Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Museums, Heritage and Material Culture

Research on the global field of museums, heritage, commemoration, consumption and material culture

Peter Pels

MSc Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology - Research opportunity

I specialised for my dissertation research in the anthropology of religion and magic, especially in East Africa (1989-1999). I am particularly interested in the way in which people work with their imagination at a global scale, and how ideas from one part of the world have been transported to and received in other parts. I continue to study the global transfer of political ideas and institutions (1996-present) and am currently most interested in the global field of museums, heritage, commemoration, consumption, and material culture.

Modern Magic

I have a long-standing interest in modern forms of magic, witchcraft, shamanism and other pragmatic spiritualities. I have supervised research into ayahuasca shamanism in Peru and the Netherlands, into many different forms of modern (“New Age”) healing in the Netherlands, into African traditional religion and medicine, and I am also interested in the spin-offs in “real life” of Science Fiction and Fantasy (such as Quidditch tournaments, The Lord of the Rings tourism, Cosplay and Comicon activities, or the social life of ‘Trekkies’ and Ufologists). I have written myself about Spiritualism, Theosophy, High Magic and its inspirations (such as anthropologists like James Frazer), and am particularly interested in how Africa do and think about magic and witchcraft, but also how these are represented in Europe (for example through bestsellers and films like “King Solomon’s Mines” and “She”).

Consumerism and material culture

I have recently completed a book about material culture that pays much attention to the “fetishism” one may find in advertising and other major forms of the visual and material culture of market relationships. I encourage students to set up projects that study market behavior in real life, and especially how sellers try to ensnare buyers (and vice versa, where that is possible). I have one particular project in mind: a study of how street sellers in Ghana set up stalls along the road, and try to persuade people to buy things with them through specific means of display. As far as I know, no researcher has so far asked sellers what they try to achieve when they use such means as “box office” type stalls, parasols and roofs, or specific forms of an étagère to display their goods, and what they try to do when they group products (i.e. piles of, for example, tomatoes) in specific patterns. These patterns connect, I think, to broader categories of “fetishism”- material, monetary, but also in terms of the identity of the buyer or seller (which is the equivalent of large-scale ‘branding’) – and therefore to what sellers (and buyers) try to achieve. Field research among such street vendors and buyers also involves talking about what they can afford, how they are situated in relation to ownership and possession of the public sphere, and what considerations of buying cheap play a role. This project may possibly be done in collaboration with the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal (NL).

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