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Museum of Vessels / Project Description

Understanding Vessels

by Nicola Lepp

The basis for this experimental Humboldt Lab project arose out of an observation that came about during the workshop “Asking Questions” in June 2012: namely, the fact that in the Berlin-Dahlem museums which are in the focus of the Probebühne – the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst – a great number of all the exhibited objects are vessels. Made of clay, bronze, gold, silver, glass, wood or other organic materials, vessels are present here like no other category. To be exact, they constitute 38 percent of all exhibits as a count later revealed.

The project “Museum of Vessels” took its impetus from the realization of how ubiquitous these vessels are, taking the simple fact of their presence in the exhibition rooms of the museum as an amazing occurrence, in order to open up the question: why is it that so many vessels are on show here and what in fact is a vessel? And what do vessels have to do with culture? The current presentations with their cultural-geographic approaches and systemization provide scant pointers in response to such rather more phenomenological than ethnologically-inspired questions. The vessels, like all other objects, are presented here as tangible evidence and as artifacts of “other” cultures. And this (testified) access, that forms the basis of most European collections of non-European cultures, is so powerful that it hinders the formation of other perspectives and interpretations – because objects are seldom simultaneously comprehensible in several logical systems.

A Cultural Theory Approach

The aim of the experimental exhibition was to explore other perspectives on vessels from outside disciplinary approaches. The experts’ view, which is visible behind the current presentations, was confronted with a broad cultural-theoretical and transdisciplinary perspective. The vessels from the individual cultures were placed alongside a culture of vessels in order to explore whether a broader perspective could provide an extended understanding of the objects in the museum. At the same time, it was vital to grapple with the institutional self-perception that is the basis for the presentation of artifacts in the museum. Because every system developed in the museum and every classification of objects necessarily involves a narrowing down and thus a reduction of complexity. With respect to the collection presentations in the Humboldt-Forum, the question to be asked was whether new perspectives could enrich the cultural geographical system, counteract it and expand on it, and if yes, which ones.

We – the curator Nina Wiedemeyer, the designer Ursula Gillmann and I –  were inspired by the discourse which, for some time, has determined the international theory of things and examines, for example, how objects pre-determine human activity. The vessels in the current presentation in Dahlem have completely forfeited this praxeological dimension. That’s why, for the Humboldt Lab exhibition, we wished to develop approaches for presenting vessels not only as artifacts, evidence and relics, but also as agents of human action and thought. The central thesis was that vessels are a form of social media and that using vessels promotes community. For what would happen if the vessels no longer existed? Could culture itself exist without vessels? Accidentally, and somewhat unexpectedly, basic questions about the objects in the Dahlem collections themselves arose out of an initial and fleeting observation of the abundance of the vessels themselves, as well as a direct discussion about the objects within their museum arrangement. The cultural-geographic arrangement here no longer made no sense and was therefore abandoned in this Humboldt Lab experiment.

The Experimental Exhibition: a Trial Arrangement about Exhibiting per se

Instead, the “Museum of Vessels” took the multi-cultural object “vessel” as the point of departure for its exploration. The introductory text reads: “A vessel is a tool for holding, containing and dispensing of materials. It stores foodstuffs or human remains but also time and labor. It is just as suited to the exchange of goods as it is to the forging of connections, for example with gods or magical forces. Vessels are probably among the oldest means of exchange between humans. They are suited as hardly any other object to making visible the characteristics of human beings as a result of intermixing and migration beyond the concept of “whole” cultures.

For the exploration the Humboldt Lab exhibition adopted two different formats: one lying outside the regular, and primarily object-based, exhibition module presentation of the collection in the upper foyer that we called the “Gefäßzentrale” (“Vessel Center”) as well as four media installations as interventions which we placed at different sites in both museums. The film medium played a central role in all the installations. The static nature of the objects was systematically accompanied by the logic of moving image and sound, in order to find out how far these time-based media were capable of visualizing the interconnection between objects and human activity.

The vessels, arranged on a central platform in the “Vessel Center” were grouped according to differing cultural-theoretical questions and observations. The initial question was: what is a vessel really, and what organizational systems and ways of describing them are there? The perspectives ranged from vessel typologies (vase, jug, pitcher, cup, amphora etc.) to borderline cases (do fish baskets or sieves count as vessels?) to the anthropomorphization of vessels, which is evident in many cultures (aesthetically as well as linguistically – “neck,” “lip,” “belly” of a vessel, or “he’s a crackpot,”) down to different usage descriptions (vessels for...). Text played an important role in the “vessel center,” not only as a descriptive label on the objects themselves, but as a medium for exploration, consideration and questioning. Which is why text appeared as an exhibition layer in its own right, in large format and script embedded in the scenography. Finally we showed excerpts of ethnological films that portrayed activities such as handling, storing, transporting or dispensing and so illustrated the social significance of vessels for the community (“Vessel Activities”).

Individual aspects of the vessels were examined in greater depth by means of four interventionist media installations: their abundance in the museum, their fragility, the interiors of the vessels, and their function as a medium of giving. Thus in the installation “Gießen_Schenken” (“Pouring_Giving”) for example, vessels from the Moche culture were filmed being used and handled in order to examine their pouring qualities and the sound they made. For this re-enactment, vessels were deliberately chosen from the archaeological collections of Mesoamerica, where knowledge about their actual use has been lost. The four installations intentionally undertook cultural-theoretical investigations also using artistic methods, in the conviction that artistic approaches can enrich the research of objects. These interventions opened up surprising, in part speculative, but most certainly new, perspectives that would otherwise not have been possible from the vessels in static museum displays.

Just like the concept, the design of the “Museum of Vessels” was an experimental arrangement on the theme of exhibiting per se. The design approach utilized the classic repertoire of museum presentation techniques – with pedestals, frames and display cases. The simplest of interventions and adjustments examined how we can change our perception of things due to the design of the presentation. Even the movement of the visitors in the room was a systematic aspect of the mediation: in the “vessel center” with its transparent glass surfaces, every adjustment of the positioning changed the arrangement to something different – foreground became background and the addition and positioning of text and object shifted, resulting in new thematic constellations and modes of perception.

Invitation to Transgress

The Humboldt Lab experiment was not concerned with a “right” or a “successful” project, but rather with the exploration of possibilities that would allow us to go beyond the narrow framework of disciplinary systems in our museum landscape, and at the same time open up the traditional definition of objects as evidence and artifacts, as they are still largely determined by museum operations to this day. The project should be understood, at the very least, as a plea for a partial breakdown of disciplines in museum work. Only in this way can questions be raised that not only concern the others but us as “others” too.

Ursula Gillmann, exhibition designer and museum studies specialist. Since 1989 she has been developing and organizing exhibition projects with the atelier gillmann and the arge gillmann schnegg. She has been professor of exhibition design at the Hochschule Darmstadt since 2009. Significant previous projects include Wege zur Welterkenntnis (Basel, 2009); Berge – eine unverständliche Leidenschaft (Innsbruck, 2007); PSYCHOanalyse (Berlin, 2006); Alltag – eine Gebrauchsanweisung (Vienna, 2003); Unten und oben. Zur Naturkultur des Ruhrgebiets (Essen, 2001).

Nicola Lepp is a Berlin-based expert in cultural theory and exhibition designer. Since 1995 she has been developing themed exhibitions at the interface between science and art and works on alternative forms of exhibiting and curating. Significant projects include: GRIMMWELT Kassel, 2015; Arbeit. Sinn und Sorge, 2009/2010; PSYCHOanalyse, 2006; Der Neue Mensch. Obsessionen des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1999. From 2001 to 2007 she was deputy professor at the Fachhochschule Potsdam for the course on cultural work; currently she is acting professor for cultural representation and promotion; she has had numerous lectureships and has published work on museum and exhibition theory.

Nina Wiedemeyer is an arts and media scholar. Since 1998 she has been working as an author and curator for museums and exhibition practices, including for prauth (exhibition project: Sinn und Sorge, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, 2009/2010) and with the exhibitors. Since 2012 she has been working at the Universität der Künste Berlin in its post-graduate program “Das Wissen der Künste” with a project on the marginal history of knowledge in the field of arts and crafts. Most recent publication: Buchfalten: Material, Technik, Gefüge der Künstlerbücher, Zürich/Berlin 2013.

You can find further reading on this project here.