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“Museums must radically challenge their orders of knowledge”

09.08.2018 - Article

Dusty masks from distant countries, exoticising insights into the life of “alien” cultures, objects from the colonial era and Eurocentric orders of knowledge - ethnological collections are exposed to a great deal of criticism. But what can museums do in response?

African masks in Valencia
African masks in Valencia© ifa, Igor Ovsyannykov via Unsplash

“Even though museums present themselves in a global light, they have not left eurocentrism behind,” says Regina Wonisch, who addresses the issue of curatorial challenges at the interface of ethnological museums and art in her study “Reflexion kolonialer Vergangenheit in der musealen Gegenwart?”. In the interview, she speaks about the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and which approaches and solutions she deems necessary.

ifa: Which practical implications does post-colonial criticism have for museums?

Regina Wonisch: Without the subjugation and exploitation of the local populations of the global South, ethnological collections would never have been created. However, post-colonial criticism of museums does not only dock on to the appropriation of the bodies and objects of other cultures. The ethnological museums founded in the 19th century are inextricably linked to Eurocentrism and colonialism. In the museums and collections, the material culture of “non-European” population groups were described and categorised from a Western perspective and thus submitted to Western orders of knowledge and judgement. European culture was not included in the ethnological museums so that the hierarchical relationship between the West and the rest of the world could be continually re-enacted.  As long as ethnological museums confine themselves to describing the ways of life of foreign cultures, they remain stuck in those dated orders of knowledge, since it makes no sense to categorise humans into “ethnic groups” or “cultures” beyond the colonial project.

ifa: What is the core criticism of the concepts for the Humboldt Forum and similar projects?

Wonisch: The criticism of the concept for the Humboldt Forum is directed against the continued dissemination of ethnological forms of representation. Presenting ethnological collections in the rebuilt imperial residence does not indicate a fresh departure from the Eurocentric perspective. On the contrary: the European architecture of rulership rather provides the frame for viewing other cultures. The name “Humboldt Forum” is also to be regarded critically. The Humboldt brothers did indeed perform extraordinary scientific efforts in the 19th-century spirit of enlightenment. Ultimately, however, the Humboldt Forum pays tribute to Alexander Humboldt as a representative of the ethnological practices which are to be surpassed. Furthermore, new perspectives are not inevitably created by moving ethnological collections from the periphery to the centre, as the example of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris illustrates. The ethnographic objects are largely presented as pieces of work bereft of context in order to “enhance” the exhibits. However, enhancing aesthetics is only possible by displacing the historical background – ultimately the objects remain trophies of colonialism. Even though non-European collections are now located closer to the European art museums on the museum island since the Humboldt Forum has been built, the tense relation between “we and the rest” remains. If – as feared by many – a world museum is erected in Berlin that does not incorporate the historical context into its collections, does not question the (im)possibility of presenting cultures, does not reflect the cooperation of the cultures of origin, then this will certainly give rise to further discussions.

“Even if museums do paint a global picture of themselves, they have not left Eurocentrism behind.”

ifa: Why have these debates only received such public attention in the wake of the Humboldt Forum?

Wonisch: Due to the circumstances, the controversial reconstruction of the castle in central Berlin, and as the largest contemporary project of cultural policy, the Humboldt Forum gained a high degree of attention in the media. Furthermore, it coincided with demands raised by representatives of the Herero and Nama peoples for an apology for the crimes committed during the era of German colonial rule and claims for compensation which became political topics. Germany's colonial past, which was not a topic of interest for a long time, shifted into the view of a broader public, which is also due to the fact that globalisation has increasingly given rise to an influx of persons from formerly colonised parts of the world to Germany. It is not least these people who have a larger interest in the issues of colonialism, Eurocentrism and racism.

ifa: Which efforts have museums taken so far to counter the criticism, and how successful have they been?

Wonisch: In the last years, ethnological museums throughout Europe have been subject to the implementation of new concepts, the most visible sign of which is the renaming of museums. The terms “Völkerkunde” and “ethnology” were increasingly removed from the museum names and replaced with terms such as “world culture” (“Weltkultur”) or names of researchers such as the Museum of World Cultures in Frankfurt, the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum – Kulturen der Welt in Cologne, the Museum fünf Kontinente (“Museum five continents”) in München, Världskulturmuseet in Göteborg, the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, the Weltmuseum in Wien. In particular, the intention was to signalise a cosmopolitan spirit. However, eliminating the terms ethnology and “Völkerkunde” also entails that the origin of collections in the context of colonialism is obscured. Even if museums do paint a global picture of themselves, they have not left Eurocentrism behind. On the contrary, by seeking to distinguish themselves as “world interpretation centres”, they once again overload ethnological collections with meanings that are not inherent to them.

ifa: Are there any other attempts by the museums to break with their Eurocentric practice?

Wonisch: In the wake of their new alignment as world culture museums, the institutions have increasingly entered into an exchange with the societies of origin. However, the actual structure of the “dialogue of cultures” is very diverse. Frequently, colonial power relations are reproduced by reducing the representatives of the societies of origin to the function of giving cues, while the Western museums determine the rules of cooperation. Collaboration is often limited to allowing the representatives of the societies of origin to contribute their knowledge and their points of view, but the implementation and design of the exhibition is performed by the Western museum curators. Even if artists from the societies of origin are invited, the museums ultimately determine the framework conditions of the presentation.
Cooperation with contemporary artists and those creatively involved in cultures is viewed as an additional strategy for questioning ethnological museums. In my opinion, the self-reflective and critical potential of art does indeed contribute to critically questioning the practice of ethnological museums and also speaks to new audiences, but the museums themselves must implement profound structural changes.

Figure made out of cermaic in Düsseldorf, Germany
Figure made out of cermaic in Düsseldorf, Germany© dpa

“Artistic practices can contribute to bringing movement into solidified orders of knowledge.”

ifa: Which aspects have remained unconsidered?

Wonisch: Criticism of representation can only be the beginning, it must find its continuation in the criticism of the institution. It is not only about the decolonisation of the perspective, but also of the structures. A radical break is necessary, a “de-disciplinisation” of ethnological museums – as formulated by the cultural scientist and exhibition curator Nicola Lepp. The task at hand is to approach each social constellation with equal consideration of the political, economic, social and cultural circumstances from a historical and contemporary perspective. In particular, artistic practices can contribute to bringing movement to solidified orders of knowledge. Especially, if not so much the product, but the process or destabilisation is in focus. Frequently, the unequal distribution of resources for cooperation projects with representatives from the societies of origin cannot be changed. In a first step, however, it is about the willingness to embark on a process together. This can only work if the Western institutions give up their curatorial privileges. Otherwise, the cooperation projects remain a mirror of the economic and geopolitical dominance of the West.

ifa: In comparison to the USA and Australia, Germany is lagging behind in coming to terms with its colonial past. What can museums in Germany learn from these countries?

Wonisch: In the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – i.e. where “indigenous” population groups are part of the state population, there have already been diverse cooperation projects since the 1980s. In Germany, collaborative projects in the museum and exhibition sector are in the early stages. Certainly the larger geographical distance to the former colonies poses a challenge for German museums, which makes longer-term projects very complex. But database projects, such as in the “Reciprocal Research Network” of the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, at least provide an opportunity to share knowledge with the societies of origin. However, the initiative of “Africa Accessioned Network” that has assumed the task of documenting African art and cultural goods that are in Western museums shows that it is not only about the availability of objects and knowledge. It is not about the repatriation of material culture, but mainly about an exchange guided by the motto “making connections through world collections”. Establishing contact with the societies of origin and initially enquiring about their concern could open a new horizon of opportunities in order to jointly work on the mutually interwoven histories.

Contextualising ethnological collections and questioning the prerogative of interpretation

ifa: In your study you name best practice examples which constructively deal with the criticism of their own exhibition practice. What do you specifically recommend to create a truly post-colonial ethnological museum?

Wonisch: As they actively participated and are participating in the process of “othering”, the museums must radically question the orders of knowledge and the structure of the institution so that the transformation of a colonial institution to a space of post-colonial discourse can succeed. Exhibitions can be considered as post-colonial if the underlying concept takes the power relation of colonialism as the starting point for a critical perspective on power relations and oppressive mechanisms which are based on an explicit or implicit notion of cultural or biological differences and hierarchies. In this context, it is decisive that the post-colonial strategies are an oppositional force with the aim of overcoming colonial power relations on a material and symbolic level. This does not destroy the ethnological collections, but gives them a new contextualisation and identification: as exhibits of world images and power relations that are bound for renegotiation. This also implies questioning the prerogative of interpretation, which as yet has largely rested with Western museums. But museums can only become “contact zones” if the represented protagonists enter into a mutual relationship which is unbiased as to the results. This means that a continual contact to representatives of the societies of origin must be sought in order to create a basis of trust for mutually dealing with the colonial history and the effects reaching into the present. This would mean that, in an initial phase, the respective questions and problems – irrespective of specific project results – have to be looked into in a joint process.

ifa: How can Germany's foreign cultural and educational policy support museums in broadening their perspective for post-colonial narratives?

Wonisch: Self-reflectively dealing with the history of one's own institution and collaborative processes with the societies of origin take time and resources, in particular if various protagonists from science, culture and society are included. This requires free spaces as they have been envisaged at the Humboldt Lab Dahlem where new forms of presentation and content can be tested without economic pressure for success and consideration of public acclaim. Germany's foreign cultural and educational policy could particularly support museums in creating and deepening more long-term contacts with the societies of origin so that a “dialogue of cultures” can actually ensue. It is not only about insights into colonial power relations in the past, but also about insights into the traces they will leave in a present shaped by globalisation processes.

© ifa

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