ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Biography of a Naga Object: Movements, Transformations and Continuities


Insaf Habiba - Humboldt University,Berlin, Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Berlin, Germany


12 – South Asian Collections in European Museums: Examining their acquisition, display, and futures


In the nineteenth century, objects belonging to the Nagas, the hill people of northeast India, were fervently collected for museums in Europe by ethnographers & travellers. One such collector was Otto Ehlers who acquired hundreds of Naga objects on behalf of the Berlin Ethnological Museum (EM) during his trip to Assam in 1893 & 1895. Once in Berlin, the classificatory regime of the museum framed Naga objects as ‘tribal,’ ‘primitive’ & ‘ethnographic’ – a taxonomy that persists today. By the early twentieth century, however, Naga objects were left in stores & denied further public attention. Except for rare public appearances, this was to be the fate of the Naga collection in EM until now. The Naga exhibition at the Humboldt Forum which opened doors last year has reincarnated the forgotten Naga objects in public life.In this paper, I trace the life of a Naga object — an Ao Naga body cloth acquired by Otto Ehlers— across various exhibitionary realms. In doing so, I investigate the epistemic shifts & changes in the spatial vocabulary surrounding the Ao textile alongside the tenacity of colonial classifications. What also emerges as significant is that though Naga objects have had a long career as museum objects, they have lived an abbreviated time in public display. This raises important questions concerning the vacillating significance of Naga objects & why their presence has been largely marginal to the visual representation of India in museums.