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On the Productivity of Incompleteness

by Friedrich von Bose

The relationship between the Humboldt Lab Dahlem and the planned Humboldt-Forum is characterized by asynchrony: while the Humboldt Lab was initiated to provide the plans for the exhibition spaces in the Berlin Palace with practical and experimental stimuli, these plans were already quite advanced when the first “Probebühne” began.

The basic idea of the Humboldt Lab is to question traditional exhibition practices and concepts by means of diverse formats and methods, even to cause irritation and seek new ways of exhibiting. The fact that this is being performed at the “old” location in Dahlem does indeed make sense and points to a further asynchrony: the experiments are being conducted amidst permanent exhibitions that will long have been dismantled once the Humboldt-Forum opens its gates. Yet this is precisely where the potential of the Humboldt Lab lies – in working with different temporalities, visualizing them and keeping them in a state of tension, and raising questions as to what can constitute a way of dealing with ethnological collections that is relevant to the present day, not only with regard to the Humboldt-Forum.

This potential was stressed by almost everyone during the final discussion of an internal workshop, in which I participated as an observer. The central question of the short contributions by the invited experts and museum representatives as well as the subsequent discussions pertained to the way in which two Humboldt Lab projects could be realized in the Humboldt-Forum.1 Very different aspects to the two debated exhibition projects were highlighted as being productive: above all, the radical process-oriented character and the open interpretability of the installations. These are not frequent phenomena in the context of an ethnological museum: what is a matter of course in the field of art must be justified time and again for an ethnological museum. For in this context, the “educational mandate” is still the relevant argument according to which “the world” – meaning the world outside Europe – is to be “presented” to the visitors.2 The discussants found the searching processes of the two Humboldt Lab projects, which were not only made comprehensible for the audience but into which it was also actively integrated, fruitful not just in regard to the challenge of active reception; they were also deemed necessary for any kind of work with ethnographic objects. For it shouldn’t and it can’t be about “conveying” knowledge that is already complete, but about a context-related examination that is aware of its own particularity and scientific fallibility and leaves the difficult nature of the historical material sufficient room. As a consequence of the Humboldt Lab, many participants thus called for the provision of more leeway for experiments in the Humboldt-Forum as well. And not only the addition of more flexible niches to the exhibition modules that are planned for several years, but also to make the narratives themselves alterable and allow the juxtaposing and confronting of different perspectives.

Museum ethnology and present-day theory formation and research continue to take very different paths. The two Humboldt Lab projects, in contrast, demonstrated how accessible for the audience (and certainly not in a conflict-free fashion) a reflective exhibition practice interested in the history of science can be: one that does not claim to know exactly what the “right” interpretation and approach ultimately is. It is this productivity of incompleteness that makes many projects of the Humboldt Lab at its current location in Dahlem – and especially its controversial debates – so appealing. What impact this process will have on the Humboldt-Forum regarding a contemporary dealing with the ethnological collections remains to be seen.

1 In the workshop that was held on February 15, 2014, in Dahlem, around 20 participants discussed two exhibitions dealing with the artifacts of the Amazonia collection: the “Man – Object – Jaguar” project realized by Andrea Scholz and Sebastián Mejía in collaboration with the Eta Boeklund office and further developed by the ethnomusicologist Matthias Lewy  as well as the exhibition “Touching Photography” by Michael Kraus and the chezweitz office for scenography. Both were developed in the frame of Probebühne 3 of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

2 Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Konzept zur Präsentation der außereuropäischen Sammlungen im Humboldt-Forum 2008. In: Viola König, Andrea Scholz (eds.): Humboldt-Forum. Der lange Weg 1999-2012. Baessler-Archiv Vol. 59, Berlin 2013.

Translated from German by Karl Hoffmann

Friedrich von Bose is a research assistant at the Department of European Ethnology of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He studied European ethnology and gender studies at the Humboldt-Universität and the University of California in Berkeley. In April 2014, he completed his dissertation, for which he conducted ethnographic research on the planning process of the Humboldt-Forum over several years.

The internal evaluation workshop of the two projects “Touching Photography” and “Man – Object – Jaguar” was held on February 15, 2014 at the Dahlem Museums.

Heike Behrend (Universität zu Köln)
Friedrich von Bose (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
Alexander Brust (Museum der Kulturen Basel)
Angela Dreßler (Büro Eta Boeklund)
Richard Haas (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)
Ernst Halbmayer (Philipps-Universität Marburg)
Paul Hempel (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)
Jens Jäger (Universität zu Köln)
Michael Kraus (Universität Bonn)
Ingrid Kummels (Freie Universität Berlin)
Matthias Lewy (Freie Universität Berlin)
Sebastián Mejía
Stefanie Kiwi Menrath (Büro Eta Boeklund)
Mark Münzel (Philipps-Universität Marburg)
Wolfgang Schäffner (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
Andrea Scholz (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin)
Mona Suhrbier (Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt)
Viola Vahrson (Stiftung Universität Hildesheim)
Agnes Wegner (Humboldt Lab Dahlem)
Detlef Weitz (Büro für Szenografie chezweitz)
Irene Albers (Freie Universität Berlin)

Concept of the workshop: Michael Kraus, Andrea Scholz