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Global Earth Matters: Mining, Materiality and the Museum – Bauxite and Aluminum

The first seminar on the history and materiality of bauxite

Materiality plays an important role in shaping our understanding of the world around us. Global Earth Matters: Mining, Materiality and the Museum is a series of seminars that seek to re-center scholarly interest in the materiality of objects, opening onto broader questions of labor and making, skills and craftsmanship, on issues surrounding the (exploitative) economies from which these objects emerge.


Maryanto, Tales of the Gold Mountain, 2012, Collection NMW, TM-6503-1a


Date: June 30 –July 1, 2016
Location Research Center for Material Culture, Steenstraat 1, Leiden

Bringing together artists, academics and curators into interdisciplinary conversations, we want to push the conversation about museums objects beyond, while not excluding, questions of aesthetic quality or (cultural) use, to critically explore the relationship between the materials from which these objects are made and the social world within which they are created or function. What kinds of cultural values are ascribed to gold, for example, which makes it the mineral of preference for some objects and not others? What might a focus on the materials from which objects are made tell us about ideas of creativity and innovation or about the globally interconnected worlds in which these objects circulated? Beyond the objects themselves, what role did these minerals play in shaping earlier and contemporary geopolitical relations? What role does the mineral play in the objectness of the object? What hopes, dreams and desires did the discovery of these minerals offer, and in what ways did their discovery shape how we experience the world today?
Global Earth Matters is a collaboration between the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University and the Research Center for Material Culture and is supported by Leiden Global Interactions.


Photography Michiel van Kempen

The technologies and economies associated with mining and mineral extraction have long been central to Europe’s (colonial) expansionist and scientific projects, from the latter part of the fifteenth century through to the end of European empires in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, while studies of colonial economies, especially in the New World, have been dominated by narratives of the plantation and its associated dehumanized labour, it was also the promise of the wealth of the earth, in gold and other precious minerals, that fueled much of the early voyages of exploration, exploitation and conquest. The extractive technologies associated with such search for wealth, the mining and processing of gold and silver, copper and tin, and later bauxite, were formative in much of global geopolitical relations of the past, and this quest to exploit the earth’s wealth continue to shape the contemporary world in which we live today.
But where do we find the records, the archives, of the world-making impact of mineral extraction? Though underexplored, this complex entanglement between mining and European colonial projects, between practices of mineral extraction and the world of consumable and luxury goods, or between the specific qualities of certain minerals and technological and artistic innovation developed for their exploitation and use, was a significant part of the history of many (ethnographic) museums. Taking its cue from the former Colonial Museum, the predecessor of the Tropenmuseum established 1864 to encourage interest in, and showcase the economic potential of the Dutch colonies, the series Global Earth Matters: Mining, Materiality and the Museum insert the materials back into exploration of the work of and the work on museum objects. We take those minerals samples collected and displayed by the Colonial Museum from the latter half of the 19th century as a starting point for thinking differently about museum objects and how they are bound up within broader material economies and relations. This will also give us the opportunity to explore histories of local craftsmanship that transformed the raw materials into works of art and design. How did local inventiveness, creativity and experimentation with minerals impact developments in arts, crafts, science and technology across the globe? Can we use the concept of ‘mining’ to make visible the craft knowledge and techniques embodied in museum objects and write new world histories of knowledge-making?
By retraining our gaze beyond a focus on cultural groups that museum objects are to represent towards a thinking of the materiality of the objects themselves within a broader economy of innovation and making, labor and imperial enterprise, we want to foreground the relationship between the materiality of mining practices and the diversity of cultural understanding about the earth.
Aluminum Dreams
The first seminar in the series focuses on the history and materiality of bauxite. Bauxite, and more specifically aluminum, has changed the world of architecture and design, of travel, and even of warfare. How, we will ask, do the extraction of bauxite and the industrial applications of aluminum contribute to ‘worldmaking’ and ‘worldbreaking’ processes? In what ways has aluminum contributed to our imagining of particular places as centers of modernity and others as peripheries of extraction? How can we combine perspectives on the political economy of commodity chains with cultural approaches linking sites of production and consumption? How does the use of aluminum for electricity, improved mobility, and architecture epitomize cosmopolitan life and accelerated speed in global connections? How can we analyze zones of extraction as sites of intense social struggles and environmental damage? And what stories can we tell by foregrounding the materiality of aluminum to comprehend the life of our museum objects?
Global Earth Matters: Mining, Materiality and the Museum – Bauxite invites a diverse group of makers and thinkers with an expertise in materiality to explore these and other questions around the global interactions of bauxite.



Programme Global Earth Matters: Mining, Materiality and the Museum – Bauxite and Aluminum

Thursday June 30, 2016 at Research Center for Material Culture, Leiden
10:30 Tea & coffee
11:00 – 11:15 Introduction by Wayne Modest & Sabine Luning

11:15 ¬– 11:45 Keynote: Bonnie Campbell (Political Science, Université du Québec à Montréal)
The Making and Unmaking of Societies. The Case of Guinea Conakry
11:45 – 12:00 Femke Herregraven (independent designer and researcher)
Infinite Capacity
12:00 – 12:45 Discussion

12:45 – 13:45 Lunch

13:45 – 14:00 Hans Otto Frøland (Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
Bauxite and War: Nazi Germany
14:00 – 14:15 Annemartine van Kesteren (Curator Contemporary Design, Boijmans van Beuningen)
14:15 – 14:30 Annette Schmidt (Curator Africa, National Museum of World Cultures)
All Roads Lead to Thiès; the Spread of Aluminum Cooking Pots in West-Africa
14:30 – 15:15 Discussion
15:15 – 15:45 Tea/coffee

15:45 – 16:30 Material talks: discussing and viewing objects from NMW collections
16:30 ¬– 17:30 Drinks

Friday July 1, 2016 at Research Center for Material Culture, Leiden
10:30 Tea/coffee
11:00 – 11:15 Introduction by Wayne Modest & Sabine Luning

11:15 ¬– 11:45 Keynote: Mimi Sheller (Professor of Sociology, Drexel University, Philadelphia)
Aluminum Dreams: Planetary Geo-ecologies and Caribbean Bauxite
11:45 – 12:00 Espen Storli (Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology)
Creating Global Value Chains – the Example of Suriname
12:00 – 12:45 Discussion

12:45 – 13:45 Lunch

13:45 – 14:00 Michiel van Kempen, (Dutch-Caribbean Literature Studies, University of Amsterdam)
How Literature Arises out of Bauxite
14:00 – 14:15 Wayne Modest (Head Research Center for Material Culture)
14:15 ¬– 14:30 Lennart Booij (Curator Applied Arts & Design, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)
Aluminum (Un)consciously Applied
14:30 – 15:15 Discussion
15:15 – 16:00 Wrap up & drinks

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