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Museum of Vessels / Positions

Object Biographies Narrated Anew

How contradictory can the staging of presentations be, when are new interpretations permissible and what does it mean to be a custodian of museum objects? The curators Uta Rahman-Steinert, Peter Junge and Martin Heller, one of the Humboldt Lab directors, on the installation “Museum of Vessels.”
Interview: Barbara Schindler

Let’s start with the film “Gießen_Schenken” (“Pouring_Giving”) which was part of a larger media installation. In the film one sees how a pre-Columbian vessel is filled with water and then emptied. How have you, as a museums expert, interpreted the activities shown in connection with one of your objects?

Uta Rahman-Steinert:
I thought that was the most successful installation of the exhibition because it had a significant aesthetic appeal and endowed the vessels with a different aura. It made a difference as to whether I had the object simply sitting in a display case or whether I can see it being used – that didn’t work equally well in all the installations, but in this case it did.

Peter Junge:
I agree that was the most successful part of the project, although I am generally very skeptical towards it. But I don’t think it demonstrates the use, because we don’t know what it was – the pottery was probably a burial object or a musical instrument. What it does show is an additional interpretation, a possibly other dimension of the object. And I think that’s good; the idea of doing something with the object that probably no one has ever done before: picking it up with black gloves and pouring distilled water through it. So it is a completely artificial situation (in pre-Columbian Peru there was certainly no distilled water); it becomes fascinating because it attains an aesthetic form.
Rahman-Steinert: The video achieved what an intervention must be able to: it has redirected the attention of the visitor to this object, and they have perhaps taken a closer look than they normally would when walking along a row of display cases with similar objects. Here something different was happening.

Martin Heller: I have to agree. It is significant that this video intervention more than any other is repeatedly brought up in a positive way in our planning talks. It doesn't bring a natural environment into play: the aforementioned synthetic quality results in the vessels that are shown suddenly becoming something more than just museum artifacts.

Can you think of other interventions that similarly engendered a new perspective on the objects or brought them alive in a different way?

There was also the “clatter” in our gallery with Chinese ceramics. That irritated the public extremely and resulted more in a defensive reaction. That intervention did not lead to a positive viewpoint towards the exhibits but, instead, was considered a disturbance and intimidated the visitors.

Heller: That was the display cabinet with the seemingly precariously tipping vase – I think the striking image alone would have been enough.

Rahman-Steinert: Yes, it would have been enough. Just the mere sight made me wince when I saw for the first time that the vase was about to tip over.

Heller: Vessels always evoke a certain sense of fragility and with it their possible destruction – the shards are somehow always present in your head. You could pick up on that as a theme in various ways, but the clattering was too much, because it contradicted the image – and that was a shame.

Junge: It reduced it to a gag…

... to entertainment, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Where fragility is concerned, for a precious object that is something threatening. Because that is certainly something that happens in a museum: someone trips and the artifact is broken.

Junge: If you are serious about the topic of fragility then that necessitates increased respect for the object, showing how amazing it is that these few remaining artifacts still exist and are important and precious objects from a specific historical era. A flowerpot from the Chinese corner store, which you can buy for 10 euros, is not. It may also come from China but you would never put it in this exhibition. And that's where the presentation reveals a certain hypocrisy.

Heller: I don't agree. Like many others, my first reaction was one of laughter. Not all of us are experts! The classic museum situation was robbed of its drama in several ways, and that is always a healthy thing.

In the Humboldt-Forum a systemization according to regional aspects is planned. Could a cultural-geographic and cultural-historical, less closed narration, like the comparative object exhibition “Museum of Vessels” have a place there?

The exhibition areas in the Humboldt-Forum will be roughly organized according to regions, but within these regions themes will be represented. So we won’t be presenting “Life in Cameroon” or “Swahili Folk Traditions”; that would be a restriction of perspective. The alternative is not to break regional boundaries and create multi-cultural exhibitions instead – museums have been doing that for 100 years. In every exhibition we are bringing together objects that were never together in real life: a Bamanan mask from Mali in Africa was never found next to a Congolese figurine – that only happened once they became museum objects. That's why museums, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, had themes like the bride, men’s clubs, seafaring, – or now vessels as with Nicola Lepp – exhibits from all over the world. That's nothing new for a museum because that's exactly how objects have been presented in a museum.

The concept of a thematic exhibition may not be new, but in its variety, as well as in its medial and design approach, it has created something new for Dahlem.

Junge: In its medial design it appears fresh and new in Dahlem, but I don't see it as a new approach.

Heller: Perhaps it is something else that is relevant. There are several Humboldt Lab projects that almost everyone liked. For example the Purnakumbha ritual 1 – which was nothing new in the sense that other museums had included similar religious practices; I saw that in Australia on several occasions. What is decisive is that the people involved in the Lab trials during the planning process for the Humboldt-Forum have hopefully generated positive friction and cooperative encounters. Perhaps an outsider will see better what is missing in the present Dahlem exhibitions. For example there are hardly any films, hardly any sound installations, no video commentaries. To begin working with these elements in the Lab is not new but it makes sense, in the context of these objects, in this situation, with these colleagues – that is the decisive aspect of this process.
As a longstanding museum person it is exactly the aspect you mentioned before that interests me, Mr. Junge – the fact that most of the things with which we work, wouldn't under normal circumstances ever be juxtaposed, apart from in a museum context. The confrontation with this new reality is one of the significant motors of the Humboldt Lab. We are concerned with the web of connections that exist, and happily with differing results, with experimentation. That's the only way that something like “Pouring_Giving” can come about. The attempt to introduce film into the vessel exhibition has, as a secondary step, led us to the in-house film archives being cataloged and thus made accessible. That is also nothing new, but it was a necessary step, in order to even achieve the position we are in today of thinking about whether this or that room in the Humboldt-Forum could be used to show film documentation as a complement to the objects.

Rahman-Steinert: Of course the museum is an abstraction and it brings things together that in “nature” or in their place of origin would not have been. Our strength and what’s special to the museum is that we bring things together, and through confrontation make visible the different developments, perspectives and philosophies. And precisely this new insight was not present in the wild mix of “Vessel Center”. Many visitors found it difficult to orientate themselves. The labeling was not so easy to comprehend, so all that was retained was a general perception of abundance, without looking at the individual objects. I would consider it a successful juxtaposition if I learn more about the individual items that have been brought together.  

I was not sure if “Vessel Center” was an installation or a “Museum of Vessels,” thus an encyclopedic statement. For me this is what remained an unresolved discrepancy.

Rahman-Steinert: And the exciting question behind the entire project was: how did the abundance and diversity of vessels here in the museum come about in the first place? In the end that hasn’t really been answered. For East Asia for example that is a central issue, because in the earlier rituals, vessels assumed a much greater role, comparable to the status of a painting in the West or in Europe. Those are completely different concepts of “world” and that was not really visible amidst all this diversity.

Have further questions been raised or insights been gained through these installations and the accompanying communicative process?

Heller: Significant differences were revealed in the attempt to gain insight into what these objects actually represent – for the respective culture of origin, for the collection, for each and every one of us personally. Western history of art knows numerous assemblages of the most diverse objects – for example by the Surrealist movement, where they presented objects from the Hopi, daily objets trouvés and their own works of art, all in the same exhibition.
In an ethnological context this automatically raises resistance. Many colleagues, in my opinion, have a biased sense of responsibility towards “their” cultures. That's why, at any price, they want to prevent “wrong” impressions being created and attempt to protect the museum’s artifacts by drawing clear boundaries. But in this way any kind of fun or playfulness gets lost. For me it would be a great achievement if this sense of playfulness could be regained by the Humboldt-Forum – whilst still acknowledging the responsibility of the custodian for the objects and retaining respect for the artifacts.

Junge: There is this attitude that you have described: you stand up for “your” culture. But I believe that we’ve come further than that. I have, for instance, organized an exhibition “Weltsprache Abstraktion” (“World Language Abstraction”)2  in which I presented a picture by Paul Klee alongside a piece of Kuba textile from Congo. We played with that. Sometimes you have to have the confidence to overcome the thoughtfulness of the ethnologists and to juxtapose things that have nothing to do with each other in terms of their origin or history.

Rahman-Steinert: I like the fact that we are “custodians” of the objects in order to make them more accessible to the visitor, and that is why we have to search for different ways of accomplishing that goal.

Heller: That is easier of course with changing exhibitions – in the Humboldt-Forum however we are dealing with permanent exhibitions. And to come back to the video installation “Pouring_Giving” for a moment: I am convinced that it would continue to hold its ground in a permanent exhibition. The Humboldt Lab is looking for and finding these qualities, and for that that we need an approach that is often intricate and then again more open, to achieve a continual state of critical analysis.

1 “Springer: Purnakumbha” by Martina Stoye, Probebühne 1
2 “Weltsprache Abstraktion. Gestalt, Magie und Zeichen,” Ethnologisches Museum Dahlem, 2006

Martin Heller is a member of the management board of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem and is responsible for the contextual concept development of the Humboldt-Forum.

Dr. Peter Junge studied ethnology, sociology and history in Marburg and Berlin. Between 1980 and 1991 he was director of several projects on the documentation of German colonial history at the Übersee-Museum Bremen. From 1991 until 2001 he was curator of the African collection there and later director of the ethnological department. In 2002 he came to the Ethnologische Museum in Berlin, where he was curator of the African collection until 2014 and then director of the department of communications.
Uta Rahman-Steinert studied Sinology and the history of art at the Humboldt-Universität, Berlin, subsequently spending two years in Beijing where she studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Since 1987 she has been research associate for the East Asia collection at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (East) and, since the amalgamation of Berlin’s museums in 1992, she has held a position at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst.

Barbara Schindler works in the field of cultural PR. Together with Christiane Kühl she supervises the online documentation of the projects for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

The interview took place in July 2014 in Berlin.