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Seeing South / Project Description

Illuminating Objects. Ethnographic Films as Windows to Multiperspectival Knowledge

by Andrea Rostásy

The archive for visual anthropology at the Ethnologisches Museum contains around 1700 films. Until recently they were almost inaccessible. Only in 2014 did the Humboldt Lab project “Sighting” systematically assess the museum film archives and add them to the museum data base. Thanks to that, the museum now has a comprehensive film list detailing content, techniques, material state –an invitation to exhibit the films or use them as part of future exhibitions.

“Seeing South“ accepted this invitation, or challenge. With a selection of ten films the project realized and researched the possibilities of film integration into object-based exhibitions, by way of example. The primary question was whether film can facilitate multiperspectival access to ethnological information – whether interpretations and connections can be made visible where mere object presentations cannot. How could a contemporary relevance be demonstrated which at the same time did not obstruct the temporal difference between the creation of the object, its collection and its museal presentation? What kind of dialog could be created with a combination of a filmically interpreted theme together with an exhibited object? How can you present formal-associative, or thematic references in a clear way without imposing them on the collection objects? And here too: How can films be shown within object installations without losing their coherence?

A Film-Object Parcours

Markus Schindlbeck, then head of the Australia and Oceania collection at the Ethnologisches Museum, and the filmmaker and ethnologist Ulrike Folie, who curated the project together, developed a film-object parcours with ten stations for “Seeing South” in the permanent exhibition South Seas and Australia. This meant developing a suitable presentation situation that takes into account the required duration for understanding the film excerpt and illustrates the film’s connection to the objects at first sight. Every station was marked out clearly by graphic and textual elements. Along the non-sequential parcours visitors could discover film-object installations that dealt with various thematic fields, from issues of representation to the effects of climate change to tourist encounters. The films were shown here in excerpt; the full-length films were available to watch on the upper floor of the exhibition in a special screening room. In the stairwell gallery and on the upper floor contemporary photographs by Santiago Engelhardt and Jörg Hauser were shown.

The parcours kicked off with the film “Taking Pictures” by Les McLaren and Annie Stiven (1996), which explores the political, ethical and practical aspects as well as aesthetic of ethnological film work. Excerpts of the film were shown, juxtaposed with short statements (“limits of comprehension”) or questions (“filming – for whom?”), displayed on a second screen. The questions raised on representation and critical viewing of ethnological films were intended to accompany the visitors on their further path through the exhibition.

The subsequent stations all created a connection either in terms of content or form between the film excerpt and objects. “Assuming Responsibility” is the title of one of the stations, for example, which shows only one scene from the 73-minute film “The Disappearing of Tuvalu. Trouble in Paradise” by Christopher Horner and Gilliane Le Gallic (2004). The scene shows just water, seemingly washing up against the screen. At the same time you hear the voices of Tuvalu locals talking about the clearly discernable effects of climate change on their lives. In the vitrine, fishhooks from Tuvalu were exhibited. What relevance do these objects have today with the backdrop of rising sea levels and Tuvalu’s threatened environment?

Excerpts from the film “Paikeda. Man in Stone” by Ineke de Vries (2002) in combination with stone figurines comprise the station “Limits of Understanding.” The film shows the current re-purposing of mysterious prehistoric stone implements by the Me people in Papua. With the station “Fascination of the First Contact” and the film “A Reminder. A Cultural Center in Eipomek” by Ulrike Folie and Gugi Gumilang (2014, 11:03 Min.) shown in full-length, a circle was completed to the first station and the film “Taking Pictures”: “A Reminder” reports on the re-acquaintance of the inhabitants of Eipomek with their old knowledge and stories, due to the establishment of a new cultural center in Eipomek in 2014 – supported by German researchers who had collected exactly this knowledge 40 years prior as part of a research project for the Ethnologisches Museum. In this way the film deals with the connection between the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin and the Eipo and the responsibility of the museum in this context.

Design Challenges

The use of film as medium enabled “Seeing South” to contribute additional layers of contemporary relevance to the knowledge imparted via the artifacts. Different perspectives were perceived as more tangible and complex than could have been communicated purely on a textual basis. At the same time the use of film heightens the complexity of the exhibition work to a large extent because the film material has to be processed. This raises questions in terms of content, design, and of a legal and technical nature. Whether the presentation of a film in full length is intended, or an excerpt, or even the re-editing of a film, a change in presentation format or digitalization – permission must be explicitly granted by the authors. At the same time the films themselves must be critically reflected upon: that means the specific historical and social context of their naissance must become more apparent than was possible in “Seeing South.”

A central aspect of the exhibition design is the creation of a relationship between film and object. This is easy to grasp if monitors and objects lie on the same visual axis and are positioned in a uniform way within the exhibition: recognizably connected to one another. This was not possible within the permanent exhibition and led to the visitors having to re-orientate themselves anew at each station.

In its succinctness, the excerpt of lapping water shown at the station “Assuming Responsibility,” to be interpreted as the rising sea levels, worked most powerfully of all. The effect was further condensed with the statements taken from the film and the newly recorded voiceover statements, which literally carried the current situation of loss and destruction of the Tuvalu into the exhibition. With this more creative, rather than purely documentary, approach not only did the present become tangible along with its relationship to the objects on display, but in its succinctness also functioned almost as a film preview, and thus as a pointer to the complete version shown on the upper floor.

In the Humboldt-Forum the combination of films, images and documents will be used as continuous element, working with a combination of uniform media tables, touch screens or iPads. With the aid of special technology it will also be possible to watch films in complete length or access background information that not only provides background on the artifacts but also on the films themselves. This kind of presentation was not feasible within the framework of the Probebühne 4.

Even if the myriad possibilities in terms of film usage within object presentations has only been hinted at in “Seeing South” – the great potential of the medium in the Ethnologisches Museum was certainly underlined.

Andrea Rostásy is an artist and media curator.

You can find further reading on this project here.