26/03/23 • ◠ Focus: Collections : Liisa-Rávná Finbog


26/03/23 • ◠ Focus: Collections : Liisa-Rávná Finbog


In the below text Yul Brynner in Space is Life: On Collecting Art, or Perhaps, On the Art of Collecting, Sámi Indigenous scholar, duojár and curator Dr. Liisa-Rávná Finbog offers a critical reflection on the philosophy of collecting. In stark contrast to commonly accepted rhetoric of museums as preservers of cultural heritage, Finbog outlines how collection practices have aided colonial ideals throughout history, and questions what stories have been sacrificed in order to uphold this destructive narrative.

Not only do objects help us master the world, by virtue of their being inserted into practical sets, they also help us, by virtue of their being inserted into mental sets, to establish dominion.

–Jean Baudrillard

As a young girl, I was handed an old collection of napkins by my mother, inheriting, in a sense, what she herself had collected as a child. Sitting with this grouping of similar objects, it is difficult to determine when the napkins first became a collection, but then, a collection is rarely begun as such. 1 Rather, collections come together with time, if not intent; an invariable understanding that the series of similar objects at hand, which you specifically acquired at various times, has indeed become a collection – a meaningful sequence of objects and things. Having said that, we all collect, some collect stamps or books, others collect art, and some collect vinyl records from specific decades or artists (as I write this, I am insistently reminded of my father’s life-long infatuation with Bob Dylan; a fondness that he has managed to infect all his children with). But no matter the subject of our collections (because they don’t really matter), the desire to collect, if not innate, is inherent in us from early childhood. 2 "For the child," says the French sociologist, philosopher, and poet Jean Baudrillard, "collecting represents the most rudimentary way to exercise control over the outer world: by laying things out, grouping them, handling them." 3 This innocent drive to know the whys and wherefores of the worlds we live in becomes in the child’s mind intrinsically linked with the objects we collect. Without speculating about my mother’s intent in acquiring her napkins, which she later bequeathed to me, I will note that my own intent in continuing the collection is very much in the likeness of the above quote. Like the exalted curator of life itself, each napkin that I carefully selected and added to the collection brough with it a purpose. Even if I might not, at the time at least, have been able to articulate what that purpose was.

  1. Bael 1994, 101.
  1. Pearce 1992, 47.
  1. Bael 1994, 9.

Taking my inspiration from the fascinating work that the Dutch cultural theorist and video artist Mieke Bal has done on collections and narrativization, I think that my early foray into the art of collecting is very much a demonstration of how objects, or napkins as the case may be, are "subjectivized elements in a narrative." 4 This view comfortably aligns with how, as both a museologist and archaeologist, I understand objects to carry multiple stories simultaneously, but also within specific hierarchies. 5 As "sites of intersecting histories" then, which is how the photographer Elisabeth Edwards refers to it, objects and things can both be, or tell, multiple stories. 6 Collecting, whether it is napkins or the much more elevated things that we call art, is as such "an essential human feature that originates in the need to tell stories." 7 The memory of driving up North to visit my father’s home territories in the summertime is as such immortalized in a napkin collected from a diner we stopped at along the way. The vague recollection of my older cousin taking me to a Saturday matinee (which is where I understood that Yul Brynner in space is life), and of buying popcorn and soda (secretly of course, so as to not subject me – and perhaps himself – to the never-ending lectures of how candies and sweets do not a substantial meal make), exist in the napkins that we grabbed at the cinema counter. On their own, these napkins are simply fragments, the splinters of a much larger story. As a collection, however, the napkins, through my curation, became the dynamic expressions of a life lived. "For," as Baudrillard reminds us, "it is invariably oneself that one collect’s," 8 and in the process, we learn to know the worlds we live in as well as our own place in it. 9

  1. Bael 1994, 99.
  1. Mordhorst, 2009.
  1. 2003, 2.
  1. Bael 1994, 103.
  1. 1994, 12.
  1. Pearce 1992, 47.

From a very young age then, we are primed to categorize and label, to analyze and dissect, to serialize and disseminate our experiences of and perspectives on the world by way of objects. But where the collections of peculiar things in the hands of a child comes off as innocent or a praised past-time to challenge and expand horizons, the art of collecting may take on a more sinister cast when executed in the adult realms of politics and policies. Suddenly, the innocent past-time of our childhood is groomed into accepting a specific (and object-based) epistemology that inevitably provides the foundation of both ownership and possession, and as such, of othering and privilege.

In his now seminal work on princely collections and cabinets of curiosities in Europe from the 16th to the 19th century, the Polish philosopher Krzysztof Pomian describes the earliest collections as formed of the "desire to see, learn or possess rare, new, secret, or remarkable things." 10 So not only did the act of collecting develop as a way to expand on knowledge. Just as important was the intent to possess, and extending from that, to own. This sense of ownership – indeed the very idea that something may be possessed and owned – is very much an idea of a Western and colonial make. 11 Incidentally, it is also the antithesis to every belief we hold within Indigenous philosophies because ‘to possess’ demands that there is also ‘possession’; to be able to own something (and sometimes even someone), there must also be something (and sometimes even someone) that is owned. Implied in this dichotomy of dominion, lies the seed for subjugation; for the act of owning can only happen if that which is owned is subjugated. We have no word of subjugation in our (Sámi) languages. In fact, our understanding of the term comes from our experience of being subjugated and dehumanized by colonial nations. This is where the sinister cast that I earlier attached to the act of collecting becomes more than an abstract reflection and is instead traversed into the certainty of true cause and effect.

  1. 1990, 58-9.
  1. Rose, 1985.

The idea of ownership and possession is to me the disquieting (if vibrant) visualization of Europe’s imaginative ingress of imperial proportions. Because I am a scholar trained in the act of collecting – whether objects, history, or understandings – this is (to my admittedly competent eyes) an admissible fact. As an Indigenous person that has experienced their indigeneity being possessed (I was once claimed as a possession by a woman who believed the very act of dressing Indigenous – her words – defined me as a collectable performance of authentic indigeneity which meant that she was also free to record me against my will), this fact is made all the more salient. Imperialism, which in its most basic description is the extension of a Nation-states’ power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other (and quite frankly suspect) means, did increasingly engage state policies of multiple European nations from the 15th century onwards. In the wake of such also came an expansion of collecting practices. Before, the peculiar collections of curiosities had been hoardings of ‘rare, exceptional, extraordinary, exotic and monstrous things’ that were committed to seeking a deeper knowledge of the universe. Slowly, the knowledge in question also pertained to memorabilia from the new and ‘exotic’ lands that the colonial conquest of the West had begun to map and possess. 12 These cabinets of curiosities and collections (in the later guise of their descendants, which are museums), in time evolved and became the representative mirrors reflecting the world as it was viewed from and by the imperial gaze, which is also colonial and predominantly white. 13 As the influential museologist, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill 14 so succinctly has concluded, the "establishment of collections [...] is a form of symbolic conquest."

  1. Pomian 1990, 271
  1. Pratt 1992, 7.
  1. 2000, 18.

In his now canonized essay, ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’, the interdisciplinary scholar, James Clifford states that in the West, "collecting has long been a strategy for the deployment of a possessive self, culture, and authenticity." 15 To collect, as the act may be conceived of from Clifford’s statement, is in simple terms to gather and arrange objects within a specific frame of reference. Inscribed with meanings and values, collected objects thus take part in a larger whole that makes a visual statement, which is never arbitrary, but always imbued with purpose – whether consciously or not. Similar then, to how my napkins on their own were fragments, yet in coming together they evolved into a larger and narrative whole. Providing insight into the discourse of dominion that collections may breed, Clifford’s statement thus makes a poignant but cautionary certainty: whenever an object enters a collection, the stories that it carries are also acquisitioned by the proprietor. Or more to the point, the right to tell, and conversely the right to silence, the stories of objects become the prerogative of their (self-proclaimed) owners – whether that be people or museums. Museums then, granted by their (self-assured) ownership of all that is material, "becomes a signifier as well as a creator of [...] meanings." 16 In this way, the act of collecting any object invariably becomes a process of othering.

  1. 1988, 218.
  1. Clavir 2002, 27.

The process of othering is a very specific and persuasive (some might even say, insidious) process embedded in dynamics of power and privilege. Made famous by the German philosopher Georg Hegel in 1807, to ‘Other’ initiates an asymmetric binary of one and other, where the latter is understood as the lesser (in both power and autonomy). One, defined as master or subjects uses their position of privilege to impose power on another, defined as the slave or the object. This has the intended consequence of ensuring the existence of one on account of the other because the master uses the slave as a contrast, adapting them to fit their own need. At first glance this might not seem problematic, but a deeper understanding of the master-slave dialectic reveals that is indeed so and even harmful – to the slave. When the master, who is the subject, defines the slave as object, they also impress their will onto the slave and thereby inscribe meanings and significance onto the ‘Other’. This is, broadly put, the process of ‘othering.’ 17 Many have made use of ‘Othering’ as an analytical tool (Borossa and Rooney 2003), but perhaps one of, if not the best known and indeed successful attempts, was done by Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 when she made excellent use of the master-slave dialectic in her publication “Le Deuxième Sexe”, showing how Woman had been ‘Othered’ when defined by – and as a contrast to – the Man who is ‘The Subject […] The Absolute.’ 18 Edward Said made another well-known contribution to the epistemology of “othering” when he discussed how the West had created a picture of the Orient that with time became the defining contrast to modern Europe (Said [1978]1994). In addition, both Said and Beauvoir exposed how said process is capable of creating meta narratives that not only produce knowledge of, but in actual fact define those that have been categorized as ‘Other.’

  1. Hegel [1807]1977, 179.
  1. Beauvoir [1949]2000:36.

Historically, the process of othering has been a much favored strategy to deal with Indigenous peoples, 19 mostly in the service of imperialism. And make no mistake, just because the terms were not made yet, ‘Othering’ very much happened before Hegel and the 19th century, but I digress. 20 While many of the implementations of imperialism have been governed and executed by state institutions and public employees as well as private establishments and persons, it is today recognized that museums had a significant role to play; 21 a role that was largely influenced by the asymmetrical relations of power created and reproduced through objects and the act of collecting them.

  1. Smith [1997]2012:27, i.e. Hesjedal 2000:22, Mathisen 2004:5-6.
  1. Hesjedal 2000, Bennett 2004.
  1. (Bennett 2004, Henare 2005.

Bal understands collecting to be a process of ‘Othering’, referring to it as an abduction, explaining that inserting any object into the narrativization that a collection presumes, turns the object away from their own presence, and instead into an expression of absence. 22 When the Senegalese academic and writer Felwine Sarr, together with French art historian Benedict Savoy in 2018 presented their rapport on African cultural heritage in French museums, they termed such absence a ‘syndrome of incompleteness.’ 23 This syndrome, they went on to state, reflects that objects once dispossessed from their source communities experience the silencing of both meanings and stories. So, once removed from home, included in what might be termed a ‘diaspora of cultural belongings,’ 24 , objects without fail take on a ‘diasporic’ veneer that highlights their alienation from the inherent qualities of their source communities. 25 . Instead, the objects transition into ‘signs of elsewhere,’ 26 propagated in the captivity of "asymmetric spaces of appropriation" where "Others come to perform." 27 This is why many Indigenous people today feel estranged from their own material culture. 28 The ‘Othering’ that such alienation implies is facilitated on the basis of privilege.

  1. Bal 1994, 111.
  1. Sarr & Savoy 2018, 41, 30.
  1. Moulton 2018, 2000.
  1. Peffer 2005, 339.
  1. Peffer 2005, 341.
  1. Boast 2011, 63.
  1. Olli 2013, 87; Buijs 2016, 539.

It is obvious, says Bal, that "not every human being is, or can afford to be, a collector" as the very act of collecting reveals the vexatious character of power and privilege. 29 But I think, more to the point, that not every human being is, or can presume the power and privilege needed to be a collector. Because of my academic background, which is a privileged one, I am very much aware of how collecting is a way of sequencing objects by time, culture, technological advancement and so on. Initially, this process seems to be harmless – and to be fair, if stopped at that point, it very likely is. The problem occurs, however, when the ordering of objects eventually creates chronologies and typologies that promote an object-based knowledge. 30 I have perhaps been less aware – naively so – of how much power such an act commands simply because the very essence of collecting engages in a perceived neutrality enabled by the privilege of a mainstream (and predominantly white) majority. Consider for one, how chronologies order objects by Western (and colonial) time, which is linear, meaning that objects are placed from older to younger. Combine this perspective with typology. Typology is a systematic classification of types, so objects are ordered in line with their common characteristics. Quite often, such characteristics are also used to indicate level of sophistication or linear development. In this way, "the act of collecting [...] becomes a form of subordination, appropriation, de-personfication," 31 but only noticeable in so far as you are adversely affected. If, on the other hand, you benefit from the invention of hierarchies that collecting and collections assume, it is much more difficult to see the inequality. Not due to a lack of ability, but more because one lacks the will to see. Cloaked in my inherited indigeneity, the sudden absence of privilege, even as I am also amongst a privileged group (or discipline), is an eye-opener. It has been perhaps, a slow realization. Nevertheless, it is an understanding that is bound to happen whenever an Indigenous subject (which has been deemed an object) enters the museum.

  1. 1994, 103.
  1. Henare 2005, 49.
  1. Bael 1994, 105.

Historically, there is a tendency to assume that museums, by way of their collections, are the providers of truth. The perceived objectivity of objects (which we know to be impossible), adds to this presumption. The ambiguities of truth are nevertheless cleverly disguised. Museums may very well be the arbitrator of truth[s] and facts. The question we need to ask, if we want to unmask the supposed truth, separating it from facts, is not if museums narrate truth, but rather whose truth they disseminate. This question, once asked, blurs the waters – shifting and moving the ancient sediments of seabed’s, distorting, and shattering the clarity that was once taken for granted. 32 The museum and the collections that it holds, is a harsh reminder of this fact: As an Indigenous archaeologist and museologist I have both been the collector, but also the collected. And yet, the difficult movement between the two roles does not disguise the fact that "Museums can be very painful sites for Native peoples as they are intimately tied to the colonization process." 33 The act of collecting is equally fraught with agony and discomfort. As they have ordered, categorized, preserved, displayed, and disseminated their collections for the public to see, 34 the claimed possessions (or objects) of museums connect to and help create, not to mention reinforce, larger narratives which holds true, regardless of fact. 35 This is so, whether the borders of our imagination and understanding is limited in past, or present, and even in future.

  1. Sandell 2017; Paul 2018.
  1. Lonetree 2012, 1.
  1. Hooper-Greenhill 2000; Padiglione 2016.
  1. e.g, Wolff et al. 2012.

My collection of napkins, which belonged to my mother before me, is now kept in my childhood home. The many memories that they represent, the collective history of the lives that they embrace, lies in storage, waiting for the next young child to add their own stories to the tale. When that time comes, I hope this potential collector of stories and memories considers that in their act of collecting and in their execution of a curatorial practice, stories may also be silenced. I wish for this young potential of the many futures to be, to swim in the tides of imaginations but tempered with caution – acknowledging that their power and privilege is also a sacred responsibility. My hopes and wishes do not simply spring from the well-loved napkins of yesterday, carried on the ebbs of time to reach the boundaries of a future potential. However impossible it might seem at this moment in time, my hopes and wishes also grows from the idea that one day, all the young potentials that hold in their hands the privilege to access the intersecting stories of objects will always consider that in their decision to tell a history, another’s history may be sacrificed on the altar of imperial idealization.

Dr. Liisa-Rávná Finbog is a Sámi Indigenous scholar, duojár and curator from Oslo, Vaapste, and Skánit in the Norwegian part of Sápmi. As a long-time practitioner of duodji [Sámi practices of aesthetics and storytelling], her work  combines her aesthetic practice with an Indigenous research focus, blending Sámi ways of being (ontology), knowing (epistemology), and doing (axiology) with traditional research paradigms of Western academia.

She is currently based in Tampere, on the Finnish side of Sápmi, where she is doing post-doc research in connection with ‘Mediated Arctic Geographies’, a project that aims to look at how Arctic geospheres are aesthetically shaped and mediated to become vehicles of environmental, [geo]political and social concerns at Tampere University. Her specific focus is on the relation between Indigenous aesthetics in the Arctic and land.

Her written works include contributions to collective works such as ‘Research Journeys In/To Multiple Ways of Knowing (2019), articles in Nordic Museology (2015) and in the digital platform “Action Stories” (2021), essays in multiple exhibition catalogues (2022, 2023) as well as several upcoming works, including her first book, “It Speaks to You – Making kin through people, stories, and duodji in Sámi Museums” (2023).


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