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Talking Knowledge / Project Description

Every Object has its Story

by Janina Janke

The idea for this Humboldt Lab project arose during a so-called fireside chat in autumn 2011, when the Humboldt-Forum and its concept were being discussed by prominent individuals from the field of culture. On this occasion, a curator from the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem provided a guided tour through “his” depot. The guided tour was transformed into a running narrative, because he had a specific story for each object. The awareness that a generational change would soon take place at the Ethnologisches Museum and the fact that the curators leaving would be taking decades of knowledge and expertise with them into retirement, led Martin Heller to come up with the project “Talking Knowledge.” Not all the senior curators liked the idea of sharing their knowledge in front of a camera. However, Peter Bolz, the curator of the North America collection and thus, of a department very popular with visitors, took up the challenge shortly before his retirement, and became the focus of a filmic portrait “Talking Knowledge.” His expertise, accumulated over 25 years, his stories, as well as his personal career trajectory as a scholar were documented in film with the help of the collection and its artifacts. In this way, it is now preserved for successive generations of scholars and museum visitors.

The production company Filmgestalten won the commission to realize the project. From the end of September until the beginning of November 2012 a small flexible team (directors, two cameras, sound) wandered together with the ethnologist Peter Bolz and his stories through the collection, which, with 30,000 artifacts, is the largest North America collection in Europe. Before the practical implementation of “Talking Knowledge” happened, various agreements had to be made with all parties at the museum who were directly or indirectly involved: with management, the custodians, educationalists, and conservationists. A trainee at the North America department took on the coordination between the museum, the Humboldt Lab and the film team. In parallel, the directors with the curator coordinated the process and selection of content to be shot over the 20 scheduled days. In collaboration, four main subject areas were selected to be covered by the film’s research: the permanent exhibition “North American Indians. From Myth to Modern,” curated by Bolz in 1999, the special exhibition “Native American Modernism. Art from North America,” a selection of artifacts from the depot, as well as looking at the fieldwork he personally carried out on the Plains Indians. The result was an “ad-hoc shooting script” that served the team as a rough guide through the museum’s exhibition rooms. An expedition into the world of the Indian films made in the DEFA film studios and an encounter with the actor Gojko Mitić, the “Winnetou of the East,” were unplanned additions.

From North America to Dahlem

Because the roughly 600 artifacts exhibited in the North America collection – bison robes, masks, furs, sculptures, baskets, photographs and much more – are just a fraction of what is stored in the museum’s depot, it raised the following questions: How was this selection made and structured? Which objects did Peter Bolz consider to be particularly important and representative? Which objects were close to his heart and why? Taking these questions as their starting point, the film team moved from room to room with Peter Bolz, from display cabinet to display cabinet. The focus was the specialist knowledge of this particular scholar: as a testimony not only to his personal biography but above all to the general cultural context that went far beyond the usual “objective” facts contained in the catalogs. Also important to learn was what Peter Bolz had to say about an artifact from an ethnological and scientific perspective and what connotation the same object attained within a museum-historical context. And what stories and anecdotes he could tell, when the artifact was looked at not only from the perspective of its cultural-historic relevance but also in context to his own life. Against the background of the special exhibitions he curated on modern Native American art, Bolz talked about his personal career trajectory: as a teenager in the Native Americans Club, his degree in graphic design and his growing interest for Native American art, then finally his arrival in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin and his first encounter with his predecessor Horst Hartmann. We then followed Peter Bolz into another museum room that was important in his career: the office. Here he leafed through his private photo albums from the 1980s and documents from his field research with the Plains Indians. Animated by the recollections of his travels, Bolz spoke about personal encounters and friendships with the Indians on the reservations and their current problematic living and working conditions. During filming of his research collection there were also situations, in which spontaneous “moments of realization” came up, demonstrating the complex weave of one person’s subjective wealth of knowledge.

During filming, detailed directors’ notes were made in which the date, topic, room, clip number, camera time code and the object under discussion were all duly noted. These notes were invaluable when it came to editing and dealing with 42 hours of rushes. In addition to filming with Peter Bolz, the objects and rooms under discussion were filmed again later in selected perspectives and angles. In this way material was generated that could be used additionally to illustrate his narration and to provide an exact filmic representation of the objects as well as the surroundings. The editor Anja Keyßelt collaborated with the two directors on “Talking Knowledge” from December 2012 to February 2013. The result was a film documentation about the personal store of curator Peter Bolz’s knowledge, running to a total of 27.5 hours, organized into 166 clips, whose individual titles are listed on a separate file. In order to be able to work with the material in an effective and selective way in the future, despite its large scope, the clip lengths have been noted, as have the key words on topics, and names of the objects covered. During the duration of Probebühne 2 selected film clips were shown separately on twelve monitors and presented at a long table. Technical options, for example a databank-supported free choice of clips, were not planned: the primary purpose of the installation was to give a comprehensive overview of the interview.

Living Knowledge

The digital film material was handed over in its entirety to the Ethnologisches Museum archive for visual anthropology and incorporated into the internal museum databank. The original plan may have been to create a “collection object of the highest order” for the archive, but during the creation process further ideas as to its usage arose: film material as a guide in the display depot of the future Humboldt-Forum, the focused linking of clips with object entries in the Ethnologisches Museum databank, or in the exhibition itself or on the website. In this way the filmic interview series “Talking Knowledge” is simultaneously a stock-take of the North America collection, as well as an individual portrait of Peter Bolz as ethnologist, collector and curator during his time in Berlin. In this way the documentation serves as a kind of prototype whose multiple uses can be considered a model for other museums.

Janina Janke is a set designer and director. Since co-founding the artist formation OPER DYNAMO WEST in 2006, she has been involved in a comparative examination of buildings and spaces in Berlin and other cities. She develops concepts and implements spatial interventions, theatre projects and documentation at the interface between art, architecture and science. From 2011 to 2015 Janke has participated in the multidisciplinary research project “andere räume – knowledge through art” which is funded by the Austrian Research Fund (FWF) and seeks to connect artists and scientists.

Dr. Peter Bolz
After completing his studies in visual communications in Mainz, Bolz studied ethnology at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main in 1985 completed his dissertation on the modern reservation culture of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) in South Dakota. In 1986 he began his career at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, first as a museum research assistant, becoming a research collaborator and then the curator of North American ethnology; until his retirement in 2012 he was the director of the North American ethnology collection. In addition to numerous publications and his collaboration on various special exhibitions (for example “Native American Modernism. Art from North America”, 2012), Bolz developed the concept for the permanent exhibition of the Ethnologisches Museum which opened in 1999, “Indians of North America. From Myth to Modernity.”

You can find further reading on this project here.