Project Researchers, Doctoral Candidates

Margareta von Oswald

Tal Adler

Working through Colonial Collections.
‘Africa’ in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum

As part of CARMAH’s „Transforming the Ethnographic“ research project, my research examines the transformation of museums with ethnographic collections in Europe today.

Research summary
Last updated 07/2018.
This research project addresses the current transformation processes of ethnographic museums in Europe. These museums have been depicted as and have themselves articulated being in a moment of ‘crisis’. It is the developments, reasons and consequences of this ‘crisis’ that I look at in my thesis. One major development within these processes is the resurgence and negotiation of the role of European colonialism and imperialism and their legacies in the respective societies.
The Humboldt Forum in Berlin, my main case study, has progressively transformed into a ‘conflict zone’ (Sternfeld) through which issues around German colonial history, provenance, and representation are negotiated by various stakeholders (activists, scholars, media, politicians, curators, artists). Those debates are related to larger questions of collective memory (politics), diversity and difference, and thus, definitions of a common ‘we’ in Germany.

My project deploys metaphors related to the ghostly to evoke the unsettling persistence of marginalized pasts in the present, and the resurgence and agency of so-far silenced voices. Ghosts and haunting offer the possibility to think about the museum differently: To reconsider different forms and the simultaneity of temporalities, blurring temporal distinctions; to reassess relations between things and people, questioning objects’ and technologies’ agencies in the museum; to question notions of rationality, scientificity, efficiency in institutions, in order to describe unintended consequences, processes of imagination and speculation.
The thesis’ main research questions thus concern the persistence, mobilization and decoupling of the past in the present and reflect on how to mobilize it to conceive better futures. This question will not only be dealt with when it comes to the larger framework of the Humboldt Forum controversies, addressing in particular if and how ethnographic museums engaged and contributed to the negotiations around colonialism and colonial history in Europe. The question also appears in the detailed description and analysis of the museum’s everyday practices. How are practices linked to the institutional and disciplinary past inscribed in the museum’s everyday, where are changes suggested and realized and why? Which potentials and challenges are identified in and around ethnographic museums to draft the collections’ possible futures?

Research design and method
The PhD-thesis focuses on Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum within Berlin’s Humboldt Forum (to open in 2019). I did fieldwork as an observant participant with the in-house Africa curator Paola Ivanov from 2013 until 2015, working on the future permanent exhibition. I further gained insight to the museum’s processes by co-curating the exhibition ‘Object Biographies’ together with Verena Rodatus. The show was on display from March until October 2015 within the framework of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem. To situate my findings in a larger context of museum transformation, I have, on the one hand, conducted fieldwork in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren in Belgium (2015). To open in 2018, this museum has also been confronted with major transformation processes, a thorough renovation of the historic building and a re-conceptualizations of its permanent exhibition. On the other hand, I conducted interviews with curators of public collections from the African continent in Europe and the USA.