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Talking Knowledge / Positions

“We have many more stories than we can tell.”

Preserving unpublished knowledge and making it accessible to the public: Viola König, director of the Ethnologisches Museum, and Monika Zessnik, the curator of the North America collection, talk about the film documentary “Talking Knowledge.”
Interview: Barbara Schindler

We want to talk about the project “Talking Knowledge.” How did you come up with the idea for this film project, Viola König?

Viola König: The idea arose during one of the so-called fireside chats, which the chairman of the Stiftung Berliner Schloss – Humboldt-Forum, Manfred Rettig, had initiated, in order to popularize the Humboldt-Forum and its concept, in the broadest sense, amongst personalities from the cultural domain. For one of these talks, we had planned a tour of the depot led by my colleague Siegmar Nahser, who is responsible for East and North Asia. As he moved through the depot, he began to talk, and talk, and talk – and everyone was rapt, hanging on to his every word. We looked at the objects too, but above all we listened to what he had to say about the individual objects. Finally Martin Heller, who had just begun working with the Humboldt Lab Dahlem and was on the look out for initial projects, said, “We have to do something with this!” When I told him that Siegmar Nahser was only one of several curators soon to retire, the project “Talking Knowledge” was born.

Peter Bolz was chosen as the narrator. In the film he speaks eloquently and fluently, his well-formulated narratives are spiced with anecdotes and he provides exact dates. Was he consciously selected?

König: Until then we weren’t aware – although we had all known Mr. Bolz a very, very long time – that he was such a wonderful storyteller. The added bonus was that Mr. Bolz, unlike the others, was prepared to participate in this experiment, that he was about to retire, and that it all took place in the last eight months of his employment with the museum. Due to those circumstances, he was able to view things from a certain distance. I think that for anyone who has worked in a museum for twenty or thirty years – which is almost an entire lifetime – their perspective shifts somewhat toward the end of their service. If we had interviewed Peter Bolz three or four years earlier, his statements would, no doubt, have come across quite differently.

How did you develop the conceptional approach to this video documentation and how close was the collaboration with the film team when it came to taking the idea further?

Monika Zessnik: The team from the Humboldt Lab chose the production and directorial team together with Peter Bolz after inviting tenders. The entire concept and organization was then developed in collaboration between Peter Bolz, Janina Janke and Franziska Seeberg. There was a shooting schedule, which specified which objects Peter Bolz would talk about.

König: Every Humboldt Lab project is different, and it would be a shame if its experimental character were to be lost. We noticed already in the short discussions with Markus Schindlbeck and Peter Junge, who are both retiring, that they would approach the project in a completely different way – and so would I. Peter Bolz took another approach.

Zessnik: Peter Bolz didn't sit in front of the steadycam and talk into the microphone; instead he had the production team in front of him to whom he talked. Basically the team was his audience.

König: That's what made the whole thing so effective. Also, because they admired him and made it clear to him.

Monika Zessnik, you are Peter Bolz’s successor. He came to the Ethnologisches Museum shortly after the reunification and curated the North America collection in 1999. When he retires, after 15 years the collection will be dismantled in preparation for the move to the Humboldt-Forum. What has your experience with the Humboldt Lab project been?

Zessnik: It was a unique opportunity to immerse myself in the collection in a relatively short time and acquire much more background information than I would normally have had access to. When Mr. Bolz started working here, many objects that had been moved from here to Leipzig by the Russians after the war were being returned to Berlin. He was able to process things anew and rebuild the collection; he describes all that in his accounts. After all, we archive everything else, files and other documents, but this here – this institutional expertise – would have been lost forever.

The North America collection comprises around 30,000 objects. Peter Bolz has documented around 180 on film. Have important objects been left out, and how will you deal with any gaps?

Zessnik: The objects that have been described were on display in the permanent exhibition and are taken from groups that include 10 to 20 comparable objects. We will never have an encyclopedic or comprehensive institutional knowledge, even if we strive for that. The gap is something we can live with.

What significance does the project have for the museum?

König: Right from the start it was important for us to test new formats and realities within the Humboldt Lab: only then, in the following step, would we look at what we can utilize for the Humboldt-Forum. Naturally the Humboldt-Forum will have many visitors, but first we wanted to step away from the well-trodden paths and see for ourselves what is possible. The starting point for this project was the recognition that a vast store of unpublished knowledge can be located in a single individual. People retire and take their knowledge with them, and it is lost to the museum. And that is a great waste. Out of that arose the question, how can we retain the knowledge accumulated over decades by the curators: how do we retain it in the museum, in the collection. In the first instance, that has nothing to do with the visitors.

Zessnik: Yes, the implementation and the reactions were secondary – the resulting material was the important thing. And that will not disappear, because it is part of our databank just like photos or other knowledge carriers: it can be accessed later and at some point digitally incorporated into the exhibitions, and so on.

According to plans, the depot will be integrated into the future Humboldt-Forum exhibition space as a display depot. Do you already have a more exact idea of how the film documentation could be presented there?

König: Our exhibition concept is based on flexibility and on frequent change. The display collection will be an important part of the exhibition. This is where we will be exhibiting the entire material from North America, the prairies and plains, in a much higher density. To begin with we will only provide film excerpts with Mr. Bolz in which he deals with those regions, regardless of whether in the depot or the exhibition. We could, for instance, theoretically imagine the prairies and plains section disappearing after three years and the American Southwest coming into the display depot. Then you would hear different excerpts from “Peter Bolz.” But it may well be that we will utilize them later in an exhibition module. That is completely open. We have the recordings now and can use them in a variety of ways.

Zessnik: We want to set up the display depot so that visitors will understand how research and fieldwork on an object is carried out. Because according to the “Taggesschau,” knowledge that is made accessible by museums is considered credible. The more clearly we show how personalized the processing of information is, the better. Because every type of knowledge is constructed from a subjective approach. And that changes.

Until now the website of the Staatliche Museen does not carry any names, responsibilities and contact details of employees. Is “Talking Knowledge” a step toward making that public? Because in addition to information about the collection and its objects, one also learns a great deal about Peter Bolz.

Zessnik: I agree with you – that is important, because a museum, like any other cultural institution, is brought alive by the people who work there. That's why it’s important to make that transparent for visitors. Usually the public only meets the supervisory staff and the mediators, and in the best case, a curator. It is, of course, gratifying, no matter how self-explanatory an exhibition is, if you have it explained to you personally by someone. After all it’s all about communication.

Ms. König, you once said in an interview, “we have many more stories than we can tell.” Is this project a way of closing that gap a little?

König: The Lab project has, for the first time ever, provided us with the opportunity of thinking about how we can conserve personal and institutional knowledge. I think this is only the beginning.

Prof. Dr. Viola König is the director of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; previously she was the director of the Übersee-Museum Bremen, director of the Department of Ethnology at the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover and museum educator at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne. She holds an honorary professorship from the Freie Universität Berlin and the Universität Bremen, and is as well visiting professor at Tulane University, New Orleans.

Monika Zessnik is the curator for American ethnology and communication at the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Previously she was the curator for mediation and education at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, head of communications at the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut and project coordinator at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.

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 was held in July 2014.