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Discussing [Open] Secrets

by Gesa Steeger

Six international research scientists and curators were invited to Berlin-Dahlem in November 2014 to discuss with their Berlin colleagues the appropriate handling of sacred objects, in the context of the project “[Open] Secrets”.

Moderated by Anja Schwarz, junior professor for cultural studies at the Universität Potsdam, the following core themes emerged during the one-day workshop: forms of storage of sacred objects, sacred objects in a legal context, access rights and museum ethics, object context and dialog, as well as the role of a museum as a secular place or temple.

Philip Batty, senior curator of the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, opened the discussion via conference call, with a lecture on the significance of Tjurunga, sacred objects from Central Australia, as legal entities. Following the increase in court cases in which sacred objects are cited as proof of connection to a place and, as a consequence, as justification for a claim to land rights, many museums are facing an increased interest in restitution. The Museum Victoria is striving to process the restitution demands, but there are often “highly complex” problems involved. In several cases the sacred objects were sold or damaged after restitution. “Museums can’t simply hand these artifacts back and then leave it at that,” Batty concludes: museums have an ethical responsibility towards the previous owners of the objects and to the objects themselves.

In order to live up to this responsibility, it would be necessary to remain in constant dialog with these people and their heirs, says Batty. That's why the Victoria Museum fosters a close relationship with the relevant Aborigine communities. These have been involved in the decision-making about who would be allowed to see which sacred objects in the museum. This would also apply to the actual collection, as well as the online databank. Because the traditional central Australian culture excluded women from many spheres of arcane knowledge, women were denied access from the outset. In the discussion that followed, Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, professor for ethnology at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, argued for gender-neutral access. She pointed out that museums are academic institutions that, akin to a library, have the brief to be inclusive.

In her talk “Tjurunga in museum contexts, with special emphasis on the Grassi Museum Leipzig,” the curator for Australia and Oceania at the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider, asked for consideration of the fact that in some Aborigine communities their own concept of gender roles predominates, and one should therefore “not be too hasty in judgment.” The Museum Leipzig was also in regular contact with the Aborigine communities, said Scheps-Bretschneider. Together they had discussed the issues of storing sacred objects and had developed a conservation concept together. In response to the wishes of these communities, protective panels were placed in front of the display cabinets to shield the objects from unauthorized viewing. The request that museum employees in general should not be able to view the objects, was, however, not complied with.

In her talk on the role of the collector, Corinna Erckenbrecht, research associate on a project undertaken by the Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, emphasized that as far as researching the topic was concerned, the context of the way in which a collection had been put together was highly relevant. But the problems associated with restitution also came up: “Who are the rightful owners and how do we find them?” Erckenbrecht criticized the restrictive way of dealing with sacred objects as a stumbling block for research and categorization of these objects.

Indra Lopez Velasco, research assistant in the South Seas and Australia department at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, added that in Dahlem similar questions have been raised to those in Leipzig where the storage of sacred objects was concerned. Who is permitted to see them? Who is authorized to work with them? Who is allowed to know the exact relevance of the piece? Naturally it is important to respect the wishes of the previous owners, but the question is, to what extent one should engage, and who, finally, should take the decisions on issues of access, storage and presentation: the museum, or the previous owners?

In this context, Anita Herle, senior curator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, reported on the close contact between the English museum and several Torres Strait islanders. The cooperation with previous owners of sacred objects was an opportunity for gaining insight: “They tell their very own object history.” She also pointed out that the decision to display sacred objects should be made in consultation with the original owners wherever possible. “Every region is different. Decisions on what is sacred and what is not, what can be exhibited and what can not, are always dependent on context and can only be made in mutual dialog.”

Emmanuel Kasarhérou, head of the Overseas Department from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris drew similar conclusions in his talk “Indigenous perspectives on sacred objects at museums in Vanuatu and New Caledonia.” He talked about his experiences with the exhibiting of sacred objects during his time as director of the Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie. “For many people there, the belief in sacred objects is very deeply rooted.” Many people still feared the power of sacred objects. On questions of access, as well as on issues of presentation, therefore, they worked very closely with the indigenous population. Sacred objects had, for example, been “desacralized” before they were made accessible to the public. Another option was to install “taboo rooms” where warnings were affixed to the entrance and visitors could decide for themselves if they wished to look at the displayed objects or not.

In her talk “Ceremonial houses and open secrets in the Sepik area, Papua New Guinea,” Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin also pointed out that “the sacred was revealed only in specific situations and in a specific handling of an object,” for example as part of a ritual. It was not the object per se that was sacred, but the knowledge of its relevance and use. This knowledge was also used as a powerful tool to exclude or include certain members of society, said the ethnologist. She pointed out that in many traditional indigenous cultures for example, only men were initiated into the knowledge of the sacred nature of an object, while women and children were excluded.

Markus Schindlbeck, director of the Australia and Oceania collection at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin until December 2014, underlined this in his talk “Personal experiences with sacred objects and human remains in the Sepik area, New Guinea.” From his own experience with traditional indigenous communities he described situations in which sacred objects were used as a means of exclusion or inclusion. Not only was he, as an “outsider,” excluded from sacred rituals and the knowledge of the sacred nature of objects, but also women and children. The intention was not purely the safeguarding of secrets, said Schindlbeck, but above all, the perpetuation of social hierarchy.

In the concluding discussion, to which Prof. Dr. Klaas Ruitenbeek, director of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst Berlin, as well as his colleague Alexander Hofmann, head of the East Asia collection, and Martina Stoye, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, were invited, the focus was explicitly on the role that museums fulfill in the contemporary era. Are they places of science, concerned with the imparting of knowledge and exchange of ideas, or are they hallowed temples, in which the beliefs of certain cultures are cultivated and conserved?

“Museums are archives of human culture,” emphasized Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin: places in which knowledge should be communicated and not concealed. Places in which taboos could be displayed, and visitors given an impression of different social orders. Markus Schindlbeck again reminded us that the objects per se were not sacred, but only the knowledge surrounding them: it was, above all, this knowledge with which museums had to deal in a respectful manner.

Translated from German by Galina Green

Gesa Steeger is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.

Link Program Workshop “Discussing [Open] Secrets” (PDF)

The evaluation workshop of the project “[Open] Secrets” was held on November 21, 2014 at the Ethnologisches Museum.

Philip Batty (Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australien)
Corinna Erckenbrecht (DFG-project on indigenous cultures in the West Cape-York-Peninsula, Australia)
Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (Professor of Anthropology, University of Göttingen)
Anita Herle (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)
Alexander Hofmann (Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin)
Emmanuel Kasharérou (Musée du Quai Branly, Paris)
Viola König (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
Indra Lopez Velasco (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
Klaas Ruitenbeek (Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin)
Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider (Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig)
Markus Schindlbeck (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
Martina Stoye (Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin)
Agnes Wegner (Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Berlin)
Anja Schwarz (University of Potsdam)

Concept of the workshop: Indra Lopez Velasco, Markus Schindlbeck