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Object Biographies / Project Description

Attempted Methods, New Collaborations, and Altered Perspectives

by Verena Rodatus and Margareta von Oswald

Researching the provenance of objects in the Ethnologisches Museum has been a crucial part of the Humboldt Lab’s work since the beginning. Uncovering the collection history of individual objects, some of which arrived to Berlin museums through violent appropriation, is also an issue of acute importance to the (scholarly) audience and plays a crucial role in the plans for the Humboldt-Forum. In the “Surinam/Benin” contribution to the “Knight Moves” series and the “Layering Meanings” project, the Humboldt Lab has already presented two possible approaches to these questions. The third such project, “Object Biographies,” arose from the idea of going beyond provenance research to take two more aspects into consideration: what attributions were the objects subject to in the local museum context? And what does their absence mean, today, in their societies of origin? Using examples from the 75,000 items in the Africa collection, we wanted to scrutinize the interpretive prerogative taken by museums and the categorizations they make – and in doing so, to cooperate with African scholars and proponents of critical museum studies. The concrete objects we chose to work with were figures (so-called “bocio”) from what is today the Republic of Benin, a pair of figures from the historical Kom Kingdom (in modern-day Cameroon), and a stool made by the so-called “Master of Buli” from the historical Kingdom of Luba (in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo).

Searching for Traces and Research

As the narrative element of the exhibition, we employed the approach of ‘object biography,’ which has drawn increased attention within the academic field and seen increased use in recent decades – that is to say, to trace the checkered lives of the objects: Where do they come from? How did they arrive in Berlin? How did they change owners – through exchange, purchase, plunder, or as gifts? How were they finally received in the Berlin museum, how were they described, handled, and exhibited? This method of research enabled two things: One, to focus on the collection history of the objects, above all within the context of German colonialism. Two, to excavate the changes of meaning that the things have undergone, as the systems used by museums for ordering and categorizing ethnographic objects have changed dramatically over time. Depending on when and where they were exhibited, their status has oscillated between being objects of art and being objects of culture, thus contributing to how symbolic and material value is attributed to them.

The selected pair of figures from the Kom Kingdom in the grassfields of Cameroon and the stool of the so-called “Master of Buli” from the historical Kingdom of Luba are very prominent examples of the collection that arrived at the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum at the highpoint of German colonialism, in the early twentieth century. We were interested in their exhibition history as well as their collection history, and for this reason we didn’t only conduct research in collection files, travel reports, and inventory books, but also through documentation of exhibitions, films, and art catalogues that we found in the museum archives and libraries in Dahlem. Our research confirmed that the Kom objects stemmed from violent collection contexts; in addition to this, we learned that the historical facts we researched were not typically mentioned in earlier exhibitions.

Collaborative Curating

We felt it was important to incorporate the positions of our African colleagues. For this reason we invited art historian Mathias Alubafi (Cameroon, currently a specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria, South Africa) and Romuald Tchibozo (Université d’Abomey-Calavi, Benin) to pursue the question of what the absence of the objects meant in their respective lands of origin. In the text he composed for the exhibition, Mathias Alubafi wrote: “As repatriation debates, especially with regard to African and Cameroon art currently being held in Western museums, take center stage in discussions between the social actors involved, opinions are needed to understand whether or not the absence of these objects has an impact on the source community.” As part of a joint research trip with Romuald Tchibozo and the filmmaker Anna Lisa Ramella, we traced a bundle from the collection composed of eight objects, so-called bocio that had been stored unnoticed in the warehouse of the Berlin museum since the late 1960s, back to their original site in Benin. Tchibozo has a scholarly interest in bocio, which are difficult to find today in Benin. On location, we interviewed a broad spectrum of actors (artists, museologists, collectors, and art dealers) about the possible reasons for the bocio’s absence – their varying answers can be seen on a four-channel video installation within the exhibition, and convey something of the diverse historical, religious, and political reasons for the present-day absence of the objects.

We arranged two internal workshops with curator and scholar Nora Sternfeld and anthropologist Friedrich von Bose in order to discuss the whole project with colleagues while it was still in the development process. Together we discussed how to visualize, through contemporary forms of museum presentation, the innovative academic positions toward the history of collecting and exhibiting ethnographic objects. The discussion resulted in the desire that “Object Biographies” facilitates space for critical confrontation, and alters how visitors perceive the objects in the museum.

Visualization of the Problem

Now the task was to translate these curatorial aspects of the project into an exhibition format and to visualize the scholarly confrontation with the object histories. In close cooperation with the design team ADDITIV and Descloux Engelschall, we developed a design to do so: the exhibition architecture takes the form of an equilateral triangle; an object (group) is presented on each of its exterior sides. The histories of the objects’ collection and representation are narrated by presenting the objects together with the collection files, photos, films, and publications. The interior of the triangle symbolically represents the core of the museum, the storage facility. Cutouts are made into the exhibition walls, creating different sight axes and thereby allowing not only for connections between the three objects and the associated material, but also literalizing the view “behind the curtains” of the museum. We consciously chose the space in front of the entrance to the Ethnologisches Museum’s permanent exhibition “Art from Africa” as the site of the Humboldt Lab exhibition: in place of an overview of the historical art of Africa, we aimed at making visible the capacious history of individual objects from Africa.

The Other Museum

“Object Biographies” rotates the gaze, directing it at the museum itself – at its history, practices, and networks. Alongside the problem of provenance, it scrutinizes the museum categorizations that have characterized the limited Western view toward Africa and its artistic and cultural productions. The exhibition aims to encourage an altered way of handling museum objects in the future – for example, by engaging intensively with actors from Africa and seeking out their expertise. In addition to this, from the very beginning, it was important for us not only to convey the content via objects, images, and texts, but also to make the exhibition itself a site of discussion. Therefore, we organized tours at regular intervals and deliberately invited scholars, curators, and students to attend, or they approached us on their own. Depending on the individual emphases of their research, our conversations ranged from critical museum studies, “old art” from Africa, to contemporary debates about the Humboldt-Forum. Many visitors reported coming to view the museum objects in a different light, beginning to question how the objects arrived inside the museum. Our goal – of sensitizing the public to the museum’s sometimes problematic collection history – seems to have succeeded.

Dr. Verena Rodatus studied psychology and fine arts at the University of Bremen. Since 2003, she has studied regularly in West Africa (Togo, Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Senegal). The subject of her doctorate was the representation of contemporary art from the continent of Africa, and was finished in early 2015 under the title “Postkoloniale Positionen? Die Biennale DAK’ART im Kontext des internationalen Kunstbetriebs.” After working as academic staff for the special exhibition “Kaboom! Comic in der Kunst” (2012/2013) at the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art (Bremen), she worked at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. From September 2015, Rodatus works as research assistant in the department of the Arts of Africa at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Margareta von Oswald has studied social sciences and anthropology in Bordeaux, Stuttgart, and Paris. She is currently working on her dissertation project “Relational Things: Luba Sculptures in European Colonial Collections.” As part of her analysis of a specific group of objects from Congo, her work addresses contemporary processes of transformation in ethnographic museums in Europe. After a long research stay at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, during which she took an active role in the planning process for the Humboldt-Forum, she will continue her research from July to November 2015 at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium).

You can find further reading on this project here.