Project Researchers

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 02/2020.

This thesis takes the current transformation processes of ethnological museums in Europe as its point of departure to analyse how colonial legacies are grappled with in the present. It suggests the notion of ‘working through’ to argument how contending with the colonial past articulates in the museum. Its analysis is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted within the Africa department of the Berlin’s Ethnological Museum (2013 – 2015), and in particular, of the preparations for the new permanent exhibitions to be integrated in the much-contested Humboldt Forum, to open on the capital’s Museum Island in 2020. How do the museum’s colonial legacies articulate in the museum’s everyday? How does museum staff deal with, relate to, and engage with the Museum’s material and immaterial colonial legacies, as they progressively become ever more contested? The analysis of the Humboldt Forum’s making of covers a particular period with regards to the negotiations of Germany’s colonial past. In a national context which had long been described as ‘amnesiac’ in relation to its colonial past, the years from 2013 until 2019 have been characterised by a growing (political) acknowledgement, recognition, and subsequent funding and founding of projects and institutions aimed at addressing and working with the colonial project and its contemporary reverberations. The thesis thus shows how colonial legacies are identified, researched, and addressed within the museum. Whereas the thesis illuminates efforts and processes brought forward and fought for by museum staff to identify and publicly address the museum’s colonial legacies, it focuses above all on the way in which staff struggle to find alternatives to the museum’s disciplinary framings and orderings, professional conventions, and institutional hierarchies, with a view to their historical genesis. The thesis thus notably discusses the limits and boundaries which museum staff face when trying to work through the museum’s colonial legacies. It points to the constant push and pull, as well as the risk of reproducing, stabilising, and legitimising the museum as colonial legacy: tensions which the working through of contested legacies more generally speaking entails. The thesis thus doesn’t only analyse the Ethnological Museum in its quest to define its position and understand its relationship to its colonial past. Rather, it relates back to questions of the ‘working through’ of colonial legacies more generally speaking – the negotiation of Berlin and German identities, its politics of remembrance, and the relation between colonialism, racism, and identity politics today.