Postmortem Economies in Art: The Carceral Value and Unrested Labour of Ensouled Museum Collections

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De Line, Sebastian
museum studies , labour , value , racial capital
The intent of this doctoral research is to provide a theoretical understanding of how value and labour are instrumentalized in museum collections through Eurocentric discourse and its philosophical underpinnings, together with the legal apparatuses of acquisition policies and collection processes, as I draw out in particular case studies. The aim is to contribute a theoretical framework for understanding acquisition values in art collection while tracking the repercussions of capturing and containing living ancestors (referred to as remains, artifacts, and objects by Western definition) and the labours they produce in their afterlives. Such carceral labours by ancestors inevitably extend into an afterlife of capital, where the unrested labours of these ancestors continue to be extracted beyond their death by museums. This necessitates a redefinition of the Marxist notion of labourers as human to include material beings that are considered in the West to be “inanimate objects.” My dissertation aims to fill a gap in research by extending and deepening discourses on racial capital’s extraction and accumulation (originary accumulation) processes in museum collections. Current literature on this subject is limited to addressing how colonial extraction and accumulation are connected to histories of global colonization or capital in theoretical terms, offering few concrete examples of how values and labours are carried out in acquisitions processes, collections policies, and curatorial language. Each chapter grounds its interdisciplinary theoretical analyses in case studies where various general acquisition criteria for valuation (knowledge value, historical value, rarity value, conservation value, authenticity and provenance value, narrative or affective value, and artistic or aesthetic value) are examined to determine how Indigenous and racialized ancestors become commodified, extracted, and accumulated in collections. These case studies are comprised of examples of various ancestors in museum collections in Europe and North America, including the British Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural Museum of Natural History, the Denver Art Museum, the Canadian Museum of History, and the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia (MOA). Other materials of analysis include accompanying curatorial texts, academic scholarship, journalistic articles, museum policies, and annual reports.
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