Anthropological Collections Not an apology but an amendment

22. May 2018

by Fritz W. Kramer

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

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Touching history Objects as witnesses, witnesses of objects

15. May 2018

by Leonor Faber-Jonker

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

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

8. May 2018

by Christian Kravagna


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

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


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

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

1. May 2018

by Monica Juneja

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

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

17. April 2018

by Rainer Hatoum

*Translated by Jonathan DeVore and Julian Schmischke

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

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

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Humboldt Forum, Anthropology, and Cultural Heritage

27. March 2018

by Christian Feest

Cultural heritage is the claim of a more or less exclusive collective ownership of material and/or immaterial cultural capital, whose origin in located in the past, which contributes to the construction of a group’s identity. This basically holds for all present and past societies of the world, although they differ from one another in the manner in which this capital is accumulated and managed, how the past is constructed, and to what extent the construction of identity is articulated or reflected—be it as an expression of a living and continually changing tradition, be it through the preservation of unchanging material documents (including records of actions or events in writing, images, or sound), be it—as in our society—by a never consistent parallel use of both strategies.

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

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.