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Race and Affect at the Museum: The Museum as a Theatre of Pain

Museum displays effect and are forged through affective politics. When world cultures were framed in the nineteenth century, often underlying them were accounts of taxonomies of race where European bodies, affective capacities and sensibilities were defined as the best that humanity could achieve and offer. Theatres of Pain was originally an exploration of post-imperial affective politics at the twenty-first century museum, resulting from a collaboration with Rosanna Raymond. Using this account, the exhibition space of the national museum is seen here to be experienced as a theatre of pain. The museum acts as a site of materializing the pain of epistemic violence, the rupture of genocide and the deadening of artefacts. The embodied experience of encountering these galleries is examined and the effect of Tony Bennett’s claim (2006) that the art museum becomes a mausoleum for the European eye, but one which petrifies living cultures. The aim is to study ‘affect’ and emotion at the museum space. What contribution can affect and emotion make to thinking through heritage experience and, more importantly, what affects figure and shape specific encounters? Writers within the social sciences (Ahmed, 2004a, 2004b; Thien, 2005; Hemmings, 2005; Tolia-Kelly, 2006), have critiqued the occlusion of power within the conceptualizations of theories of affect. They have also argued that any ‘universalist’ account of experience risks ethnocentrism and homocentricism by default. Therefore at the heart of this research are critical perspectives on affect from postcolonial theory and geopolitical critiques of exhibiting ‘other’ cultures at international art museums such as the British Museum.

Divya P. Tolia-Kelly is a Reader at Durham University’s geography department. Her research has been published in international journals including Cultural Geographies, Journal of Material Culture, Third Text, Area, Sociology and Mobilities. Since 1997, Tolia-Kelly collaborated with artists including Melanie Carvalho, Graham Lowe, and currently with Rosanna Raymond. Using a participatory approach, she developed visual methodologies which garner landscape values of migrant communities living in Britain and beyond. Since 2004, her research interests include a focus on material cultures research on identity through to the space of national exhibition spaces. Her recent research entitled ‘Race and Affect at the Museum: The Museum as a Theatre of Pain’ appears in the co-edited book Heritage, Affect and Emotion (Routledge 2017).