Susanne Kuechler will be coming to speak in the Indigenous Arts in Transition Seminar, Wednesday, April 14, 2010 on: “Pacific History from Another Point of View: Material Translation and its Social Effects.”

Dr. Kuechler is currently the Professor of Anthropology at the University College London, a position she has held since 2006. She received her M.A. in Anthropology from the Free University of Berlin, Germany and her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. She has lectured at the University College London since 1990 and prior to that she was an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Art History at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Professor Kuechler has received many honors, scholarships and grants. Most recently, she was the principal organizer of the 07-08 ESRC Competitive Seminars Series Award on New Materials & New Technologies: Innovation, Future and Society. Just last year Dr. Kuechler published Tivaivai: The Social Fabric of the Cook Islands, British Museum Press, with Andrea Eimke. In 2005, with Graeme Were and Photographer Glenn Jowitt, she published Pacific Pattern, Thames & Hudson, and in 2002, Malanggan: Art, Memory and Sacrifice, Berg, which was short-listed for the Folklore Prize of the Warburg Institute 2003. She is currently working on The Material Mind: An Anthropology of Materials.

This talk presents a novel perspective on the social history of the South Pacific by positioning artefact collections into the very centre of interdisciplinary, historically sensitive research, with implications that reach far beyond Pacific studies. Whereas much has been written on Pacific History from perspectives that draw on the role of individual actors or the complex narrative surrounding warfare and exchange, the role of materials in the social imaginary has remained largely unacknowledged. The paper will fall into two parts: A brief survey of key artefact collections from the Pacific Islands will support what anthropological theory, built on the back of Melanesian ethnography, had long suspected, namely that properties of materials, including their capacity for reactivity and transformation, figure prominently in meta narratives on ‘elective affinity’. Charged with moral imperative, the possession of materials provides the hidden subtext for the dynamic of social processes that register their effects in the political economy in societies in which persons are ‘made’, not born. Taking stock of this insight, the paper will compare and contrast two case studies that exemplify so called skeuomorphism or material translation, occurring when a given prototypical form, capturing the ‘social body’, is realized in a different material. Sometimes, so not always, brought about by the introduction of a ‘new’ material, the testimony of material translation in Pacific artefact collections will be shown to be a vital, but as yet un-analyzed factor in the reconstruction of social and historical change. The paper will conclude by considering the implication of validating the social efficacy of materials, one that arguably brings anthropology and the analysis of museum collections into conference with materials science and history of science, as well as with studies of design.

Please join us in the Lecture Hall at 38 West 86th Street, between Columbus Ave and Central Park West, at 5:45pm for a reception before the talk.