Parzinger’s misconceptions and misrepresentations of the restitution of African artefacts

21. February 2018

von  Kwame Tua Opoku

“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”

Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause. (1)

In an interview dated February 2018, Dr Herrmann Parzinger, repeating an idea of Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and now a founding director of the Humboldt Forum, declares that we need new stories: There must be new stories. (Es muss neue Erzählungen geben.) (2) Like MacGregor, Parzinger is uncomfortable with the history of the looted African artefacts in Western museums and would like to tell a different history but knows that the history of Europeans’ violent attacks and robbery in Africa and Asia are too well established. He would like to tell stories with the African objects when they are moved to a new location. Note the choice of words: ‘stories’ and not ‘histories’. What never seems to occur to Western museum experts who want to tell the stories of others, especially Africans, is that Africans may want to tell their own histories with the objects now withheld from them. This appears inconceivable to many Westerners. Perhaps they think we have some irreparable congenital deficiencies that prevent us from telling our own histories.

The desire to tell stories rather than the histories of artefacts has become widespread with Western ethnologists, who invite specialists and even non-specialists to tell their own stories with the looted objects. (3) With such practices, true histories are submerged, and the ethnologists gladly proclaim that they have no monopoly of interpretation of the objects. Each visitor makes his own interpretation, even if he has not studied ethnology; your interpretation is as good as mine, even although I spent three years earning a degree in ethnology and 4 years obtaining a doctorate. With this attitude, some exhibitions, pretending ignorance of the histories of the looted objects, refuse even to give you the barest information about the objects exhibited e.g. Unvergleichlich – Kunst aus Africa im Bode Museum. This attitude matches perfectly the cry for more provenance research, as if nothing were already known about the objects displayed. (4)

In response to a question about Macron’s suggestion to return African artefacts in French museums, Parzinger says that it is an interesting suggestion but asks: “Only, the question is: which museum will return which object and for which reason and to which African museum? Who takes such a decision, the museum or the political authorities?” Parzinger states that such questions must be decided by an international conference. Raising such questions is part of the new credo of German authorities to plead ignorance about the African artefacts that have been lying in their museums for more than a hundred years.

Twice in this short interview, Parzinger challenges the general opinion that a large number of the artefacts in the ethnological museums are looted/stolen:

“One should not always act as if all objects were stolen.”

Speaking of the Benin bronzes, Parzinger again declares: “But to say they are all stolen objects, so send them back is too simple, especially since many pieces were acquired from the market before the British punitive expedition.” (5)

We do not know on what evidence the eminent archaeologist bases his view that many Benin bronzes were acquired on the open market before the British punitive expedition went to Benin City in 1897, deposed the king, killed many persons including Benin nobles and looted 3,500 artefacts that were later sold at auctions in London.

All the specialists we have read, and this is the general opinion among Benin scholars, state that before 1897 there were hardly any Benin artefacts in Europe and that it was after the notorious invasion that these objects were available on the European market. This was also the opinion of Felix von Luschan, who was instrumental in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, acquiring some 580 Benin artefacts. (6)

 To our utter surprise, Parzinger again declares that the Nigerians have made no demand for the Benin bronzes. He then refers to the idea launched by the so-called Benin Dialogue Group to have a permanent exhibition in Benin City whilst ownership of the looted artefacts remains with European museums.

Many readers will immediately realize that there is no truth to the idea that the Nigerians have not asked for the restitution of the Benin objects. Just a few weeks ago, the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments demanded that Nigeria’s artefacts in Western museums be unconditionally returned. (7)

Wherever possible, we shall no longer entertain or discuss questions that aim at returning the discussions on looted African artefacts to the pre-Ouagadougou period and thereby seek to ignore or lessen the impact of the historic speech by President Emanuel Macron on the need to return African artefacts to Africa.

Parzinger refers to Macron’s speech but obviously with little conviction about its necessity or usefulness. He acknowledges that other European countries such as Belgium, Britain and Germany cannot ignore the suggestions of the French president, but apparently he is not recommending the Ouagadougou Declaration. He stays in the period before 28 November 2017.

Parzinger refers to the insulting idea launched by the so-called Benin Dialogue Group to have a permanent exhibition in Benin City of the looted artefacts whilst ownership remains with European museums. (8) For my part, I can only condemn without reservation a project that is an insult to the Benin people, the peoples of Nigeria and the African peoples. It could have been conceived only on the arrogant assumption that the Oba of Benin and the Benin people do not deserve to have back the Benin artefacts that were stolen by the British in 1897 in the notorious punitive expedition. The looters are here rewarded again, more than 120 years after the violent attack by foreign forces coming from afar. Those who lost their lives and property in that imperialist invasion are once again being treated with utter disrespect and contempt. We pray they and their ancestral gods do not hear about this last demeaning injury. Those Nigerians and Africans involved in this scheme must explain to the Oba of Benin and his people why they accept such a scheme. The National Commission on Museums and Monuments (NCMM) surely has a duty to explain to the Nigerian peoples its position here. Its recent demand for the unconditional return of Nigerian artefacts contradicts such a project. In my opinion, if that scheme is implemented, it will be sowing the seeds of easily imaginable future conflicts in Benin, between the Oba and his people, between Nigeria and the Oba, between the Western “owners” of the looted Benin artefacts and Nigeria. The exhibition of looted artefacts could crystallize the frustrations and disappointments of many groups in Benin City and in Nigeria generally.

I was very surprised that Parzinger kept referring to the Holocaust restitution scheme. Let’s hope he will not be surprised if parallels are drawn or contradictions pointed out between the German handling of compensation for the victims of the evil and atrocious Nazi regime and the lack of response to African demands for colonial reparations. Indeed, Parzinger uses the word “genocide”: “Der Maji-Maji-Krieg ist hier kaum bekannt, hat aber eine ähnliche Dimension wie der Genozid an den Herero und Nama.” – “The Maji Maji War is hardly known here, but it had a dimension similar to the genocide of the Herero and Nama.”

Is this a clear acceptance that Germany committed genocide against the Herero and Nama?

On three occasions Dr. Parzinger draws parallel to the Holocaust scheme: “Similarly, as in the case of Nazi-looted art, it must be reconstructed from the beginning. Similarly, as in Nazi-looted art, we want not only to react to restitution demands, but to proactively research and thus strengthen international cooperation. Provenance research is complicated and takes time. There is no reason for me to avoid this and we do not do that in the case of Nazi looted art.” (9)

Parzinger wants international rules for settling looted-artefacts questions and refers to the Holocaust restitution scheme. There is no need for any international conference or any new rules. The United Nations General Assembly/UNESCO passed resolutions that urge the return of these artefacts to their countries of origin. This should provide enough guidance.

A recent speech by Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, with the significant heading “Each looted art work throws a shadow over Germany.” (“Jedes geraubte Kunstwerk wirft einen Schatten auf Deutschland”) fully confirms this opinion. The speech ends with the appeal “Do the right thing! Do the right thing.” (“Tun Sie das Richtige! Tun Sie das Richtige.”) (10) Lauder points out that twenty years after the signing of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, under which some 44 states were to identify the stolen artworks and restore them to the owners who had been unlawfully dispossessed of them by the racist Nazi regime, not much progress had been achieved  and 73 years since the end of the last world war, one must still discuss this issue. (11) In view of this rather unfavourable criticism by Lauder, one wonders why Parzinger refers to this scheme. Is it the slow pace of implementation of the agreed principles that he favours?

On reflection, it is amazing that with all their resources, Western states and their museums have not been able to resolve the issue of restitution of looted African artefacts. This is, we believe, at least partly due to the absolute lack of respect for Africans, based on the racism Europeans manifested during the centuries of slavery and colonialism. In addition, there is the sheer greed and selfishness that have become the hallmarks of Western states and their museums. How come a museum such as the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, which holds some 508-580 looted Benin artefacts, is unable to return, say, 100 of those objects to the Oba of Benin? Benin artefacts are not part of German culture.

A clear demonstration of this greed that has become the creed of Western states and their museums was seen at the exhibition Benin Kings and Rituals Court Arts from Nigeria in Vienna in 2006. During an international symposium organized in connection with the exhibition, the representative of the Benin royal family stated that if each of the museums holding Benin artefacts returned one artefact each, the Royal Family would be satisfied. (12) What was the reaction of the Western museums? To my surprise, the then-Director of the Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna, Christian Feest, immediately responded, without hesitation, that it was impossible to envisage such a return and advanced the usual weak argument for holding other people’s artefacts. The remaining Western museum representatives kept quiet. The present writer responded and refuted the usual Western defences. The Western museums thus lost an excellent opportunity to solve the issue of looted Benin artefacts in Western museums. So much has contempt for Africans become part of the Western mind that many of those present did not immediately realize the full implications of Feest’s hurried answer. The Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, the Völkerkundemuseum, now the World Museum, Vienna, the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin and others could have started a process of resolving the questions that are still with us after 12 years.

Austria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Switzerland and other European states holding looted African artefacts are surely better served by following the path indicated by the French president Macron than by following Parzinger’s ideas about elaborating new international rules that may throw the whole issue into disarray, raise more questions and not solve any of the present problems.

Looted without rules, African artefacts can be returned without rules.


Kwame Opoku is an independent commentator on cultural affairs. This contribution is published simultaneously in modernghana. 


Almost every German museum has its own collection of Benin artefacts, but information on the numbers of artefacts is not easy to obtain. Below is a non-exhaustive list of holders that we could identify from catalogues, the Internet and the museums’ publications. In view of the public’s growing interest in these artefacts, perhaps the museums could publish a full list of the Benin artefacts in their possession. I understand that within the context of the so-called Benin Dialogue Group, lists of the Benin collections of members of the group have been exchanged, but true to the well-established attitude of the museums, they do not feel obliged to inform the public.

 Berlin Ethnologisches Museum/ Humboldt Forum – 580.

Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – 73.

Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde – 182.

Frankfurt am Main51.

Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde/Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe – 196.

Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde – 87.

Munich Museum Fünf Kontinente – 25.

Stuttgart Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde – 80.

According to Kathy Curnow, each of the following German cities have no more than 25 Benin artefacts: Braunschweig, Bremen, Dusseldorf, Freiburg, Göttingen, Hanover, Heidelberg, Hildesheim, Mannheim and Ulm.

Kathy Curnow, IYARE! Splendour & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre, 2016, p. 201, WWW.IYARE.NET. Printed in the USA by



In the discussions on the restitution of looted Benin artefacts, attention is generally focussed on the major public museums in Europe and the USA, which tend to have large collections of the precious treasures that are sorely missing in Benin City and Nigeria and indeed on the whole continent of Africa. The story that Benin artefacts are spread all over the world is, of course, a myth. The truth is that most of the Benin artefacts are in the Western world, especially the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States.

It is very doubtful whether, outside Nigeria, any African country has even one such Benin artefact. Do Africans not need to know about the famous Benin bronzes, especially since the image of Queen Mother Idia has become a pan-African symbol since FESTAC ’77, when the British Museum arrogantly refused even to “loan” the ivory hip mask to Nigeria?

Many private persons or institutions in the Western world have their collections but have so far not been touched by the Nigerians’ plea to return the looted artefacts. The only case of return by a private person is that of the Briton, Dr. Mark Walker, who returned to the Oba of Benin artefacts that he inherited from his grandfather. Man With Conscience Returned His Grandfather’s Looted Benin Bronzes…/man-with-conscience-returned..

Other private persons and institutions do not seem to be moved at all by the plea to return some of the looted Benin artefacts.

Consideration must be given to how private persons and institutions could be persuaded to return Benin artefacts in their possession, for all Benin artefacts of good quality, whether in public or private possession, are part of the loot that the British stole in 1897 from the palace of Oba Ovonramwen when they burned his city down.

The number of private holders of Benin artefacts in Germany is not known, but one can get an idea of the quality of Benin and African arts in private hands in Germany by consulting books such as Dorina Hecht and Gunter Kawik (eds.) Afrika und die Kunst – Einblicke in Deutsche Privatsammlungen, 2010, Kawik Verlag, Bottrop, Germany.


(1) “Die Rückgabe jener Kulturschätze, die unsere Museen und Sammlungen direkt oder indirekt dem Kolonialsystemverdanken und die jetzt zurückverlangt werden, sollte ebenfalls nicht mit billigen Argumenten und Tricks hinausgezögert werden.”  – Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause, p. 185, C. Bertelsmann, Munich, 1984.

(2) Hermann Parzinger, “Es muss neue Erzählungen geben”,

(3) K. Opoku, World Museum, Vienna, Re-Opens: Renovated Premises For Cultural …

(4) K. Opoku, Humboldt Forum And Selective Amnesia: Research Instead Of …

(5) “Man soll nicht immer so tun, als wäre alles zusammengeklaut.”

“Aber zu sagen, es ist alles gestohlen, also zurück damit, ist zu einfach, zumal etliche Stücke auch schon vor der britischen Strafexpedition auf dem Markt erworben worden sind.”

(6) According to Christine Stelzig, at one meeting where art from Africa was discussed at the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin and the Benin bronzes were shown, it was mentioned that only Berlin was in possession of a relief plaque that, according to the information of the dealer in London, was already in London in 1879 and was the only piece of this form that had reached Europe before the destruction of Benin by the British. Felix von Luschan, Director of the Ethnologisches Museum, was one of the first persons to recognize that Benin bronzes came from Africa and not from some mythical place or people outside the continent: He confirmed that not a single Benin bronze was in Europe before the punitive expedition of 1897.

He, von Luschan, did not know of asingle plaque or a single head or other bronze art work that was in a museum,or in the art market or in private possession that came from Benin to Europebefore 1897.”

Er, von Luschan, kenne weder aus einem Museum, noch aus dem Kunsthandel, noch in Privat-Besitz auch nur eine einzige Platte oder einen einzigen Kopf oder sonst ein aus Erz gegossenes Kunstwerk, das vor 1897 aus Benin nach Europa gelangt wäre.”

Christine Stelzig, Afrika am Museum für Völkerkunde zu Berlin 1873-1919, Centaurus Verlag, Herbolzheim 2004, p. 368.

See also K. Opoku, Benin To Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes Made In …

(7) Nigeria Demands Unconditional Return Of Looted Artefacts: A Season …

(8) K. Opoku,We Will Show You Looted Benin Bronzes But Will Not Give Them Back: Second Defeat and Permanent Humiliation for Benin?

European museums to ‘loan’ looted Benin bronzes. Pambazuka News

(9) “Ähnlich wie bei der NS-Raubkunst muss der ganze Weg rekonstruiert werden. Ähnlich wie bei der NS-Raubkunst wollen wir nicht nur auf Rückgabeforderungen reagieren, sondern proaktiv forschen und dabei internationale Zusammenarbeit stärken. Provenienzforschung ist kompliziert und braucht ihre Zeit. Es gibt für mich keinen Grund, sie auszuhebeln, wir tun das auch bei NS-Raubkunst nicht.”


(11) “Looted Art has all the relevant information on the Washington Principles.”,

(12) K. Opoku, “Respect and Disrespect in Restitution of Cultural Artefacts”,…

Photographs and colonial history in the museum

6. February 2018

by Elizabeth Edwards

In Britain colonial history has, uncharacteristically, been headline news recently. This is not merely a post-Brexit vote sensitivity (well what is our history?), although this might be a deeply buried part of the narrative.  There are growing concerns about the visual conditions and public engagement with Britain’s colonial past. First were the demands from post-colonial activists that a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from the street front of Oriel College Oxford (it wasn’t, but only after much debate)
( ), then a row over the renaming of the well-established public venue, the Colson Hall in Bristol, long named after local 18th century slave trader and city philanthropist ( ), and then the row emanating a project entitled ’The Ethics of Empire’. This latter was initiated by an Oxford theologian, and called for a reappraisal of the balance between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the telling of colonial history and questioning dominance of, indeed assumption of, the latter in both historical debates and public representations within a multi-cultural society. This position brought letters to the press and a long and measured response from over sixty Oxford historians and anthropologists ( ). These moments of protest and re-examination of the uncomfortable truths of British colonial history suddenly brought the debate into the public arena. But interestingly, no one discussed how that history might be engaged with in the public sphere beyond the removal of a statue – or not. Museums, as major vectors of public history and educative intent, have been largely absent from the debate, and the main UK sector magazine, The Museums Journal, strangely silent on the matter.

This seems a missed opportunity. Because while all these discussions were raging, notably this most recent one on “The Ethics of Empire”, there was, nestled away in a top gallery at Bristol City Art Gallery and Museum, a small exhibition of photographs that tried to raise and explore questions of the multi-vocal experiences of Empire and colonial legacy: “Empire Through the Lens” ( It is on this small but timely intervention that I want to focus, because it raises questions not only about the representation of colonial history in the public space, and thus within the broader remit of the Humboldt Forum, but also addresses the opportunities and problematics of photographs in communicating this history. I shall return to specifics of the exhibition below.


1.View of the Exhibition Gallery. © Bristol Culture

The background to this particular articulation of colonial history in the public space is interesting and part of the troubled visibility of that history. The Exhibition ‘Empire through the Lens’ drew on the photography and film collection of what was British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) in Bristol. The history of this troubled institution is significant in itself. Its presence was controversial and it never attracted public funding despite repeated applications. One strongly suspects that this was largely because of its subject matter, for it was rather a good museum in the way that it collected and presented its narratives, winning various museum awards.  Public funding could not be seen to support something so controversial and potentially ‘racist’ within a multi-cultural society. Consequently BECM was dependent on private funding and donation from sources, which perhaps had very specific revisionist views of imperial history. The museum closed in 2013 after eleven years in existence. The museum’s collections were eventually transferred to the care of Bristol City Museums, Galleries and Archives, where BECM’s photography, film and manuscript collections were absorbed into Bristol City Archives.  The work of archival absorption and documentation has been funded by National Archives, itself finding new ways to engage with colonial photograph collections  ( The Bristol exhibition is the culmination of this first phase of this project.

I have discussed elsewhere the problems of amnesia and especially, following Ann Laura Stoler, aphasia[1]  in relation to museums and the representation of the colonial past, and of the sequestration of such histories to a series of elsewhere – of time, place and discipline (anthropology/ethnography) – as a way to avoid analytical responsibility for difficult histories in the public space. The move of the BECM collections into a publically funded and curated space, and the recognition of community relevance, does indicate perhaps a confrontation with that amnesia and aphasia and an increasing willingness to consider these histories. For Bristol with its strong and problematic history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its subsequent wealth, built on post-abolition colonial trade routes, notably in tobacco and coca, and subsequent diverse population provide a robust background for the consideration of the legacies of Empire. They are inescapable.

The projection of these histories into the public space in exhibition form therefore offered a challenge. Furthermore what was particular about offering the public photographic access to the colonial past., as opposed to object or textual based access?  In many ways the recodability of photographs, their slipperiness yet sense of immediacy which can be so problematic in Museums became that starting point of the exhibition. In an act of devolved and dispersed curatorship, 27 people –  curators, artists, community and religious leaders, activists, descendants of colonial officers, and academics were invited to choose one image each from the collection of some 500,000 images. They were asked to talk about its history and about why it connects to their interests in the history of Empire. What was the place of Empire in their experience?

The exhibition stressed the way in which historical truths are, largely, partial truths in both senses of the word. The personal story approach meant that the sense of immediacy and directness offered by the photographs was mirrored by a sense of narrative immediacy and relevance as an on-going history. Few of the 27 selectors presented a straight-forward narrative.  The challenge to aphasia emerged variously in the form of anger, outrage, a sense of injustice, sadness, nostalgia and curiosity in almost equal measure. Importantly they coexisted and were ‘speakable’.

2. Government de-oathing ceremony, photograph by Elspeth Huxley, Kenya, 1953
1995/076/1/1/15/3.20 © Bristol Culture/ British Empire and Commonwealth Collection.

3. Empire Day, photograph by Dr Malcolm Ruel, Cameroon, 1954
2012/001/6/7/AM5 © Bristol Culture/ British Empire and Commonwealth Collection.


4.Assembling a locomotive, East African RAILWAYS Workshop, publicity photograph by an unknown photographer for the East African RAILWAYS and Harbours Administration, Nairobi, Kenya. c. 1960
2002/133/1/34 © Bristol Culture/ British Empire and Commonwealth Collection.

The ‘openness’ of the curatorial process meant, inevitably, some unevennesses  in the exhibition – geographical (a preponderance of Africa and India), informational, or stylistic, and the light curatorial editing style adopted to allow the immediacy of voices and connection to the photographs, also meant that there were factual inaccuracies.  However, believed as part of the subjective and individual responses to and engagement with Empire, they became part of the multiple layers of historical assessment inherent in making histories.  These readings were what made these photographs speak to their selectors. What kind of challenge does such multi-vocality of interpretation, especially linked to the reality effects of photographs, pose for the museum as didactic space? For photographs can be risky things in museums. Their directness, immediacy, yet fluid and unstable meanings can make them difficult to control in museum contexts – they are always open to [mis]interpretation with a propensity to undermine the curators’ intentions. And because of visitor expectations of how photographs should behave in the didactic space of the museum, critical uses have proved difficult to articulate curatorially, especially in relation to historical material. In many ways Empire through the Lens did what photographs do so well if they are allowed a dynamic identity within the museum space: they acted as a moment of temporal and spatial stasis, incisions into complex experiences, but simultaneously form a springboard for multiple histories: an address to a reality which was simultaneously constituted of multiple realities.

The display installation made those subjectivities very clear. The 27 photographs (or 23 and 4 film clips to be precise), dating from the 1880s to the 1960s, were presented as uniform, enlarged, back-lit images on the walls of a long, narrow and dark gallery.  The back-lit images sparkled in the space, but allowed an extra luminosity of detail that encouraged a slow looking at the image. The intention was to personalise narratives as strongly as possible so as to stress points of view. These light box panels carried the texts in which selectors described ‘their’ photograph and its contexts, and why it connected to their particular interests, concerns and interpretations of colonial history.  The voice of the selectors was given further presence by the inclusion of small photographs of them and audio-points which gave the selectors’ voice, as they talked in more detail about ‘their’ photograph. Some accounts were very personal, based in memories, or even nostalgia, others were more political or historiographical. All focused intensely on the image itself.

But to avoid the unproblematic window on the world, the mere absorption of photographs in a museal ‘economy of truth’ as Gaby Porter put it many years ago,[2] down the centre of the gallery space was a series of cases in which the original photographic objects and their contexts, such as albums, photo-folders, or slide-viewers, were displayed. This immediately positioned photographs not as windows on the world but as things that were materially produced and handled, which produced effects through modes of viewing and use. It anchored them materially to their historical moment. While I have long advocated material approaches to photographs as an intellectual and analytical position [], the efficacy of such approaches within the museum spaces is perhaps less certain. What can the museum visitor learn from the materiality of photographic objects, not merely image content? In many ways the humble items of packaging, the family albums and hand-held cameras in this exhibition anchored both the specifics and generalities of the photographs, in time, place and action. It positioned them in material worlds beyond mere image content, and stressed the making of the photographs and all that that implies.

5. View of the Exhibition Gallery. © Bristol Culture

Importantly, there were recurrent themes of gravitational pull that wove both photographic selections and responses together –exploitation, alienation, power over places and power over bodies. Questions of power saturated the exhibition and some of the photographs articulated this with shocking force, notably in uncomfortable truths of colonial racial hierarchy. Crucially all the selectors saw the photographs as relevant today. Technologies and formats might have changed but the issues haven’t. And this was echoed in responses to the exhibition, for instance one blogger noted the “relevance of the images to current events and challenges still faced by post-colonial nations were very eye-opening” [].

This sense of relevance is important, because a discourse of ‘irrelevance’ has masked the processes of amnesia and aphasia. No debate was necessary because it was ‘irrelevant’ to modern Britain, and thus enabling the colonial past to be sequestrated in the ‘elsewheres’ that I have noted. This is clearly not so here, as both the exhibition and the events with which I started show.  Anecdotal evidence from museum front-of-house staff is that the exhibition is bringing in a wider visitor demographic than most exhibitions.  There have been a number of well-attended public events and lectures, school visits and a social media buzz which suggests that at least at a local level, the exhibition has disrupted the collective amnesia and the patterns of aphasia, for all the various communities in Bristol and beyond for whom Empire is a shared and intersecting history. It has become ‘relevant’, recalled from its ‘elsewhere’.

There have been some Tweets claiming that such an exhibition glorified or excused the colonial. Interesting many of those appear to have been responses to the pre-publicity before the exhibition had actually opened.  But they reflect an assumption about what colonial history is, and what any attempt to articulate it might be. However, the vast majority of visitors have been disturbed, yes – and so they should be from whatever their perspective, but they have also been stimulated to think about how and why these histories are relevant, and above all, the ways in which the colonial past should be within the public debate, including museum debates.  (For examples of comments scroll to the bottom of the page- .

Time will tell if this now-opened debate will sustain. Is this an exhibition from which there is no return?  For a city so embedded in long imperial histories one hopes that such an exhibition shifts the dynamics of the larger historical narrative in the museum and its local engagements.  Is this a local moment or part of a wider debate? To think that the recent debates might be marked as a shift from aphasia to loquaciousness in the articulation of colonial histories might be optimistic. The problem remains about how exactly these narratives, and their infinite complexities, can be articulated in the museum space.  The exhibition also raises, as I have suggested, broader questions about the work of photographs in museums, and their ability to draw people in through that sense of the presence of the past and confront, through their very reality effects, the aphasic and amnesiac. It seems that this is an area where photographs, with their complexity and continual play between the subjective and the objective, the individual and the collective, their eloquence yet incompleteness, and their reach into unarticulated corners of historical experience may be a good place to start because as museum objects they themselves demand the same complex attentions that the colonial also demands.

And if anyone is interested in my selection for the exhibition – here it is:

Empire through the Lens

(scroll down to “Letembia and Ann”)

Elizabeth Edwards is a visual and historical anthropologist who is currently Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor at VARI (the Victoria and Albert Museum Research Centre) in London. Until 2005 she was Curator of Photographs and Lecturer in Visual Anthropology at Pitt Rivers Museum/University of Oxford before leaving for academic posts.  Now retired, she is Curator Emerita at the Museum, Emeritus Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University, Leicester, and Honorary Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University College London.  Specialising in the social and material practices of photography, she has worked extensively on the relationships between photography, anthropology and history. Her monographs and edited works include Anthropology and Photography (1992), Raw Histories (2001), Photographs Objects Histories (2004), Sensible Objects (2006) and The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination 1885-1912 (2012), and, over the years, some 90 essays in books, journals and exhibition catalogues on topics as diverse as photography and evolutionary theory and photography and sound. In 2014 she was given a lifetime achievement award by the Society of Visual Anthropology (American Anthropological Association) and a Photographic Studies lifetime achievement award from the Royal Anthropological Institute in 2017.  In 2015 she was the first photographic specialist to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

For more information and publications see:


[1] A psychological condition which causes inability to speak of or find the words for. Ann Laura Stoler 2011 “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France” Public History 23(1): 121-56.;

[2] Porter, Gaby, 1989 “The Economy of Truth: Photography in the Museum” Ten-8, 34, 20-33.

The Beauty of the Transient. A Plea for More ‘Concept’, Experiment and Fragility in the Museum

30. January 2018

by Friedrich von Bose

The times of rupture which ethnological museums are currently undergoing raise a number of issues at the same time: pleas for conceptual renewal as well as resistance against it; the question of how to deal with the colonial provenance of collections, which is followed by the debates about restitution. Many of these questions would have hardly received this much attention in the debates on cultural politics without the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace. However, elsewhere within the German-speaking world of ethnological museums, we can also detect quite some activity in this regard. Hamburg, Leipzig, Dresden, Basel, Frankfurt, Vienna, Stuttgart – just to name the most prominent at the moment. Looking at them, somehow, gives the impression that the potential to question the own collections and exhibition practices is greater in those places which are less in the spotlight.

Particularly interesting, in my opinion, is the state of transition in which the old, the “edgy, cranky ethnological museum” (as Johanna di Blasi calls it in her blog post) is still visible, while new exhibition formats provoke specific shifts in perspective, without deliberately wanting to be didactic. In this context, the Humboldt Lab Dahlem (2013-15) was a pioneer in many respects. Situated in the old permanent exhibition halls and foyers of the three Dahlem Museums (the Ethnological Museum, the Museum of Asian Art and the Museum of European Cultures), it was assembled as a rehearsal stage for the Humboldt Forum and followed a decisively explorative approach in which making mistakes was also allowed: Many projects which were in fact meant as the experimental “free leg” to the actual “weight leg” deemed so interesting to the audience that many would have preferred to see the free leg itself as the main act in the future Humboldt Forum1. “Forever Lab!” was the conclusion drawn by one curator involved in several projects, which was screened in an interview sequence in the final exhibition titled “The Laboratory Concept”2.

Fig. 1: Humboldt Lab Dahlem, “Pre-Show: Identities on Display”, rehearsal stage 1, 2013 (Photo: Friedrich von Bose)

Ethnological museums, with their permanent exhibitions which often remain un-updated for decades, are sometimes – albeit not intended – a kind of time machine, as Donna Haraway describes Carl Akeley’s famous natural history dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in her essay “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” (1984)3. At the time of writing, they had been on exhibition for five decades in immediate proximity to the ethnological exhibition halls, and still are today. This tension is exactly what applies to many ethnological museums here: their being out-of-time is just as much peculiar as trivial at the same time – the latter at least for all those who grew up with them.

The most interesting ethnographic exhibitions in recent years are, in my opinion, those which can also be read as commentaries to this very history of museums; and those which do not banish this commentary into a separate space: whether the much-debated exhibition “Intrinsic Perspectives” (2011-13) in the re-opened Museum der Kulturen in Basel which addresses basic anthropological concepts such as “space”, “agency” or “performance” with its expansive installations of selected objects from all areas, or the many larger and smaller projects of the already mentioned Humboldt Lab Dahlem, which was funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation with more than four million Euros and at least implicitly always also commented on the exhibition halls surrounding it; the most recent Prolog-Series in the Japanese Palace in Dresden (2016-17) or the exhibition “Foreign Exchange (or the stories you would not tell a stranger)” (2014-15) at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, which explicitly engaged with the history of its own collections. Despite all their differences, these projects have in common that they aim at tackling the challenges posed by the critique persisting for quite some time now towards collection and exhibition practices of ethnographic museums.

Fig. 2 + 3: Entrance to the exhibition „Intrinsic Perspectives”, Museum der Kulturen Basel, 2012 (Photo: Friedrich von Bose)

Besides the now strongly demanded research on issues of provenance – a project that will take years or even decades – relatively little public attention has been given to questioning the categories, which are used by museums not only in their depository and administrative structures, but also in the exhibitions themselves. Why is the division of the world into regions and continents still such an unquestioned practice? Does the concept of “world”, which the museums renamed as Weltmuseum are invested in, really correspond with how we envision a practice of ethnological exhibitions in a globally intertwined and globalized present; a practice that claims to also deal with current issues of debate?

Fig. 4 + 5: Section of the exhibition and guest book, Exhibition „Intrinsic Perspectives”, Museum der Kulturen Basel, 2012 (Photo: Friedrich von Bose)

The conceptional idea behind the Humboldt Forum is the world in the middle of Berlin. ‘World’ here refers to the world outside Europe. It is our goal to ‘host’ this world within our house, and in line with our educational mission to introduce it to the audience and make it experienceable”4. At least for once, this honestly states what the “world” in ethnographic museums is generally about: it is about the “Others”; Europe as the center continues to be elegantly excluded. “Hosting” the world in the museum and “introducing” it – can this really be the mission of an (ethnographic) museum of the future? And are the much-vaunted cultures of origin actually so easily identifiable? These terms imply the old idea of ​​ethnicity and originality and suggest that the people in question have some kind of authentic relation to the objects. Instead, this paradigm should be replaced by an approach taking up more fundamental questions about the “roots” and the “routes” of objects und humans, which has been a key theme of anthropology since at least the 1980s.

The ethnographic museums sometimes seem to be in a kind of predicament. In order to survive institutionally and to stand their ground among the other museum branches, they rely on the importance of their collections, as well as the number and significance of their “masterpieces” or even the size and prestige of their collections – whereas it almost seems as if in the light of the recent debates on provenance, the latter has suddenly been less voiced as prominently as it was until recently. On the other hand, there are increasing demands to reform, to deal with the origin of the objects, to question their own categories and also to open up institutionally, both with regard to formats and target groups, as well as in terms of the administrative structures and composition of their own staff. This is a balancing act that seems all the more difficult, the greater the public attention and the faster the critics of media and activism are on the spot.

In this respect, the term “concept museum”, which Mark Münzel puts forward in his blog post in contrast to the “old ethnographic museum”, may even be the logical consequence, because it seems as if the museums first of all have to rediscover their own social function in this field of tension. They want to do justice to claims of “diversity”, however, this claim clashes just as much with their history (and that of their collections), as the epithet of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich “Cosmopolitan since 1882” with the issue of colonial appropriation5.

Fig. 6 + 7: Humboldt Lab Dahlem, section of the exhibition „Man – Object – Jaguar”, rehearsal stage 3, 2013 (Photos: Friedrich von Bose)

In order to be able to find their social function, the museums should perhaps precisely conceive of themselves as concept museums; in the sense that it is necessary to both question the concepts and theories underlying them and search for new ones. What the museums then exactly call themselves– whether they continue to be “ethnographic museums” rather than something with “world” or “continent” is in fact secondary, if their self-understanding only corresponds with contemporary university anthropology. That means being transdisciplinary, internationally connected, involved in addressing current research questions and with regard to this linked to university research through joint projects. This is already the case at several locations, such as most recently at the Linden-Museum Stuttgart, and further cooperation is sure to follow6. And finally also with regard to the prospect of engaging a broader and more diverse audience than ethnological journals usually do. However, engagement not understood in the sense of a didactic one-way street, but as a specific research practice which takes into account the diversity of the actors involved, objects and spatial settings, and in doing so, also openly discusses the difficulties of representation. As not every ethnological issue can easily be “mediated” in public; not everything can be exhibited, especially not with the given historical collections – this too should be the subject of reflection.

But, let’s return to the exhibitions. What distinguishes the above-mentioned projects in Basel, Berlin, Dresden and Frankfurt among a few others, is that they not only draw on the current debates and reflect them in the topics and formats of their exhibitions. They have also fueled the debate themselves; they managed – even if sometimes only locally – to shift the discussions and, as was the case for example with “Intrinsic Perspectives” in Basel, to achieve an acceptance for new approaches to exhibiting even among those who had initially expressed great criticism towards the new contents and scenographic approaches. This, for example, because they saw themselves deprived of objects in the rather sparsely assembled exhibitions or perceived the approach as too academic. Thus, some of the exhibitions themselves have become part of the discussion about how to adequately deal with ethnological collections in exhibition practice. They have positioned themselves – in the best sense of the word.

Fig. 8 + 9: Humboldt Lab Dahlem, section of the exhibition Appropriations: As Never Before / As Never Again“, rehearsal stage 4, 2014 (Photos: Friedrich von Bose)

So, if ethnological museums see themselves as concept museums in this sense, then they can be more than just partners of university anthropology, whose goal it is to convey the topics and issues to a much broader and more diverse audience (and even such a cooperation would be desirable in many cases!). They themselves could become immensely productive arenas for the exploration of new knowledge formats for anthropology as well as the other neighboring disciplines such as the cultural and social sciences. Spaces, in which material and visual cultures and current anthropological theories could productively engage with each other and be made sensually experienceable in three-dimensional space. In doing so, they do not merely display anthropological debates or attempt to translate them into adequate exhibition formats, but rather acknowledge the formats themselves in their productive potential and make them fruitful for a broader public – and also for anthropological research itself.

The big problem in all this is that such considerations are far from taking into account the institutional constellations, which tend to be more geared to preserving the status quo. Perhaps, the smaller locations rather than the prestigious large-scale projects have the particular potential to test forward-looking formats as they are less in the spotlight and are not “giant mammoths” or “supertankers”, as the Humboldt Forum, for instance, has been called even by people responsible for the planning.7 Their sheer size and political interdependence lends such weight to questions of organizational and decision-making structures that to outsiders the actual work with regard to the content sometimes almost seems secondary.8

The former managing director of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Agnes Wegner, emphasized in a round table for the Lab’s final publication, which I was also involved in, the crucial importance of openness and responsiveness to critique of a project like the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, and how this was only possible due to the relative autonomy from precisely those hierarchical and strictly organized structures, in which the lab was set up: “A laboratory that acts independently of existing hierarchies can keep an institution open to external influences and fragile experiments that can certainly be criticised by the public. Besides the frequently mentioned possibility of failure, this fragility primarily makes it possible to be open, to meet others.”9 These encounters were highly productive in many of the rehearsal spaces of the Lab. And where they were not successful, one could very often learn from them nevertheless. On the whole, however, the main insight the Lab enabled was that it revealed the paradox of intervention into the planning of the Humboldt Forum: on the one hand, it provided a space of possibilities, and on the other, it also highlighted the limits of what is possible in the planning of the exhibitions for the Berlin Palace.10 This has already become evident today in the fact that the Humboldt Lab Dahlem designed as a largescale rehearsal stage with such high visibility is unfortunately hardly invoked in the further planning anymore. To a certain extent, this may be due to the fact that the installation-style character of most of the lab projects did not correspond with the design for the Berlin Palace exhibitions, which had already developed quite far when the Humboldt Lab Dahlem began. It may also be because since the end of the Lab, there have been so profound changes in structure and personnel within the organization of the Humboldt Forum that among the current directors there seems to be no one really who likes to claim the Lab as a model. Nevertheless, the experimental approach which was applied so successfully in this context should, in my view, not simply be banished into the history of the long planning of the Humboldt Forum. Instead, this kind of collaboration in such a broad interdisciplinary constellation and the exploratory approach characteristic of the lab can be fertile for the further planning beyond 2019 – and in fact, for any museum!

Agnes Wegner ended the round table exchange with the following words: “We should create places where everything isn’t evaluated from the very start – no killing right away! Particularly in such a complicated world, the beauty of fragility has to be maintained – it is even absolutely necessary that we do so.”11 This aspect should receive the necessary attention in the further discussion on new approaches to collections and the issue of exhibition formats which this inevitably implies – whether in the Humboldt Forum or other places.

Friedrich von Bose is curator of the Humboldt Laboratory, the interdisciplinary exhibition space of Humboldt University at the Humboldt Forum, and based at the Hermann von Helmholtz Center for Cultural Techniques at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. After studying European Ethnology in Berlin and Berkeley, he worked as a lecturer and research associate at the Berlin Institute for European Ethnology from 2009 to 2015, where he completed his PhD in 2014 with an ethnography on the planning process of the Humboldt Forum ( /buch/das-humboldt-forum.html). Prior to his work as a curator for the Humboldt Laboratory, he was a member of the planning staff of the Stadtmuseum Stuttgart and senior consultant in a communications agency based in Basel focussing on urban development and infrastructure projects. His recent publications on the topic include “Strategische Reflexivität. Das Humboldt Forum und die postkoloniale Kritik” [Strategic Reflexivity. The Humboldt Forum and Postcolonial Critique] (Historische Anthropologie 25/3, 2017, pp. 409-417) and “Labor im Museum – Museum als Labor? Zur Ausstellung als sinnlich-ästhetischem Format“ [Laboratory in the Museum – Museum as a Laboratory? On exhibitions as a sensory-aesthetic format] (in: Karl Braun et al. (eds.): Kulturen der Sinne. Zugänge zur Sensualität der sozialen Welt. Würzburg 2017, pp. 347-357).

translated  by Ulrike Flader


1 This was repeatedly emphasized as such at the final symposium titled “Always in Crisis? Questions of Representation in Museums for Non-European Arts and Cultures” in Dahlem on September 18 and 19, 2015. See the symposium report by Mario Schulze,

2 The laboratory concept is also used quiet prominently elsewhere within the design of the Humboldt Forum, namely in the Humboldt Laboratory, the interdisciplinary exhibition space of the Humboldt University/Berlin at the Humboldt Forum, whose curator team I am a part of. While the two projects have no institutional connection, the Humboldt Lab Dahlem has nevertheless been in many ways a source of inspiration for the conceptual design of the Humboldt Laboratory.

3 Donna Haraway: Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936. In: Social Text 11 (1984-1985), pp. 20-64, p. 23.

4 Ethnologisches Museum Berlin: Konzept zur Präsentation der außereuropäischen Sammlungen im Humboldt-Forum 2008. In: Viola König, Andrea Scholz (Hrsg.): Humboldt-Forum. Der lange Weg 1999−2012. Baessler-Archiv, Beiträge zur Völkerkunde 59 (2011), pp. 113−185, p. 124 (our translation).


6 See the two-year research project (April 2016-March 2018) titled “Difficult Heritage”, which addresses the museological and scientific treatment of colonial objects in ethnographic museums and is a cooperation between the Eberhard Karls University Tübingen (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies and Department for Historical and Cultural Anthropology) and the Linden-Museum Stuttgart.

7 See, for example, Viola König, cit. in Friedrich von Bose (2016): Das Humboldt-Forum. Eine Ethnografie seiner Planung. Berlin: Kadmos, p. 11.

8 Jörg Häntzschel: Verstrickung als Prinzip. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 20.11.2017,

9 Friedrich von Bose, Agnes Wegner, Harald Katzmair and Juri Steiner (2015): Productive Energy through Differences. The Laboratory Principle as a Space for Opportunities. In: Humboldt Lab Dahlem (ed.): The Laboratory Principle. Berlin: Nicolai, 2015, pp. 44–52, p. 51.

10 Friedrich von Bose (2016), p. 286. For a detailed analysis of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem in the context of the larger planning of the Humboldt Forum see, ibid., pp. 261-293. A comprehensive documentation of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem can be found online at

11 von Bose/Wegner/Katzmair/Steiner 2015, p. 52.

More Ethnology – or rather Social and Cultural Anthropology? – in the Humboldt Forum! Time for an Intervention

23. January 2018

by Hansjörg Dilger

Time is moving on: in 2019, the Humboldt Forum, currently the “biggest and financially most ambitious project of German federal cultural policy”, will open in the heart of Germany’s capital. In the view of the organizers, it will/should become a site of encounter, in which “cultures engage in dialog as equals”, in order to “acknowledge their diversity“.

Since the summer of 2017, at the latest, we know that the Humboldt Forum, as a project of superlatives and a site for understanding the world, still has a long way to go – if this “Berlin insanity”, with its reputed opacity, is ever to reach its goals. With her withdrawal from the Forum’s team of experts, the art historian Bénédicte Savoy kicked off a storm of criticism. Most of the arising critique focused on the provenience of the objects of the ethnological collections: only a radical shift in perspective was said to be able to free the Humboldt Forum from the “leaden blanket” that threatened to bury the future cultural institution in the center of Berlin like the “nuclear waste of Chernobyl”. The historian Jürgen Zimmerer called for a lasting exploration of and debate about the “colonial core” of the collections and accused those responsible for the Humboldt Forum of “colonial amnesia”.

So, is it high time for ethnology – as the disciplined is named at most (social and cultural) anthropological institutes in Germany – to position itself in this debate? After all, it is our discipline that threatens to flounder in the storm of indignation when Berlin’s Culture Senator Klaus Lederer calls an “old-school ethnological museum” in the capital a “disaster”. As early as 2016, Chancellor Angela Merkel also judged that an ethnological museum in the middle of Berlin ran counter to her vision of the project as a site “where debates about globalization and its effects can be conducted”.

It isn’t altogether clear where this across-the-board criticism of the discipline of ethnology comes from, which supposedly has not adequately worked through its colonial past. In his “polemical paper” of 19 Dec. 2017 on this blog, Karl-Heinz Kohl showed that this generalization is inaccurate, because precisely the “debate about ethnology’s interrelation with the colonial system has continuously accompanied the discipline at the universities since the beginning of decolonization”. According to Karl-Heinz Kohl, ethnological museums have “devoted exhibitions […] to current forms of exploiting the ‘Third World’ – and in the colonial era itself, ethnologists were not only “collaborateurs”. There is therefore no reason, he argues, to permit oneself to be startled by a vehemently articulated general criticism of ethnology as Völkerkunde – which he even thinks triggered the “collateral damage” of the changed name of the ethnological professional association in October 2017 ; called the Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde since 1929 and then, since 1938, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde.

Digression: The Ethnological Disciplinary Association’s Change of Name as “Collateral Damage“?

According to Karl-Heinz Kohl, the newly chosen name of the disciplinary association, “German Association of Social and Cultural Anthropology” (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie), is a historical short circuit that was counterproductive, precisely in relation to the Humboldt Forum: according to him, this term has no recognition value in the public realm, where “Ethnologie” is a firmly established name. He also argues that, on an Internet forum a few weeks before the vote in Berlin, the majority of directors of ethnological institutes had also called for “Ethnology” as an alternative term. But most seriously, he says, is that “Sozialanthropologie” does not stand solely as an equivalent for British Social Anthropology – whereby the history of colonialism has tainted the British term as much as it has “Völkerkunde” – but, as the disciplinary name in Germany at the end of the 19th century, was molded primarily by social Darwinist race theoreticians. In the following decades, at least for part of German-speaking Ethnology, this disciplinary term stood for researches tied to racism and genocide.

But was everyone present at the membership meeting in Berlin, which voted with a 2/3 majority for “Social and Cultural Anthropology” and didn’t even want to conduct a big discussion about it, completely oblivious to history and driven by over-hasty political correctness? I don’t think so. This would screen out our discipline’s many-layered ability to reflect – a discipline that is accustomed to dealing with the complex interaction of the present and history, disciplinary politics and disciplinary history.

The step of renaming was first and foremost a sign that most of our academic representatives could no longer identify with the designation “Völkerkunde” – whose emergence as a discipline was, in part, closely tied to the racist and national-chauvinistic ideology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is indicated not only by the debate about a possible renaming that has been conducted for decades in the professional association and that was based essentially on the same arguments as those presented at the membership meeting in Berlin; but for whose implementation the formal prerequisites were not fulfilled until the conference in October. Equally important, today there is no longer a single institute – or degree – titled “Völkerkunde”. That against this background the members moved straight to a vote without prior discussion and “jubilated” over the step taken is thus probably owed primarily to the fact that a historically long-desired situation had become reality. At the same time, it may be astonishing that Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie – in this specific combination of names – ultimately found broad support, when one considers that a number of substantial arguments were made for and against this term (like “Ethnologie”, by the way, which was also offered as a choice).[1]

One motive for this decision may have been that its supporters perceived this designation as being internationally more visible and more compatible with the disciplines of Social and Cultural Anthropology in the Anglophone world. For example, the European umbrella association bears the designation European Association of Social Anthropologists. But it is equally true that, in recent decades in the German-speaking world, individual institutes and chairs titled “Sozialanthropologie” or “Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie”[2] have repeatedly established their own tradition under these disciplinary names – and have never thereby fallen under suspicion of proximity to the race theories of the early 20th century. The main reason why outrage was not articulated in these cases is probably that the term today describes precisely what our discipline does: it researches the behavior and ways of life of people in their diverse social and cultural life contexts. At the German Research Foundation (DFG), in turn, Ethnology has for several years had its place within Scientific Council (Fachkollegium) 106 under the sub-designation “Social and Cultural Anthropology” – without provoking significant criticism from the discipline itself. Finally, I see the fact that the professional association is not governed solely by the preferences of our discipline’s professors and institute directors less as an occasion for concern than as a sign of our discipline’s strong capability to integrate the younger generation.

Ethnology, Social and Cultural Anthropology, and the Humboldt Forum: A Window of Opportunity for Dialog?

But what about Karl-Heinz Kohl’s worry that renaming the professional association as Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie (DGSKA) has negative effects on the discipline’s recently renewing dialog with the Humboldt Forum? In July 2017, the Executive Board of the DGV/DGSKA wrote a letter to Monika Grütters, the State Minister for Culture and Media, in which it criticized the lack of integration of specialized social and cultural anthropological perspectives in the project of the Humboldt Forum. The Board also formulated its call for a comprehensive integration of the discipline in the ongoing planning process at a meeting of the Executive Board with the Founding Directors of the Humboldt Forum in November 2017 – where, at the same time, the Board members emphasized the great importance of specialized social and cultural anthropological perspectives on both the substantive and the organizational levels. How can a cultural institute that will exhibit ethnological collections of this size manage without significant disciplinary expertise in its leadership? Would this obvious gap – which extends as far as the Humboldt Forum’s international advisory body[3] – be imaginable in (art) historical museums, and with what justified outrage would these disciplines react?

The results of the meeting in November were, first, the Founding Directors’ general acknowledgement of the importance of specialized social and cultural anthropological perspectives for the Humboldt Forum and, second, the agreement to hold a regular dialog with the professional association about possible collaborations. This may not be very much, initially – considering that, with the proximity of discipline and collections, such cooperation ought to be a matter of course. But at the same time, it is remarkable that, after several years of standstill in the communication between the discipline at the universities and the Humboldt Forum – for whatever reasons – now a new window for dialog has opened that ought to be used if our discipline does not want to insist on a position as critical outsider. There would be reason for such a positioning – to the degree that the discipline wants to relate primarily to its supposed “disempowerment at the hands of the Humboldt Forum and disregard for its wealth of experience”, to cite the point Claus Deimel put on it in this blog.

Despite a certainly justified skepticism about the project of the Humboldt Forum per se, I nonetheless think that we should not shut ourselves off from the newly opened window of opportunity to collaborate in shaping – on the final stretch – this venue’s approach to exhibitions and objects from the diverse perspectives of our discipline. It seems to me to be of minor relevance whether we do this as ethnologists or as social and cultural anthropologists: after all, students, lecturers, and researchers have worked in the discipline in the German-speaking countries for years under both designations, without developing significant divergences pointing beyond the inherent (and necessary) diversity found within an academic discipline. But what should be implemented are the kind of collaborations whose framework only the professional association can create, primarily by the representatives of the discipline at the universities and in the museums and in cooperation with other disciplinary and cultural-political actors.[4]

Whether debate about the colonial past, which Katharina Schramm recently postulated as being “bitterly necessary” in relation to the ethnological museums, has already been conducted with all its consequences within ethnology or social and cultural anthropology itself, as Karl-Heinz Kohl asserts, can certainly be discussed. But it is certain that, in recent years and decades, the discipline has formulated impetuses that are central for the Humboldt Forum’s consideration of the ethnological collections, as well as with themes like religion, migration, and “culture” in today’s world. This includes not only research on ethnological provenience, which, within the discipline, comprises not only the history of the acquisition or collection of objects, but also their current significance for the societies from which they come. At issue are also the conditions of collaborative work in postcolonial contexts and reflection on the production of knowledge and language politics in a present that has complex potentials for social and cultural upheavals. To be mentioned, finally, are the diverse impetuses that the discipline has formulated regarding ontology, materiality and material culture, memory politics and cultural heritage, but also affectivity and emotion in the constitution of present-day societies. Today, all these debates have profoundly affected other disciplinary contexts and are the basis on which ethnology or social and cultural anthropology can and should demand a central place in the Humboldt Forum – and equally in the planned research campus (Forschungscampus) in Berlin’s Dahlem district.

…But do Ethnology and Social and Cultural Anthropology even “Need” the Humboldt Forum?

If, then, the Humboldt forum needs the perspectives of our discipline in order to achieve a conceptually adequate approach to its objects and collections – does this equally mean that Ethnology or Social and Cultural Anthropology at the universities need the Humboldt Forum?

In my opinion: yes. The Humboldt Forum can not only make the content of our discipline visible for a broad public, but at the same time also deliver important impetuses for the discipline at the universities where these were historically much more closely tied to the ethnological museums than they are today, and not only in Berlin.[5] That the discipline must not thereby be reduced to the role of a short-notice idea generator for the realization of a cultural project that is currently under heavy fire is self-evident, in my view. The current window of opportunity for discussion with the Humboldt Forum should, rather, be used to work toward creating critical impetuses in the continuous accompaniment and codetermination of this institution, which will house in the heart of Berlin one of the most important ethnological collections.

The current debates in the discipline thereby show – far beyond our discipline – that it is no longer possible today to take up the traditions of ethnology as Völkerkunde, with its humanist and universalist approaches, approaches that shaped the development of the discipline beyond ethnic-chauvinist or colonialist ideologies. In a postcolonial and decentralized world, the Humboldt Forum can function only if it opens itself up to the many-sided reflections about the ruptures and opportunities that, historically but also presently, characterize the encounters between societies, cultures, objects, and academic disciplines. As Bénédicte Savoy most recently showed, these encounters currently include in particular also the many-sided debate about restitution that French President Macron’s position on “cultural objects from Africa” has revived in politics and among intellectuals and activists – and that must specifically include close dialog with African researchers, communities, and politicians. Within our discipline, only ethnology or social and cultural anthropology, and not “Völkerkunde”, stands for this critical “polylog on equal footing”.

Against this background, should we turn back the clock in regard to the renaming our professional association, as Karl-Heinz Kohl asks at the end of his polemic? I don’t think so: there will be no “perfect” designation for our professional association – as was made clear by the discussion that led to the renaming. Not least, we have also learned from the “writing culture” debate that our discipline profits from fundamental introspection – but not if we focus too much on ourselves. Let us instead intervene at those points where ethnology or social and cultural anthropology is so urgently needed in order to help shape encounters, representation, and action in a globalized world!


Hansjörg Dilger studied and earned his doctorate in Ethnology and is today Professor for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2015, he has been the Chairman of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, which renamed itself the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie e.V. in 2017. At Twitter: @h_dilger


translated by Mitch Cohen


[1] The step of renaming had been intensively prepared over a period of two years. At the membership meeting itself, a handout comprehensively listed the pro and contra arguments for the three options for the name of the professional association. This handout will be published together with the minutes of the membership meeting in the next notices on the homepage of the professional association.

[2] Or in the sequence “Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie” at the corresponding institute in Vienna and at the department in Marburg.

[3] Only a single ethnologist is part of the Humboldt Forum’s international team of experts, which is otherwise composed primarily of (art) historians.

[4] Within the professional association, interactions and debates with ethnological museums and collections are carried out primarily through the Arbeitsgruppe Museum [Working Group Museum] – whereby two further plenary sessions at the 2017 DGV/DGSKA conference underscored the significance of this working group and its relevance for the Humboldt Forum. On this, see the reports by Jonas Bens and Duane Jethro. In the discipline’s sister discipline, European Ethnology, the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Cultural Heritage at the Humboldt University Berlin should be mentioned as a central actor in these debates.

[5] One exception is the Georg August University Göttingen, where the Ethnological Collection is part of the Institute for Ethnology. At the same time, there are initiatives in research and teaching at individual ethnological institutes that provide points that the overarching disciplinary discussions of the Humboldt Forum and of ethnological collections can take up.

„lookingBACK“ and the question of gaze A Review of the Permanent Exhibition at the Berlin Museum Treptow

16. January 2018

by Anujah Fernando

In October 2017, in the midst of the scuffle over Humboldt’s legacy, a permanent exhibition with the cautious title „zurückGESCHAUT” (lookingBACK) opened in Berlin’s outer district of Treptow. With this exhibition, the Museum of Local History critically engages with the First German Colonial Exhibition, which took place in 1896 on the grounds of the Treptower Park in Berlin and looks back, in particular, at the stories of the performing participants of that exhibition from Africa and Oceania. This review takes the title of the exhibition as an opportunity to examine how this exhibition deals with different forms of gaze and which practices of looking it encourages.

Basket, Earthenware Jug, Cross

9. January 2018

by Mark Münzel

The baskets rebelled: “‘Humans deal with us very poorly. When they no longer need us, they throw us away. Animals step all over us, the pigs and dogs. Then they throw us in the fire and burn us. I propose that we hide from the humans.’ […] They emptied themselves and left the house. After a time, the woman of the house came from the plantation with manioc and bananas. The baskets had not moved far away. They heard how the woman said, ‘Who took away my baskets? Where should I store everything?’ The baskets laughed, but then they returned, because the disorder in the house was too great without them. ‘And who threw away everything that was in you?’ asked the woman. ‘We did it, and it was right,’ said the baskets.”

Collateral Damage. A Polemic

19. December 2017

by Karl-Heinz Kohl

“Europe is a master of criticism. If it doesn’t criticize, it disappears. What it fears most is nonexistence. I tried to criticize it, too, because it demanded this from me, but I wasn’t able. At most, I could repeat its self-criticism.”[1] These sentences by the Japanese author Yoko Tawada occurred to me when I read some of the blog texts. Yoko Tawada is referring to Europe, but she really means Germany, the country she has lived in for so long.

A Look into the Vienna Weltmuseum The relaunched Ethnological Museum of Vienna gives us a first taste of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum to come

12. December 2017

by Johanna Di Blasi

Following a three-year renovation period, the former Ethnological Museum in Hofburg/Vienna was recently reopened as the Vienna Weltmuseum (VWM). Responsible for content development and the presentation of the exhibits was the same museum exhibition design firm, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which previously designed the Canadian National Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg and the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened by Barack Obama in Washington DC, and which is also currently preparing the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Therefore, Vienna can be considered a test run for the major project in Berlin, which is also housed in a palace. At the Vienna Weltmuseum, we are able to paradigmatically study the state-of-the-art of ethnographic-scenographic exhibitions in the second decade of the 21st century, as well as the new role of contemporary art in historical museums, the latter of which I gave special attention to during my visit.

‘Cannibals’ with Chestpains: On Ethnographic Collection Histories

5. December 2017

by Rainer F. Buschmann

A Pacific Presences Workshop meeting at Cambridge in July of this year revealed an estimated 250,000 Oceanic artifacts available in numerous German Völkerkunde museums. The astonishment behind this number is twofold: 1. Most of these objects were collected during a relatively short time (roughly between the years of 1870 to 1914). 2. Comparatively speaking German museums house more Oceanic artifacts than France (65,000), The Netherlands (80,000) and Russia (10,000) combined (Buschmann, forthcoming). Assuming that similar numbers also emerge from the rich African collections in the same museums, one can easily grasp the multiple controversies surrounding the Humboldt Forum and related Völkerkunde museums highlighted in this fascinating blog space. The focus of this blog – the novel rethinking of ethnographic collection – should, however, engage “newer” as well as “older” considerations.