ANN: Imperial Lives: Biographic Approaches as Decolonial Practice

Carl Deussen Discussion

Registration for the digital conference "Imperial Lives. Biographic Approaches as Decolonial Practice" is now open! You can find the program and register at

Keynotes by Paul Basu (Univeristy Bonn), Vanessa Opoku (PARA Collective), and Patrice Nganang (Stony Brook University).

About Imperial Lives:

After years of struggle, deflection, and hesitation, ethnographic museums are increasingly accepting the need for decolonization. Often, this is framed in terms of diversity and empowerment and with a special focus on creator communities and their diaspora. We agree: the victims of imperial violence and their descendants need to be at the centre of any fruitful decolonization process.

However, this leaves a gap: what about the creators of the museum, the collectors who often violently amassed the collections, as well as those who are implicated in their legacy today? Whose acts of perpetration, violence, transgression, betrayal, superiority, exploitation, and misunderstanding lie at the foundation of the museum? When it comes to the actors in question and their agency, what prevails is often absence or a retreat into abstraction, both in academia and the museum.

The “Imperial Lives” conference wants to widen this perspective and offer a complementary approach: it aims at exploring ways of overcoming this colonial aphasia by focussing on the concrete, often messy biographies behind the institution “ethnographic museum”. We propose that the encounter with the personified past of empire – the biographies of imperial collectors – creates a space of unsettlement in which the personal implication of all members of a post-imperial democratic society can be explored and collective memory transformed.
Ethnographic museums, as one of the most visible sites of imperial continuity, offer an exemplary field for the exploration of imperial perpetration and implication that goes beyond the bounds of anthropology – especially when it comes to the interaction with broader audiences. This is why the conference focuses on both research and narration, offering transdisciplinary perspectives from history, cultural, and literary studies as well as artistic, journalistic and activist practices.