Exasperation An Outsider’s Take on (some of) the Current Debates Surrounding the Humboldt Forum

20. March 2018

by H. Glenn Penny

Last fall, when the editors of this blog asked me to join their discussions about the Humboldt Forum, I declined. They explained that they wanted to broaden the debate by bringing in outside views. They thought I would be a good candidate, given my past work on the history of German ethnology and ethnographic museums. I was not so sure. It is a strikingly internal debate, and to be quite honest, it’s disconcerting on many levels. I cannot touch on them all here; but I can share some of my exasperation.
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What is a devolution? The circulation of remnants and demonstrations of trust and recognition of indigenous peoples in Brazil

6. March 2018

by Luísa Valentini

Reading the contents in this blog (the ones I could read, since I don’t speak German), it struck me that, while a lot of debates in museums have been organized in terms of repatriation, in Brazil I have often heard a different term: devolution or return. So when I received an invitation to contribute to this debate, I thought a consideration on the theme of devolution could be useful. This text has been assembled from perceptions and interlocutions I have gathered in my present doctoral research, concerning documental collections formed in Brazil by ethnologists who have worked with indigenous peoples since the 1960s. The aspects of anthropological practice I mention here can be considered to apply to anthropology in Brazil as a whole, but in the work developed in other ethnographic contexts there are, as in any relational work, different inflections in the ways devolution is conceived. So as not to extend the text – and expecting that colleagues from other countries might contribute as well – I have restricted this perspective to the Brazilian case.
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Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam?

27. February 2018

by Philipp Schorch

Please allow me to begin with a Latourian digression to frame what I want to say about the current debates over ethnographic museums. “What has become of critique,” Bruno Latour asked almost fifteen years ago, “when an editorial in the New York Times contains the following quote?

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by man-made pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that “the scientific debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.

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

21. February 2018

by  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 Poisoned Museum

13. February 2018

by Ulrich van Loyen

Recevoir est reçu
The Edda/ M. Mauss

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.”