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[Open] Secrets / Project Description

On the Possibilities (or Impossibility) of Displaying Secret Knowledge

by Indra Lopez Velasco

Within their vast collections, ethnological museums hold many sacred and secret objects. In the places from where these objects originated, only certain people in certain situations would be permitted to see or touch them and for some objects, access would be strictly regulated. The question of how contemporary ethnological museums may address sacred and secret items in their collections formed the starting point for the “[Open] Secrets” project.

The complexities of the topic of the sacred and the profane are evident in the denomination as “sacred objects.” Some of them possess the status of a person, so that it may be understood as inappropriate and offensive to call them “objects.” Being part of the museum praxis may also affect them in different ways; their meanings may persist, they may lose their significance, or they may change.

The early ethnological museums were aware – at least in some cases – of the complexity and sensitivity of their tasks. This is illustrated by a museum guidebook published by the Museum of Victoria in 1900 (“Guide to the Australian Ethnological Collection in the National Museum of Victoria”) displayed in the “[Open] Secrets” exhibition. This awareness, however, did not, or not sufficiently, result in a practice of display that is today regarded as both respectful and appropriate.

“[Open] Secrets” ascertained whether ethnological museums are at all able to engage with the sacred. We understood the borders between the sacred and the profane as fluid, political, time dependent and situative. This constructivist approach was not intended to deny the peculiar character of the sacred. Rather, we searched for ways of exhibiting that consider a variety of perspectives.

Experimental Approaches

The exhibition was divided into two specific regional areas: Central Australia and Sepik, New Guinea. From the Sepik region, several musical instruments, the sounds of which embody the voices and songs of the ancestors, were displayed/not-displayed. These instruments were played at secret ceremonies. In the course of these ceremonies, the initiates, stage by stage, gained access to the instruments. Described in a simplified way, they were first only permitted to hear the instruments; then to see them played; then, finally, they were permitted to both produce and play the instruments themselves.

The exhibited human remains, in the form of bones, teeth and hair, were from the Sepik region as well. In their initial context, they were worn or carried in the everyday life and were at least partially visible to others. However, this does not mean that they were less significant. In contrast to these openly visible objects and human remains, the Central Australian Tjurunga – mostly flat stones or pieces of wood, bearing signs or symbols with high sacred relevance – were and are secret and sacred for people who believe in them.

The Berlin studio, TheGreenEyl, translated the idea of a gradual initiation into an experimental exhibition architecture, where different kinds of glass cabinets were used to play with the idea of making objects visible or invisible. As visitors entered the exhibition, they first encountered an empty cabinet with a sign stating “Object removed”; followed by another cabinet that was black and opaque. On both, only the labels referred to the object supposedly being exhibited: the Tjurunga from Central Australia. The black cabinet referred indirectly to the existence of the objects in the museum storerooms, and hinted playfully at the fact that only the curators knew what was really behind the opaque glass. We saw this as a reference to the curator´s authority, a question that has long been a subject for discussion in the museum sector.

Visitors initially encountered the Sepik musical instruments via an open cabinet, from which only the sounds of the instruments could be heard. Corresponding to the various steps of an initiation process, the neighboring cabinet permitted the visitor to briefly see the instruments before they vanished again behind an opaque pane of glass. In the final stage, visitors were able to fully see and hear the instruments via a video projection that showed excerpts of the initiation ritual.

The “[Open] Secrets” project was accompanied by a research trip to various Australian cities. The results of this trip were to be integrated into the exhibition in two cabinets displaying changing texts, maps and other materials; in this way referring the visitors to contemporary museum discourses and attempting to place historical and current perspectives into context.

Who Decides, and Who Doesn’t?

The project principally negotiated the question of who decides what is to be shown and what is hidden. By asking this, it tested various ways of exhibiting both the poles between what is to be shown and what is undemonstrable, as well as the many shades of the sacred. To discuss these and other questions in a wider context, we organized a public workshop as part of the project.

The project and workshop explored in particular the issue of who decides what should and should not be shown, and once again brought this important debate into the focus of museum discussions. Insufficiently addressed, however, were current perspectives that potentially go beyond the dichotomy between profane and sacred. Furthermore, the discussions about what might be shown did not take place between museum visitors, the people from the regions from where these objects originated and the curators. In order to enable such an exchange, which permits a both open (in terms of being transparent about what is possible and what one’s aims are) as well as protected discourse (in terms of how power is distributed), long-term cooperations are necessary. Such processes require not only adequate personnel and financial resources, but must also be institutionally anchored in a manner that permits both experimentation and failure. This attitude, which presupposes openness and sensitivity with respect to unequal power relations, is to be hoped for in many areas at the Humboldt-Forum.

Indra Lopez Velasco works as a research assistant in the Oceania and Australia department and for the Humboldt-Forum at the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin.

You can find further reading on this project here.