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

Making Differences 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. Funded by the €3.5 Million Alexander von Humboldt prize, with further support from the Humboldt-Universität, the Berlin Museum of Natural History and the SPK, it will run until the end of September 2020.


Cultural diversity and difference raise some of the most pressing dilemmas in our contemporary – and future – world. 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 co-presence of greater 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, ignored, integrated and/or celebrated. Similarly, there are questions and struggles over how pasts are publicly represented and even, insofar as this is possible, redressed.

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 is how these may become interrelated through actual practice. For example, how might museological classifications into kinds of museums and collections influence how certain people or histories are represented? How might specific notions of bio-diversity 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 aims to get critical traction on differences among differences as well as any traffic between them.

Museums offer exciting reflexive potential for examining and collaboratively exploring concepts and practices about difference.  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. 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.

Berlin as Lab

Making Differences is a multi-researcher ethnography of Berlin’s contemporary transforming museum and heritage-scape. It examines 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, and due to open in 2019.

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 is not limited to the high-profile sites but also explores more low-key, hidden or neglected forms of heritage-making. This includes perspectives of visitors and potential visitors and of different groups or communities.

Making Differences 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.

Research Areas

Transforming the Ethnographic

This research theme begins from the challenges facing ethnographic and ethnological museums today. It includes attention to difficult and contested heritage, with a particular focus on the enduring, problematic, and multiple legacies of colonialism. What curatorial strategies are being and could be developed to address issues of difference and otherness, including boundaries between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’, transnational and cosmopolitan theories, as well as postcolonial critique?

Looking not only at ethnographic museums, we are working on and with a selected number of different kinds of museum, exhibition and contemporary art institutions, which tackle these questions in various ways, speaking to different audiences and operating on different scales.

These include but are not limited to the Humboldt Forum and the Staatliche Museen Berlin (SPK), as well as the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) gallery in Berlin-Mitte, the municipal gallery Galerie Wedding and the artistic project space SAVVY Contemporary. We consider how institutions develop their own theoretical and political agendas, how they position themselves in line with or against other institutions or discourses. Such a comparative approach necessarily involves paying close attention to the ways in which debates echo and reverberate differently – at times in contrasting ways – in institutional constellations in Berlin and elsewhere.

While this research area focuses primarily on the global entanglements of Berlin’s and Germany’s transforming museum, exhibition, and contemporary a landscape, it also draws comparatively on specific case studies in France, South Africa, Namibia, and Australia, including an in-depth study of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, Belgium. The project also cross-references, for instance, restitution debates in the former colonial metropolis of Berlin to museum debates in the ‘Global South’ and other international trends and perspectives.

Transforming the Ethnographic research speaks directly to existing and emerging anthropological debates on critical heritage studies, museums, postcolonial thought and decolonizing practices, contemporary art, curatorial studies, and provenance.

Representing Islam

This research theme begins from the challenges for museums and heritage institutions of how to represent Islam. We approach Islam as a phenomenon, acknowledging the historical and regional diversity, the complexity
of ideologies, traditions, practices and dis-courses, as well as the multitude of meanings a ached to Islam. Our primary aim is to under- stand how and in what situations Islam is produced, performed and used by different actors and institutions. What are the consequences, for example, if Islam is represented as art, or if it is primarily addressed as religion or as a way of life?

We seek to examine how explicit and implicit imaginings and perceptions about people and cultures, as well as practices and processes related to Islam, transform and are transformed through museum and heritage initiatives in Berlin. This includes examining the production of collections, exhibitions and other museum-like displays and practices, as well
 as co-operations with Muslim and non-Muslim communities, initiatives, and individuals.

To do this, we employ postcolonial reflections and the lens of intersectionality (e.g. ethnicity, gender, social class), and address the affective qualities of objects and places. We actively engage in museum-related work to explore if and how alternative ways of ‘doing’ the museum can transform knowledge production and meaning-making, and contribute to their futurability.

Looking behind the scenes of institutions, such as the Museum of Islamic Art, or temporary initiatives, like the exhibition daHEIM at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen, or the guides at the Multaqa project, allows us to understand how themes and objects are interpreted, and how these interpretations 
are received by people coming to museums. Getting involved in the making of exhibitions or initiatives associated with them also allows us to engage directly with the people involved, thus gaining insights into their perspectives and practices, and the potentials and limits for transformation.

The last decades have witnessed rapidly growing anti-Muslim prejudices that are expressed in Islamophobic public rhetoric. By looking closely at processes of heritage-making and the poetics and politics of representation within museums and heritage developments in Berlin, our research can help to contribute to an understanding of how these attitudes are nurtured or can be challenged. In this way, we hope to contribute to helping museums and heritage institutions to address Islamophobic attitudes, for example by questioning problematic binaries in relation to what Islam ‘ is’.

Science and Citizenship

The core research remit here is 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. They shape citizen formation through the inclusions and exclusions that they perform, through what they depict, and through 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 various earlier understandings. This offers the potential to experiment with and track how this is publicly disseminated and received. The Museum for Natural History (MfN), with its lively programme of exhibitions and visitor engagement, is 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 processes of mediation in museums and heritage, with particular emphasis on the implications for questions of diversity and difference. The term media covers both the traditional media of museum and heritage collecting and display as well as more recent uses of digital and social media. This research area addresses questions such as the following. How far are new media changing the nature and capacities of museums and heritage? What do everyday uses of new media by diverse groups tell us about the ways in which memory, knowledge and subjectivity are being shaped today? And what is the potential of new media for involving more people and groups – including those at a distance who identify with collections and sites? As well as considering the implications and effectiveness of various media for organizing and transmitting knowledge, our research also investigates the sensory and affective dimensions of media, and how this articulates with creating senses of sameness and difference.