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.
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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.