Urmila Mohan will speak in the Work-in-Progress Seminar on Wednesday, November 9 at 12 pm. Her talk is entitled “Out of Whole Cloth: Exploring Balinese Textiles in the Mead-Bateson Collection.”


Urmila Mohan is Bard Graduate Center/AMNH Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology, a two-year appointment at Bard Graduate Center and in the Anthropology Division at the Richard Gilder Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History. She has a deep knowledge of South and Southeast Asia, a theoretical foundation in the study of material and visual culture, and an intimate knowledge of how materials work based on her experience as an artist and ethnographer. Her previous doctoral work at University College London was on cloth and clothing as devotional mediation in a Hindu group in India. With her current postdoctoral project she expands her research focus to include Hinduism in Southeast Asia in a museological context.

The anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson spent approximately two years (1936–38) in Bali, Indonesia, studying the kinaesthetics of performance, including everyday gestures and rituals such as trance. Based on this fieldwork, they published their seminal work titled “Balinese Character.” While their contribution to visual anthropology via the methodological use of photography and film in Bali has been studied, what is less well known is their collection of Balinese objects, in specific, cloth and woven materials. Mead’s contemporaries, such as the musicologist Collin McPhee, were also collectors who gifted objects to the American Museum of Natural History. As a result, the museum’s Indonesian collection has a strong Balinese section with numerous cloth wrappers, mythological paintings, amuletic cloth drawings, and representations of textiles in other media such as puppets, offerings, and drawings. In this talk, Mohan will share her first attempts at studying these objects in the museum’s collection and the possible ways in which they might be contextualized through museum archives and the primary ethnographic literature in the Mead Ethnographic Archives (Library of Congress, DC). A critical study of fieldnotes, films, and photographs may shed light on the changing values of cloth objects as they traveled from Bali to the West, indicate how cloth related to curatorial agendas in shaping a specific image of the Balinese, and provide a historical view of pre-World War II anthropology.