Ethnological Collections and Municipal Displays

18. September 2018

by H. Glenn Penny

On September 14, 2018, Manuela Andreoni and Ernesto Londoño published an essay in the New York Times on the recent destruction of artifacts and records at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. They titled it: “Loss from Brazil fire felt like a ‘new Genocide’.” Their first major point was that this museum had housed irreplaceable records – material objects as well as texts – that both Brazilian scholars and representatives of Brazil’s many indigenous groups had been using to learn about their pasts. As those records burned, so too did their access to those human histories. The world, they made clear, has been impoverished by that loss.

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Summer Break

1. August 2018

The blog “How to move on with Humboldt’s legacy” will take a vacation. We wish you all a pleasant summer holiday.

The debate will continue on 18 September.

The Editors

Unbearable simultaneity On the correlation between mobile objects and people*

24. July 2018

by Silvy Chakkalakal

*Translated from the German by Jane Yager

On Sunday afternoon, 27 May 2018, I am watching the podium and listening to Tom Holert introduce the second day of the conference “Deep Time and Crisis, ca.1930”, which is taking place at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin as part of the exhibition “Neolithic Childhood. Art in a False Present, ca. 1930”. The exhibition, jointly curated by Holert and Anselm Franke, engages with the feeling of the unbearability of the present, following the work of Carl Einstein, which is contextualised in a dense composition of texts and artworks.

moreUnbearable simultaneity On the correlation between mobile objects and people*

In Interim

5. June 2018

The next contribution to this blog is currently being prepared. Please check back in a few days.

Anthropological Collections Not an apology but an amendment

22. May 2018

by Fritz W. Kramer

Sometimes it needs a sensation to draw public and media attention to a problem that otherwise only experts are concerned with. Emmanuel Macron succeeded in doing so when on November 27th 2017 in Ouagadoudou he declared his intention to create “the conditions for a temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa within the next five years”. The German Foreign Office, apparently under pressure to follow suit, more cautiously suggested it wanted “to strengthen cultural cooperation with Africa, especially by reappraising colonialism”, and the Minister for Culture and Media announced she would support “reappraising the provenance of cultural artefacts of colonial heritage in museums and collections (…) by establishing a new research focus” (Die Zeit, 26 April 2018). These statements instantly pulled anthropological museums out of their marginality – especially so in Berlin where moving the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art from the suburban district of Dahlem into the reconstructed Stadtschloss in the city centre had been in the making for some time, but under completely different premises. While the Humboldt Forum originally had been intended to demonstrate cosmopolitanism by featuring those “world cultures” that had inspired modern artists from Brücke to Beuys, now, against the backdrop of global migration, interest had shifted to the biography of objects, the ways in which artefacts of everyday and cult use had been stolen or otherwise acquired for the metropolises and there turned into ethnographic objects and works of art.

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Touching history Objects as witnesses, witnesses of objects

15. May 2018

by Leonor Faber-Jonker

In Berlin, history is tangible. It strikes me every time I visit the city. Empty plots, fading shop signs, and crumbling facades bear witness to the city’s tumultuous past. Monuments bear scars. The bronze reliefs of the Siegessäule (moved to its current location by the Nazis) are pockmarked with 1945 bullet holes. After Germany’s reunification, the tarnished Reichstag was rebuilt with a transparent dome, while inside, the graffiti of German soldiers was left in place. The echoes of a divided city, the devastation of war. A few weeks ago, on my way to the book presentation of Provenienzforschung zu ethnografischen Sammlungen der Kolonialzeit in Humboldt University, I had some time to spare and visited the Tränenpalast. Once, this benign-looking building had been an entrance point to the West from the Eastern half of the city. A free exhibition evokes the injustices of a city divided. Family heirlooms are on display. Treasured objects, carried in small suitcases by people fleeing the GDR. A set of tableware, buried in East-Germany in the 1950s, only to be dug up decades later, after the fall of the wall. And now, in the museum, viewed by visitors from all over the world, these highly personal mementoes carry new meanings as symbols of injustice and defiance.

moreTouching history Objects as witnesses, witnesses of objects

The museum of liberation An excursion into the early history of reconquest

8. May 2018

by Christian Kravagna


“Nothing is more galvanizing than the sense of a cultural past. This at least the intelligent presentation of African Art will supply to us.”

– Alain Locke, A Note on African Art, Opportunity, May 2, 1924


In his forward to the catalogue for the exhibition Blondiau – Theatre Arts Collection of Primitive African Art, which was shown at the New Art Circle in New York in 1927, the philosopher Alain Locke writes, in connection with a general characterization of the exhibited artworks and their significance for European modernism: “[…] it is curious to note that the American descendants of these African craftsmen have a strange deficiency in the arts of their ancestors.”[1] Like in previous essays of his, Locke postulates that African American visual arts lag behind achievements in music, dance and literature. While a synthesis of traditionally Black and eminently modern forms of expression has already succeeded in the latter genres, he writes, the fine arts have yet to see an interpretation of the art of their ancestors that corresponds to the modern Black experience. Locke understands the political significance of this engagement with African art to lie in the empowering affirmation “that the Negro is not a cultural foundling without his own inheritance.[2] In emphatic disagreement with the widespread notion that Black Americans lost their African culture through centuries of enslavement, Locke argues that the African art which made such a vital contribution to the early 20thcentury European avant-garde could be taken up all the more legitimately by artists of the African diaspora and translated into an aesthetic expression of the new self-confidence of the New Negro Movement. Here he speaks unequivocally of the need to recapture the “creative originality” of African art.

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What do we know when we see? Or how can museums of “the world” renew cultural geographies? A view from the State Museums of Dresden

1. May 2018

by Monica Juneja

Museums that have built collections of “world cultures”, known to us today as either ethnological or the more encompassing, encyclopedic museums, have not ceased to be the subject of impassioned debates. Even a cursory glance through the diverse and insightful contributions to this blog give us a sense of the poles along which deliberations over the recent years have tended to oscillate, that is, between the poles of postcolonial critique and contemporary multiculturalism. Beyond these two, now well familiar binaries, further positions in the discussion seek to complicate our understanding of the issues at stake. One such argument is that we adopt “a worm’s eye view”, as Kavita Singh has done[i], a micro-perspective from the locality. Such a shift of scale would immediately draw our attention to the fact that not all communities in a given region or locality speak from the same position as the official voice of the nation-state.

moreWhat do we know when we see? Or how can museums of “the world” renew cultural geographies? A view from the State Museums of Dresden

“Dialogue” and “Collaboration” with “Source Communities” Personal reflections on the theme of "common heritage"*

17. April 2018

By Rainer Hatoum

*Translated by Jonathan DeVore and Julian Schmischke

Ethnological museums and collections occupy a special position within the museum landscape. One of the reasons for this is that many contemporary descendants of the communities from which the collections originate seek feedback from these collections. In this respect, these institutions have a new, particular user group, the “source communities”[i].

In my several years of exploring the challenges and opportunities of this development, through a two-year apprenticeship at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and two three-year research projects (2005-2012), as well as in subsequent research, I have been intensively concerned with exploring the question about the extent to which museums can more actively involve these communities as “partners.” The emergence of the core idea of a “shared” or “common cultural heritage” is obvious – after all, the collections are also products of our interwoven histories of interaction. I shed light on this idea on the basis of several long-term, “collaboration”-oriented projects. The aim was not only to review the history of individual collections, but also to update their biographies. The experience I gained along the way made clear to me the necessity of better problematizing one’s own role as “dialogue partner” in such processes, and addressing the question, “What do we actually want and for what purpose?”

more“Dialogue” and “Collaboration” with “Source Communities” Personal reflections on the theme of “common heritage”*