Making Differences in Berlin:
Transforming Museums and Heritage in the 21st Century

Making Differences in Berlin is CARMAH’s major research project. Funded by the €3.5 Million Alexander von Humboldt prize, it will run until the end of September 2020.

Making Differences in Berlin focuses especially upon the changing role and potentials of museums and heritage in the production of difference and diversity. Informed by global developments and theorizing, it takes Berlin as its research lab for examining the dynamics and potentials of contemporary museum and heritage transformations.


That cultural diversity and difference raise some of the most pressing dilemmas in our contemporary – and future – world is widely recognised. Globalization – a label for a variety of processes – is used to describe the disappearance of cultural and linguistic diversity on the one hand, and the presence of greater evident ‘close-up’ diversity in the form of migrants and tourists on the other. Identity politics and post-colonialism promote recognition of difference and colonial legacies; and many States struggle over – and come to different temporary settlements on – how far cultural diversity should be acknowledged and accommodated, and pasts publicly represented and even, insofar as it might be possible, redressed. In many European countries, not least Germany, Islam has become the focus of some of the most complex and sensitive political questions over cultural diversity in contemporary society.

Museums and heritage not only deal with social and cultural diversity in this sense, however, but also with so-called ‘natural’ diversity (e.g. ‘bio-diversity’). Furthermore, they engage in differentiating activities, especially classification, that act to make identities and differences of multiple kinds. Of particular interest for Making Differences in Berlin is how these may become interrelated through actual practice – for example, how museological classifications into kinds of museums and collections may influence how certain cultural groups are represented, or how specific notions of bio-diversity might inform those of cultural diversity, or vice-versa. By looking at a range of kinds of museums – including natural science as well as art and ethnography – the project will be able to get critical traction on differences among differences as well as any traffic between them.

Museums offer an exciting reflexive potential for examining theorizations that analysts might share – for example, the mobilisation of certain notions of diversity or cosmopolitanism – and even for collaboratively exploring these, and thus for conceptual revision and development. Because the museum and heritage transformations in Berlin are informed by many contemporary and cutting-edge ideas, it is a highly productive site for reflexive theorizing. Analyzing how difference and diversity are being constituted in Berlin’s ongoing museum and heritage transformations is of historical significance in itself and also offers a window through which to understand what is at stake in a range of forms of differentiation, and to examine the implications of strategies and conceptualizations involved. More specifically, it offers the opportunity to investigate museums and heritage as what Tony Bennett has called ‘differencing machines’ that ‘aspire to new forms of dialogism that put earlier notions of exhibition in question’.1) T. Bennett 2006 ‘Exhibition, difference, and the logic of culture’, in I. Karp et al. Museum Frictions. Public Cultures/Global Transformations, Durham NC: Duke University Press, pp.46-69, p.46. This not only concerns new spaces, styles and technologies of display but also the possibility to understand and use heritage in new ways – as part of forging new knowledge relationships, publics and futures.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1) T. Bennett 2006 ‘Exhibition, difference, and the logic of culture’, in I. Karp et al. Museum Frictions. Public Cultures/Global Transformations, Durham NC: Duke University Press, pp.46-69, p.46.


Making Differences in Berlin is in effect a multi-researcher ethnography of ‘making differences’ in Berlin’s contemporary transforming museum and heritage-scape. It will examine ongoing developments in international, comparative perspective. Key current transformations in Berlin include major planned developments of the museums of the project partners, the Museum für Naturkunde (MfN) and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK). The latter includes a new Museum of Islamic Art (MIK) and the Humboldt-Forum (HF), which will display objects from the Ethnological Museum, the Museum of Asian Art and from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin within a controversial ‘new old’ space, generally referred to as the Schloss and currently under construction, in the centre of Berlin. All of these are due for completion by 2019. They are seen as some of the most significant museum development projects currently underway not only in Germany but internationally.

One ambition of the research project is to go ‘behind the scenes’ of the high-profile developments and to examine and analyze what goes on in practice and process. How are outcomes shaped, not only by plans and visions, and the mobilization of particular examples or histories, but also by unacknowledged assumptions, imaginaries, contingencies or politics?

The research project will not, however, be limited to the high-profile sites but will also seek to examine this more widely in relation to more low-key, hidden or neglected forms of heritage-making. This includes perspectives of visitors and potential visitors and of different groups or communities. These may be within Berlin or as part of the networks formed by museums and heritage organizations themselves.

Making Differences in Berlin is commited to direct engagement with practice, process and players ‘on the ground’. As well as study and analysis, this also includes ongoing reflexive participation in the developments – such as conceptual development, exhibition design or visitor research – where this is feasible and desired by research participants.


The theorizing potential of the museums, heritage organizations and participants involved is an important conceptual resource for Making Differences in Berlin. It also, however, looks beyond this and draw on theory from elsewhere, especially in reflexive engagement with that ‘on the ground’. This is one important dimension of its theoretical/methodological stance, as is that of looking at museums and heritage as ‘relational’, by which is meant both their relations to one another (including spatially, drawing here from cultural geography) and also the relations between objects and the people brought into relationships with them (which draws partly on actor-network theory).

Beyond this, however, the project is not restricted to a single theory or body of theorizing, and it welcomes researchers bringing fresh theoretical perspectives. Some areas of theorizing (some of which also have methodological implications) that may be especially productive for the project, some of which are currently un- or under-developed in relation to museums and heritage, include assemblage theory, cosmopolitanism, intersectionality, intermediality, phenomenology, political economy, post-colonial theory, science and technology studies, sensory ethnography, space syntax and value theory. Work on the anthropology of future-making, on affective and sensory economies, citizenship and non-citizenship, co-production, cultural participation, cultural property, the decentring of the West, materiality, and Benjamin’s Arcades project, also offer potentially productive insights for analysis.

Research Areas

Within the overall focus on making diversity and differences there are four main areas of research investigation. Each takes an ethnographic perspective on museums and heritage in Berlin itself – looking primarily but not exclusively at the partner institutions – while at the same time also exploring (through fieldwork visits, literature and project guest researchers) cases elsewhere. As most of the developments are not due for completion until 2019, the focus will be on exhibition production. Nevertheless, opportunities to understand visitor reception – e.g. through formative exhibition experiments or work with particular potential visitor groups – will be taken where possible.

Transforming the ethnographic

This research area examines the challenge of dealing with ethnographic collections and displaying ethnography in the current Berlin developments. The research will necessarily have to engage with debates about what is meant by ‘ethnographic’ and related terms, especially ‘ethnological’, including boundaries with ‘art’, and divisions between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’, and also with disciplinary relationships and discussions. This in itself will be to engage with questions of the constitution of diversity and difference, as these are part of what has classically informed the notions of ‘ethnographic’ and ‘ethnological’. Whether there are alternative possible formulations, however, is important to address; as, more generally, is the challenge to the ethnographic in a world in which ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ are being transformed through globalization and other processes. The collections and practices of the Ethnological Museum, and the move to the Humboldt-Forum, are an obvious and central focus here, raising questions about the implications of this move – and of the specific aims and outcomes of the new displays – for the ethnographic. It is worth noting here that Berlin’s ethnological collections are recognised as among the most extensive and significant in the world, with an interesting and important museological and also academic disciplinary history (e.g. in relation to Bastian and Boas). In addition, the SPK art museums and its Museum of European Cultures, and also the MfN and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, as well as various other institutions in the city, have collections that might be seen as ethnographic, and could be considered in relation to transformations underway. Specific areas of research could include looking at the specific work practices involved in dealing with, or making, the ethnographic, such as work with ‘source communities’ and/or groups within Berlin, investigating how topics and objects for display are selected, or following transformations made during the design process. Comparative analysis with reference to developments elsewhere (including the avoidance of the terms ‘ethnographic’ and ‘ethnological’ in some related museum transformations elsewhere) will also be necessary.

Representing Islam

This research area examines how ‘Islam’ is being constructed in the new developments, including attention to possible diverse ‘Islams’. This has emerged as a central challenge for contemporary museological representation due to contemporary European and world politics, and the hard case that some aspects and versions of Islam pose for cultural relativism and even multiculturalism. While the concept of ‘representation’ has received some critique in recent social-sciences theorizing, it remains analytically powerful for tackling questions of politics and poetics, and, moreover, seems (at least at this stage in the research) to be especially appropriate here insofar as any exhibition of Islam is not only a depiction but also inevitably a statement with political inflections. Politics, in effect, is never absent from poetics, however, much those involved might hope to think otherwise. The Berlin case has particular importance partly because of the difficult politics of the country at present, not least with the rise of Pegida, and the substantial (approximately 9%) Muslim population, primarily with Turkish origins, in the city. It is also, however, due to the significant holdings of objects that might potentially be classified as ‘Islamic’ and the range of institutions in which these are held. These not only include the Museum of Islamic Art, but also the Humboldt-Forum (including the Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Arts) and also the MfN and Museum of European Cultures, and also other locations in the city, such as the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum. Examination of the transformations underway will, therefore, need to be contextualised in relation to previous developments and ones underway elsewhere. It will also need to give attention to the selections involved in the current transformations, including those involving work with local Islamic organizations and communities, and with other visitor groups, and to what and who is involved in particular selections and modes of display.

Science and Citizenship

The core research remit here will be to focus on how scientific – especially, though not only, natural scientific – knowledge about diversity is constructed and its implications for citizenship. Museums are an important source of informal education, conveying knowledge and educating in certain ways of seeing. Scholars have argued that they are important in citizenship formation in terms of the inclusions and exclusions that they perform through what they depict (including, for example, how they mobilise ideas about, say, the nation, through modes of ‘banal nationalism’), and the kinds of knowledge they display and modes of transmission that they deploy. Techniques to find better modes of engaging the public in science, including in understanding the nature of scientific research, has been high on the agenda of many museums, especially museums of natural science; and there have, therefore, been innovative techniques deployed, including those that go under the label ‘citizen science’, the use of art in science exhibition, collaborative and co-production of research and exhibition, and innovative forms of visitor research. Diversity and difference are particularly interesting to examine in a museum of natural history due to the fact that such museums have played important roles historically in naturalizing and disseminating ideas about ‘diversity’ through notions such as ‘species’. New biological research not only works with notions of ‘bio-diversity’ but is also transforming some earlier understandings. This offers the potential to experiment with and track how this might be publically disseminated and received. The MfN, with its lively programme of exhibitions and visitor engagement, will be central to this research area but the questions concerning science and citizenship, and also of scientific knowledge and research in displaying diversity and difference, are also relevant to all museums and heritage organizations.

Media and Mediation

This research area is dedicated to theorizing and investigating the media of museums and heritage, with a particular emphasis on their implications for questions of diversity and difference. The term media is intended to cover both the traditional media of museum and heritage collecting and display, including storage units, display cabinets and architecture, but also more recent uses of digital and social media. Museums and heritage organizations are particularly productive locations in which to examine questions of media on account of the fact that these sites contain a mix of kinds of media in a three-dimensional environment – generally including objects as well as other forms of media, such as labels, cases, panels, lighting and possibly also audio-visuals and interactive technologies of various kinds. As well as issues concerning the implications and effectiveness of such media for organizing and transmitting knowledge, these also raise questions about the significance of materiality and the sensory within collecting, knowledge-formation and exhibition – and how this articulates with creating senses of sameness and difference. This research area is cross-cutting but is also intended to intersect especially with the innovative work intended for the University’s exhibition space in the Humboldt Forum, including exhibiting the Sound Archive, and development of temporary exhibitions.