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Layering Meanings / Project Description

Information in Extenso in the Quest for Concentration

by Agnes Wegner

Museum objects in general have many contexts – for example those of their provenance, their production and their usage or the history of their acquisition and reception. The question of making these contexts apparent in an exhibition, as well as the resultant impression is by no means a new one in the field of museum work. The question does though come up repeatedly, particularly when objects originate from geographically distant regions and different historical periods, and for the visitor, not (self-)explanatory. Fundamentally, this is the case as far as most of the 500,000 objects in the historical collection of the Dahlem museums are concerned.

Therefore, from whose perspectives and what viewpoints should objects from these ethnological collections be presented? These are questions that are central to the contextual and artistic planning of the Humboldt-Forum. Which is why they were discussed in the opening workshop “Fragen stellen” (asking questions) hosted by the Humboldt Lab Dahlem in May, 2012, and then recommended as a Lab project. Andreas Heller, the Hamburg-based exhibition designer and curator, transposed the research and exhibition intentions under the title “Layering Meanings.”

Four out of Five Hundred Thousand

Numerous preliminary discussions and a further workshop led to the selection of four objects drawn from different cultures, regions and periods: a Persian calligraphic manuscript from 1900; a Mayan bust from Guatemala that had been added to the collection in 1899; an Indian temple image (Picchvai) from the 19th century and Incan knotted cord work (Khipu) from between 1400 – 1532. The objects are not only drawn from diverse contexts, but the available factual information is uneven or only partially documented and they therefore present a very heterogeneous point of departure for the project. For the presentation, Andreas Heller and his team wanted to make accessible as much context as possible, based on differing perspectives through the utilization of diverse types of media.

The four objects were exhibited in individual walk-in cabinets and their histories related. On the exterior walls, white on black, the subjective and random nature of the selection from the over 500,000 objects was explained; questions about this approach were raised, and doubts as to the feasibility of achieving objectivity were expressed. The interior walls were separated according to category with headings like “Biography,” “Aesthetics,” “Function,” and “Reception.” In each cabinet there was also a table with stools inviting visitors to sit down and engage with the exhibit.

The exhibition concept is explained using one of the objects as an example: Sharad Purnima Picchvai / Temple painting of Krishna worship, Inv.-no.: I 10008, 304 x 296 cm, Painting on woven textile; topcoat on cotton textile, 19th century.1 The curator Martina Stoye had already undertaken research on Hindu textile paintings of the God Krishna and was able to contribute her expertise to the project directly. In the category “Function” information on the iconographic aspects was provided, as well as details on religious uses and links to Krishna worship. Under the heading of “Aesthetics,” information was given about the participating artists, the materials and techniques used. “Biographical” details were printed directly onto the table: the acquisition of the Picchvai in 1966, its presentation in the permanent exhibition of the Dahlem museums and its journey to the depot where it had been stored for several years. The object’s index card states simply: “M. Chand, New York,” a tenuous link to the now unidentified seller. Under the heading “Reception” the visitor could learn about the mutual influences of Indian and European art history. They could also read about the popularization of Indian textiles as interior design artifacts during the 1970s in Western Europe and about George Harrison’s reverence of Krishna and his world-famous song “My Sweet Lord.” The song itself was played as an audio loop, along with a piece by Ravi Shankar.

The other three exhibition cabinets followed the same contextual arrangement and presented a similar number of texts, but also additional film material: a workshop excerpt documenting the methods used by the exhibition organizers in their approach to the Khipu by means of a conversation with the restorer Lena Bjerregaard: in a video, the hands of the artist Shahla Safarzadeh were shown producing the calligraphy, and in a film montage, fake blood ran down the Mayan bust in an intimation of a ritual sacrifice.

Points of Reference for further Humboldt Lab Work

The multilayered reading rooms, each dedicated to a single object, were an attempt to demonstrate the variety of interpretations and of information relating to an object. At the same time it was a way of documenting the fact that the final presentation was the result of a cooperative process between exhibition organizers, curators and academics.

The experimental exhibition “Layering Meanings” polarizes in a big way. Advocates defend the cabinets as spatially separate concentrated zones, facilitating a targeted and intensive dialog with just one object outside the usual permanent exhibition. Particularly the design, using a central table, which, alongside individual reading materials and roundtable discussions, was highlighted as a desirable element for future exhibitions. The characterization, “strongholds of curatorial texts” used by a Dahlem curator can be regarded as a succinct summary of all the other critical voices. They felt the object itself was overwhelmed by the quantity of text and passionately claimed that they even had difficulty finding it. Also criticized was the lack of individual authorship – it had simply not been part of the plan and was therefore not noted in the texts. A clear indication of the multiperspectival approach to the exhibition would have been welcome.

The culmination of the idea in its aim of providing as much information about an object as possible, is a hallmark of the project and continues to make it an intellectual reference point for the Humboldt Lab. The individual cabinets provided a demonstrable contribution to the debate around the design of large quantities of text material in an exhibition context and to the associated question of how long visitors stay within a given exhibition space. Is the offer of extensive reading material willingly accepted or are the in-depth texts read before or after the visit to the exhibition on the website or in the accompanying catalogue, and should they therefore be provided only there? Is it an advantage to be able to see the entire text, instead of swiping through it on a tablet, chunk by chunk? What about the relationship to other media? Do they enrich or hinder one another? “Layering Meanings” was an intensive and pioneering experiment in contextualizing museum objects. The manifold experiences and lessons learned are certainly correct and relevant as far as further Humboldt Lab Dahlem projects are concerned.


1 The other objects were: Exercise manuscript page, Inv.-no.: IB 13691, 28 x 20,4 cm, calligraphy (paper, ink), Persian; 19th century, Collection Friedrich Spuhler, Acquisition date 1989; Mayan head, Inv.-no.: IV Ca 21664, 28 x 17 x 26 cm, Quen Santo, Guatemala, Eduard Seler, Acquisition date 1899; Khipu, Inv.-no.: V A 42593, 55 x 35 cm, cotton/wool– twisted, Inca; 1400 - 1532, Peru; Site of find: Pachacamac, Wilhelm Gretzer (collector); Julius van der Zypen (patron), Acquisition date 1907.

Agnes Wegner has been managing director of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem since July 2012.

You can find further reading on this project here.