fieldwork, echibition, moesgaard museum, refugee, detention centre, exhibition, student, ethnography, anthropology

Field-what kind of work?

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The next two weeks, we have invited some of the anthropology students who have created the special exhibition ‘In Motion: A different take on nomads’ to write a blog about their exhibition. This week, Pernille Bertram-Larsen writes about fieldwork and about her group’s exhibition ‘Nomads on standby – Life in detention centres’.


In the artificially lighted room, the flash from the journalist’s camera seemed surprisingly odd, and so did his question: “So, you have all been doing fieldwork as a way to gain knowledge for this exhibition?” I found the question and his surprise to my answer, “yes”, somewhat frustrating. I realised that there could be two reasons for the birth of this situation: Either the newspaper had sent a rookie journalist who had forgotten to do background check before his interview or we, as students and future anthropologists, had been slacking on the part of explicating our methods and the core of our discipline. Now as the exhibition is finished and I have proudly shown it to my friends and family, an undesirable conclusion has hit me: I cannot only blame the journalist for asking the, to me obvious question, and therefore I dedicate this paper to the keystone in our discipline and in the exhibition: Fieldwork.

Fieldwork is a way of attending other people, your surroundings and the world. It is a way to make the implicit explicit and to see things from a new perspective.
With ‘In Motion – A different take on nomads’ we are 72 students who have shed a new light on the phenomena ‘nomadism’, and by dint of fieldwork six different stories have sprouted.
If fieldwork is a new term to you, you can think of it as the fertilizer in your kitchen garden: Once you have done it, the fertilizer is itself no longer visible to the naked eye, the only thing that is left is its power and effect; it forces a process, the result of which you can never predict. As an example, you never know how your tomato plants will grow or if they will grow at all. Therefore, you sometimes have to rethink the aesthetic and content in your kitchen garden based on the fertilization, as so with fieldwork.

After studying anthropology for two years, I thought I had grown used to the power and unpredictability of fieldwork. This said, fieldwork hit me once again as I, together with eleven other students, visited three detention centres in Denmark: I had never in my wildest imagination thought that I would end up including a birdcage in the part of the exhibition named ‘Nomads on standby – Life in detention centres’. If you attend to this part of the exhibition, see the cage and listen to the words of the owner of the bird, I think you will know exactly why we felt this way about the cage. You will understand why it was no longer a question of whether we should include it, but where we should include it.

Attend to the exhibition and go see, feel, and hear the real stories and new perspectives on nomadism. While you do so, think of fieldwork as the fertilizer in this exhibition and the anthropologist as the gardener who knows that the roots of the fruits he or she is harvesting grow deeper than visible to the naked eye. With these things in mind you can avoid being surprised in the same way as the journalist was, which I guarantee will make room for even bigger and more exciting surprises.

The exhibition ‘In Motion: A different take on nomads’ can be seen at Moesgaard Museum till the 2nd of September.

// Pernille Bertram-Larsen

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putting thought to things

One thought on “Field-what kind of work?”

  1. Pingback: Can a garden gate be the symbol of a subculture? | ethnographica

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