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(No) Place in the Sun / Project Description

Speaking the Unspoken

by Ute Marxreiter

“With one word: we don’t want to put anyone in the shade, but we too demand our place in the sun.” In a variation of the famous quote by the later Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, with which he wanted to expand the colonial policies of the German Empire in Africa in 1897, the project “(No) Place in the Sun” deals with the German colonial history and its interconnection with the Ethnologisches Museum. The central focus is the question of how this topic can be best communicated to younger visitor groups.

In the future Humboldt-Forum there will be four areas explicitly created for children, teenagers and families, called junior areas. One of these areas is directly adjacent to the exhibition modules on Africa. Because colonialism will also be a topic in this area, it seemed apposite to use the adjacent junior area for a condensed presentation on this range of themes. While the other exhibition areas inspire you to look and contemplate, in the junior areas touching, trying things out and being active is welcomed. This apparent discrepancy leads many museums to outsource displays into separate designated children’s museums. It is therefore a courageous step on the part of the Ethnologisches Museum to integrate the junior areas into the exhibition flow.

Within the Humboldt Lab project, scenographic solutions focusing on the theme of colonialism were to be explored. The aim was to deal with topics and presentation modes that have a strong relevance in the everyday reality of young people today. Activity orientation, interactive elements, atmospheric aspects and experience play a major role in the exhibition design. But what is it that we want to communicate to children and teenagers on the topic of colonialism in Africa? In addition to a violent colonial history for which Germany was responsible in a variety of African regions and in which the Ethnologisches Museum, with its “acquisition” of tens of thousands of objects, is also implicated, to this day, in almost all walks of life, there are still a whole raft of clichés, racist undertones and exotifications on the topic of Africa to be found.

Project Development

As the initiator of the project I deliberately chose a small but heterogeneous team of five from different specialist backgrounds, who came together to develop ideas and strategies in various workshops. Three statements were important for us in defining our approach and attitude: Firstly, colonial structures affect us in our daily world to this day; especially in the day-to-day lives of many teenagers, the implications of colonial power, injustice, exploitation, racism, marginalization and violence still play a role. Secondly, we were acutely aware that the topic is dealt with only marginally in the German school curriculum. And last, but not least, we saw a particular responsibility for this issue at the Ethnologisches Museum, because all ethnological museums were founded within the context of colonialism.

A raised awareness, sensitization and discussing the commemorative aspects of culture are all themes we wished to target, which were derived from the core topic. In doing so we pursued a postcolonial approach, based on the assumption that colonialism does not end with the formal declaration of independence and that for dealing with the topic, a transparency about the “spoken” and the “unspoken” is essential. Equally the interdependencies and connections between different protagonists must be examined.

For our working methods, that meant we wanted to hand over the authority of definition, in part to activist protagonists who view the Ethnologisches Museum and the planning for the Humboldt-Forum in a highly critical light. This proved to be difficult in practice however: not everyone wanted to enter a dialog with us or to cooperate.

The Space

In “(No) Place in the Sun” we focused on German colonialism between 1884 and 1914 in order to be able to deal with the extensive topic adequately for teenagers on an area of 100 square meters and in order to emphasize the concrete connection to Berlin.

The result was an exhibition space with an intro and five different theme “islands,” which depicted significant aspects of German colonial history in Africa. The theme islands are an invitation to interact: two stations visualize important historical facts; stations on the topic of everyday racism and on questions of decolonization form the bridge to the present. For example the video clips of the young German man of color, Sidney Frenz, who humorously talks about all the clichés he is confronted with in his daily life: “Can I touch your hair?” “Do you speak African?”

The relevance to the present also played an important role on the theme island about the genocide of the Herero. In fact current political events basically “overtook” the discussion dealt with here: in July 2015, just after the opening of the Probebühne 7, the genocide of the Herero and Nama was, for the first time in history, named and recognized as such in a Federal German Government press conference. For us it was a rare joy to be able to update our exhibition module accordingly: after all, part of the exhibition dealt with the history of the long and delicate struggle for this recognition in the German parliament, and an interview with Israel Kanautijke, a Herero descendent and activist, was shown, in which he talks about his view of the topic.

In order to depict historical connections we devised a timeline with different perspectives: what was important from the point of view of the German occupying forces? What did the story look like for the African resistance fighters? Five central events were placed as moveable markers on the timeline, in order to demonstrate the subjective ways that facts can be interpreted, and history told, as well as the lack of closure that is inherent in history. Visitors can also trace the growing number of objects in the Africa collection of the Ethnologisches Museum during these years by means of symbols: from around 3500 objects in 1880 to an increase of over 60,000 objects in 1920.

A video game introduces the visitor to the heyday of German colonial activities in West Africa around 1900. The player slips into the role of an African king in the Cameroon Grasslands, in the process getting to know some background information on several objects in the Africa collection. The player also becomes aware of why King Njoya, who served as the role model for the king in the game, presented the German Kaiser with the throne that is now one of the highlights of the Africa collection in the Ethnologisches Museum. King Njoya tried, with this opulent present, to positively influence his relationship with the German Empire. In the game it becomes clear how precarious his situation was and to what extent he felt threatened by the violent conflicts with the German occupying forces.


Whether this test run succeeds in communicating the topic of German colonialism in the context of the Ethnologisches Museum successfully to teenagers remains to be seen: from late autumn 2015 school children and experts are invited to explore the exhibit and to evaluate it.

We look forward to seeing if the connection between day-to-day racism and colonial history is revealed to the visitors, and whether they are emotionally affected by our exhibition. This aspect especially led to many discussions in the planning and development stages: how do we succeed in the balancing act between naming of violent historical facts and our pedagogic responsibility to the children not to traumatize them? What role does empathy play? How should we handle visual materials?

We look forward to further answers and suggestions to these and other questions that will flow into the development of the junior area in the Humboldt-Forum. Initial discussions on the project, held with groups of students and visitors, offer grounds for optimism: everyday racism, decolonization and “politically correct” language are obviously topics that everyone thinks about and that lead to emotional and highly charged discussions.

Ute Marxreiter is a research associate for education at the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst. Her focus is on the development of the junior areas for the Humboldt-Forum.

You can find further reading on this project here.