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CANCELED ~ The Empty Museum: Settler Colonial Histories and the Hoarding of Human Remains

April 30, 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm



In 1907, a German war chronicle documenting colonial warfare against the Herero people in South West Africa, now Namibia, noted that “A chest of Herero skulls was recently sent by troops from German South West Africa to the pathological institute in Berlin, where they will be subjected to scientific measurements.” The chronicle further noted that Herero women imprisoned in concentration camps “have removed the flesh [from the skulls] with the aid of glass shards.” In German South West Africa (now Namibia), a German colony from 1884 until World War I, bones were collected as material evidence by German soldiers and scientists, through genocidal violence and gravesite theft, for the purposes of racial research. The investments of this research mirror and were directly in conversation with the theft and collection of the bones of Indigenous and Black people in the United States; additionally, skulls from this genocidal project ended up in U.S. museums and collections, including the American Museum of Natural History.

In this talk, JD Brager will focus on repatriation claims in Germany and in the United States around Indigenous crania that hinge on the logic of national sovereignty and lines of descendants, and counterpose this with crania that are suspended out of time through the dispossession of sovereignty or Indigenous status. For example, claims of the Namibian government to the perhaps thousands of Herero skulls housed in German university archives, and claims by the family of Nat Turner to his skull, passed down by descendants of his murderers — both expose the investments of Western curatorial practice and offer a different way to think through the idea of reparations, against histories of dispossession. The unnamed skulls, labelled with ethnic or racial designations but largely dispossessed of their individual histories, are haunted objects, in the sense that they index and carry with them stories of dispossession both of land and the body, questions of personhood, collective memory and official history. These skulls come to represent contestations over the temporality of trauma and embodiment in the afterlife of chattel slavery and the ongoing project of settler colonialism, and repatriation claims offer a way of thinking about broader, decolonial redress.

JB Brager holds a PhD in Women’s & Gender Studies from Rutgers University New Brunswick and a BA in American Studies with a certificate in LGBT Studies from The University of Maryland College Park. They are a founding editor of Pinko Magazine and founding host of the Bluestockings bookstore comics reading series In The Gutter. Their scholarship has appeared in the International Journal of Communication, The Holocaust in History and Memory, and The New Inquiry. Their comics and work on comics appears in The Nib, the Jewish Comix Anthology, The Black Warrior Review, Shareable Magazine, The LA Review of Books, GUTS Magazine and Apiary Magazine.



April 30
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
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