Screening Room: Collecting in the Collection

Photo by Rebecca Sakoun & Florian Göttke.

From January 14 to February 18, 2015 we screened the premiere of Collecting in the Collection: 46 Inuit Artifacts in the Berlin Ethnological Museum from Franz Boas's 1883–1884 Baffin Island Expedition by artists Rebecca Sakoun and Florian Göttke. Collecting in the Collection is a luminous photographic slide show that moves between landscapes of Pangnirtung, archives of the Dahlem Museum, and pages of The Central Eskimo. Through the progression of images, subtle sound and careful narration, and techniques of cut-out and juxtaposition, the video explores collecting as a practice of relating objects to culture, people, and place. Yet, as Sakoun and Göttke show, collecting also involves critical and creative possibilities, ways of remaking materials and relations. The sense that collecting involves approximations is a refreshing approach to recurring themes in art and anthropology: What is a valuable object of material culture? How to depict tactile and nonverbal ways of knowing? What are the politics of encounter across uneven postcolonial terrains? How to relate to a surprising history, in this case, where contemporary artists find parallels between their interests and methods and those of Franz Boas?

In addition to Collecting in the Collection, we have an interview with Sakoun and Göttke that centers around their artistic process, the larger project of which this video is a part, and the "46 Inuit Artifacts" themselves. We include the bibilography from the video, and additional suggestions for related viewing and reading.

For the first time at the Screening Room, we invited scholars and artists to comment on the work screened. These commentaries appeared in stages over the course of the screening. The first commentary was contributed by Ludger Müller-Wille (McGill University), the second by artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh, and the third by Aaron Glass (Bard Graduate Center).

Rebecca Sakoun & Florian Göttke, "Untitled [IV A 6702 two dolls]"

Table of Contents


Stemming from a research trip to Iqaluit and Pangnirtung (two Inuit communities in Arctic Canada) and later a work period in the Berlin Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, Rebecca Sakoun and Florian Göttke deal in their video-essay with the 46 artifacts haphazardly collected by Franz Boas during his first expedition. Their basic image material are photographs of the ethnographic objects: hunting and sledding gear, Inuit clothing, broken archeological items, but also many games and models commissioned by Boas, which attest to the imaginative and translation capacities of their makers. Sakoun and Göttke treat these photographs as material for re-working and collaging, which dislodges the objects from their museum context and constructs a visual narrative that explores issues of materiality, absence and presence, visibility and transparency. A voiceover-narration reflects on Boas's burgeoning anthropological impulses, his relationship with his Inuit informants, his approach to "objective" image-making and re-enactment, and the nature of the collected objects, as well as Sakoun and Göttke’s own roles as recorders, readers, and makers of images in a cross-cultural encounter.

Artist Biographies

Rebecca Sakoun earned a BA in Anthropology and Sociology at Smith College, an MFA (Photography) at Yale University, and completed a post-graduate fellowship at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. As a visual artist she is primarily concerned with examining constructive and deconstructive aspects of images and image-making. Led by her interest in extending the “photographic document,” Sakoun’s work often shifts into fictional or hypothetical areas through insertion, deletion, displacement, re-creation, and staging.

Florian Göttke is a visual artist based in Amsterdam. In his recent works, he investigates the functioning of public images and their relationship to social memory and politics. His lecture and book Toppled (Post Edition, Rotterdam, 2010), about the fallen statues of Saddam Hussein, is a critical study of image practices of appropriation and manipulation in our contemporary media society. Toppled was nominated for the Dutch Doc Award for documentary photography in 2011. Göttke is currently working on his PhD in Artistic Research, "Burning Images—Performing Effigies as Political Protest," at the University of Amsterdam and the Dutch Art Institute.

Back to Table of Contents

Commentary by Aaron Glass

On Collection, (Re)collection, and Recursivity

In the past couple of decades, both anthropology and art museums have offered a stage for the reconfiguration of ethnographic authorship and authority. Seasoned visual artists (such as Susan Hiller, Fred Wilson, and Mark Dion) regularly mine, re-arrange, and recontextualize museum collections in an artistic practice that functions as curation, while trained anthropologists are increasingly finding artistic modes and media—beyond documentary photography and film—to express their ethnographic descriptions and analysis (as evidenced, for instance, by the three volumes edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, and the annual exhibits of the Ethnographic Terminalia curatorial collective). If we have finally made headway in challenging the stale art/artifact distinction in terms of classifying the made object, we are increasingly, and productively, blurring the boundary of artist and anthropologist as maker of cross-cultural knowledge.

Artists Rebecca Sakoun and Florian Göttke are undertaking an extended body of work, based on personal experience on Baffin Island, Nunavut, as well as archival and museum-based research, meant to explore this very conjuncture in the context of a legacy of ethnographic representation and colonialism in the Eastern Arctic. Their video work, Collecting in the Collection, while only one component in a series of mixed-media creations, functions as a kind of extended artist statement on the goals, parameters, and perspectives of their larger project. Their primary concern is with ethnography as a means of knowledge production and social exchange (which is generally collaborative despite conditions of power imbalance), and with its museological and photographic mediation (especially in modes of, and with claims to, ethnographic realism despite a reliance on staging or simulation and an amenability to visual manipulation). The key line in the video comes only 4 minutes before its end: “Emphasizing photography’s properties as an unstable and ambiguous medium, we aimed to explore issues of materiality, absence and presence, visibility and transparency, with regard to the collected objects, the objects’ makers, the anthropologist, and the museum apparatus, while at the same time engaging in our roles as recorders, readers, and makers of images in a cross-cultural encounter.” On the one hand, they provide a reflexive commentary on the potential failure of fieldwork to result in intrinsically meaningful collections (of objects and photographic images, as well as of ethnographic data about them). On the other, they suggest the artistic and academic potential for re-collection—a form of curation and creativity—to energize the fragments, to link them with scattered archival and published materials (long isolated by the media-specific nature of archives and repositories), and to reconnect them as material and visual heritage to living source communities.

The video signals its complicated status as a hybrid art/academic object right from the start. Its first frame pictures the white walls of an art gallery with the rectangular outline of a video projection, before which stands a white plinth set up as a lectern with typed notes and a glass of water. The projection soon turns out to be a slide show of static images (PowerPoint or equivalent) from the artists’ own research on Baffin Island, accompanied by a disembodied, first-person voiceover about their failure, while still in the field, to secure adequate photographic documentation in order to produce their envisioned artworks. We’re not quite sure if we are watching the documentation of a live event—an illustrated slide show/lecture that happened to occur in an art gallery—or if the visible gallery context is itself a theatrical “set” to situate the artwork as such. About a minute into the piece, the audio and video frame of reference shifts: the narration (with an audible decrease in ambient hum, indicating a change in venue) turns to the third-person story of Franz Boas’s inaugural fieldwork and haphazard object collecting in the Eastern Arctic, while the image track—initially featuring the cover of Boas’s subsequent monograph, The Central Eskimo—now fills the video frame, replacing and displacing the gallery setting.

The bulk of the video blends three main styles of presentation, all of which operate on both the visual and auditory level: historical narration; curatorial assembly and ethnographic exegesis; and artistic intervention and (meta)commentary. The story of Boas’s early Arctic research is delivered in a rather standard documentary mode, with a linear account of his progress, activities, and challenges, punctuated with pithy theoretical asides by well-known anthropologists (read by a different person than the main narrator, as first-person testimony is often performed in Ken Burns/PBS-style films). The visuals are entirely photographic, comprised of fieldwork photos by both Boas and the artists, images of Boas’s small object collection in its current repository at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, and reproductions of book covers and pages (both published and unpublished). Many of the images present photographs of photographs (in some cases, of photographs), signaling the recursive nature of ethnographic representations across multiple “generations” of both media and people.

Yet the ambitions here transcend historical narration, as the artists shift from describing Boas’s collection to presenting their own curatorial work in re-assembling (“re-collecting”) the objects—inventing their own classification scheme (while remaining reflexive about the arbitrariness of all museological taxonomies), and interpreting Boas’s own photographs as made images rather than as neutral ethnographic documents. Visually, such curatorial perspectives are accompanied by the artists’ own photos of their new object groupings and labels, as well as juxtapositions of Boas’s staged studio photos (of himself wearing Inuit clothing) with derived published images that, through a process of “graphic translation,” became realist ethnographic illustrations as a tool of scientific validity.

Stepping back somewhat from Boas’s story, Sakoun and Göttke also offer their own ethnographic commentary to fill in additional cultural context for the fragmentary collection in Berlin. Here they turn to primary and archival sources, as well as their own field experience and interviews with Inuit guides, to tell us something more about the small bone and ivory objects Boas collected, especially those characterized as game pieces or miniature models. First-person accounts of having played similar games in Nunavut blur into the third-person voice of ethnographic authority. Having seen their own field photographs at the start, which establish the requisite “we were there” of anthropology, we now get to see the behind-the-scenes technologies of museum knowledge: catalogue cards, ledger books, storage shelves, and rubber gloves.

However, the artists’ subvert their own ethnographic and curatorial authority, not to mention Boas’s and the museum’s, by deploying tactics of aesthetic intervention and metacommentary. Four minutes in, they announce their work as situated “within the artistic tradition of embracing the marginal, the discarded, and other lost causes.” The audio track features a running soundscape of shuffling papers, camera shutters, film projectors, and typewriter returns, focusing our attention (a bit heavy handedly) on the multiple media of academic inscription. Increasingly, the recursive photographic images we see are visibly mediated and modified: museum objects are cut from their photographic backgrounds, set askew over the resulting void, held by gloved hands—the ethnographic fragments de- and re-contextualized, inscribed and re-inscribed, collected and re-collected. The effect of such co-mingling of epistemological and presentational modes suggests the challenge of blending rigorous scholarly framing (jargon, citations, endnotes) with aesthetic strategies of audio-visual disruption.

I appreciate and applaud the artists’ stated attempt to produce a “visual work… [not] a written, formulated text,” but on balance I found that the academic perspectives and strategies—embodied most strongly by the didactic voice-over—overshadow the artistic effort to some degree. The use of fragmented, recursive, and reflexive imagery nicely illustrates the critical themes, but I kept wondering how this might have been achieved by visuals alone, or through more poetic, non-linear, evocative narration. I recognize the active challenge of wanting to attempt this while still remaining respectful of the Indigenous source community’s knowledge and perspectives, not to mention those of one’s museum hosts. Here artistic license and expressivity stand in a complicated relationship with both scholarly authority and collaborative research paradigms dedicated to empowering Indigenous voices. It forces us to ask, in the end, what the goals of such projects are? Critiquing anthropological modes and media of knowledge production? Providing more complete or accurate ethnographic interpretations for existing fragments? Reuniting museum collections with source communities? Who are the imagined audiences, encountering it in which kind of venue (art gallery, classroom, Internet)? The video-as-artwork provokes such questions without suggesting they have simple answers.

Throughout the video, Sakoun and Göttke balance their interrogation of anthropological and artistic representations with an interest in recovering or foregrounding the agency of both past and present Indigenous object makers and partners, facilitators, or brokers of ethnographic research. The theoretical bridge between Inuit cultural production and non-Inuit cultural (re)production is the notion of staged performance. All of the main players in their tale engage in self-conscious acts of cultural mediation: Boas, the Ur ethnographer, staging photos to illustrate his seminal books and to inspire his famous dioramas; his interlocutors, producing model objects for sale as a strategy of cultural “knowledge transfer”; Sakoun and Göttke, artists playing anthropologist (rather than playing Indian) in the field and at the lectern; and their own Inuit friends and guides, teaching them games and posing for their cameras. Performance, by both Indigenous and anthropological actors (read: “actors”), emerges as an ambiguous mode of both simulation (which can be suspect as an empirical means of scientific objectivity) and embodied experience (which is privileged as a way of knowing separate from, if amenable to, photographic reproduction). Like any “performance” of culture (with a capital or lowercase “c”), art-as-anthropology or anthropology-as-art carry with them the potential for both genuine expression and manipulative imitation. The obvious artistry with which the video is made calls attention to these parallel and ambivalent modes of invention in the mediation of ethnographic knowledge, whether in ivory objects, field photos, museum dioramas, documentary films, scholarly texts, or galley installations. At the same time, many of the insights provided into Inuit culture, not to mention the culture of anthropology, function as a result and an instantiation of ethnography itself, rather than a complete foreclosure on it.

The video ends as it started: we return to the visible context of the art gallery, the visual content of the artists’ own Arctic photography, and a voiced narrative of failure. This time, the story is of their guide Laasalussi Ishulutak’s failure to shoot a seal, even if it was only a performance staged—in traditional fur clothing—for their benefit (not unlike the staged hunting scenes in Nanook of the North and myriad other films). I kept waiting for the ultimately reflexive and recursive scene where the artists take their photos of the Boas collection—even their own artwork—back to Baffin Island to document the Inuit reactions (perhaps the Internet and its Comment fields will provide for such a return and response). Collecting in the Collection offers a critique of ethnography as a realist mode of knowing one another, while simultaneously a defense of meta-ethnography (or “para-ethnography,” depending on one’s sense of allegiance to traditional anthropological methods and epistemological assumptions) as a mode of recuperating the collections that result from fieldwork. It leaves “representation” itself—whether in the form of museum collections and their documentation, or of artistic explorations into the same—in a precarious, uncertain, and unfinished state.

Aaron Glass, New York, February 10, 2015

Aaron Glass is Assistant Professor at Bard Graduate Center. His research, film, and curatorial work focuses on First Nations visual art and material culture, and performance on the Northwest Coast of North America.

Back to Table of Contents

Commentary by Wendelien van Oldenborgh

Sharing, Collecting, Gaps, and Loops

At the end of Rebecca Sakoun and Florian Göttke’s slide-show video, Collecting in the Collection, the main female voice tells us a story of how their Inuit guide Laasalussi Ishulutak stages a traditional seal hunting scene for them during an outing near Pangnirtung in Nunavut, Canada. According to the text we hear, the artists suspect that the whole scene was staged for them to experience how a seal might be shot using typical methods and objects from the region, even though no actual seal was there to take aim at. Laasalussi might have been kindly filling in gaps, making it possible for the "Southerners" to live through true impressions.

This staging of a contemporary seal hunt by the guide comes after another scene of staging a hunt, carefully narrated and convincingly visualized in a sequence of images collected and composed by the artists. Here, the hunting scene involves the German ethnographer Franz Boas, who had been researching ways of living in the same Arctic region in the late nineteenth century. Boas had commissioned illustrations of hunting scenes for his book The Central Eskimo, which, as the artists discovered, were drawn from photographs taken in Germany. For these photographs, Boas posed in traditional Inuit clothing, clothes he had worn on his travels, which he brought back to Germany and donated to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. The spoken text suggests that the photos are not only visual remembrances of practices Boas had seen in Pangnirtung, but are also reenactments of what he might have experienced himself. Acting as a technique of sharing knowledge of a way of life that he had observed far away from Germany. Like the acting out of a hunting scene by Laasalussi to share his embodied knowledge with more recent travellers. That Laasalussi’s acting-to-share-knowledge took place in a different geographic constellation seems accentuated in the piece—perhaps to show us a different possibility of who is doing the staging and who is able to learn from it.

The artists explore these directional routes of knowledge by approaching ideas of being, acting, and knowing, of embodying knowledge and of sharing knowledge, through methods of image making, staging, and gaps. From embodied knowledge to ignorance and from the one who learned towards the one learning. And with a possibility to imagine the way back again, as well.

Collecting would be a way to preserve some of that knowledge. Collecting objects, as Boas did in his day; collecting images, as both Boas and Sakoun and Göttke tried to do; collecting experiences and stories, as Boas did as a scientist and as the artists have done now. The artists, however, did not only collect experiences from the place they are interested in, but also experiences of entering into a German museum, where there is yet another local method of ordering and categorizing objects. By approaching the collection of objects Boas brought back with him in the 19th century as a mobile and dynamic body of knowledge, Sakoun and Göttke insist on making images with a different significance than the museum would. In assembling, ordering, and reassembling the objects and the images of the objects, and in approximating the things to be known from them, the artists are creating new images. These images, too, are not without gaps.

Collecting, preserving, and sharing are shown to be dynamic processes that can be expressed in the form of reflexive loops. The layering of sound, image, and text fills the piece with possibilities for understanding and imagining. Taking itself back to itself again and again, the work loops reflexively through various difficulties of studying people by collecting objects, data, and experiences. It shows the collected data and then loops back to reveal the complexity of exchanging knowledge in contrast to imposing it. Preserving knowledge in a static way, or letting it live. Not only does the end of the text lead us from the snowy fields of the reenactment straight back to the very beginning of the story, to the picture of the endeavor the artists undertake; we experience various internal loops at other moments. One example would be the recounting of Boas's failure to bring back direct photographs of particular scenes, scenes which he eventually reenacts. Here the mind immediately goes back to an early statement in the voice-over that the artists missed photographing crucial moments, not recognizing their significance at the time. This statement in itself loops forward to many points in the piece where questions around the possible significance of images itself are opened more than closed.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Berlin, February 4, 2015

Wendelien van Oldenborgh is an artist currently on a DAAD residency in Berlin. Oldenborgh is represented by Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam, and in 2014 won the A. H. Heineken Prize for Art.

Back to Table of Contents

Commentary by Ludger Müller-Wille

This video by Rebecca Sakoun and Florian Göttke is an intriguing and important contribution to the understanding of the early scientific and ethnographical work of Franz Boas (1858–1942). The authors focus on the complete ethnographic collection of Inuit material culture which Boas accumulated during his sojourn on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic in 1883–1884 and deposited with the Berlin Ethnological Museum in 1885–1886. Sakoun and Göttke first embarked on their artistic interest in the Arctic with a visit to the Inuit in Pangnirtung in Nunavut, Canada, to attain insight into Inuit material culture. Later they expanded their research to include the historical items of the Boas collection in Berlin—what the authors term "Collecting in the Collection." Through this process they uncovered links between (pre)history–1880s—and the contemporary period—2000s. This is the first time this collection of Inuit ethnographic items of various functions and provenances are presented visually and orally; their presentation becomes now an integral element of the interpretation of Boas’ early scientific approaches. The authors use sources in Boas’ journals, letters, and publications which are listed as references at the end of the video.

Sakoun and Göttke start and end the video by illustrating their encounters with Inuit, the Arctic environment, and modern material culture relating to the life of Inuit locally. Here the point is to connect the contemporary Inuit conditions with the historic period of the 1880s when their predecessors of four or five generations ago experienced an intrusive impact on their lives through extensive cross-cultural contact with European and American whalers. The interconnection between original and local, that is Inuit material culture and newly introduced or imposed foreign material culture, played a crucial role in these changes. Sakoun and Göttke tackle these issues by a combination of different ways of representation and communication, and thus explore and enhance the discussion of the meaning and value of historical ethnographic items which, due to externally initiated collection and preservation, exist in museums around the world disconnected from their original location and cultural context. The authors succeeded very well in achieving their goal.

This video was first presented as an audiovisual work-in-progress at the "Collecting Geographies" conference at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in Spring 2014. It was further revised and developed into its current form as an autonomous artwork (here adapted for the internet). It depicts very well the dynamics of the interrelationship between present and (pre)historic ethnographical items, in particular, those obtained from Inuit by Boas that have been housed in the Berlin Ethnological Museum since the 1880s. In an ideal situation, such a collection could have been viewed and assessed by the Inuit community and by descendants of Inuit from whom Boas obtained these items. However, this video can serve as an excellent and convenient tool to be the bridge between Pangnirtung and Berlin, allowing contemporary Inuit to integrate this ethnographic past into their cultural heritage. Sakoun and Göttke’s discussion of the general and specific value of this and other collections is very well placed and contributes to topics such as who owns and preserves whose cultural history and where.

Despite the short length of the twenty-two-minute video the authors have succeeded to include these and other issues in a compact and illustrative way. It is to be hoped that the video will be widely viewed in educational settings, schools, museums, and in particular by Inuit in the circumpolar north.

Ludger Müller-Wille, Saint-Lambert (Québec) Canada, January 25, 2015

Ludger Müller-Wille is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Geography at McGill University. His research has centered around subarctic Fenno-Scandia, arctic and subarctic regions of Canada, and on the history of arctic anthropology in relation to Franz Boas.

Back to Table of Contents

Interview with Rebecca Sakoun and Florian Göttke

Jenna Grant: To begin, I want to ask you about research as part of your artistic process. You mention conversations, notes, photographing, and videotaping, which are familiar modes of working for many anthropologists. Could you talk a bit more about your research process? Maybe in terms of its intention, or what you expected?

Florian Göttke: I think the research part can be quite similar to methods used by anthropologists. But what’s different for photographers and visual artists is that the expected result is not primarily a written text. I suppose anthropologists collect these materials to write about their area of interest, but as a visual artist or photographer the end product is usually visual—a photograph, for instance. The point of looking around, to see things, is to gather knowledge and ideas, with the aim to make a visual work that contains this information in some way. Not as a written, formulated text but as elements of the work.

Rebecca Sakoun: In a sense, all of the conversations and the readings are done in order to inform your eye. If you work with photography or in another visual form, you are working in a symbolic language. If you stage photographs or work in a more documentary manner, you’re either looking for certain elements that have heightened potency in describing themes, or you are looking for ideas that you’d like to put forth. Maybe not as a conclusion, but as kind of a proposition, to engage the public in a discussion. You state an open-ended question, which incorporates the themes or ideas you’re interested to put forward, while staying in that visual realm.

In terms of this project, we went to Iqaluit and Pangnirtung to work with the idea of land use and particularly the symbolic and unseen elements of way-finding. To learn to see something we wouldn’t be able to see on our own. But that was incredibly difficult and too ambitious, especially for the amount of time we had there. For instance, we found that that conversations about the landscape needed to happen while being in the landscape. But it wasn’t always all that easy to get out of town and out on the land. So we changed our focus.

JG: So one of the original ideas was an open-ended approach to landscape or way-finding?

RS: Yes.

FG: It was not just about land use, it was also the idea of landscape in general, what landscape would mean there and how it would be different from our ideas of landscape.

RS: For instance, the idea of recreation versus essential living activities on the land. Even just to indicate the idea that two people looking at the same things can see them so differently, someone from far away and someone who is very close to the place where he/she was raised. So you look at the same landscape with completely different eyes—a different point of view, in the sense of a worldview—eyes that are informed by information you got from your parents, your community, from your own memories. What would be our ability to grasp some of that?

JG: So the encounter with Boas moved this project in another direction.

RS: It was not only the encounter with Boas, which actually happened after we returned to Amsterdam. And I guess we should mention that this work is just one part of our larger project, which includes objects, photographs, maps, drawings, models, silkscreened posters, and now this video. Our work also addresses several different themes. We’ve made one work about failed architecture in the Arctic, for example.

FG: Our original aim was to produce a series of images, and then when we came back we realized that the material we had made there was not sufficient, not reflecting our experience or what we learned, which was much more rich, complex, also vexing and strange. It just didn’t reflect our experience and what we would like to say.

RS: It was really that we were not satisfied. There were certain images that were beautiful but we didn’t feel like a beautiful image of the Arctic is at all a challenging thing to put forward. There are enough people who are doing that. That’s not the conversation we are interested in being a part of. So it’s really that our work, our sketches, failed to live up to the complexity of what we experienced and what we valued in that setting.

JG: Is that part of what you say about “the crucial moments”? It wasn’t just a moment or an activity, but also an ethos or a sense?

RS: Yes. We’re not saying “crucial moments” like in the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment” sense of this photographic-waiting-around-for-someone-to-do-something—

JG: For the harpooning!

RS: Exactly. It was also that we were really unpacking conversations for years. Like, “When someone said this to us, did they mean this, or were they being polite, or . . . ?” There was a lot about communication and interpersonal communication that made us want to be careful about any statements we were making. Some of our photographs didn’t reflect understandings that we had later on. And we were not in a rush.

FG: In hindsight, there were moments that we could have photographed and that might have represented some of the insight that we had later. So these were the “crucial moments” that we didn’t photograph.

JG: And have you attempted to represent those in some other form?

FG: Yes, in drawings, re-enactments, re-staged photographs . . .

RS: Actually, that is also what brought us to Boas. We started making objects in our studio as part of our staged photographs. For most of these objects we could refer to our photos we made in Iqualuit and Pang, but for some we wanted more information, so we read The Central Eskimo and other books. Our friends in Iqaluit gave us a small, locally-published booklet on how to make a qamutiq and how to make an iglu. A qamutiq is a sled, which is a way to transport goods and people. Nowadays people attach it to a snowmobile but it used to be drawn by dogteams. We were fascinated that these manuals were circulating in the community as a tool to preserve and communicate knowledge. A lot of younger Inuit are engaged in that and also work with the orality of their culture. Documentary is an often-used form. For example, Isuma Productions involves some highly regarded filmmakers who have conducted oral histories with elders in their community and experimented with historical re-enactment as a documentary tool.

We were given these manuals on how to make things, and I think for Florian, coming from a background in sculpture, making is also a form of knowledge. Once you’ve made something you can really appreciate how it works.

JG: For you to make it, you mean?

FG: Yes. If you make something, you understand its principles, the inventiveness. It is a way of learning about the object, but also the ideas behind it.

RS: So of course we’ve given a lot of thought to the fact that the objects we were making should in no way seem to have been made by anyone other than us. We felt very strongly that there should be no confusion between anything we made and something made in an Inuit community circa 2010.

JG: Can you give an example?

FG: We made a qamutik in our studio from the booklet we were given, also a harpoon and other hunting and fishing gear.

RS: We made sealskin pants in the traditional pattern of the area where we were visiting, but we used a photograph of a seal skin and had it printed on canvas. We sewed the pants from this printed canvas. So our approximation is very much a part of the objects themselves, and represents our attempt to understand their making. And they show that clearly in their materiality.

FG: They are not intended to be functioning objects; they are rather life-sized models of these objects.

RS: We started using our photographs as materials; we were mining the photographs we made in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung. Say we went ice fishing, and we had a photo that we would never use but in it was an ice hole—we could enlarge that and cut it out and place it in our studio to re-photograph. So we were using elements from our photographs, and I started to think of it as “cutting and pasting” three-dimensionally [as opposed to digitally]. I have a sense that anthropologists use photography in a quite different way that we discussed earlier, more like an aide mémoire. It became that for me—referencing, jogging the memory—and I’d never had that relationship with photography. So it transformed more into a note-taking than a final work.

JG: Like field notes.

RS: After reading The Central Eskimo we discovered quite by accident, through some image searches on the internet, that Boas had been posing for images himself; he was also re-staging photographs. We became connected with him as a sort-of spiritual ancestor of this trip. I don’t know if I can say that on an anthropology website—

FG: “Spiritual ancestor” is a bit too much, but there were certain parallels, like the staging, like significant shifts in focus during his trip and our trip. We mention in the video that he didn’t collect systematically, because he wasn’t focused on ethnography. There were gaps in the material that he brought back, as there were in ours. So we came to view his expedition and our trip as parallels of sorts.

RS: And another connection: Florian met and became friends with four Nunavut-based artists at the Banff Centre in 2007. I came to join him a couple of months later, and when he was introducing me to one of the artists, Ame Papatsie, Ame threw his arm around Florian’s shoulder and said, “Yeah, Florian, my German brother, just like Boas.” It took us years to understand that Ame, who is from Pangnirtung, really did mean Franz Boas ‘cause at the time we didn’t know about Boas’s earliest work on Baffin, only his later work in the Pacific Northwest. But even though I couldn’t figure it out, his remark really stayed in my head. It was such an “a-ha! moment” when I realized that Boas’s time in Pang is still remembered and referred to there, even down the generations.

JG: That is so interesting. To me, it speaks to a particular kind of relation that is continuously remade, across generations and across kinds of work, whether art, geography, or ethnography. It also makes me think about how your re-creation of objects is in the one sense understanding a process of the people you worked with in Baffin, but also a way of being with Boas. How he was re-creating. [For him, too,] it was not just about this supposedly ethnographic-y moment.

RS: Yes, but this realization only came later. Because we had started the re-staging of our photographs long before we discovered that he had also done that, so it sort-of confirmed or created this parallel only after the fact. We weren’t modeling on the knowledge that he had also done so himself.

JG: But the convergence speaks to a way of approximation of a kind of truth—perhaps with different intentions or different expectations about truth, but still. A partial truth, as you say.

RS: And that’s what made us want to go to [the ethnological museum in] Dahlem. Recognizing their fragmentary nature, we wanted to see these objects. We were told that they were not worth the visit. To put it in perspective: Dahlem has over half a million objects. It’s one of the biggest repositories in the world, certainly in Europe, and we sent this email about fourty-six little, gnarled, objects. . . . The pieces Boas sold to the museum are scattered within the North American section by type: “weapon,” “domestic,” these kinds of categories. And they are not all in good condition. The leather is dried and shriveled, not due to their lack of care, but because the leather hasn’t been tanned or preserved. In the museum, there’s not a sense of Boas as a figure having his own historical view on these objects.

FG: Also, these are not objects that the museum showcases because they are just very ordinary, often broken things, things Boas collected very haphazardly. There’s no prime example of any type of object among his collection. It is rather that Franz Boas collected them that makes them exemplary – but for what?

JG: In the sense of the curator saying that these objects are not so valuable—you mentioned that some were broken, maybe also that they were not a great exemplar of something—I wonder about the question of value, pointing to the idea that there are better things out there, somewhere else. Did he talk about this, or do you have a sense of what those objects might be, other than not broken? Do they have to have a history with them, for example, “X person made them on this date.” Is it about attaching a narrative to it, or is it about its origin?

FG: We would have to ask you, as the anthropologist.

RS: Or the curator. Some of the Boas objects do have a story. But sometimes we found the story in his writings. So maybe the kinds of notions of what makes a piece speak to a contemporary audience were not inscribed into the knowledge of the museum in 1885. The information that was added on the cards is limited [picks up a photograph of a polar bear tooth]. This is a “broken bear tooth” which was used for fishing bait.

Rebecca Sakoun & Florian Göttke, "Untitled [IV A 6703 bear tooth (salmon bait)]"

FG: You don’t know how it was used, if there was a string attached or not, what kind of string, what the string was attached to. A lot of information is missing. In some cases it’s the lack of context, and with other pieces, it is even unclear what they are: a worked upon piece of bone that he found somewhere on an old campsite. He didn’t even know what it was. He probably didn’t ask, or maybe he asked and no one knew. It’s just a piece of bone, you see that someone worked with it, and that’s it. So there’s no context whatsoever and nothing about the use.

RS: I find some of them very touching as well. There is this one piece of baleen, the length of a ruler. It looks like a twig; you wouldn’t know what it’s for.

FG: It’s like a stick you picked up off the ground.

RS: But what’s interesting is how it was used. You would stick it in the snow and hang your boots over them upside down to dry them out – dry boots, that’s pretty vitally important in the Arctic. We only know about this particular use of that material because that information was registered on the card.

Rebecca Sakoun & Florian Göttke, "Untitled [IV A 6709 piece of baleen]"

So again, what would be a spectacular item? Something in beautiful condition, well-made, maybe an interesting material.

JG: Something more exceptional or ceremonial?

RS: Maybe something not used, or used once. I guess that’s a very big discussion in museum studies.

JG: Definitely. And what we attend to when we do research. Exceptional things, everyday things. What draws you in?

RS: There weren’t really ritual objects amongst items he collected. Although he did collect stories, songs and descriptions of rituals. He was very attuned to children’s games. He asked a lot of people to make drawings – we speak about the maps in the video. So there is a lot of work existing in people’s own hand. Some of these maps are in Philadelphia, some of these are in Dahlem, but we weren’t shown them. Even in that, how do you represent song? Is it a song he transcribed? Something somebody wrote down for him? The objects are limited, which points to questions and tensions about absence and presence. We were interested in that limited ability of any one part of material culture or oral culture to speak for all of it.

FG: These unspectacular everyday objects were less defining, they enabled us to look for the attitudes that were involved in the making, collecting, and storing.

JG: Did Boas work for the Ethnological Museum?

FG: Not on this expedition but after he returned to Germany. His trip was funded by a scientific council established as a part of “The German Polar Year.” He found additional financing by writing some articles for newspapers and later sold the objects to the museum. Boas wanted to become a professor, to have an academic career, to start a family. And at that time, in order to habilitate [to achieve the highest qualification, post-PhD] you needed to have quite substantial research done on an expedition, and Boas chose the Arctic for some reason. That was an opportunity, as during the Polar Year funding was available and German ships were going there. He could have done other things.

RS: He wrote he had dreams of going to the Arctic since he was a child, dreams of running in the snow endlessly. He had a strong connection, on an imaginative level.

FG: Later, back in Berlin, Boas had difficulties getting his professorship—university politics, intrigues, power struggles. He then worked at the Berlin Ethnological Museum for a year, cataloging items from the Pacific Northwest, which became his next research area and the one he’d become famous for. Later he got his habilitation with the support of some backers, but then he couldn’t find the job that he wanted.

RS: Anti-Semitism might have been a part of why.

FG: Possibly, but there were only so many positions available. He had the degree of a professor, but there were no positions open for him. Also, he changed his fields, he first studied physics, then geography, and then began to see ethnology as more pressing.

JG: That’s interesting in itself. It makes me think of how you end up doing research in particular places, where there is a confluence of resources—a Polar Year! These things really do affect the rest of your life, in terms of what you care about and what you end up spending years doing.

Thank you for talking with me about your work and about Boas.

RS: Thank you.

FG: Thanks.

Back to Table of Contents

Bibliography from Collecting in the Collection

Boas, Franz. 1885. “Baffin-Land: geographische Ergebnisse einer in den Jahren 1883 und 1884 ausgeführten Forschungsreise.” Dr. Petermanns Mitteilungen. Gotha: Justus Perthes.

———. 1998. Franz Boas among the Inuit of Baffin Island, 1883–1884: Journals and Letters. Edited by Ludger Müller-Wille. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

———. 1964. The Central Eskimo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

———. 1888. “The Central Eskimo.” In Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, 409-669. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Clifford, James. 1986. Introduction to Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cole, Douglas. 1999. Franz Boas: The Early Years, 1858–1906. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Collins, Henry B. 1964. Introduction to The Central Eskimo by Franz Boas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Cruikshank, Julie. 1995. “Imperfect Translations: Rethinking Objects of Ethnographic Collection.” Museum Anthropology 19, no. 1: 25–38.

Edwards, Elizabeth. 2001. Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford: Berg.

Evans, Christopher. 2012. “Small Devices, Memory and Model Architectures: Carrying Knowledge.” Journal of Material Culture 17, no. 4: 369–87.

Fabian, Johannes. 2008. Ethnography as Commentary. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Glass, Aaron. 2009. “A Cannibal in the Archive: Performance, Materiality, and (In)Visibility in Unpublished Edward Curtis Photographs of the Kwakwaka’wakw Hamat’sa.” Visual Anthropology Review 25, no. 2: 128–49.

Müller-Wille, Ludger, and Bernd Gieseking, eds. 2008. Bei Inuit und Walfängern auf Baffin-Land (1883/1884). Minden: Mindener Geschichtsverein.

Back to Table of Contents

Related Resources


Igoolik is located 765km / 475miles to the northwest of Pangnirtung, also in Nunavut but not on Baffin Island.

Nunavut (Our Land) Series by Isuma Productions. "This 13-part dramatic television series brings to life the people, setting and continuing story of how Inuit in the Igloolik region of the Canadian Arctic lived on the land in the 40s. Based on true stories of present-day Elders, who still remember their early days growing up just before government and settlement life begun, Nunavut recreates a nomadic lifestyle that no longer exists today."

Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner Trilogy by Isuma Productions. "Three unique award-winning Inuit films express the dramatic history of one of the world’s oldest oral cultures from it’s own point of view."


Müller-Wille, Ludger. 2014. The Franz Boas Enigma: Inuit, Arctic, and Sciences. Montréal: Baraka Books.

Papanek, Victor. 1995. The Green Imperative: Natural Design for the Real World. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Stern, Pamela, and Lisa Stevenson, eds. 2006. Critical Inuit Studies: An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Berlin Ethnological Museum, Dahlem

Unikkaat Studios

Reading from Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology has published articles on native North American cultural politics, including Patricia Pierce Erikson’s "A-Whaling We Will Go: Encounters of Knowledge and Memory at the Makah Cultural and Research Center” (1999) and Orin Starn’s "Here Come the Anthros (Again): The Strange Marriage of Anthropology and Native America” (2011).

Cultural Anthropology published one article specifically about Franz Boas, Julia E. Liss’s "Diasporic Identities: The Science and Politics of Race in the Work of Franz Boas and W. E. B. Du Bois, 1894–1919" (1998).

Cultural Anthropology has published articles on photography and museum practice, including Liam Buckley’s "Photography and Photo-Elicitation after Colonialism” (2014), Raymond Corbey's "Ethnographic Showcases, 1870–1930" (1993), and Joanna Cohan Scherer’s "The Public Faces of Sarah Winnemucca" (1988).

Back to Table of Contents