The Poisoned Museum

13. February 2018

by Ulrich van Loyen

Recevoir est reçu
The Edda/ M. Mauss

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In an article in the 25 January issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Parzinger, took up Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion: artefacts that came to Europe in the colonial context should be exhibited in the site of their origin. In the shadow of France, the Prussian State Possessions, with its Prussian Palace – that vintage sarcophagus that does not hold the entire world as Hegel imagined, but nonetheless the Prussian-German relationship to the entire world, sees itself obligated to make an impressive international display. For of course what are required – alongside the gigantic, politically legitimized research funds to reconstruct proveniences, decipher handwritings, and ensure transparency vis-à-vis sponsors and the sovereign (digitalization) – are above all international framework conditions for the exhibitions so that the return of the exhibition objects can be regulated, together with the proper recipient – best identified by those carrying out the restitution; the recipient will also have to ensure the proper institution for and the proper treatment of the objects. Whether these are to be legally binding returns or merely loans seems to be secondary for Parzinger (which says a lot). For the example of sculptures from the royal house of Benin, Parzinger points out that it first must be considered who will get something back. And yes, it would be best for many, many people to consider this, all of Europe, because after all that’s where the objects are strewn. One could fear that the result could be a European pedagogical mission, in this case to the Nigerians, who for a start are called upon to show patience and understanding for the German mixture of barbarism and pedantry. The museums must be built and operated, and one wishes the state of Nigeria lots of fun thereby. But the hope – as can be glimpsed through the suggestions – is that somehow the museum could be the site where a riven nation could convalesce or an “imagined community” come together. As if what is to be returned was what will first produce those to whom it is returned. Along with the museum-ripe relationships to the rest of the world to which Germany wants to arrive, these are lovely prospects.

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.

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.

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“.

„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.

Overcoming Distances and Boundaries Some Reflections on Collaboratively Working with Ethnographic Materials in Germany and Australia

28. November 2017

by Martin Porr

The recent debates around the Humboldt Forum in Berlin have drawn attention to various challenges related to the many ethnographic collections in German museums and other institutions (e.g. archives, universities). The existence of the ethnographic collections, their contents and histories crystallise new questions about Europe’s present and past position in the world. How were these collections acquired? How have they shaped the view of other cultures and of Europe’s self-understanding? For the many specialists working in these institutions, these challenges are not new even if they have been differently articulated through time.