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“Always in Crisis? Questions of Representation in Museums for Non-European Arts and Cultures”

by Mario Schulze

A Symposium Report

The two-day symposium “Always in Crisis? Questions of Representation in Museums for Non-European Arts and Cultures” was held on September 18 and 19, 2015, at the Dahlem Museums. Following an internal expert panel on the first day of the event, the second day featured an opening keynote by museum scholar and Berlin newcomer Sharon MacDonald, as well as three public podium discussions on the “crisis of representation” in ethnological museums.

On the second day of the symposium, the first podium discussion was drawing to a close when Margareta von Oswald, curator of the intervention “Object Biographies,” posed a general question to the audience: “Why is so much money consistently being spent on museum buildings when it is far more needed for experimental exhibitions, collaborative efforts, and a more open and creative approach to collections?” she asked. Cheers erupted in the packed room. Along the panel, heads nodded. Later on during the third panel, Amsterdam-based historian Robin Boast revisited the topic with a somewhat dramatic twist to reinvigorate the dwindling audience: “Why are hundreds of millions of euros being spent on a palace and the same old exhibition strategies, time and again, when instead what we need is to completely revamp the institution we call ethnological museum?’” Boast asked, while at once praising the Humboldt Lab Dahlem participants’ will for change. On one point, symposium participants did seem to be largely in agreement: current plans for the Humboldt-Forum are moving in the wrong direction if the goal is to create a “world museum” with a primary focus on prestige without addressing the origin of collections created during colonial rule and the (im)possibilities of presenting culture, as well as thoroughly reflecting on and assessing forms of collaboration with those who view the collection pieces as part of their culture. Panel guests did, on the other hand, repeatedly state that the Humboldt Lab offers a viable model to approach these types of reflection and experimentation.

The relationship between the Humboldt Lab and the Humboldt-Forum was a topic that constituted a steady focus throughout the two symposium days – above all thanks to the persistence of the two moderators, Friedrich von Bose and Irene Albers. The main emphasis, however, was the conceptual issue of the crisis of representation, a topic which has been discussed in ethnological circles for the past 30 years. More pointedly, participants grappled over the question of how to conceive of an ethnological museum that abandons the idea of representing the “foreign” or the “other” and at the same time works to come to terms with its own colonial legacy. Responses were generally permeated by both resignation and militancy that could be summed up as follows: though it might seem impossible to walk away from the idea that a museum needs to represent different “peoples,” “ethnicities,” or “cultures,” “we” should not desist in our efforts to invent another kind of museum. Or, as Sharon MacDonald phrased it in her keynote: the crisis should not be regarded as something that needs to be solved, but should instead keep spurring us on to make new decisions. The most controversial issues were the (im)possibility of representation and the corresponding lines that need to be drawn when facing off against the institution of the ethnological museum. Lively discussions of four installations at the current Probebühnen 5, 6, and 7 at the Humboldt Labs attested to this. Visitors included a group of 25 curators and invited speakers. On the second day, as well, spirited debates continued during public podium discussions on the topics of “object histories,” “alternative forms of representation,” and “involving visitor groups and communities.”

The (im)possibility of the ethnological museum was discussed based on the installation “Enchantment / Beauty Parlour”, a multisensorial scenography that stages the production of female beauty as well as weddings on the Swahili coast of East Africa in an elaborate environment. “Beauty Parlour” attempts to create an “alternative representation” and to impose a different aesthetic – a Swahili aesthetic – to counter other ideals that are more familiar to the so-called “Western” countries. In this context, curator Paola Ivanov shared her first-hand observation that most “normal visitors” mistakenly believed the exhibition to be an authentic representation. Many had thus misinterpreted the installation as just another construction of the “foreign” and “other” that serves to confirm ideas of the “self.” This interpretation by Ivanov provoked various objections: Andrea Scholz wondered who would even fall into the category of “normal visitors.” Ute Marxreiter questioned whether and how it might be possible to generate the desired effect of estrangement from implicit assumptions. And, finally, Ciraj Rassool confronted attendees with the tacit and highly problematic distinction being expressed by referring to “us” and “normal visitors,” i.e. those capable of grasping alternative aesthetics and the “others” who are incapable of understanding these concepts and bound to presumably Western ideals.

Less controversial was the strategy of coaxing largely unfamiliar stories from the collection objects, discussed based on the project “Object Biographies” (curated by Margareta von Oswald and Verena Rodatus in collaboration with Mathias Alubafi, Romuald Tchibozo, and filmmaker Anna Lisa Ramella). Participants agreed that researching object histories needed to be a standard component of working with collections and that this research should also be present in the exhibitions. This would ultimately enable a negotiation of the relationship between the collection and the museum that would not be tied up in the categories of “tribe” or “ethnicity.” Opinions varied as to what should constitute the central focus. For Friedrich von Bose, the installation was a call for a fundamental shift in how collections in ethnological museums are dealt with, and even an occasion to question the museum as an institution. Ciraj Rassool had already justified why object biographies can help question the identity of ethnological museums: they start by looking at history – a category that long played a subordinate role in the context of ethnological museums, since the cultures on display were categorically defined as “pre-modern” and thereby void of developments or events. Paola Ivanov criticized that the object biographies recounted in the project all have their origin in Europe and she expressed doubts regarding the concept of biography, which was prominently discussed by Igor Kopytoff and Arjun Appadurai in 1986. Terms such as stories or travels might be used more fruitfully when speaking of objects, Ivanov proposed.

Further widespread agreement could be found as to the need for the history of German colonialism to take on a prominent role in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. The specific means to make this happen were to be discussed within the scope of the experimental setup of a museum for children and young adults, curated by Ute Marxreiter and entitled “(No) Place in the Sun.” Due to the focus on children and young people, a more general question came to the fore: to what extent does this history of colonial violence appear in the other Humboldt-Forum exhibitions? At the end of the day, it must be noted, colonialism is hardly just “child’s fare.” This issue was expressed more explicitly by a glaring gap identified by Ciraj Rassool, Larissa Förster, and Frédéric Keck in the youth museum: racial science. They determined that it is essential for museums that present themselves as art museums to disclose the fact that the collections on exhibit originally only came to be through the “scientific” categorization of humans into different races. This perspective underlines the urgency of this question for the Humboldt-Forum: the history of the Berlin-based collection ultimately started with Felix von Luschan, who held the first chair for physical anthropology at the Charité.

In reflecting on possibilities for what might be called the “21st century ethnological museum,” in addition to institutional critique, a consideration of institutional constraints was generally considered essential. Sharon Macdonald emphasized this view in her introductory remarks in which she criticized the concept of “non-European” in no uncertain terms. She postulated that the greatest obstacle to a permanent state of revolution at the museum – a goal expressed by Verena Rodatus, one of the symposium organizers, at the beginning of the event – might possibly be the expectations directed at museums and their staff. These expectations run incredibly high and include “post-representational” exhibitions which require a significant rethinking of past work and concepts while remaining attractive for visitors and involving communities – all in the face of dwindling resources.

The specific challenges that come with major institutional change became apparent during discussions about the installation “Sharing Knowledge,” an interactive web platform developed by research assistant Andrea Scholz together with members of the Universidad Nacional Experimental Indígena del Tauca (Venezuela). This installation was based on a mutual collaboration between individuals, emphasized Larissa Förster on the first day of the event. Due to the nature of the project, the experiences of participants from Berlin and Tauca as they grappled with the objects while curating the platform could be made accessible to third parties such as museum visitors only in a limited form. Ultimately, remarked curator Andrea Scholz, the students from Tauca were not interested in the museum as an institution. What mattered most was that the objects stored in Berlin form an important part of their material culture of memory. Consequently, the project did not end at the museum doors. Yet, what prospects do these basic premises have in terms of a future implementation in the Humboldt-Forum? The responses were less than optimistic: Andrea Scholz clearly stated that her contract only runs until the end of the Humboldt Lab. And Viola König, director of the Ethnologisches Museum, confirmed the general difficulty of the long-term integration of this type of project in an institutional context like the Ethnologisches Museum and of establishing it in a functional context with its collections.

The conceptual discussions about the possibility of a post-representational museum therefore all tied into the basic question of all events and interventions, namely how to implement the results and experiences from the Humboldt Lab in the Humboldt-Forum in the Berlin Palace. Though the Humboldt Lab format was viewed with general positivity, when it came to the specific relationship between the Lab and Forum, opinions varied. They ranged from the position held by Ciraj Rassool, who repeatedly emphasized that the Lab needed to be the museum, to Viola König, who consistently stated that the Forum clearly needed a Lab, but that the two could not be interchangeable. Approval and praise for the lab did not eclipse the critical issue of how much of an impact the Lab’s experimental impulses could still have in the current phase. As the Humboldt Lab draws to a close, exhibition plans for the Humboldt-Forum are well advanced. It’s a state which begs the question: how much friction can the current plans for the Humboldt-Forum still handle?

Translated from German by Sarah Matthews

Mario Schulze is a cultural scholar currently engaged as a research assistant in the Cluster of Excellence “Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory” at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Link Program Symposium "Always in Crisis" (PDF)

The symposium “Always in Crisis? Questions of Representation in Museums for Non-European Arts and Cultures” hosted by Humboldt Lab Dahlem was held on September 18 and 19, 2015 at the Dahlem Museums.

Robin Boast (University of Amsterdam)
Larissa Förster (Internationales Kolleg Morphomata, Universität zu Köln)
Paola Ivanov (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
Frédéric Keck (Musée du Quai Branly, Paris)
Viola König (Director of the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
Sharon Macdonald (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin)
Ute Marxreiter (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
Margareta von Oswald (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris)
Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape, Kapstadt)
Verena Rodatus (Freie Universität, Berlin)
Andrea Scholz (Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Berlin)
Romuald Tchibozo (Université d'Abomey-Calavi, Cotonou)
Irene Albers (Freie Universität, Berlin)
Friedrich von Bose (Stadtmuseum Stuttgart)

Concept of the symposium: Jonathan Fine, Paola Ivanov, Ute Marxreiter, Margareta von Oswald, Verena Rodatus, Andrea Scholz