Professor Marina Kaneti’s talk focuses on the intersection between perceptions of the ancient Silk Road and the more contemporary concept of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI). Two key questions are asked: Firstly, is there something akin to a “Silk Road Spirit”? And what exactly are its parameters? Secondly, how does the BRI and the Silk Road influence the possibilities for alternative world order(s) and political agency? To answer these questions, Professor Kaneti takes a visual approach – analyzing what is shown and not shown in maps and museum exhibits - to understand how visual representations influence our understanding of the past and our vision of the future.
As part of her research, Professor Kaneti has visited museums across numerous cities in Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Kolkata, Mumbai, Guangzhou and Malacca. She found that in many cases, there museum exhibits and public displays feature a prevailing narrative of uninhibited circulation and exchange across Asia, and celebration of deep maritime traditions. While such interactions are often framed within the language of peace and prosperity, they are also made to starkly contrast the later involvement of various European actors. To the extent that exhibits affirm a narrative of a pre-European order (i.e. something akin to a “Silk Road Spirit), it is one of peaceful interactions with extensive opportunities for circulation of goods and great freedom of mobility. Interestingly, Professor Kaneti noted that across many museum exhibits, there is a distinct lack of discussion about the messiness and uncertainties that must have existed during these exchanges. In fact, interactions with the native populations were rarely featured. What was prominent was the narrative of institutional and legal order that resulted, such as the use of institutional and naval power to prevent the spread of piracy in the region. Yet, there is also little information of who the pirates were and why they were labeled as such.
These findings lead Professor Kaneti to argue that museums are key players in upholding both territorial and historical claims associated with the ancient Silk Road. She also sees the use of images as an important platform for political agency as it allows for the construction of alternative narratives and interpretations. Professor Kaneti also believes that the renewed emphasis on networks and interconnectivity across cities and regions has been triggered by the global attention given to the BRI. She has observed how some cities not actually involved in the BRI try to stake a claim on the initiative on the basis of their maritime legacy.
This is the thirteenth in a series of 'Politics and IR Brown Bag Lunch Sessions' organised by the Centre on Asia and Globalisation. Launched in 2017, the initiative aims to provide a more casual and intimate setting for CAG faculty members to share their nascent research ideas on international relations over lunch, as well as engaging in unconstrained and thought-provoking discussion.