The Archive as Subject

Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn was SWICH Artist in Residence at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm during September - November 2015. During the residency, she investigated the museum's photographic collections with a focus on how personal and institutional histories converge and create friction in the archive. The work process was presented at several public events at the museum and in this blog. An exhibition of Jacqueline's work based on the residency was held at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm in November-December 2016.

Conclusion – The Refugee Image

In this final post I do not wish to offer a conclusion to my experience in the photographic archives. I am wary of a totalizing account that would encapsulate the "artist-in-residence" at this particular institution. There are so many entry points and ways of navigating such an establishment.

The reason that prompted my desire to conduct this research was a very personal one. The passing of my grandfather and the photo album that he left behind incited me to re-visit our family history and its visual legacy. Since childhood my paternal grandfather showed me some photographs that he had salvaged from the war. He often reminded me of the historical weight I was bearing and my duties of preserving it. In his words, I had to give pride and show respect to a noble and respectable genealogy. It was my devoirs to remember our family history. I had, however, resisted this assignment as long as I can remember. How could I be proud of a family lineage when I grew up in a place where I had to speak the "local colloquiality," "fit in" and flatten out my "difference"?

What I initially thought would be an uncomplicated task––to browse through our family photo album while conducting the residency––became a deep emotional malaise. I was now facing the familial burden while confronting the silence my relatives had imposed onto the past or, more importantly, the lies around the loss of some relatives.

On September 2nd, 2015, curator Michael Barrett showed me around the museum and presented me the photographic archives. It was the same day that three year-old boy Aylan Kurdi's body had been found drowned, washed up ashore and his photograph made international news. His family fled the Syrian civil war, but their boat capsized while traversing the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian war became the backdrop of my entire period at the museum. Daily, I was reminded of the similar journey borrowed by my family forty years earlier. I pondered over the very existence of the photographs our family had salvaged. The plight of my own family history, devastated by the wars and the boat people journey, resonated too loudly with the current Syrian conflict.

The photographs in our family are, what I would call, 'refugee images' since they found shelter in our home. If these photographs would have been left behind, they would have most likely been destroyed because of their provenance and the history they tell (see previous posts from Week 4 & 5 and Week 8). They are political by the very nature of their existence. The refugee image is perhaps the opposite of Hito Steyerl's poor image. Steyerl defines the poor image as "[…] a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution." [1] The distribution economy of the poor image takes place online. However, the refugee image is an image that exists physically, materially, and is forced into displacement. These images are kept away from the public eye, at least temporarily until the shift of regime is completed and the political climate is stable again. The images are stored in a dark place, often in a home, and are at a halt, functioning like time capsules. The moment they are pulled out of their hiding they become anachronistic with the present. They stand at the fault line of history.

This artist-in-residence had been a frustrating journey due in part to my search for finding a language to speak about our photographs in relation to the institutional documents preserved at the museum. This is perhaps also another characteristic of the refugee image that it once had a language, but it doesn't speak its mother tongue anymore.

A man standing in a ceremonial uniform, French Indochina (Vietnam), early 20th Century.

[1] Steyerl, Hito. "In Defense of the Poor Image," e-flux, no. 10, November 2009. Accessed May 22, 2016,


It took me some time to write this blog entry partly because I needed time to reflect upon the holdings of the Museum of Ethnography. I had to come to term with the immense gaps in the archive for, far from being complete and exhaustive, the culled material is selective, limited, and intrinsic to the ethnographers' personal interests. If I may generalize, it has been almost impossible to find traces of the colonial power in Indochina in its photographic archive but, rather, the images are the direct result of colonial infrastructures which facilitated colonial presence, including ethnographic endavours.[1]

I researched in vain, but I had to recognize that the focal point of many ethnographers was the search for primitive populations of exotic cultures who, ideally, were untouched by Western culture.[2] So, this specific blind spot became a source of frustration, but also of reflexion. Therefore, I was forced to look obliquely, to cut through the museum's aporias, in order to find points of contact between the French colonial power and the indigenous people of Indochina. Looking sideways into history was possible thanks to the photographs that my grand-father salvaged from the two wars, the Indochina (1946-1954) and the Vietnam (1955-1975) wars, alongside with some notes he wrote.

Nguyễn Khương (first row and 10th person from the left) with colleagues in front of the administrative office of An Nhơn, in the province of Bình Định, French Indochina. Photo from Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen's personal archive.

The photograph above shows my great-grandfather Nguyễn Khương (standing in the first row and 10th person from the left) together with his colleagues in front of the administrative office of An Nhơn, in the province of Bình Định.[3] There are two elements in this photograph that I wish to reflect upon. First, the six men standing on the left of the image are soldiers, but I am uncertain of their ranking and the reason of their presence in this photographic moment. Second, the poster placed above the main door of the building caught my attention. After much research, I came to realize that it is probably the portrait of Philippe Pétain. If this is correct, then the photograph was most certainly taken sometime between 1940-1944, during the French State (État français) under World War II, or perhaps later. I was lucky to find a copy of this poster online.

Poster depicting Philippe Pétain, who was Prime Minister of Vichy France. Philippe-Henri Noyer, Phap Viêt Phuc Hung (la renaissance franco-vietnamienne), 1943, BnF.

The poster of Philippe Pétain is accompanied by a propaganda text of the Vichy ideology, which says: "Dear French and Vietnamese countrymen, there is not a better time than now to work together. A consensus between France and Vietnam is of most importance for the future of East-France." (My translation)

This collaboration between the French and the Vietnamese had been deadly for some members of our family. I came across a note that my grandfather sent me a few years ago and confirmed the political ties between our family and the French. Without trying to be apologetic, I wonder if any other possibilities would have been possible for them than to collaborate. They occupied high-ranking positions of the ruling class for many generations and the French had been fostering deep economic, religous and political ties with Indochina since the 19th century.

Note, in Vietnamese, to Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen from her grandfather, explaining parts of their family history.

Dear Hoàng,

Here is a succinct biography of the Reverend monk (Buddhist nun) Nguyên Huệ, eldest of the family. Born June 3, 1921 in Huế, the ancient capital of Vietnam, she was given the name Nguyễn Thị Phương, meaning "The virtuous Nguyen." Her Buddhist name is Nguyên Huệ which can be translated "Origin of the lily." In 1945, she married with a descendant of the Emperor Lê Lợi named Lê Hữu Sở. In 1946, he died in Nha Trang during a battle with the French colonialists who strove to regain their colony. (My translation)

In addition to work with an uncooperative archive, I am forced to deal with an inherited history that is far from being heroic or revolutionary. On the contrary, I am left with documents that are a reminder of a double chagrin. On the one hand, I carry the history of a family who lost two wars, who lost a country, where all social relations that had been fortified for generations have been shattered due to civic unrest and migration, and on the other hand, I carry the immigrant body who is constantly reminded of the out-of-place position that I occupy. This double embarrassment is not so much how we have lost everything, such as material goods, status and beloved ones, but that we are lost. We surrended our identity for being on the wrong side of history and, once again, in the hands of our new country. Immigrant bodies, like mine, who are tucked in the dead angle of patriotic grand narratives, are forced to look in zigzag into the archives when the consolation of nationalism fails too many of us.

* * *

[1] For example, when I discussed with Curator Klas Grinell at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg he told me that during the first half of the 20th century it was not unusual for hotels to rent out their rooms unfurnished. This meant that travellers had to organize their journeys with an existing on-site colonial infrastructure, which would organize the local indigenous labour––most often performed without remuneration––so the travellers' belongings, including their furniture, would be transported.

[2] I am indebted to Curator Michael Barrett at the Museum of Ethnography for our multiple conversations on the topic, which made me realize the limitations of my research within the museum's holdings.

[3] As indicated in a hand-written note by my grandfather which accompanies the photograph.


Screencapture from AiR workshop "Ni är här för att de var där" held at Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm on 27 October 2015. Two hands cloaked in white gloves are held over the reverse side of a photograph with the inventory no. 0032.0162.

Together with the museum's educator Jon Jonsson I led the workshop "Ni är här för att de var där" ["You are here, because they were there"] on Saturday October 17th. Inspired by Stuart Hall's quote "They are here, because you were there" the aim of the workshop was to map out and visualize the 'umbilical connection' that exists between a nation and its former colonial enterprises. Each participant came with one or two photographs from their family album or, alternatively, could pick some images from the museum's online database. The purpose of the activity was to make visible the links between a site, its people, a colonial presence and how these elements may have affected the local climate and prompted forms of migration.

For example, one of the participants, Azmara Nigusse, selected a photograph from the museum's collection which depicts the small Eritrean town Tukul. Taken in the late 19th century, the photograph shows a modest church erected on top of the highlands, together with some of the villagers nearby with their dwellings, and surrounded by dry, uneven and stony land. A narrow path leads from where the photographer stands to the church.

Photograph of Tucul in Asmara, Eritrea taken in the early 20th Century by Italian photographer Alessandro Comini. The photo shows a sparsely built hillside crowned by a Eritrean orthodox church. From the photo collection of Swedish missionary Jonas Iwarson (inv. no. 0032).

The night before the workshop, Azmara showed the photograph to her mother and they discussed her memories of this particular site, Tukul being her place of birth. Azmara's mother was born at the edge of the town and explained how the Italians in the 1930s and 1940s built a runway, located at the fore of the photograph, not for commercial purposes, but for militaristic endeavors. Strategically located, Tukul is adjacent to Ethopia which allowed the Italians to cease the nearby country with armed forces. The landscape and the village were transformed by the Italians during the decade they occupied the area, and the border was a part of their colonial construct. What may seem like an innocent landscape provoked an intergenerational conversation about this place and rendered visible how the social relations were directly influenced by international colonial politics at this very locality. The migrations of Azmara's family were subsequently mapped out on a large world map alongside with the journey of the photograph, from Eritrea to the Museum of Ethnography.

Through this exercise, photographs functioned as an aperture to narratives where the geopolitics of a place are explored through personal memories. In other words, photography does not only serve as a record of an event, but rather as a prism through which to think through other areas of the represented and of the non-represented. It becomes an evidence of the concealed.

Interestingly enough, most of Azmara's family photographs are now housed at her aunt's home in Milan, a Pandora 's Box in the belly of the beast.


Catalogue card for photograph no. 13963 in the collections of the Museum of World Culture, Gothenburg.

You don't have a name, you have an origin, you barely have a context, and you have been assigned a registering number. I've been looking for you #13 963.

We know that you came to the museum with Karl Gustav Izikowitz, Swedish ethnographer, who was the Director of the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg from the mid-1940s. Izikowitz did a research trip to Indochina (1936-1938) to study the Lamet, a remote Mon-Khmer group living in northern Laos. During his expedition, he passed through the Northern and center parts of Vietnam, Tonkin and Annam, as the photographs in the collection reveal. In 1956, Izikowitz donated amongst other things his photographic collection to the museum.

I suspected that you were somewhere in the depository since I had found you on the museum's online database. You were partly the reason why I applied to this residency program, so I wanted to see you for real. For an entire month I was looking for you in the archives, but I was told that you were perhaps lying elsewhere, at one of the museum's sibling institutions. I went ahead anyway and scrutinized the piles of photographs.

Two years prior to Izikowitz's visit to Indochina, on March 20th 1934, a commoner from a wealthy Vietnamese Roman Catholic family married the Emperor Bao Daï, to become the second and last Empress of Vietnam. For the first time in Vietnamese history, this union broke the rules of the monarchy because of her religious belief, but this alliance greatly pleased the French.

Finally, I found you #13 963 and I know your name. It is Nam Phương. You were amongst this pile of images from Indochina, but you stood out from the stack. Your portrait is formal, sitting in a chair and dressed in traditional imperial clothes, your gaze defies the camera. This image contrasted to the snapshots of Indochinese street life and the Lamet people taken by Izikowitz. However, we cannot know why and how you ended up in the ethnographer's hands.

Photograph of Nam Phương (1914-1963), wife of Vietnamese Emperor Bao Daï (1913-1997).

In 1944, you signed and dated a portrait of yourself and your child and gave it to my great-grandfather, a gesture that shows that you appreciated him. My great-grandfather passed away the same year my dad said his final farewell to Vietnam before heading to Canada, perhaps—as we can look back and understand the geo-politics of the time—was the deepest rupture with traditions, even more than your wedding.

Now that the turbulent years are over, we can ponder over how your portrait traveled the world and found refuge in the institution's archive and in our home.

Week Three - Omitted

What if there were a photograph in the archives that can not be shown? What does it mean, in today's excess of images, that one specific picture cannot be seen? The photograph in itself is not vexatious, but it is rather its provenance and the familiarity between the sender and the addressee that may be unsettling. The photograph is kept in its original box and lies on the last bookshelf of one of the storage rooms in the basement. Few of the staff members know where it is kept but, nevertheless, most of them do know of its existence. This photograph was voluntarily omitted in the main inventory catalogue, which means it does not exist.

Week Two - Shuffling

After a first week of presentations with the staff and introductions to the various collections of the museum, I am now left to my own device to explore the Museum of Ethnography's archives. As I am focusing on the photographic collections, I spent my second week in residence trying to make sense as to how to navigate the stacks of images. The documents lie higgledy-piggledy in four different rooms, each with varying degrees of classification. An encompassing organizational system had been implemented some years ago, but shortly after it was re-organized into another categorization system to only return to the previous one, which revealed to be more efficient. The unavoidable difficulty to organize these photographic documents seem to supersede its own duty, to capture reality and claim truth.

Diabilder på interiörer ur Etnografiska museets bildarkiv

I am left with the question what is the function of a photograph in a museum of ethnography? Would it be to present a geography? To document an action or a gesture? To record social relations? Or, perhaps, would the photographer's intents or desires overrule the image itself? The difficulty in answering these questions is deeply intertwined with what kind of knowledge the images ought to perform. After a week of shuffling I wonder whether these photographs could simply haunt us rather than serving us?

The residency at the Museum of Ethnography is part of SWICH - Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage - a four-year collaborative project involving ten European museums of Ethnography and World Cultures, with the aim of creating dialogues on citizenship and belonging in contemporary Europe. Under the sub-theme "Stereoculture: the Art of Listening" four European partner museums host simultaneous residencies for artists/experts/curators to develop critical perspectives on their practices, exhibitions and collections. Besides the National Museums of World Culture [SE], the participating museums in the residency program are the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart [DE], the Luigi Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome [IT], and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren [BE].

Photography supplied by Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen may not be copied or used without written permission from the artist.

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