ADI Academic Profiles - Oscar Salemink

By Kasper Ørntoft Thor

ADI Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Oscar Salemink

In the 6th in the series of ADI Academic Profiles, professor Oscar Salemink of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen presents his new project entitled Global Europe: Constituting Europe from the outside in, for which he has received a prestigious Sapere Aude advanced grant from the Danish Research Council.  

Today, the existence of continents seems like a given for most people of the world. But you do not have to look far back in human history to find a time where the notions of continents and nation-states had not been thought up, let alone globalized.

"In the past, Europe as we know it today, did not exist as a continent. In the 15th century there was something like Christendom that people referred to, meaning 'the Christian world'. It was only when European seafarers headed to the Americas, Africa, and Asia and came back with all sorts of cultural artefacts that the idea of Europe was created. These objects became part of the collections of kings and private collectors, such as the Danish Ole Worm collection. These collections were the beginning of museums and became the sites where, through the classification of objects, the world was classified into different continents."

So according to Oscar Salemink, the concepts of continents were only created when European seafarers went out into the world, to Asia, Africa and the Americas, and brought back cultural artefacts, or 'curiosities', from these different regions, grouping them together in collections, forerunners to our present-day museums. In others words, the division of the modern day world into continents that is taken for granted by most people was initially defined by Europeans and then globalized, in line with the emerging global dominance of Europe in that era.

But today the world faces a different situation. Europe no longer has the exclusive right to define the world. In all parts of the world, countries that used to be defined by Europe are now themselves defining Europe. This hypothesis lies at the core of Oscar Salemink’s new research project: Global Europe: Constituting Europe from the outside in through artefacts.

"This project looks at the four non-European BRICS countries as well as Japan. It explores how these countries not only look at, but also define, Europe, through the collection and classification of cultural artefacts. The basic idea is that Europe is now losing its dominance while other countries are on the rise. Increasingly, objects are being collected and circulated from Europe to other continents as well. The questions that this project seeks to answer is how are these European objects classified by the non-European BRICS countries as well as Japan today? And what do these countries' classification and thus definition, tell us about Europe?"

Apart from offering insights into the way that the outside world perceives, and now also defines, Europe, the project may help us to better understand the most prominent conflicts of recent times.

"Looking at the borders of Europe, you will find that these borders, which are thought of as unchanging, are in fact contested. If you look east, you will find a Russia that, at least according to Putin, no longer defines itself as European, but as Eurasian, and which does not acknowledge a Ukraine that defines itself as part of Europe, or more specifically the European Union. This contestation of the European borders is a shocking discovery for most Europeans, for whom these borders have long ago been naturalized."

When Europe in the 16th and 17th century was in a position to impose its classifications and definitions of the world, the objects which the European travellers brought back with them were regarded as ‘curiosities’ which were inferior to European cultural artefacts which represented ‘universal’ value. In current times, when more and more objects are being circulated, and Europe is losing its dominant position to other parts of the world, one might be led to think that European objects and artefacts will one day end up being classified as the curiosities of present day. However, in Oscar Salemink's mind, this will not be the case.

"It is an interesting thought, but I would not go that far. The idea of ‘a curiosity’ signals a lack of respect. I think Europe is still respected. But I think that there are indications that things are shifting. An example would be Japan, where the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum announced an exhibition on European impressionism as of equal importance as an exhibition of the Japanese artist Kyosai. So the naturalized hierarchy, what Michael Herzfeld calls the 'global hierarchy of value', is no longer as respected as in the past, where European universals (or North Atlantic universals) were accepted just about everywhere."

According to Oscar Salemink, this case is not an isolated phenomenon. Although Europe (or wider: the North Atlantic) still sees itself as the center of the art world, an increasing number of places have begun to add equal importance to non-European and European art in their exhibitions. An example would be the National Museum of India in New Delhi, in which Aztec art and modern European art are grouped together in a Department of Pre-Columbian and Western Arts – a move that in effect de-centralizes Europe.

"In the art world itself there is now a tendency to debunk the dichotomous distinction between the West and the rest. It is not that the objects themselves are changing the world, as they do not have that agency in and of themselves. They reflect a changing political and economic situation but also a change in perspectives. In this sense you might say that this new tendency in the art world might foreshadow how the world is changing in the near future."

What this change entails, and what it might mean for Europe in the future, is hard to predict. But with the project Global Europe: Constituting Europe from the outside in we may gain some clarity.

August 2015

Read more about Oscar Salemink's research and publications here.