus on their departure from Chile and on their settling and living in Canada. The stricture for the conversation was collectively elaborated by Cherie Moses and these three women, and is organized around ideas and sentiments of place, on experiences of dislocation – spatial, affective, sociological – which are entwined with forms of (unmentioned) political violence including those derived from geopolitical inequalities. I will debate how this installation works as a possible lens into understanding Latin American collections at MOA, and I will also argue that the collections onsite are a powerful departure point for visitors to engage with the artwork. Finally, operating from the notion that the soundscape is an architectural environment, I will situate the effects of this installation against the limits imposed by ocularcentric museum regimens.

1. Dialogue
I will not elaborate on my point of departure for this text, which cascades to the level of anthropology museums an observation that applies to museums generally: and that is that in very much the same way that the term ‘museum’ does not apply to a unified field of practice, the institution ‘museum of anthropology’ does not apply to a unified field of practice as well and does not, necessarily, refer to the same sort – or even to any sort – of disciplinary uniformity. I find it necessary to stress this (even if I am not elaborating on it) because I find it necessary to specify a locus of enunciation, to make explicit where I am talking from, to specify a sense of history and place that qualifies the content of this installation and, more importantly, the dialogue between this sound installation and MOA’s collections.

MOA – Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver
MOA – Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver

2. Place
Such place is the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in the present. Two of the many sides of this present include the location of the museum building in a university campus occupying unceeded territory of the Musqueam Nation, in British Columbia, Canada, and – on the other end – the aftermath of a 10 year renovation project that conspired to conceptualize the museum area for permanent displays – formerly known as “visible storage” – as the new Multiversity Galleries. I am localizing the enunciation, therefore, in a place entangled with the militant recognition of colonial legacy of political tensions and sophisticated institutional efforts against epistemicide[3], by postulating that the museum collections are savaged fragments of specific forms of knowledge that have been put at risk, amongst others, by Western knowledge disciplines such as ‘anthropology’ as it was practiced in Canada.

3. Multiversity
Poised against British imperial ideas of knowledge and education as these materialized in the university system in Uganda after colonial administration, Paulo Wangoola and Claude Alvares ideas of Multiversity were adopted as a program for the permanent displays of MOA.
Multiversity is based on the proposition that the peoples of the world and their knowledges, cultures, language and epistemologies are horizontally ordered, such that each of the knowledges is valid in itself. This pluralist visualisation of peoples and knowledges is derived from African spirituality, worldview, scientific thought and ontology; by which all being and phenomena, spiritual and material, natural and supernatural, manifests itself complementally in sets of twos, female and male, the basis of differentiated unity of being-in-becoming; balance, harmony and reciprocity. Consequently, therefore, each one of the world’s knowledges deserves some ample and adequate space, and resources to be advanced to its farthest frontiers, as well as to be enriched by, as it itself enriches, other knowledges, through cross-fertilisation. The concept of the MULTiversity is about creating some democratic intellectual space and elbow room for oppressed peoples to make and demonstrate a case for a MULTIplicity of epistemologies, thought and knowledge to blossom, as a necessity to vitalise each of the world’s knowledges, as well as the totality of human knowledge as a whole. Indeed, the existence and thriving of a broad spectrum of thought and knowledge is as important for the vibrancy of each of the knowledges, and human knowledge as a whole, as biodiversity is essential for the vitality of each of the species, and nature as a whole. [4] (Wangoola, 2013)

In spite of this program, what MOA can not do without is its collections, and with them, in spite of its program, the multiversity galleries are rooted in a colonial legacy according to which culture is objective in that it is – therefore – transparent in artifacts and made accessible by reducing the sensorium to one sense alone: vision. One of the most striking on-line comments from one anonymous visitor to the museum that intrigued me a few years ago when I started working there, was the notion that the MVG were plunged in “a creepy silence”. Of course, most visitors in the galleries shift into museum mode, including whispering, reminding us that knowledge – colonial, objective, visual – requires introspective, self-contained reasoning subject, able to engage in a reading moment – so to speak – from cultural artifacts.

4. Canciones de las madres
Canciones de las madres, Songs of the mothers, a 13:32 min sound piece by Lebanese – North American artist Cherie Moses, is nothing like this. As a sound piece it creates a contrast to object viewing practices that further adds to its difficulty as an artwork. To experience this artwork the museum visitor has to commit to it. She has to stop and sit down – which is a welcome change for many – but then has to let go of her control of time, as the artwork unfolds on its own pace and rhythm, which is, of course, a commonality that this work shares with any sound installation art piece. Indeed, we should pause to remember that: The emergence of sound installation art in the second half of the 20th century reflects fundamental shifts within multiple arenas: conceptions of space and space-time; the ascendancy of site within the aural imagination; the extension of music and sonic arts into expanded sculptural and architectural models and the role of the public in relation to aesthetic experience (Ouzounian 2013: 73)

In a way, all these are intended effects of installing the piece at MOA: to propose alternative as much as complementary ways of thinking – and maybe experiencing – culture, the core museum object of MOA. It is not as if objects talked, but rather as if cultural experience and social life could also happen without object mediation, on the one hand, and as if objects – in particular the South American collections in the vicinity of which the sound piece was installed – were also bearers of personal agency, like the three Chilean women that perform on the sound piece.

Canciones de las Madres – Songs of the Mothers (2005) by Cherie Moses in collaboration with Paz Walton, Llanca Letelier, and Ida Montenegro de Letelier. 2017, MOA – Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver photos by Nuno Porto

5. Subjectivity and experience
Cherie Moses introduces her piece as an “audio-environment” which she has co-created with these women, in the sequence of former works – short video films[5] – with Llanca Letelier – mother of the youngest and daughter of the oldest. According to Cherie Moses: The audio has been done with both languages as they each constructed their own script with my assistance. I asked them to talk about subjects that they have agreed upon in advance and their stories and words are directed toward their respective children. Ida speaks to Llanca; Llanca speaks to Paz; Paz speaks to each of her three children. This collaborative scripting gave them the opportunity to insert their content into the text.
The topics cover subjects such as Chile, love, danger, Canada…. about 25 topics in total. The simple directive was that they address their children and that they describe, advise, warn and tell them important things about each topic as if this was their final opportunity to do so. The emphasis was on what they wanted to say for memory. (Moses, 2005)

The opening sentence of the piece, voiced by Paz, the youngest of the three women, states that: “One thing you must never forget is to be true to yourself”. The sound piece then involves the listener into an environment construed by the voices of the three women, sometimes as if they were addressing one another and, other times, apparently, thinking to themselves aloud. These women go back and forth between Spanish and English and, when this is the case, with a very strong and unapologetic Spanish accent. In fact, they are addressing their descendants and what they are saying is, actually, a sort of heritage that can be put into words, a set of values and retrospective insights into their lives that they want their descendants to receive and, possibly, cherish and incorporate in the way they live. The whole piece is, in a very descriptive – yet unsuspected – sense, about culture. But it is the exercise of an idea of culture untranslatable into things, totally subjective in that sense too, and emotionally remembered. As each of these women voices a legacy, they do so from an intensely personal location. Paz (ca. 1:07) “Home is a place where you can be yourself” (…) “that is home, to me”. And “Chile is home, and it is also not home, to me”. Or when Ida declares that “In life, the most important thing is to be courageous” [my translation] (7:03), she then adds that this is how she has felt and how she has lived in the hands of God.
The movement from Spanish to English and back, as well as the plurality of voices and their intentional blending and over imposition in some phrases of the piece, reminds us, listeners-in-the-museum-setting, of the blurred and at times confusing and cacophonic, complex and multilayered ‘essence’ of social life, about which the assertive muteness of the objects displayed in the vicinity says nothing. In a way, the sound installation poses as closer to ‘real life’ than the true objects from afar displayed in the cases nearby. Like in real life there is not a single authoritative voice, and the poignancy of this sound piece is partly built upon this multiplicity of voices, its intonations, its different rhythms, the sense of the age of each of the speakers that can be guessed from their voices, the languages and the content.

6. Contaminations
In different occasions, while exploring distinct possibilities of installation of this piece, Cherie Moses referred to her piece as a “sound architecture”, a process via which the sound environment, by placing the listening subject in relationship to voices that are coming from specific places, creates the sense of physically providing a place – more of a roof than a ground, if you will – where the action takes place. The notion of sound architecture also provides a rich metaphor of blurred genres, apt to capture the sort of contamination expected from such sort of installation. As mentioned before, by placing the installation in the vicinity of objects from Latin America, I am suggesting that visitors may relate the objects to persons, as much as they relate the voices in the sound work to persons. If they create the link that some of these objects – in a way – speak Spanish – and some actually do while being enacted by persons, then, the curatorial intention will have been fulfilled.
A second shift – largely independent of the previous one – is from an idea of abstract knowledge objectified in the collections, to very human, embodied, gendered, experienced, and matured forms of knowledge voiced in the first person. These, in fact formulate the idea of heritage – the idea of something that is worth to transmit to the next generation not so much as a set of objects (that present values and relationships) but rather as a set of relationships that give meaning to everything else, including any objects. This becomes central to the piece and to the installation, as it stresses that material things are not at the core of anything, as they are extensions of the actions of persons at some point of some localized history. The legacy that these women elaborate on, is something that transcends matter and place, and makes each person unique, providing a platform to which anyone can much easily relate than, say, to a figure of a Ubanda’s Pomba Gira, via emotional relatedness. As Paz – the younger woman – concludes in her last declaration to her sons: “And I want you to remember that I love you. That is what I want you to remember.” And this is the kind of declaration that no museum object can perform. Just think of that.

Canciones de las Madres – Songs of the Mothers (2005) by Cherie Moses in collaboration with Paz Walton, Llanca Letelier, and Ida Montenegro de Letelier. 2017, MOA – Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver photos by Nuno Porto

[1] This text is a modified version of the homonymous text originally presented on November 20, 2015, at the workshop entitled Contemporary Art and Anthropology Museums: amplified perceptions and de-naturalized frames, of the American Anthropological Association annual conference held in Denver, USA. It would not have been possible without the help and enthusiasm that Cherie infused in our conversations. I am grateful to Cherie Moses for the piece, for the trust she deposited in me and the museum, and for the fact that this became the beginning of an unexpected friendship.
[2] The University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, is located in Vancouver, Canada
[3] Santos 2012, and Fabian (in several places), amongst other authors, have made cases of how Western knowledge extinguishes other forms of knowledge. The implication I am building upon is that collections of artifacts – because of their materiality – work against this process in several ways.
[4] Wangoola (2000: 273), in describing the African multiversity, says that it differs from a university insofar as it recognizes that the existence of alternative knowledges is important to human knowledge as a whole. Yet another important reason identified for establishing an African Multiversity is that the problems facing societies today cannot be resolved by either modern scientific knowledge alone, or by Indigenous knowledge alone. More durable solutions will be found in a new synergy between Indigenous knowledges and modern scientific knowledge. The need for a new synergy between these two is highlighted by the current acceptance that the problems we face today are such that none of the public sector (government), the private sector (business), and civil society alone has comprehensive and durable solutions. It is through imaginative collaboration among these three sectors that societies will be able to conceptualize and organize sustainable solutions. (Hammersmith, 2007:19)
[5] These are “ The Measures of Success” and “Say it”, both from 1987

Hammersmith, J. A., Converging Indigenous and Western Knowledge systems: implications for Tertiary Education, Pretoria, University of South Africa, Doctoral thesis in Education, 2008.
Moses, C., Canciones de las Madres, (songs of the Mothers), Artist Statement, unpublished, 2005.
Ouzounian, G., Sound Installation Art: from spatial poetics to politics, aesthetics to ethics in Born, G., (ed.), Music and Sound Space – transformations of public and private experience, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Santo, B. de Sousa, Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. Boulder/London: Paradigm Publishers, 2014.
Wangoola, P., Mpambo African Multiversity: Dialogue and Building Bridges across Worldviews, Cultures and Languages, in Hendry, J. and Fitznor, L., (eds.) Anthropologists, Indigenous Scholars and the Research Endeavour – Seeking Bridges Towards Mutual Respect, Routledge, 2012.

Nuno Porto (Coimbra, 1965) is the Curator for Africa and South America at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada. He is also in charge of a couple of courses on classic and contemporary African Art at the UBC Art History and Visual Arts & Theory department. As a curator, as an academic and as a citizen he has been engaging with methodologies and practices for disciplinary and conceptual border crossings and boundary erasure. His recent major exhibit dealt with the Rights of Nature, which he used to reclassify MOA’s Amazonian collections, and he is currently directing a multi partner two-year project dedicated to the Decolonisation of the museum’s African Collections. Most of his published research is available at ubc.academia.edu/NunoPorto.