Heritage, Change and the ‘Second-Generation’ Phenomenon:

Traditional Craft and Revitalization in Jingdezhen

by Sharon Macdonald and Fang Lili

FANG Lili – or Lili Fang in English name order – is Professor and Director of the Art Anthropology Research Institute of the China National Academy of Art, Beijing. For more than twenty years she has led major research projects on cultural heritage and the anthropology of art, leading to numerous publications. She is a member of the China Expert Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage; President of the Chinese Society for the Anthropology of Art; and member of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress Scientific, Educational and Cultural Committee. In this interview with Sharon Macdonald, conducted in August 2017, Professor Fang talks about her research over many years in the major centre for ceramics, Jingdezhen. Sharon began by asking her about some of the changes that she had seen in the field of cultural heritage.

© Sharon Macdonald

LF                  When I began doing fieldwork in 1990 in China, it was the very early stage of a real opening of the country and the market – we were experiencing the modernisation process. And it was exactly then that I started to think about the value of our heritage, how it would develop in the future, whether it was going to disappear or could it regenerate again.  Back then, I did not have the concept of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ – UNESCO hadn’t come up with it. I just thought about it as traditional culture. So I started to study my hometown Jingdezhen. Jingdezhen has 1000-year-long history of making handmade porcelains. What I thought was – in this old town we have excellent porcelain producing techniques and if we don’t record them or study them, they might in future disappear very quickly. So I started to record those techniques. And as I did so, I discovered that there were several very traditional techniques were being revived – that were already that time.

SM         So some techniques had already disappeared but were being reintroduced?

LF            What had happened was that in the 1950s, China’s government had closed down all the workshops making traditional handmade goods. These had been replaced by national government-owned factories. But after 1990s, during the reopening of the country and the market, the private workshop started to reappear in Jingdezhen.

SM               So people hadn’t forgotten the techniques?

LF                 They remembered – and did so over a period of almost fifty years, from 1949 to 1990. Though even during the government-owned factory period, they still kept some traditional craftsmen working in factories to make those traditional styles to sell them abroad.  So some people still continued with the techniques. Mostly they were copying antique products to sell in Hong Kong, Macao, and Korea and Japan. But in the 1990s it was quite different from the craftwork in the factory. What was happening was that porcelain was now being produced in private workshops. So that made me wonder about what the future might be for Jingdezhen traditional porcelain production – and I set out to study it. From 2001 to 2008 I directed a National Key Study called Western China Culture Resources Preservation, Development and Utility. To do so, I set up a really big project – with more than 100 scholars, working in lots of groups, focusing on different areas and topics, all concerned with which parts of traditional cultural resources, including various folk arts and folklore, can be preserved and which parts of them can be revived or regenerated to fit into today’s ways of life. We had 76 case studies in total, with fieldwork on cultural resources in six provinces in western areas of China. On the basis of this we published twelve books, appearing in the early 2000s. These included From Heritage to Resource: Western Humanity Resource Study and Long ga People’s Changing Lives: A Study of Suo ga Eco-Museum, as well as Suo ga Diary: A Female Anthropologist’s Study in Miaozhai, Heritage, Practice and Experience, all variously authored or edited by me.

© Fang Lili

Museum of the Ruins of the Jingdezhen kilns

SM               What did you find? What makes a difference? What shapes what will continue and what won’t?

LF                 I found that Jingdezhen’s competitive power is neither in labour nor capital, but in knowledge and artistic value. Jingdezhen already had the knowledge – the knowledge of how to make this special kind porcelain – and also the artistic or aesthetic value or taste. And this gave it the capacity to revive. I also found that as long as the tradition related to art, to performance, to tourism, it can last longer – it shows longer life potential. Things related to daily life, by contrast, are disappearing very quickly. For example, tools for agriculture and everyday labour are disappearing. Whereas things related to art — to performance, dancing, singing — live longer.

SM               Do you think for collecting both materials and intangible cultural heritage, enough is being done to preserve and to collect and so on?

LF                  I don’t think tradition is just about preservation.  Heritage has a big relationship with our modern life too. This is what I predicted for Jingdezhen in a book I published in 1990. And from my research in Jingdezhen later it turned out that my predictions were right!

What happened was that in the 1990s, all of the government-owned factory closed. But then thousands of private workshops suddenly sprang up. And these were not just making copies of antiques. Fewer and fewer of them were doing so. Instead, they started making all kinds of different styles. So my new study was about this – about what was being made in these workshops.

One very interesting discovery was that it was not just local craftsmen working in those workshops but craftsmen from different parts of the countries or even from other countries – artists or art students from across the country or around the world. They came to Jingdezhen to learn from local people; and they use the local craft techniques to make their own artworks. Why they came to Jingdezhen was because the local craftsmen have a marvellous technique. It is a very mature technique, using all kinds of materials, and all kinds of colour. If you can imagine it, they can make it happen.

And the process is very flexible. It is divided into different procedures, each craftsman working on ones. For example, they have people who only throw the clay, some only paint; others glaze; someone else fires it. So that makes it very suitable for outsiders to make porcelain.  You can hire people to work for you, maybe doing some steps yourself.

© Fang Lili

New use of traditional techniques in Jingdezhen workshop

SM         How many workshops and craftspeople are there?

LF            According to the statistics, there are 3,000 workshops in Jingdezhen and 12,0000 craftsmen working. Not only established artists but also students come to work and study in Jingdezhen. Very famous artists can sell their works very well, but I wondered how the young students could survive here. What I found was that most of them are not actually making artwork. What they make is stuff for daily use – such as teapots or vases –  but in artistic styles. And these things are often made with a kind of flavour of traditional Chinese style – so they are learning from tradition and appreciating a range of styles from various dynasties. So they are not just learning from the traditional handicraftsmen – who prefer Ming and Qing styles. But they draw inspiration from others, such as that of the Song dynasty, which itself had been learned largely from Japanese and Korean craftsmen. As well as leaning from all different dynasties and the influences of different areas and countries through these, the students can learn from the artists from other countries, as well as from local people.

Artists and students come here not so much to preserve the intangible cultural heritage, but to use it. I discuss this as heritage having become a resource. On the basis of my research I wrote a book called From Heritage to Resource. And now you can see this happening widely – heritage being used as a resource. We can even say that actually the more traditional a city is, the more likely it is to develop in a successful modern direction.

SM               That is really interesting that it is so dynamic. That goes against some ideas of heritage. But does that ever come into conflict with other ideas?

LF                  Yes, actually, it is pretty conflicted. There are two very different parts of this city, and two ideas about heritage. One part is characterised by making very creative, modern and dynamic changes. And in the other part, run mainly by the local government, they are trying to preserve the very traditional parts of the heritage.

SM               So maybe it would be good for the porcelain production not to get UNESCO heritage listing, for example, because it might stop the life and the dynamism maybe?

LF            Actually, in UNESCO’s World Heritage programme, they allow a certain amount of creation. They called it living heritage or live heritage – heritage that should be alive in people’s daily life.

So far I have been giving you my views about change and heritage.  I should also say something about what changes in the government’s approach. Initially, our government was doing exactly as with UNESCO’s World Heritage approach of preserving or mainly preserving heritage in itself. But more recently the government realized that heritage is also a productive business. So they now refer not just to heritage preservation but to productive preservation.

We cannot stay the same forever. We cannot never change. But how to change, how to create, is the question. And maybe creation is more interesting if you base it on tradition. The government has launched a programme to get craftsmen to teach students their handcraft techniques –  to teach them how to make traditional handcrafts and allow them to create by themselves.  It is actually a two-way process.  The craftsmen teach the students and the students learn from them. But the craftsmen also learn from students, learn from their idea and their designs. So they actually learn from each other, influence each other.

SM         Do you see similar developments elsewhere?

LF            Jingdezhen is not unique in China today. The same change has happened in lots of areas. Recently, I applied for a new study project about the handicraftsmen’s role in social transformation. All our colleagues in our research centre joined the study project, and also invited several other scholars from other organisations. We picked 12 traditional handicrafts areas to study. For example, we studied Suzhou, which is very famous for its silk embroidery, with 80,000 women doing handmade embroidery. In Yixing, which is famous for pottery, they have 100,000 potters; in Fujian, Putian, they have 130,000 carpenters making wooden furniture. And in Shandong, Weifang, there are lots of people making handmade kites also. So in all these areas, they are all experiencing very similar changes to those in Jingdezhen.

LF                  One part of the development is what we call the ‘second generation phenomenon’. Parents earn a lot of money through handcraft, for example, by making pottery. They use this to send their children to study abroad. These kids then find that they do not earn as much money as their parents – even if they are quite successful. So they come back to their family, to their hometown, to pursue their parents’ job – and to maybe adapt the processes and bring new possibilities with them. For example, we found a son who had studied in chemistry, and he used this new technique to improve the material of the embroidery silk. It’s water-resistant material or something like that. And some students came back having majored in finance to become business assistants for their parents. Or the IT guys might use their computer skills to help their parents. This phenomenon is very common nowadays in several different areas of China. So we can say that the craftsman has changed because they got more education in this way.

The next question for me was – OK, who do they sell those products to? Where is the market? Why do people buy these things? What kind of people buy these products? Then I realised that after 30 years of change, Chinese people’s conception of value and their taste has actually changed dramatically. In the old days, Chinese people appreciated Western countries’ stuff. They think it has a very high value and good taste. More recently, however, Chinese people have started to realise the value of their own traditions.

© Fang Lili

Students sell their ceramics at a designated market in Jingdezhen

© Fang Lili

Young shopkeeper in a new ceramics shop in Jingdezhen

SM               Is that maybe also part of a bigger movement of people wanting some sense of place and roots in the face of globalization?

LF                  Yes, indeed. But also, a new class has appeared in China – the white-collar-class. They have a better income; they have their own knowledge system, and they have good taste. This white-collar-class appreciates things from a unique lifestyle, and everyday objects in artistic styles. They use such products to separate themselves from other kinds of people who are different from them. They have changed the aesthetic value in society. The things they value are those that you need to know the history to appreciate them. And we all know handmaking stuff is relatively expensive, so it’s a kind of luxury. All these things combined together, then, show you to have higher rank and a better income. That is why such products are popular with the white-collar-class.

In fact there is nowadays an even higher rank than the white-collar class. It’s called luxury or rich people class. Very rich ladies have their own designer to make their clothes. They might ask an embroiderer to embroider something on their clothes. Their furniture might be designed very exclusively to their house, and all those decorations on the furniture will be handmade. These cannot be produced in a factory – so they cost very, very much.

So that is why craftsmen, especially very good ones, earn a lot of money.  Especially if the master is a very famous one, they can cost a lot. They even sign their own name on their artwork.

© Fang Lili

High-class luxury ceramics on sale in Jingdezhen

SM               How do they learn? By practice? Are there colleges where people go to learn? Or do they just begin doing an easy job and get more skilled over time?

LF                  There are two main approaches. One is very traditional skills that you learn from your master, your teacher. And there are modern scientific skills that you learn from college.

SM               The government is supporting certain changes in heritage, then, as it recognises its economic value. Is this part of wider changes in how heritage is being seen?

LF                  Several years ago, my view wasn’t mainstream at all. Lots of scholars didn’t agree with me but thought that intangible culture heritage cannot be changed at all. They said that even a small change means that you cannot call it heritage anymore. Many of these scholars emphasise authenticity. But I don’t really agree with this idea of the authentic at all. Because if you look at history, there is nothing that can be called authentic actually. For example, take blue and white porcelain, which is seen as so authentically Chinese. But historically, the material, the style, and even the colour combination were not from China. They all came from other countries, from the Middle East. All that we call heritage today was once a creation. It changes all the time. How you see it depends on what timeline do you stand on to see.

I am a member of a government intangible cultural heritage preservation committee but didn’t attend their conference very often because of our different views on preservation and authenticity. But recently, more and more scholars have come to agree with me, and so too have some in local governments.

SM         It is very interesting that this change is going on. I wonder what this might lead to in the future.

LF                 Intangible cultural heritage has not only influenced the Chinese people’s lives, but it has also influenced the whole of humankind. So my ideas about it can be applied to the whole world, to humankind in general – to think about its role people’s lives. We all know that in the process of globalization, new techniques, such as IT, change people’s lives. They also change traditional heritage. Factories and mechanisation were invented to speed up the slow processes of the handmade. But nowadays, I think our society is moving way too fast, so we need to slow a little. We need this slower handmaking tradition – we need it for our lives. And also, I think it is really good for environmental preservation because you are more likely to use the handmade for quite a long time in your life and maybe even to pass it on to next generation. So it is good not only for society but for the environment too.

SM               That sounds like a very good future for heritage – and a very good heritage future. Thank you very much indeed.

Heritage, Change and the ‘Second-Generation’ Phenomenon:

Traditional Craft and Revitalization in Jingdezhen

by Sharon Macdonald and Fang Lili

Making Selfies in Heritage Spaces

Past Presencing through New Media

by Christoph Bareither

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin opened to the public in 2005. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, it consists of 2711 slabs made of concrete, covering 19,000 square meters in total and offering a very particular set of experiences for its visitors. A statement by architect Peter Eisenman on the memorial’s website demonstrates that he had quite detailed ideas about what kind of experiences the field of slabs is supposed to mobilize for its visitors:


C. Bareither

The Memorial through Instagram Filters 1-5

From an analytical viewpoint, what Eisenman describes here can be understood as the emotional affordances of this particular memorial. In cultural anthropology and related disciplines, the concept of affordances is often used to describe which kind of practices particular materialities and architectures afford to human actors relating to them. From this perspective, the Holocaust memorial affords particular practices for its visitors. If we bring this together with the perspective of the anthropology of emotions, we can add that the memorial affords particular emotional practices. Building upon the work of cultural anthropologist Monique Scheer, I understand emotions not as located solely inside of human subjects, but as inherently bound to bodily practices. Scheer phrases this through the expression, that we (as human actors) do not have emotions, but we do emotions. Of course, this does not mean that in our everyday life we enact single emotions, which can be neatly distinguished from another, but rather we enact complex emotional experiences. Such experiences include heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory mixtures of perceptions, sensual impressions, emotions, feelings, affects, but also cognitive and discursive reflections.

Using both the concept of affordances and the concept of emotional practices to think about the Holocaust memorial inspires us to understand it as a material structure that affords particular emotional experiences enacted through the emotional practices of the visitors. What distinguishes emotional practices at memorial sites from many other emotional practices that we permanently enact in our everyday lives, is that they are (or at least they are supposed to be) at the same time particular practices of past presencing. The concept of past presencing, as it has been developed by cultural anthropologist Sharon Macdonald, effectively captures the idea that memory practices are always processes of relating to the past, which are enacted in the present. My question in this blog is, how emotional practices and practices of past presencing entangle during the visit of the holocaust memorial.

“The Ort [German for “place”, C.B.] is subdued in manner, effectively designed to minimize any disturbance to the Memorial’s field of pillars. Its mass, weight, and density seem to perceptibly bear down and close in on individuals. The organization of the space of the Ort extends the slabs of the field into the structure, provoking a continued state of reflection and contemplation once inside. […] This grid is rotated against the logic of the field, thereby thwarting any paradigmatic understanding of its formal arrangement. The uncertain frame of reference that results further isolates individuals in what is intended to be an unsettling, personal experience.” (Peter Eisenman, link)


As mentioned above, according to the memorial’s website, architect Peter Eisenman had quite detailed ideas about these entanglements. The architecture of the memorial is supposed to afford practices of wandering around lonely, of getting lost, of experiencing isolation and thoughtful contemplation––all this, of course, to emotionally remember the Holocaust. From an analytical viewpoint, what the memorial is supposed to afford is a particular way of past presencing the holocaust through emotional practices.

However, if you visit the memorial, what you can actually observe are not so much practices pointing towards emotional experiences of isolation and disturbance. Rather, what you can usually observe are visitors using smartphones or other cameras to take pictures and shoot videos, often already starting right after entering the field. This is to say: for many visitors, digital media practices are an integral part of visiting and experiencing the memorial.

This is where the approaches of media and digital anthropology come into play and can help us to better understand the ongoing transformations of heritage experiences due to the rise of digital media. In an ongoing research project, I am taking a closer look at the digital media practices at the Holocaust memorial, both through participant observation at the memorial itself and through an ethnographic analysis of media practices online.

C. Bareither

The research is still ongoing and the results are only preliminary. Thus, the intention of this blog is not to report exhaustively on the empirical results, but rather raise critical questions concerning the ongoing debate about the appropriateness of media practices at heritage sites, such as: How do these media practices relate to the emotional affordances of the memorial? Do they ignore them? Do they accept them? In which particular way do they enact them?

In this blog, I can answer these questions not for the whole variety of media practices at the memorial, but at least for one particular media practice very common at this and other heritage sites: making selfies. The selfie as a particular aesthetic form is often associated with vanity, self-centeredness and narcissism. And when we conceptualize making selfies as an emotional media practice, we might agree that often they are exactly that: a practice of enacting emotional experiences that circulate around one’s own bodily presence and beauty – experiences that are continued, of course, through practices of uploading selfies on social media to receive appropriate emotional confirmation.

During my participant observation, I sometimes observed rather excessive cases of making selfies: a young woman, for example, brought her own selfie tripod and, without actually going more than a few steps into the field, stayed at the outer part where you can take pictures in the sun. Here, she spent a whole 15 minutes trying out various angles (with sunglasses, without sunglasses, with hat, without hat, etc.) to capture the best selfie.

If you visit Facebook, Instagram or other platforms to search for pictures made at the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, you will find thousands of them publicly posted, many of them selfies. Among these selfies you will find those having a strong emphasis on “happiness” and “fun”, usually expressed through bright smiles of the person or persons being portrayed. Sometimes, as in the example found here, the bright smile of the visitor is accompanied by additional comments such as “Omg [meaning: Oh my god, C.B.]. Love this 😍😍😍” or “Looking too cute!!!”. Such comments emphasize that the picture is about the person’s beauty and good looks. On Instagram, you will find similar pictures often complemented by hashtags, such as in the case of the example found here: “#berlin #shortholiday #amazingweather #muchIove #sunny #memoriaItothemurderedjews #loveyou every brownie needs a blondie ♡👭”.

C. Bareither

Such practices have led the Jewish-German artist and comedian Shahak Shapira to create what he named the “Yolocaust”-project in January 2017. The artist created a website on which he uploaded selfies and selfie-like pictures taken at the memorial, and he added actual footage from concentration camps as a “new background” for them. The original pictures were taken down from the website, which by then had over 2.5 million views (according to the artist). A video that documented the project then went viral, received almost 80 million views on Facebook and contributed to a controversial debate about (what the video calls) “selfie culture” at memorial sites related to the Holocaust. You can access the video here––but please be aware that it includes very graphic portrayals of violence and that there are critical ethical questions concerning the project left unanswered by the video.
The debate fostered by this video circulates around the question, what “appropriate” behavior at the holocaust memorial is in terms of media use. As a cultural anthropologist, I am not interested in whether the selfies should actually be considered appropriate or not. Rather, I am interested in how the controversial negotiation of appropriateness reflects a conflict we witness on a broader scale. In this conflict, enacting emotional experiences that relate to the “original” emotional affordances of the memorial is considered appropriate, while such emotional experiences that apparently deviate from this norm are considered inappropriate or simply wrong.

A critical ethnographic contribution to this debate can point out that the right vs. wrong dichotomy applied in such debates fails to account for the complexity of digital media practices. The fact that many visitors are using heritage sites as a background for selfies does not mean, that none of them relate meaningfully to the past. On the contrary, the “happy-selfies” are merely one particular pole within a broad spectrum of emotional experiences enacted through selfies. Let me give you a few examples of others:

C. Bareither

People might smile on a selfie posted on Facebook, like the young man in the example found here, but they add comments such as “My heart goes out to all the lives that were affected by the holocaust, it’s beautiful to see that the world has acknowledged the lives lost with this memorial.” Or they might take a selfie appearing as narcissistic, such as the young woman in the example found here, yet they express sadness and contemplation by emphasizing that we should “never forget”. Or they might even show a “thumbs up” gesture into the camera, like in the example found here, yet what they mean is to express their approval of the memorial as a place of memory. Or, last but not least, they might write nothing at all, simply looking into the camera, expressing sadness or even anger, such as the young man in the example found here. In the comments below he is asked by a friend: “Why do you look so angry?” And he replies: “Because we do not learn from the past 🙁” [my translations]. In doing so, he is relating his bodily presence at the memorial meaningfully to the past and connecting it to present transformations of the political landscape in Germany.

What we witness here is not simply contemplation and remembrance as it is envisioned on the memorial’s website, nor are these practices merely focusing on self-representation. Rather, we see complex entanglements of emotional media practices that include both dimensions. The crucial difference between these practices of selfie making and the “happy-selfies” mentioned above is not the aesthetic form of the selfie, but particular emotional experiences enacted through them. Sometimes, a selfie might be a means to express joy and happiness, but it can also articulate sadness, respect and compassion. Through making selfies, these emotional experiences are not only portrayed, but they are put in relation to the material setting of the memorial. Thus, through emotional practices of making selfies, bodies and their emotions can get closely entangled with the material settings. If this is the case, a selfie in the context of the Holocaust memorial also becomes a practice of past presencing, since through enacting the entanglements of bodies, emotions and material settings, it relates meaningfully to the past. To put this in a nutshell: Depending on how bodies and material settings get entangled in emotional media practices of selfie making, these practices are not ignoring the memorial’s affordance to remember the past, but are instead presencing this past in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, making selfies is just one and certainly not the central media practice at the memorial site. For example, visitors regularly take pictures of each other portraying them as they are looking into the far of the field in lonely contemplation, as they wander around in silence or as they are touching the memorial with a meaningful gesture. Other Instagram and Facebook users focus on aesthetic photographic representations of the symmetry of the memorial’s slabs, or on the play of light and shadow in the memorial, sometimes including objects (most regularly: roses) in their pictures, while complementing their posts with meaningful texts pointing out the need to remember the Holocaust. All these media practices deserve careful ethnographic attention, especially regarding their emotional implications. Contrary to the discourses highlighting a superficial “selfie culture” at memorial sites, it might turn out that visitors often use digital media to relate to the memorial in different but nonetheless meaningful ways. Or, in other words, they find different ways of past presencing through new media.

C. Bareither

This blog post has also been published on:

Making Selfies in Heritage Spaces

Past Presencing through New Media

by Christoph Bareither

Artification. World Café Summary

by Edilson Pereira

In my introduction to the panel the participants were informed that, in general terms, artification refers to a process of classificatory and material transformation of objects, knowledge and actions into “art” – as a socially recognized domain and with its own techniques, maintained by a set of specialists. According to the art sociologists Roberta Shapiro and Nathalie Heinich: “We seek not to define what art is nor how it should be considered, but how and under what circumstances it comes about. We want to map the processes through which objects, forms, and practices are constructed and defined as artworks and see what consequences this emergence has.[1]


artification refers to a process of classificatory and material transformation of objects, knowledge and actions into “art” – as a socially recognized domain and with its own techniques, maintained by a set of specialists.

Although this elementary definition was important to stimulate the participants’ engagement, they were advised that the word itself (artification) was a neologism and that it should be understood as an idea under consideration rather than as a fully established concept. Once they realized that we are moving through an open field of research, the participants became more interested in understanding what were the specificities of the notion and for what reasons it was at the centre of our attention. Some of their first comments questioned not only the methodological pertinence of the notion and its scientific uses, but also if it were not the case of replacing it by another expression – such as “heritagization” – or an even better substitute term that has still to be created.

In this sense, one of the most interesting elements that took place during the three rounds of discussion was the plurality of conceptual perspectives presented. If we try to translate the viewpoints into a diagrammatic picture we could perhaps draw on a set of arrows connected by a central axis – but oriented in different directions. One of them could be exemplified by a curator’s point of view, to whom the main point was not if this is art or not, but rather “is this good or bad art?” That means that once someone  discussed art it seemed to be necessary to start evaluating the artwork itself and the aesthetic accuracy of its creator. Another colleague, an anthropologist, took a different approach and highlighted the relativity of the art concept. Furthermore, she inquired as to which concept of “art” could contribute to a theory of artification. Another person also asked what UNESCO might think about “art” in their policies, and so on. This set of questions created an interesting scenario for the continuity of the presentation of what artification was supposed to be, or not.

For the sake of the group interaction, the participants were encouraged to mention theories and authors they had in mind at that point. James Clifford (and The Predicament of the Culture) was at the top of the list, followed by Walter Benjamin (his analysis of the loss of the “aura” of art objects since they have been technically reproduced). Researchers like Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett and other colleagues – some of them present at the Otherwise Conference at CARMAH – were also mentioned when we started to discuss intangible inheritance and the contemporary cultural performances.

[1] SHAPIRO, Roberta & HEINICH, Nathalie. “When is artification?”. Contemporary Aesthetics, issue 4 (2012).

In connection with these subjects, I presented some questions from my own fieldwork research on the festive celebration of Holy Week in Ouro Preto, Brazil. From the 1930s on, the town became one of the main symbols of Brazil’s cultural heritage due to its colonial urban architecture. First classified as a ‘Monumental City’, later designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 1980s, it has been transformed into an international tourist attraction over the last decades. During the Holy Week, a series of processions that dramatically reconstitute the key moments of the history of the Passion and death of Christ are particularly important for the local community – who reenact the sacred drama in their own way. In this context, the character of Jesus Christ (the protagonist) is usually represented by wooden baroque sculptures from the 18th century Iberian Peninsula. Moreover, the ritualized use of the images emphasizes the double classification of these artifacts: on the one hand, they are understood as intangible heritage and “cultural goods”, which must be preserved according to rational techniques of museum conservation and exhibition; on the other, they are seen as items of popular devotion and subjects of affective “care” by the devotees.

Procession Ouro

Once the ethnographic data was presented, the participants became particularly interested in the dramatic way in which general Christian characters were culturally translated in the Brazilian town. Again, heterogeneous perspectives emerged during our discussions. Some of the table guests argued that this case was more related to “religious tradition” than to “art” or “heritage”. In fact, this discussion was one of the most interesting,, since it allowed for the observation of different reactions held by Otherwise participants in comparison with other researchers to whom I have presented the ethnographic study earlier. At CARMAH, the questions about the artification notion were not motivated by its (hypothetical) low theoretical accuracy, but mostly because the participants did not recognize the processions and ritual artifacts as part of the “artistic” domain. In relation to this, it could be underlined that a closer look at the data indicates that for the Ouro Preto inhabitants themselves, or even for the tourists, there are many ways of understanding the Holy Week performances, including the “art” framework. There are directors of performing arts engaged in the reversals of the biblical enactments. The artistic knowledge, in this context, helps to engage people in “religious” experiences and vice versa. Likewise, some participants of the World Café also argued for the porosity of boundaries between cultural (or intangible) heritage, religion and art – revealing an intellectual and joyful dissent on our table.

Herodes Servant

Angels – Ouro Preto

The interactions stimulated by the World Café revealed not only conceptual variations in the way of observing reality, due to the different academic backgrounds, but also showed some ways of disagreement that are, nonetheless, culturally, historically and geographically located. From the point of view of a table host, it was interesting to realize how intellectuals (scientists, curators, artists etc.) from many countries can become connected in order to produce high-level knowledge – as we could witness over the three days of the meeting. However, it also seems to be important to keep debating on subjects such as alterity, cultural pluralism and postcolonialism – and take it further. As the only Latin-American researcher (as far as I know) to present at the Conference, I believe that it can be challenging to face some academic dilemmas, such as thinking about a minimum quorum of non-USA or European researchers. New ethnographic and analytical cases would be debated from new and unexpected perspectives through the future participation of an even more heterogeneous audience. The success of the last experience and its intellectual relevance stimulate our imagination in order to keep on thinking Otherwise.

The interactions stimulated by the World Café revealed not only conceptual variations in the way of observing reality, due to the different academic backgrounds, but also showed some ways of disagreement that are, nonetheless, culturally, historically and geographically located.

Roman Soldier – Ouro Preto

Edilson Pereira is visiting researcher at Universitat de Barcelona (CAPES); Professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, Graduate Program in Social Sciences.

All Photos by the author

Artification. World Café Summary

by Edilson Pereira

Boundaries, Connectivities and Things.

by Henrietta Lidchi

I arrived at the Centre for Anthropological Research and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt University in mid-October.  The atmosphere was welcoming and dynamic like the city itself. Comfortably settled in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the pleasures of residing temporarily in Berlin is an early long walk through the city to get from my lodging to the Humboldt University.  There were many paths to be taken, many roads to explore, and often an error of direction as a consequence of multiple diversions (not all small). Closed doors with intriguing windows in the morning and illuminated interiors in the evening sometimes generated sufficient seduction for a planned visit, consequently weekends were constituted of more walking and exploring, deliberately eschewing maps (analogue and google). Walking as form of sensory ethnography has been written of as a valid methodological practice by Tim Ingold. In Berlin the possibilities innate to well-travelled streets are exhaustive, but ultimately this is not really my assertion, I am using it more metaphorically. Mobility, discovery, confusion, direction and the multiple paths leading to an eventual destination are the hoped for processes of academic research with the wish that small obstacles will eventually prove to be signs to pause in the moment before an insight reveals itself.


Mobility, discovery, confusion, direction and the multiple paths leading to an eventual destination are the hoped for processes of academic research

CARMAH, whose task is that of thinking through futures in Berlin through the broad field of ethnography, has four research themes. The one that proves most accommodating to me is ‘Transforming the Ethnographic’, considering the internal workings of ‘ethnographic’ museums, their critical discourses, and the manner in which knowledge is developed within museums (and outside them) to critically engage the role of cultural production in reconstituting positive futures for citizens in Berlin and beyond. I was invited to lead a workshop on exhibiting with members of CARMAH and we reflected the possibilities for displaying CARMAH’s work in the future. Looking at the networks of people, cultural projects, artists, ethnographers and academics involved throughout the city, the emergent research felt at one and the same time both deeply situated and diversely interconnected. CARMAH with its convivial confederation of talent and scholars solidly underpinned by a spirit of critical enquiry can be the hub to consider issues of difficult heritage, art, culture, practice and citizenship through multiple forms of museum engagement: curatorial, artistic, outreach, visitor-led, and their products: exhibitions and research. A key mechanism to promote vigorous engagement is a lively research culture and this, in CARMAH and in the wider Institute for European Ethnology (IfEE), is encouraged through the colloquium series. During my time here key thinkers Arjun Appadurai and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett addressed students, staff and researchers. Both subsequently, and generously, lent their considerable intellectual power and teaching experience to focused research meetings. This atmosphere of discussion and intellectual mentorship occurred in a city that is in the process of re-forming, so the question of boundaries and connectivities are key, not only in terms of intellectual process but in terms of the way the city works, through social relationships, through intellectual projects and through the larger and smaller movements of persons. The wider cultural city retains an energy that is palpable and repeated walking makes you notice differences. Some of which are important and others more inconsequential, like the gradual transformation during my four weeks of a Kulturhalle on Kollwitzstrasse: graffiti-strewn one week, host for a temporary stand for tesla sedans the next, and empty once more by my departure waiting for its next purpose.

An important twenty first century museological concern is how we address and reform our archival inheritances to create positive futures and imagine new questions and purposes. The marks of history are etched on Berlin as a city, which continues to address them in plural and emerging ways. As the largest anticipated project, the Humboldt Forum (due to open in 2019) is a project poised to address the connectedness of collections – ethnographic, art, natural history – and their modes of formation and articulation as well as their possible role as world archives for the future. The unfolding of this project is relevant to us all given its scope and the size of the collections, and its potential influence more widely. In Berlin it is a topic of avid interest and this is infectious. It was particularly evidenced in the attendance at the Kino International on Karl Marx Allee for the launch of the first temporary exhibition in the Humboldt Box on the evening of the 2 November. To the extent that academic debate can be embedded, the context of Berlin is determining, the idea of construction and reconstruction, of troublesome heritage, of questions of tolerance, of reformed and interconnected futures feel keenly relevant. During my time so did, more viscerally, the question of walls: being that I was in a city where popular action took one down when the overriding rhetoric of the weeks of my stay were those of a then postulant in the US Presidential election, now the President-elect, of putting one up. These were, in the words of Raymond Williams, the structures of feeling.


A question I brought with me from Edinburgh and I discussed over the four weeks was how museum knowledge and academic anthropology can be made to critically connect and interrelate, in a manner that benefits the public display of collections and generates research ideas provocative enough to guide us through these early decades of the twenty first century. Key to this is how anthropologists (inside and outside museums) can build shared agendas and how this will influence our common intellectual work. This raises other reflexive questions: whether the historiographies of museums have intellectual traction beyond biography or 1990s histories of international exhibitions; whether the post-structural and post-colonial theoretical inheritance is sufficiently fresh to allow us new imaginaries – different ways of narrating and creating exhibitions – that speak to questions of global citizenship; whether we properly understand what we mean when we say ‘contemporary’ and how can it figure in our research agendas, representational and collecting practices. CARMAH affords the time and stimulation to mine these questions and critically engage with museum inheritances, be these material or scholarly: to see new grounds and new means of expression. Berlin with its construction ever present in physical and cultural terms and its manifold exhibitions creates a dispersed site where the problems are differently expressed.  A visit to Kolonialismus and then to  Dada Africa mapped some of the fertile terrain and points us to gaps in between. Both as exhibitions rely on a level of formalism that ultimately creates an emotional disconnection. Both were provocative, with wonderful archives and collections, but possibly addressed inheritances too firmly rooted within their disciplinary locations and requirements (critical history and art history respectively) and the contemporary was located in uncertain ways. There is much more to be said on both and their in-betweens and this is why Berlin seems exactly the right place to pursue and dwell on questions of anthropology’s disciplinary inheritances and current concerns. CARMAH, of course, operates on a larger museological canvas. In the course of my time in the IfEE we discussed reflexive Europeanization: how we formulate and reformulate ideas of Europe and how in the words of Arjun Appadurai we can start to establish a more critical reflexive stance if we invoke the identity of a place in singular fashion. How does the very word Europe establish a field that seems incontrovertible when we know it to represent difficult and uneven histories? How can we establish the connectivity between things when we are in the business of comparison? How do we use language to clarify rather than obscure? With Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s assistance we explored intellectual, rhetorical and display strategies, namely the ways in which world histories – such as that of Polish Jewry – can be told in an integral, relationship-based, open-ended and multi-voiced way. Equally we have looked at museums as institutions: the ghostly presence of history and hardened patrilineal structures.


As an anthropologist and curator who has pursued a career defined by museum work, I am an unabashed lover of things, and so the Museum der Dinge was always going to be a destination. Their new temporary exhibition is Object Lessons. If Mary Douglas has in the past encouraged us to explore the world of goods semiotically, this is the world of materials and the history of knowledge practices that promoted their recognition. It is an exhibition of wondrous materialities and pedagogical orderings, some of which is visible in the carefully constructed carrying cases distributed to schools in the nineteenth century as portable archival resources. Made in London, they were destined to encourage the appreciation of materials and haptic forms of learning. Predictably these former pedagogical instruments made-for-touching are now rare museum objects. Consequently they are largely cased, which means that ultimately the material fascination now operates as visual seduction (leading to the type of frustration you can cope with as an adult, but maybe not as a child, the original audience). While the museum celebrates the retrospective mystery and construction of such tools and notes their mid-twentieth century disposal (many museums threw them out as perceptions of value changed), it is not overawed by the past and presents the relevance of materials to design and materials science. The larger point is a tacit reflection of the irony of the ‘material turn’ in anthropology. Namely that the material turn, which is the pivot on which museum anthropology wishes to convert academic anthropology to its cause, has somehow not yielded sufficient knowledge, skill or interest in actual materials within the discipline.  This is the basis of the exhibition and a fair and important reflection. Museum der Dinge, which chronicles the ideas and products of the Deutsche Werkbund in a structured permanent display (and some visible storage) describes itself as a place which looks critically at making and commodification to renew our relationship with the material world. It uses the objects in the temporary exhibition to highlight wider questions of changing pedagogical practice, ideology, gender and new material science. Our relationships with things are individually and culturally constructed. For me with all the stimulation of critical enquiry the things on display in Object Lessons provided a very special kind of pleasure (likely even more special had I been able to touch them) due to their individual curiosity and manifold nature.  The most enchanting were the tree books made in monasteries supplied to the elites and distributed in Northern Europe. These enchanting constructions, about trees made of trees, are little treasure houses, palimpsests of intent and human subjectivity made with great care and purpose, rooted in one type of knowledge and period but nevertheless telegraphing to another.

As Nicholas Thomas has noted museums can be key sites for methodological innovation, and removing oneself from the often pressured arena of practice to engage with larger questions while observing one’s own practice and concerns allows a critical re-evaluation of the nature of this potential. To see how oneself anew as an agent in strategies of reflecting, researching and representing raises all the urgent questions about boundaries, connectivities and things that unite both academic and museum anthropologists.

Henriette Lidchi is Chief Curator at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. At the time of her visit at CARMAH she was Keeper for the Department of World Cultures at the National Museums Scotland.

how museum knowledge and academic anthropology can be made to critically connect and interrelate, in a manner that benefits the public display of collections and generates research ideas provocative enough to guide us through these early decades of the twenty first century

Berlin seems exactly the right place to pursue and dwell on questions of anthropology’s disciplinary inheritances and current concerns

Boundaries, Connectivities and Things.

by Henrietta Lidchi

How to be Otherwise

by David Francis

What is it to be otherwise? For me, it suggests an alternative way of doing things. When applied to the museum, otherwise encompasses all the alternative ways of reconceptualising and destabilising an institution whose mission is to preserve the past, to maintain the status quo, to keep things as they are. Otherwise can also be rearranged and reread as to be wise about the other, bringing with it all that the term other implies.  For me this interpretation of otherwise resonates with Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic nature of discourse, ‘that no discourse exists in isolation but is instead dialogical, it is always situated between a self and an other’ (Bakhtin 1981, 134).  It was this idea of the capacity of dialogic communication to make us other wise that led me to suggest dialogic communication as one of the themes for the world café section of the CARMaH Museum Otherwise symposium.

Practices concerned with facilitating a dialogue between the museum and its audiences, such as co-curation, interpretation and visitor research, have been commonplace in some, but not all, museums since the advent of the New Museology of the 1980s (Vergo 1989). However, the parallels between these practices and the developments in dialogic communication in literary theory, philosophy and critical pedagogy remain relatively unexplored. The term dialogic communication here provides me with a theoretical umbrella to group together theorists from different disciplines, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Martin Buber and Paulo Freire, who are concerned with how we, as people, understand our experiences and are constructed by, and through, acts of communication (Escobar 2011, 9). The work of all these theorists can also be seen as a reaction against the dominant concept of the self in western enlightenment philosophy as existing in solipsistic isolation (Christians 1998, 18). Buber’s famous maxim, ‘in the beginning is the relation’, can be seen as a retort to Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’, in its assertation of the primal nature of dialogue. Rather than our true selves existing in isolation from others, dialogue here can be seen as a kind of communicative primordial soup from which the self is shaped.

Although everyone who works in museums, whether as practitioners or academics, tend to have a mix of practical and theoretical experience, one identity – theorist or practitioner – tends to dominate over the other. One of the dialogues I was hopeful of encouraging at the World Café was between those who fall further on the academic end of the spectrum and those who are located on the practical side. This resonates with Paulo Freire’s (1996) notion of praxis, which he describes as a process in which ‘reflection and action are directed at the structures to be transformed’. Praxis therefore occurs between, or across, the theoretical and the practical and, Freire argues, it is through a combination of the two that we are most likely to develop a critical consciousness.

In writing up my experiences of the world café I was keen to capture, to use Bakhtin’s term, the heteroglossia of the symposiumthe coexistence and conflicts generated by the inclusion of multiple points of view in a text that manifests itself in different forms of speech. Therefore, I include not only the discussions that took place at my table, but also the information and stories we were told on various walking tours that were ran as part of the museum otherwise symposium. Alongside this I also include, fragments of afterhours conversation I had with fellow conference members, as well as fellow drinkers, in the amber-lit, smoky bars of Neukölln.

The world café format – tracing the threads

The World Café consisted of three discussion sessions each lasting for thirty minutes each. A large piece of brown paper was laid flat like a cloth on the table. I used this to make notes and capture the conversations, and participants were allocated pens and actively encouraged to write down their own notes during the session.

The completed World Café diagram after three sessions of discussion. Notes for session one were taken in black, notes for session two were taken in red and notes for session three were taken in blue. 

Before the dialogues began, I wrote in black pen my three key dialogic museum practices on the left side of the page: visitor studies, interpretation, and community engagement. On the right side, I balanced this with the three theorists I was, literally, bringing to the table: Martin Buber, Mikhail Bakhtin and Paulo Freire. My motivation for doing this was to both try and illustrate what and who I was grouping under the term dialogic communication, and to be direct about my own position in relation to these theorists and practices. This did, however, leave me open to the charge that in imposing such a structure I was not being very dialogic, an accusation the participants of session two exploited unmercilessly. My other attempt at imposing a structure was to change the colour of the pens for each session: black pens for session one, red pens for session two, and blue pens for session three, which enabled me and others who looked at the paper to allocate some degree of chronology to the discussions.

Berlin Post-Colonial walking tour: “Some friends you don’t need

On a walking tour of Berlin, the previous day, given by the NGO group Berlin Postcolonial we had been shown the various traces of the colonial legacy. One of these was site of the Berlin Congress of 1885 where Africa was carved up for colonial rule by European powers and where Berlin Postcolonial have successfully campaigned to erect an interpretation stele telling this history. The tour began and ended at Mohrenstrasse (literally Moor-Street), one of the streets Berlin Postcolonial campaigning to rename, and the street on which the building that holds CARMaH is based.

As we traverse between sites, the tour guide talks to us about the recent surge in interest in colonial history in German Museums. They themselves have been involved in collaborations with museums, but these have not ended well. After initial positive exchanges, Berlin Postcolonial felt they were bringing about no real change in the exhibition, but were instead being used tokenistically to legitimise the exhibition. Relationships broke down to the point where they protested outside the VIP opening. Our guide who was originally from Tanzania told us that despite initial hopes of collaboration, once again it was white people deciding how black history should be told, ‘once again we are locked out of the museum.’ A potential collaboration with another institution in Berlin and Berlin Postcolonial were dismissed by our tour guide as impossible because they were so ideologically far apart.

“Some friends you don’t need,” our tour guide told us.

Discussion session one: “Not kings for a day but kings of the city”

The discussions in session one were centred around community participation in museums and framed through Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque. This is the literary trope that mirrored the medieval Feast of Fools in which the hierarchy of the world is turned upside down, fools become kings, and kings beggars. The critique of the carnivalesque, that it acts as pressure valve which maintains the status quo, can equally be levelled at community participation in museums.

Notes about the discussion in session one focussing on the notion of the carnivalesque and tokenism in museum and community collaborations

Discussions about the carnivalesque brought up an unexpected connection with the participants from Cape Town and Cologne – where carnival is a seminal moment for both in the cultural year. We talk about how community programmes can often resemble the build-up to the carnival: that the preparation can be laborious, expensive and time consuming and the part that is actually visible to the public is brief and transitory. The participants from District Six Museum talk about inverting this notion, of changing participants from being ‘kings for a day to kings of the city.’ Through their Klopse Kamer programme they invite local people to act as guides for tourists, getting them to perform the urban space and take ownership of the town. This is particularly important in a location like District Six, an inner-city area of Cape Town where more than 60,000 people were forcibly removed from the city and their houses bulldozed.

Allowing participants to take over the city led to a discussion around the handing over of power and control. One of the participants from Berlin is drawn to the concept of dialogue and the notion of two-way communications as an indicator of ‘intentional equivalence’. Describing her own experiences within the Berlin Museumscape, achieving this two-way equivalence has not proved easy. Those who hold the power to talk about objects, traditionally the curator, are often reluctant to relinquish it. We discuss the difference between the curators of national museums in Berlin and those of the District Six Museum. Curators of social history museums are typically doing multiple jobs and do not act as custodians of iconic works of art, but everyday objects whose resonance comes from the stories of the people whose lives were once, and still are, intertwined with them. When working with objects in the museum, it is impossible to disconnect the objects from the former residents of District Six. Rather than retain the objects, the museum actually seeks to identify the object’s former owners and potentially reunite them with the object. The meaning that resides in these objects is therefore inherently dialogical.

 The Humboldt Forum: “We want visitors to taste the blood

On the Friday of the symposium we are given a tour of the Humboldt forum. I do not envy our guide faced with the task of justifying the project to a party of academics who have spent the last week critically dissecting it. The building with its three sides of Baroque frontage and one side modern has, as our guide describes it “an Alice through the looking glass quality to it.” As he leads us through the skeleton of the building up unfinished staircases my head spins. It is a struggle to connect the palimpsestic layers of history and critique with the ineluctable materiality of hard hats, temporary sinks and Eastern European builders perched on palates eating their lunch. Talking about the visitor experience, he describes how large-scale images of star objects placed in the entrance hall will spark curiosity in the museums audiences – “we want visitors to taste the blood.” This phrase is meant to conjure up images of the visitor as predator, or culture vulture, tracking down its prey in the far corners of the gallery. But it also unintentionally hints at what Berlin Post-Colonial are so keen to expose: the blood that was shed when many of the objects were first brought into the museum collections of the city.

Discussion session two: “Whenever you’re in trouble you go back to your friends Martin, Paulo and Mikhail.”

In the second session, however, it is not the Humboldt Forum but me who is being critiqued. Most of the participants are academics and we begin by first cross-examining the term dialogue and then, when they’re finished with that, communication. Dialogue is deemed too ‘old-fashioned’, dia implying just communicating between two, ‘surely we’ve moved beyond that’. Various words with the prefix multi are suggested as an alternative: ‘multilogue’, ‘multivocality’ etc. Then co-creation is tried on for size. Nothing quite fits satisfactorily. The question remains, ‘what is the post-dialogic?’ Communication is also discarded. It’s regarded again as too traditionally one-way. The inclination to communicate anything to anyone at all being intrinsically suspicious, ‘shouldn’t we just leave people alone?’ Both terms are vociferously scribbled out in red pen and I am left hosting a table lacking a concept.

The term dialogic communication crossed out in red pen by the table in session two of the World Café. Above can be seen the ‘heart-horns’ rebus inverted from the point of view of the person who drew it. 

After denouncing various forms of communication as being an inherently suspicious and altogether unpleasant undertaking we change tact. One of the table participants compares the act of communication to anthropological studies of gift giving. Just as a gift is never given freely, there is always something given in return. Perhaps then it is more honest to admit that we begin every dialogue from a position where we are trying to change the other person. That, as the academic suggests, when we have a conversation about which Dylan album is best – “blonde on blonde or blood on the tracks” – we are always trying to get the other to eventually accept our opinion.

“Yes”, I reply, “but as Buber says, truly dialogic communication can only occur when we are as open to accept change from others, as we are to encourage them to change themselves.”

“Whenever you’re in trouble you go back to your friends Martin, Paulo and Mikhail”, responds the academic with a roll of the eyes.

Above my central circle of dialogic communication, now scratched out with red pen, is a heart surrounded by two shapes that I cannot identify. With a Rorschach-like ambiguity, they shift each time I look at them. Sometimes I see horns, sometimes leaves, sometimes a gaping beak, sometimes petals. When the person drew the heart (and they were sitting opposite me so from their perspective the heart was not inverted) I thought they were absent-mindedly doodling. Other participants see this doodle and feel liberated to add their own drawings. Afterwards when I asked the participant what the doodle represented, she said:

“Do you know what a rebus is?”

“As in the Scottish detective”, I responded vaguely trying to conjure up the meaning of a word I recognised but could not convincingly define

“Read Freud”, she sagely advised me. But not having the Interpretation of Dreams to hand I have to look it up later.

A rebus, it turns out, is a puzzle in which words are represented by a hybrid of pictures and individual letters that transforms objects into ideas. Memories of medieval tiles with an oak and a Y-design flash into my mind. I returned to the table and stared at the former doodle, now rebus – a heart and a v maybe? I looked at it the right way round but was none the wiser. Was this the point she was trying to make it I wondered. What happens in a dialogue if we move beyond words, or if one of the participants of a conversation fails to translate what the other is trying to say? This idea of translation, of whose language we use, was a persistent theme throughout the workshop and would arise again in the final session.

Anglophone dominance – “Your money kills Berlin”

In the opening public lecture of Museum Otherwise one of the German audience members raises the issue of Anglophone dominance – “this is a conference hosted in Berlin but in which English is the main language of discussion?” This issues goes beyond the conference to the bars and cafes of Neukölln near the Airbnb where I’m staying. Everywhere I hear English spoken with varying accents – Californian, Mancunian, Melbournian. On the U-Bahn the recorded voice says, ‘mind the gap’, even though the thick rubber tyres mean there is little gap to speak of. Surely, Nietzsche’s ‘gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze long into thee’, would be more appropriate.

In a dark and dingy rockbar in Kreuzberg, as the Guano Apes play in the background, my German friend who now lives in London but is staying in Berlin for the summer, tells me stories of rapacious London landlords buying up rental properties and turfing out the German tenants. The Berlin rental markets, naively based on trust, is ripe for the picking by predatory English property barons who want to line their pockets with yet another Airbnb venue. A piece of graffiti on the street I’m staying in Neukölln reads, ‘Your money kills Berlin’. Is Berlin undergoing a period of Anglophone colonisation – the Anglo-Saxons returning back to Germany? I try and utilise my high-school German in bars and café to redress the balance, but my ‘ich mochtes’, ‘leckes’ and ‘danke schons’ don’t seem quite enough.

Session three: Fremdwörter, Medienwissenschaft and mistranslations

In my final session, all three of the participants speak German, but only one was born in Germany. One of the participants labels himself with a wry smile as an amateur ethnographer of the German people and describes to me in hushed but excited tones how Germans eat: “with elbows pulled into their stomach so their arms are short like a t-rex.”

The preponderance of German-speakers leads to the central theme of the final discussion being centred around current issues in the Berlin Museumscape. Originally, I thought of calling this section ‘the German museum context’, but one of the participants told me that context was one of two words he banned his students from using in his seminars. He deemed context to be ‘lazy and unnecessary’, as ‘everything is specifically historically situated in a time and a place.’ The other word he banned was ‘capture.’

In session three the focus was on the specific German museumscape and issues of translation and anglophone dominance suggested by the word Fremdworter. A word that translates as foreign word. Such Fremdworters are apparently banned from the Deutsche Historisches Museum.

As I explain to the final participants, the concept of interpretation in UK museum and search for German equivalencies, I encourage the participants to write down German terms to counteract all the English on the page. One of these is Fremdwörter, which translates as foreign or strange words. Apparently in the Deutsche Historisches Museum, these Fremdwörter are specifically banned from labels as a measure to guard against the creeping Anglocisation of the German language. Another word added to the page is Medienwissenschaft (media science), I am told this is a specifically German subject that has led to German museums adopting a different approach to communicating with visitors than museums in Britain or North America.  I enquire about what differentiates Medienwissenschaft from its anglophone equivalents like media studies, and I am told that Medienwissenschaft’s approach to knowledge is more embodied than its anglophone media study equivalents.

We discuss the potential issues of miscommunications that can occur in dialogues and about how relationships can breakdown. I recount the story of how the relationship between Berlin Postcolonial and a Berlin Museum soured due to a failure in communication. One of the participants sketches a drawing of two stickmen, one clear, one blue, with thought bubbles filled with question marks around the phrase ‘mis-translations.’

A drawing illustrating the concept of mistranslation created in session three

Naturally, as things inevitably do in Berlin, discussion turn to the Humboldt Forum and we explore the question of whether the universal museum approach can be seen as a distinctively Anglo-Saxon form of Museology. This leads to a discussion about one of the triumvirate of directors Neil MacGregor and the exhibition ‘Germany: Memories of a nation’. This was first held at the British Museum in 2014 and then later in the Martin-Gropius-Bau but with the addition of the subtitle ‘The British View’. One of the participants argues that exhibition gives, equal balance to the Holocaust and the forced migration of German-speaking people after the Second World War and is potentially dangerous. She argues, that an exhibition that celebrates German history, culture and language is at odds with a heritage approach that confronts the most difficult and horrifying aspects of Germany’s past.

I respond that when the exhibition was first displayed in the UK, it was held at a time of First World War commemoration and resurgent English nationalism. Britain was on the march to Brexit and the legacy of the First World War was being contested. This was a time when politicians like Michael Gove were arguing for the First World War to be seen as a justifiable conflict. Paul Cummins ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, was the most popular heritage attraction at the year. The newly redeveloped First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum included no voices from outside the years of the conflict, thereby omitting many of the criticism of the conflict by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In this particular museumscape, Germany: Memories of a Nation can be seen as counterbalancing those in the UK who only view Germany through the lens of our shared twentieth-century history. Yet placed in the Martin Gropius Bau in 2016, all of this context is absent – if context is a term we are allowed to use.


A phone alarm rings. The third session comes to an end. I thank the participants and then, once they’ve left my table, I slump forward, exhausted. Dialogue is productive and exhiliration, but also tiring. After finishing my bottle of water, I get up and look at the posters and diagrams created on the other tables. It’s interesting to see the contrast between other table hosts and my own. They’ve used a lot more post-it notes than me and are considerably neater. When I look at my friend Colin’s poster on the subject Hauntology, his is carefully organised in rows. The post-its precisely written in his own neat handwriting.

‘It’s like how differently our minds function has been illustrated on paper’, he quips.

I nod, wondering if I could ever transform my messy scrawl into something so ordererd, and aesthetically pleasing.

All our posters are photographed and then posted on twitter. Remarkably some of them attract comments. The only one for mine, by someone who goes by the handle Ennius reads, ‘Good to see Buber & Bakhtin being mentioned. Long time since I’ve heard people refer to I & Thou & the Carnivalesque.’ I am both flattered by getting a comment, and six likes, and also mildly insulted that my theoretical basis is deemed to be so retro.

Still I wonder if this has something to do with the medium in which we’re working. That practitioners are some distance behind academics when it comes to the theoretical grounding. From another perspective, the application of these ideas to practical problems, theory acting as the moral compass of the practitioner, can give old ideas new life. This is I feel what makes the museum and museology such an exciting field in which to work. Not only is it somewhere where practitioners and theorists can be brought together in dialogue, one does not have to limit one’s self to one or the other. You can be both theorist and practioner. In this sense then dialogue is as much about gaining knowledge, or being wise, about the self, as it is about being otherwise.

David Francis is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, where his thesis focuses on Narrative, identity and the museum visitor experience in exhibitions at the British Museum. He has also worked as an interpretation officer in museums, zoos and botanic gardens for over 10 years.


Bakhtin, M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. M. Holquist (ed), C. Emerson & M. Holquist (trans.). Austin, University of Texas Press.

Buber, M. 2004., I and thou. London: Continuum

Christians, C. G., 1998. Dialogic Communication Theory and Cultural Studies. Studies in Symbolic Interaction 9, 3-31

Escobar, O., 2011. Public dialogue and deliberation. A communication perspective for public engagement practitioners. A Handbook.

Freire, P. 1996., Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Vergo, P. (ed), 1989. The New Museology. London: Reaktion Books.

How to be Otherwise

by David Francis

An Attempt to Queer Otherwise

by Nazlı Cabadağ and Chiara Garbellotto

Departing from our motivation to think “otherwise” on the established approaches to museum and heritage, queer-ing as a verb intrigued us to interrogate the subversive potential of its applications. Our review of the literature also brought up the limitations of the term when used in the categorical formulations of inclusion of LGBTQ identities and histories. Moreover, we came across the shift from the adjective queer to the verb queering as a critical deconstruction. All in all, we found the verb queer-ing productive in addressing normativity and representational power in museum practice, in particular exhibition making and participatory collaborations.

In the last decade, authors such as James H. Sanders III (2007), Mills (2008), Fraser and Heimlich (2008), and Ami K. Levin (2010) have been writing in this direction, following a path opened by texts investigating exhibition making, participatory collaborations and curating practices. The first number of the third volume of the journal Museums and Social Issues published in 2008, entirely dedicated to this topic, was also very helpful to us, covering a broad range of different approaches on the intersection of Queer and Museum Studies.

Four main threads of discussion emerged from these readings: the issue of how participatory and co-curatorial projects with LGBTQ communities can go beyond the mere inclusion of identities in the museum narratives; the application of the notion of failure as a potential (as a potential what?); the importance of the historicity, as well as the translocality of the term queer-ing. Lastly, we wanted to think about “erotic intelligence” in the encounter with museum set ups, as defined by Paul Gabriel (2008): “to embrace our body — especially our “lower” body — when we learn and think is to more fully embrace what I call our erotic intelligence.” (Gabriel 2008, p. 65) Even if his description of the term “erotic intelligence” leans on the vocabulary of the cognitive process with word choices such as “learning” and “thinking”, he also hints at the affective aspect of the museum visit. He states: “If we have to remember to ‘include‘ queer, or feel compelled to do so by others, we are not accepting that human sexuality has always taken myriad forms and expressions and profoundly informed who we are and what we do. How can we accept as complete a story that ignores the enormous passions of the body and the complex desires and behaviours they release in all of us?” (Gabriel 2008, p. 63) This perspective not only implies the affective experience – it also evokes the capacity of sexuality as a qualitative aspect of the visit for non-LGBTQ subjects as well. We thought about this as a fruitful example for tracing down queer-ing as a potential in the context of museums.

Moving from these approaches on the term queer-ing, during the World Café we dealt with certain questions as formulated below.

Can queer-ing be a substitute for other key concepts of the contemporary anthropological debate?

In the first round of our table, Haidy Geismar raised the question whether and how queer-ing proposes any different epistemology in anthropology, where there is an already existent literature on topics coined as otherness, alterity, diversity etc. After having hung the poster on which we visualized our discussions, some more questions were posed about the potential opening that the term could bring. At this regard, one participant asked: What is the difference between subaltern and queer, if both fall out of the realms of the norm, language and representation? We can see that the mutual intent of these conceptions can be broadly formulated as a rejection of dichotomies and essential categories. As proposed by Heidy Geismar, an example for what it concerns within the museum sphere, in particular ethnological museums, might be the specific potential of the term queer-ing to trouble the debate on indigenousness. However, a research on how to apply the queer critique without pretending to invent anti-essentialism was also discussed as worthy of being pursued further. In this regard, these observations also relate to the debate of the panel on ‘Alterity’ hosted by Jonas Tinius. How would this other debate be different when undertaken through the lens of the queer rejection of such categories? What is peculiar to queer when it is applied to other fields, if we aim to turn it into “a way of looking” rather than merely looking at queer subjects?

Poster from “Queer-ing” World Café table

How to queer museum practice and ethnographic methodology?

To be able to go beyond the liberal claims of inclusion of LGBTQ stories and individuals in museums, practitioners should translate the anti-normative intervention of queer theory into procedural strategies of exhibition making and knowledge transfer. This urgent need finds an exciting example in the idea of embracing failure, as it is suggested by several queer scholars such as Halberstam (2011). “Heteronormative common sense leads to the equation of success with advancement, capital accumulation, family, ethical conduct, and hope. Other subordinate, queer, or counter-hegemonic modes of common sense lead to the association of failure with nonconformity, anticapitalist practices, nonreproductive life styles, negativity, and critique.” (Halberstam 2011, p. 89)

Curating practices that rely on the failure of perception were some of the sample cases in our discussion. They were supported by our own example of the taxidermy of an eagle exhibited at the Naturkunde Museum in Berlin. The specimen, hanging from the ceiling of the permanent gallery “Masterpieces of Taxidermy”, was remembered by Chiara as prepared with a wing and a leg inverted, position that she interpreted as depicting a non-normative body. After a closer look, the eagle revealed itself to be, instead, flying in a twisted motion. A set of questions sparked from this account: How do museums of natural history construct the animal bodies and their borders, and how shadows and lights wittily play with these borders during the visit encounter? How does taxidermy change the exhibiting discourse when displayed outside the glass case? This example of failed perception excited us in regard to a potential rupture in building the normative body/subject/animal/visitor/citizen.

Eagle taxidermy. Photo by Chiara Garbellotto.

Eagle taxidermy. Photo by Naturkunde Museum.

A second interpretation of failure in relation to exhibition making pointed towards the idea that exhibitions can fail, and maybe should fail. As a consequence, queer museum studies consider exhibitions as on-going development and not as finished products. Under this perspective, the curatorship becomes one of the multiple stages of a long-term iterative process, which includes, beyond the stages of feedback and evaluation, also that of revision. Katharina Schramm advanced this idea in very similar terms during the Alterity panel.

What is translocal in the proposal of queer-ing ?

The panel hosted by Katarzyna Puzon – focused on the key word translocality – was exciting in particular, as it provided two inputs of reflection specifically related to our topic. The first occurred when we hit the absence of the words transsexual or transgender when the popularity of the prefix “trans-” was exemplified as part of many other concepts such as transnational, transcultural etc. The second one was raised with the inevitable link between the geographical context and the historical origins of the term queer. With the rise of post-colonial ‘queer’ critiques, queer and its Western epistemology was problematized. These very critics underscored that queer historically and politically partakes in a ‘Western’ – and generally academic or intellectually equipped – repertoire which might not have a correspondence in other contexts and geographies. Instead, particular histories of particular geographies came up with their own repertoire and epistemology. Thus, we can assert that thinking translocally occurs as a queering practice, which can overcome the traps of the epistemological closet of the queer itself. In other words, this can disrupt the existing and pre-fixed repertoire of Anglo-Saxon geographies and political-histories.

Last, to turn back to our initial questioning:

Is it productive to stretch the term queer-ing beyond the field of sexuality and gender in the context of museums and heritage studies?

A further reflection on the discussions hosted during the three days of the symposium highlights how the themes of gender and sexuality were not addressed. The struggle of queer scholars and topics to claim a space in the academic and intellectual field did not only take place when queer theory occurred as a discipline nearly twenty years ago, it is an ongoing struggle. Therefore, when we deal with the openings of the terminology of queer, neglecting gender and sexuality completely would empty the original disrupting force and intent of the term. We want to conclude by highlighting that it is necessary to consider gender and sexuality as significant power technologies not to be underestimated. If we as women/trans members of academia with a feminist agenda loosen our motivation to underline this focus, white-cis men will always dominate the field by absorbing it into some other more “urgent” and “relevant” frameworks and agendas.

End notes

Getting back to our initial motivation to moderate the World Café table together and working with the term queer-ing, our interests as two moderators intersected in the nexus of the normative discourses on sexuality and nature. We were thrilled because through such an investigation, we sensed the opportunity to rethink the narratives on human-nonhuman relationship, nature-making, heterosexuality etc. as they are all intertwined very powerfully in the construction of norms. We hope to keep this exchange open and develop our intersections in more detail in the future.


Nazlı Cabadağ is a doctoral fellow in the “Media and Mediation” theme of the Making Differences project at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH). She is interested in new media practices in the negotiations of the sexualized and racialized boundaries of Türkiyeli  “queer” identity in Berlin.

Chiara Garbellotto is a doctoral fellow in the “Science and Citizenship” theme of the Making Differences project at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH). Taking the Museum für Naturkunde as a case study, she explores the museum’s discourse on biodiversity and its role in constructing citizenship through education and public engagement. She is devising her ethnographic methodology in order to collaborate with both visitors and non-visitors.



Adair Joshua (2017) “O [Queer] Pioneers! Narrating Queer Lives in Virtual Museums” in Museum & Society, Vol. 5.1, No. 2, pp. 114-125

Duggan, Lisa (2002) “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism”, in Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson (eds) “Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics”, pp. 175-94. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

El-Tayeb, F. (2011). “European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe,”, Minneapolis,  University of Minnesota Press

Fraser John, Heimlich Joe (2008) “Where Are We?” in Museums and Social Issues (2008) Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 5-14

Gabriel Paul (2008) “Embracing Our Erotic Intelligence” in Museums and Social Issues (2008) Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 53-66

Halberstam Jack (2011) “The Queer Art of Failure”, Durham:Duke University

Haraway Donna (1984) “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936” in Social Text, No. 11, pp. 20-64

Laskar Pia (2017) “The Displaced Gaze” in Art & Theory, pp. 219-229

Levin Ami K. (ed.) (2010) “Gender, Sexuality and Museums”, New York:Routledge

Mills Robert (2008) “Theorizing the Queer Museum” in Museums and Social Issues (2008) Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 41-52

Puar, J. K. (2007).” Terrorist assemblages: Homonationalism in queer times”, Durham:Duke University Press

Sanders III James H. (2007) “Queering the Museums” in CultureWork, Vol. 11, No. 1


An Attempt to Queer Otherwise

by Nazlı Cabadağ and Chiara Garbellotto

Heritage-Making and NGOization: Some Notes from the World Café at "Otherwise"

by Claire Panetta

My contribution to the World Café section of the CARMAH conference, “Otherwise: Rethinking Museums and Heritage,” was the concept of NGOization. Though it is an admittedly awkward and inelegant expression, I proposed it as my roundtable topic because I believe it captures some of the sociospatial dynamics currently unfolding in Cairo, where I conducted my dissertation fieldwork.  Briefly stated, my research explores changes in the conception and management of the Egyptian capital’s architectural legacies after the so-called January 25th Revolution.  In particular, it grapples with the recent proliferation of urban revitalization and rehabilitation projects by non-state actors and organizations.  Though few of these groups are officially registered as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), questions about the nature and consequences of their interventions nevertheless led me to the idea of NGOization.  The conference therefore presented itself as an opportunity to think through the concept in the context of heritage-making processes.

I began the roundtable by providing a definition of both NGOs and NGOization.  With respect to the former, I drew on the work of Victoria Bernal and Inderpal Grewal (2014), who describe NGOs as heterogeneous institutional forms that are variously seen as “agents of neoliberalism, grassroots alternatives to the state, [and/or] parts of local civil society” (3).  They point out that NGOs, in their pervasiveness, have a global reach and have become central political players on national and international stages.  As the authors wryly observe, NGOs “seem present in every country and associated with every social issue and political debate” (6).  However, they argue that this pervasiveness has tended to obscure the structural and ideological diversity of such organizations, leading to a reductive understanding of NGOs as a “unified domain” (7).  In particular, these groups have come to be seen collectively as substitutes for the state and/or corporations, “taking the place of the state in the work on development and welfare, and providing services free or at much lower costs than private businesses” (6-7).  Bernal and Grewal note that many NGOs proactively identify themselves in this way and may work to reinforce this distinction as a central aspect of their institutional identities, even as they appropriate “state-like and/or corporate aspects and influences” (6-7).

In contrast to this perception of NGOs as independent, autonomous entities, the authors maintain that they must be understood as deeply entangled with both the state and the market, often working–either directly or indirectly–to support, strengthen, and even create such institutions.  As James Ferguson (2004) writes, it may be more analytically productive to think of NGOs and the myriad other groups associated with so-called civil society “not as ‘below’ the state, but as integral parts of a new, transnational apparatus of governmentality. This new apparatus does not replace the older system of nation-states…but overlays it and coexists with it.  In this optic, it might make sense to think of the new organizations…not as challengers pressing up against the state from below but as horizontal contemporaries of the organs of the state” (392).  One of the fundamental implications of this assessment of NGOs is that, by virtue of their entanglement with the “apparatus of governmentality,” they are political entities; however, I tried to emphasize further that the politicized character of NGO work is also embedded in the architecture of the organizations themselves–their ideological orientations, the projects they pursue, their funding mechanisms, the internal structuring of staff members, etc.

With this framing of NGOs, I turned to NGOization and defined it as a process of encroachment, one in which nongovernmental organizations gradually appropriate the social, cultural, economic, and even political territory traditionally associated with states and corporations.  I noted that this definition differs somewhat from other uses of the expression–for example, Sabine Lang’s (2013) proposal that NGOization constitutes the institutionalization, professionalization, and bureaucratization of civil society organizations.  It also diverges from Sonia Alvarez’s (2009) understanding of the term as “national and global neo-liberalism’s active promotion and official sanctioning of particular organizational forms and practices among…[various] sectors of civil society” (176).  In contrast to these definitions, I wanted to foreground the calculated and deliberate movement of NGOs into new terrain–the proactive process by which they (and similar organizations) identify sociocultural, political or economic concerns and then develop projects and interventions to address them.  However, in line with Bernal and Grewal, I suggested that this process, rather than entailing the exclusion of state and/or corporate institutions, has meant that NGOs frequently work in tandem with them.  As I write these words, it strikes me that defining NGOization as a process of rapprochement (albeit not conflict-free) between NGOs and state and corporate institutions might better capture this relationship and the ways in which these different actors come together.

After laying down this conceptual track work, I went on to link my definition of NGOization to heritage-making processes.  I began by pointing out that while NGOs and their work have received significant attention from anthropologists and other scholars, little of this attention has been directed at the practices, activities, and institutions associated with heritage-making.  Of the few exceptions, I made note of Chiara De Cesari’s (2010) work on heritage NGOs in Palestine.  In her analysis of a local heritage NGO’s efforts to put together a Palestinian art biennale, De Cesari argues that the organization “sees like a state by performing key operations of legibility (e.g., surveying) but also tries to act like one” through its implementation of specific projects (629).  This framing of the NGO leads her to conclude that heritage in the Palestinian context can act as a “technique of government in the Foucauldian sense and as an integral part of a state-building (in addition to nation-building) project” (626).  Although De Cesari never mentions NGOization directly, her proposal that heritage NGOs may try to “act like a state” through specific interventions gestures at the concept and dovetails nicely with my own application of the term to the post-2011 sociospatial transformations underway in Cairo.

My research explores the work of several local groups–all newly formed by urban elites and committed to “community-based” urban rehabilitation; however, during my roundtable, I introduced one organization working in the area of Historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[i]  The group, which was founded in late 2011 and is one of the only such organizations to be registered as an NGO, works on urban revitalization and heritage management on a secluded, residential street that is home to several important historic structures.  In this location, the NGO has pursued a host of projects and interventions targeting both local residents and young architecture and urban planning professionals.  Their work has included the creation of an architecture library and the organization of lectures, workshops, art exhibitions, and walking tours, but it has also involved extensive intervention in the area’s architectural heritage.  To that end, the NGO has restored several major monuments on the street and has also developed a series of education programs targeting local children as well as an annual street festival replete with tours of local buildings, a crafts fair, art workshops, and music and storytelling performances.

Although it was highly schematic, I used my introduction to the Egyptian NGO’s work in Historic Cairo to raise some broader questions about NGOization and heritage-making processes.  I asked participants at my roundtable a series of questions pertaining to the kinds of spaces such organizations produce, the ideologies and agendas underpinning their interventions, and the ways in which their work might diverge from and/or converge with that of other actors–particularly state institutions. Specifically, I asked the following: what kinds of heritagized spaces and historicized structures do NGOs produce–either intentionally or not?  How are such spaces and structures similar to or different from those produced by state or international agencies?  What are the ideologies and agendas organizing NGO projects in this domain? What might set NGOs apart from other heritage professionals in this regard–particularly with respect to heritage-making and efforts to produce a coherent narrative for the nation?  Alternatively, how might NGO activities be implicated in state projects, policies, or agendas?  How might they be vulnerable to appropriation by state or other actors–either intentionally or not?

These questions generated animated and stimulating conversations; however, the value of this dialogue stemmed less from the definitive answers it produced than from the quality and texture of the discussions themselves.  The format of the World Café proved remarkably congenial, and it was quickly apparent to me how intellectually productive it could be to bring people from diverse professional, academic, and geographic backgrounds together in an informal context.  As the moderator, I found it particularly liberating as it freed me of the need to present a definitive picture, neatly packaged, and to pretend I had all of the answers.  Instead, I was able to ask questions and follow ideas without restraint.

That being said, the conversations did much to thicken my framing of the concept of NGOization–the varied perspectives and commentaries provided by the roundtable participants added multiple layers to my understanding of how NGO work can operate both to advance state interests but also to challenge and subvert them.  Specifically, it was rightly pointed out that NGOs can be critically self-reflective and self-aware, cognizant of their fraught role as knowledge-producing institutions.  It was also noted that it is essential to invert the gaze and to look at how citizens (who may be distrustful of the state) might perceive NGOs as access to resources and/or rights–in other words, these organizations may be viewed as social, political, and economic bridges by local community members.  Likewise, it was observed that the state itself is an amorphous phenomenon, and just as NGOs need to be recognized as diverse entities so too must we avoid viewing state institutions as homogenous, unified forms.  To an extent, these interventions are already familiar; however, their introduction in the context of the roundtable helped throw into relief the problematically seamless character of the narrative with which I had begun.  In other words, they highlighted for me how conducive the format of the presentation is to flattening difference and unruly ideas, to excising anything that does not quite fit.

As I write these final words, I have Beverley Butler’s assertion reverberating in my head: heritage is pharmakonic.  It is fundamentally ambivalent, capable of operating in varied contexts as both a positive/benevolent and negative/malevolent social force.  This conception of heritage, which Butler has explored in her own work (2011), captured the sense of uncertainty and inconclusiveness regarding NGOization that underpinned my roundtable; however, it also gestured at the essential instability, variability, and unpredictability of all of the social categories and phenomena to which I connected the concept.

[i] Historic Cairo is an area of several square kilometers located in the heart of the Egyptian capital.  It is home to an impressive architectural legacy that dates back more than 1000 years and includes madrassas, hospitals, khanqahs, sabil-kuttabs, and even private homes. In fact, despite repeated periods of neglect and decline, the district still includes some 600 registered monuments (Antoniou et al. 1985).  During the past four decades, and in particular since the area was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, these structures have been the target of a range of restoration projects sponsored by both state agencies and international organizations.


Mural map created by the Egyptian NGO showing the location of historically significant structures.

Drawing and photography exhibition for young artists organized by the NGO. 

Storytelling for local residents and children in front of a monument restored by the NGO.

Heritage-focused coloring activity for local children organized by the NGO.


Works Cited


Alvarez, Sonia E. 2009. “Beyond NGO‐ization?: Reflections from Latin America.” Development 52 (2): 175–84.

Antoniou, Jim, Stefano Bianca, Michael Welbank, Sherif El-Hakim, and Ronald Lewcock. 1985. “The Conservation of the Old City of Cairo.” In The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo, edited by Ahmet Evin, 64–90. Singapore: Concept Media for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Bernal, Victoria, and Inderpal Grewal, eds. 2014. Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Butler, Beverley. 2011. “Heritage as Pharmakon and the Muses as Deconstruction: Problematising Curative Museologies and Heritage Healing.” In The Thing about Museums: Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation, edited by Sandra H. Dudley and Susan M. Pearce, 354–71. New York: Routledge.

De Cesari, Chiara. 2010. “Creative Heritage: Palestinian Heritage NGOs and Defiant Arts of Government.” American Anthropologist 112 (4): 625–37.

Ferguson, James. 2004. “Power Topographies.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics, edited by Joan Vincent and David Nugent, 383–99. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lang, Sabine. 2013. NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Claire Panetta is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation explores the spread of local urban revitalisation initiatives in Cairo after the January 25th Revolution. She is the co-editor of “Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings” (Terreform, 2016).

All Photos by Author.

Heritage-Making and NGOization: Some Notes from the World Café at "Otherwise"

by Claire Panetta

Anqa. A Contribution for the World Café on Virtual Heritage

by Saima Akhtar

The 2017 CARMAH ‘Otherwise’ conference convened a number of curators, art historians, anthropologists, and scholars of museum studies for a rich two-day workshop on ‘rethinking museums and heritage.’ On the first day, we had panel sessions and a keynote, exploring various themes related to the use of the digital in documenting and presenting objects within the museum, museum reparations, the effects of colonialism on museum collections, and so on. The second day was a more varied format, where we broke up into groups that focused on a singular concept, like ‘NGO-isation’, or ‘Queering’, and discussed how these concepts related back to museum studies and heritage. The ‘World Café’ format was effective, in that each table had 15-20 minutes to discuss and brainstorm the concept, and then switch to another table, for a total of 3 brainstorms. The resulting information was then presented in a poster-style format to the rest of the group.


For the World Café, I prepared a concept that stemmed from my work on Project Anqa at Yale University, which is a multi-partner effort to counter the loss of heritage sites across the Middle East, with a focus on Syria, using advanced digital documentation. Through an interdisciplinary process, Anqa aims to assemble documentation about heritage sites, historically contextualize them using digital and ethnographic data, and make this data accessible and useful for scholars, peers, curators, and the wider public with state-of-the-art tools. Although digitizing cultural heritage objects, buildings, and sites is gaining ground in museum studies and related fields, heritage objects that are digitally recorded and displayed necessitate additional ethnographic and historic data in order to meaningfully contextualize them with respect to their everyday use and intangible value. Recently, the location of such sites in areas of intense conflict has highlighted the urgent need for documenting cultural heritage for the purposes of preservation and posterity – but because of this, we must also pay attention to the role that crisis and war play in the co-option of the complex histories and unequal power structures within and outside of these sites.


As a World Café table host, I proposed the theme of Virtual (or Digital) Heritage, which looked closely at the developing relationship between technology, heritage preservation, and museum practice. Specifically, I was interested in the complications that can arise between ethical data collection in conflict zones and the practice of preserving heritage through digitization and ethnographic storytelling. Moreover, questions were also brought up about the sharing of information of digitally captured sites and objects to a general public, particularly in the setting of curated or interactive exhibitions in museum institutions. We also discussed how museum practices address the relationship between heritage, lingering neo-colonialisms, and the risk of the technological sublime.


“I was interested in the complications that can arise between ethical data collection in conflict zones and the practice of preserving heritage through digitization and ethnographic storytelling.”

During the rotating discussions, I was pleased to hear the participants think about the ‘digital’ in relation to their own fields in the social sciences and humanities. Many brought up the digital humanities as an effort for soft sciences to stay competitive with hard sciences. Others brought up the dangers of going digital, and questioned the longevity of technological documentation in the age of planned obsolescence, the hazards of big data, the risk of the ‘virtual’ as disconnected from the real and so on. In the heritage and museum space this is a real concern, where virtual or immersive experiences of sites in the Middle East and elsewhere can be presented apart from the lived and historical realities of those sites.


We were left with a set of questions, that perhaps with more time, could serve as useful prompts for a more in-depth discussion: What is the best way to use digital methods to document and present heritage objects without falling prey to the uncertain future of advancing technologies? What does it mean to create ‘copies’ of objects and sites, in terms of authenticity and didactic purpose it serves in museum spaces? How can the digital be productive rather than reductive in the field of cultural heritage?


While the format of the World Café was incredibly useful to get ideas on the table, it also left us wanting a more in depth of discussion towards the end. The complex nature of the questions above, for example, could have benefitted from a longer engagement, and oftentimes much of the time would be spent reacquainting the rotating groups with the basic premise of our chosen theme. Perhaps it would be useful to begin the sessions with a full introduction of each topic/theme, so that the participants can dive into brainstorming, and therefore explore the topics more fully.


I benefitted greatly as a World Café participant, and received thoughtful and critical feedback about my project that will surely have an impact on my research and work. I also feel that entire issues can be dedicated to each roundtable topic, and it serve as a publishing opportunity, or as a way to address the more pressing questions in the heritage/museum space with a follow-up workshop.

“I benefitted greatly as a World Café participant, and received thoughtful and critical feedback about my project that will surely have an impact on my research and work.“

Saima Akhtar is a Postdoctoral Associate in Computer Science and The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University. She manages “Project Anqa”, which aims to digitally document at-risk heritage sites in Syria and Iraq before they are altered or destroyed. She is an urban historian and architect by training and holds a PhD in Architecture from UC Berkeley.

All Photos by the author.

Screenshot of Landing Page from Project Anqa

Anqa. A Contribution for the World Café on Virtual Heritage

by Saima Akhtar

Reflection - Otherwise. Rethinking Museums and Heritage Symposium, CARMAH, 26-28 July, 2017

by Anna Weinreich


‘Otherwise’—Rethinking Museums and Heritage was the title of a three-day symposium, which brought together a group of international scholars and museum professionals at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin to think differently about the objects and materialities of museums and heritage. Organized by the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), the event was structured around five concepts, which have recently gained currency in the fields of museum and heritage studies. CARMAH researchers chaired a series of five panels, taking on one concept each, to be discussed by three invited speakers before conversations opened up to all participants. As CARMAH director Sharon Macdonald pointed out in introducing the event, concepts that have historically been taken up or developed inside museums include “progress,” “evolution,” or “the primitive.” Each of these, Macdonald reminded us, brought with them particular epistemologies, affordances, effects and modes of representation—Pitt Rivers’ famous typological displays or the live group arrangements of Franz Boas come to mind, for instance—while at the same time shaping ideas about the public and the nature of citizenship.

The keynote was delivered by Haidy Geismar, Reader in Anthropology at University College London (UCL) and curator of UCL’s anthropology collections. Her lecture, Objects Otherwise, took place at the Tieranatomisches Theater of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Erected in 1790, the early Prussian Classicist building with its impressive dome is the city’s oldest surviving seminar building—a space purpose-built for performative and exhibitionary practice, and, as in the case of necropsy, the transformation of sentient being into object of science and scholarship. Geismar’s talk took the form of an “object lesson”—a learning from, rather than about, the material world. Object lessons, Geismar emphasized, are both epistemological and ontological in their engagement with the historicity of objects as well as the narration of that historicity in the form of exhibitions or writing. Fittingly, therefore, the lecture invited critical engagement with the history of scientific thought and practice that gave rise to structures such as the Tieranatomisches Theater.

A wooden box for lantern slides, an unprovenanced mid-20th-century Maori cloak in the collection of UCL, a Rambaramp sculpture from Vanuatu at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a virtual collecting pen developed by the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum—Geismar focused on four objects and their remediation via digital technologies. All of her examples showed interactions between old objects and new technology to be more complex than entrenched distinctions between the digital and the material imply. Rather than two fundamentally separate entities, or reductions of one (the material) to an ahistorical infrastructure of the other (the digital), Geismar suggested to think of their relationship in the form of an interface. This interface, she argued, itself encodes knowledge, meaning, difference, and as such offers a productive space to think about the complexities of practices and concepts such as provenance.

Consider the cloak: A collaboration between Geismar, Maori artists Kura Puke and interaction designer Stuart Foster (Massey University of New Zealand), and the Taranaki-based Te Matahiapo Research Organization. The project explored the potentials (and shortcomings) of digital communications and imaging technology to reestablish connections between the cloak and Maori representatives in New Zealand, and to forge ongoing relations between Maori and London-based researchers.

What Geismar and her collaborators came to call Te Ara Wairua: Pathways of the Intangible drew on Maori understandings of wairua—the spiritual pathways brought into being by all taonga, treasured possessions that facilitate and maintain ancestral connectivity. Maori researcher Te Urutahi Waikerepuru renamed the cloak “ancestral tears,” recognizing the lack of connection signaled by the object’s missing provenance while at the same time (re-)integrating the cloak into a known genealogy. To accomplish this, researchers used facetime and Skype to turn the UCL museum gallery into a ceremonial space that would allow to re-enliven the object by means of chant and song. Geismar drew attention to the various interferences and disruptions which imperiled the creation of these techno-spiritual pathways, causing herself and fellow UCL researchers considerable anxiety. She noted, however, how she began to understand such disruptions as signs of physical as well as economic distance, manifest in different quality internet connections, for instance. Such technological failures, Geismar suggested, evoked situations of dislocation and disconnection that can never be fully salvaged, regardless of present or future technological interventions.

The researchers encountered another problem when they tried to create a digital copy of the cloak using 3D imaging technology. The objective was to create an iteration of the object that would be able to travel back to New Zealand. Hair and fabric, however, two core constituents of the object, are notoriously hard to render as digital scans. Yet this hitch in the interface inspired creative workarounds: With the use of a gaming software, scanned data was converted into a digital environment that resembled an immersive, three-dimensional map. Interactions with the object thus evoked virtual travel, flying across the cloak-as-landscape. This conversion, Geismar pointed out, aligned with Maori notions of materiality, in which objects are understood to form a connective tissue linking person and place.

Throughout, Geismar’s object-lessons showed how the digital offers no one-size-fits-all solutions with respect to the complex histories of social relationships embedded in museum collections. Two cases in point: The digital representation of a Rambaramp effigy collected from Vanuatu in the late 1960s as it now appears in the online catalogue of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the virtual collections visitors are invited to create in the newly renovated galleries of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, also located in New York City. In the case of the effigy, contested narratives of provenance were flattened out by the representational conventions of the Met’s online catalogue and remained as invisible as the sculpture itself after it had been removed from the museum’s Oceania galleries. The Cooper Hewitt Pen, Geismar’s last example, is an interactive technology that enables visitors to create their own virtual collections by connecting up the device to the interface of the interactive exhibition tables used for the display of artifacts. Contra the museum’s emphasis on new forms of engagement and learning experience, Geismar suggested that the technology in fact perpetuates “ways of seeing” that have their origins in the motivations of late nineteenth and early twentieth century collectors. She showed how the reference point of visitor-collections are not the objects themselves or forms of research that have the potential to trouble established narratives of design history. Instead, it is the standardized data provided by the museum’s collection management system that visitors are invited to learn from. Digital media, Geismar concluded, possess no essential qualities in and of themselves, but emerge from existing ways of engagement. Only through close attention to the interface between “old” and “new,” and the critical reflexivity such attention enables, can we move toward engagements that think and do otherwise.

In the ensuing Q&A, Ciraj Rassool, Professor of History at University of Western Cape, brought up the question of repatriation, which, he remarked, formed a ubiquitous political background of sorts, to many of the projects presented by Geismar. Asking about the notions of materiality and objecthood engendered by digital technologies, he suggested, also requires asking about the kinds of personhood created by the digital. Questions about repatriation and the history of the person were taken up in depths by Rassool in his contribution to the panel on “Provenance,” which launched day two of the symposium.

“What happens if we treat provenance not as a methodology only, but also as a concept that fundamentally shapes practice and discourse?”

This question, raised by chair Larissa Förster, set the tone for the contributions to follow. In the German context, Förster explained, the term “provenance” has been transferred to the context of ethnographic collections from the field of art history. Treating provenance as a concept, then, means asking about the effects of this genealogy, especially when contrasted to alternative approaches in anthropology, which have long paid critical attention to the “social life” of objects (Appadurai). “Is there an epistemology of provenance,” asked Förster, “a history, a theory?” and introduced some possible ways of approaching these questions. For example, some understandings of provenance, she noted, tend to be marked by an overemphasis on roots and followed a narrowly defined bi-directional model of taking and returning, within which “source” and “destination” are frequently mistaken for stable entities. The result is a foreclosure of alternative paths that is paralleled, in a sense, by a limited focus on questions of legitimate or illegitimate ownership. A provenance discourse reduced to these terms and models, Förster suggested, is unable to account for more complex scenarios, which remain outside its purview: The gift or acts of giving as generative of social relationships, for instance, or forms of reconnection that do not neatly fit the legal category of “possession.” Does the concept of provenance carry the potential to probe more complex questions about the plurality of temporal regimes and the multiple trajectories that museum objects have come embody via their historical and contemporary circulation? How, she asked, would our understanding of provenance have to be transformed in order for the concept to do such work?

Speakers Ciraj Rassool and Paul Basu, Professor of Anthropology at SOAS University of London, each focused on different possibilities for such extension or transformation. Drawing on their research in South Africa and Sierra Leone as well as British and Austrian museums, they introduced the concepts of “the forensic” and “diaspora,” productively putting them into conversation with that of provenance to tease out and critically examine some of the assumptions underpinning the term. Rassool’s discussion of the forensic drew connections between the colonial dead in national and international museum collections and the work of South Africa’s Missing Persons Task Team, charged with uncovering the stories behind apartheid era murder and abductions. His talk traced these connections through the disciplinary history of physical anthropology—from its complicity with colonial crimes to its current reinvention in the guise of forensic science.

Rassool argued for a more open-ended notion of the forensic, which encompasses the legal and evidentiary—at stake in the precise identification of the dead and the forensic reconstruction of a person’s history. With its etymological origins in the Latin term forensis—“pertaining to the forum”—the forensic may also open up a space of citizenship and debate, according to Rassool. As such, it could form the basis for an engaged museology, he suggested, that moves beyond narrow understandings of provenance, which reduce the complex and complexly entwined biographies of objects and persons to the conventions of collections management. His talk concluded with a number of questions: How do we think about or pose the question of origins? What is the discipline of provenance, and who can tell the history of the person with what disciplinary techniques? And—tying these problems back to the current prominence of forensic research—how do we critically engage with the evidentiary function of the forensic and the empiricist legacies of this concept?

Contrasts between anthropological approaches to the biographical trajectories of objects and the reduction of these trajectories to questions of authenticity and legitimacy also formed the starting point of Paul Basu’s talk. Basu proposed the concept of diaspora as a means of thinking about questions of circulation and mutability, which have long been at the heart of anthropological concerns with material culture. From the exploits of colonial dispossession to a resource for recovering signs of local agency—Basu drew parallels between the tensions running through research concerned with the histories of ethnographic collecting on one side, and engagements with diasporic experiences and identities on the other. The latter, he stated, ranged from experiences of exclusion, loss, and rupture, to practices and conceptualizations of hybridity, creolization, and cosmopolitanism. Importantly, the concept of diaspora described a process of “putting up roots elsewhere” and thus a becoming rather than being in exile, he argued.


“Is there a diasporic double consciousness in museum collections?” Making reference to the volume of diasporic remittances, by far outweighing international aide and development budgets, Basu asked what forms of reciprocity the presence of diasporic objects might enable. As in the logic of the gift, famously identified by Marcel Mauss, is there a value to avoiding closure? Provided that museums recognize and assume responsibility to activate the heritage in their care, the continued presence of ethnographic collections may hold the potential to open up relationships in ways not possible if those objects were returned and thus lost their diasporic status. Examples of such exchanges, Basu suggested, may include the exchange of technological or other forms of expertise. Building on these insights, he concluded by proposing the idea of the “stolen gift” as a productive contradiction to think about reciprocity in contexts deeply marked by the legacies of the colonial project.

Discussant Britta Lange, a lecturer at the Institute of Cultural History and Theory at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and co-director of the institution’s Lautarchiv, tied Rassool’s and Basu’s contributions back to work currently taking place in Berlin. Tensions between the objectification of persons and the anthropomorphizing of things, as they are negotiated in discourses on human remains, she said, also run deeply through her own work with casts and media recordings that will be displayed in the Humboldt-Universität’s exhibitions at the Humboldt Forum. Collections of sound recordings or photographs, Lange noted, are frequently treated as unproblematic in terms of provenance, since they rely not on the physical removal of objects but the mimetic and reproductive properties of modern media technology. Challenging such assumptions, her work involves collaborations with researchers from the local contexts in which the collections were made to jointly explore the problematic conditions of their production. Lange drew parallels between investigations that emphasize the materiality of archival collections, and a focus on the relationship between objects and their mediated reproductions in the form of photographs or digital collection records. How we conceptualize this relationship, she suggested, has important consequences for how we understand and mobilize the potential of collection objects for contemporary reappropriation. Lange concluded by reflecting on the metaphor of the “empty museum.” Beyond its evocation of anxieties about the consequences of repatriation, she stated, this figure might allow for more space to think about narrative, and its role in imagining alternative futures for late 19th and early 20th century collections.


“translocality enables close attention to questions of scale and the practices and discourses through which different ideas about ‘the local’ or ‘the global’ are produced”

In her introduction to the panel on translocality, Katarzyna Puzon elaborated how this concept may enrich debates in the fields of museum and heritage that are concerned with the movement of objects, persons, practices, and discourses. She emphasized the concept’s potential to critically engage with and to move beyond the political, geographical, and ideological parameters of the nation-state. As such, she suggested, translocality enables close attention to questions of scale and the practices and discourses through which different ideas about ‘the local’ or ‘the global’ are produced. Puzon opened the panel with some of these questions: What do webs or layers of connectedness and multiple forms of embeddedness look like from a non-Eurocentric perspective? How do we locate power in those interconnected configurations? And how does the idea of the virtual or the digital contribute to current negotiations of translocality?

The first speaker was Beverly Butler, Reader in Cultural Heritage at University College London. Butler’s talk drew on her fieldwork in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. It was motivated by questions about the relationship of heritage to different ways of inhabiting and making sense of the status of Palestinian refugeeness, and the being or aspiring to an otherwise associated with the idea of “wellbeing.” Butler outlined some of the conflicts and impasses confronting her interlocutors, many of whom belong to a fourth generation of Palestinians born in refugee camps. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, she made the point that being refugee meant being confronted with a dual pressure: a strong sense of dependency, on the decisions of refugee committees, for instance, enters into tension with the idea of representing the vanguard of one’s people. Butler explained how the idea of trauma, the war of 1948 as Catastrophe (An-Nakba), underlies all practices and negotiations of heritage, which themselves effect the passing down of traumatic narratives across generations.

The remainder of Butler’s presentation took the form of an inventory of (trans-)local heritage production. Artifacts such as shoes containing small amounts of Palestinian soil, according to Butler, epitomize the work that such hybrid, created things perform. Heritage production, she suggested, allows her interlocutors to engage in the difference between homeland and their political situation as refugees, and provides means of managing identities shaped by a profound sense of displacement. She further pointed out how heritage was dominantly associated with food and clothing, and thus practices involving the sensoria and embodiment. Building on this, and with reference to the work of Giorgio Agamben, Butler proposed to think of heritage as a set of practices and discourses oriented toward “dressing bare life”—acts of communion that aspire to wellbeing in a situation commonly associated with the unmaking of personhood.

Next up was Banu Karaca, who currently holds affiliations with Berlin’s Institute of Cultural Inquiry and the EUME research program (“Europe in the Middle East/The Middle East in Europe”) at the Forum Transregionale Studien. Karaca discussed the concept of translocality as it finds expression in her research on dispossessed, looted, and stolen artworks in the context of state violence in the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic. “How is the classification of artworks—their belonging to, or exclusion from the category of ‘Islamic art’—grounded in the changing political practices and conceptualizations of the state?” Karaca examined this question in the context of the Armenian genocide and other forms of state violence against non-Muslim populations, such as the expulsion of Greek Orthodox Christians and the imposition of a capital tax on non-Muslim citizens.

Karaca described her work as concerned not only with the circulation of lost or stolen artworks as it is inflected by state violence, but also with how histories of dispossession are negotiated in the field of art history. Her research in the archives of dealers and collectors of Islamic art revealed, for instance, how the misidentification of artworks effects art-historical forgetting that is deeply entangled with a denial of state violence. Karaca’s talk showed how the translocal, material circulation of objects can be overwritten by dominant art historical discourses and the associated production of localities, traceable through the changing geographical contours of the category of “Islamic Art,” for instance. Translocal understandings of heritage, or the loss thereof, Karaca suggested, should be understood as shaped by both, the circulation of dispossessed works of art, and the silences produced through the writing of art history.

Discussant Paola Ivanov, curator of the Ethnological Museum’s Africa collections, reflected on translocal perspectives as they have been developed in her own field of Indian Ocean Studies. She noted how translocality is particularly apt to describe the ways of life of Indian Ocean littoral societies, whose social organization does not easily map onto Western ideas of the nation-state. Rather than merely describing forms of mobility and movement between pre-existing localities, Ivanov stressed how translocal perspectives enable questions as to how locality itself is created through interconnectedness. Drawing on her research in Zanzibar, she noted how movement and localization do not constitute diametrically opposed processes. Instead, she came to understand society as created through the constant mixing of ideas, people, and things. In this sense, she explained, translocality can function as an important corrective to dominant narratives and a means to provincialize binary conceptualizations of identity, so dominant since the emergence of the nation-state, and to contrast them with plural logics of belonging. Bringing this discussion back to the museum, she contrasted translocal perspectives to the “countainer-model” of culture as it prevails in the geographical ordering of artifacts. The persistence of such classificatory systems, she suggested, poses challenges to exhibitions that seek to represent the translocal mobility of objects.


“what it might mean, methodologically, to ‘take seriously’ one’s interlocutors.”

Launching day three of the symposium, the panel on “alterity” was chaired by Jonas Tinius, who introduced the concept as “a founding preoccupation of anthropology”—from early constructions of “the primitive,” to de-colonial critiques of othering, to its current centrality and renegotiation in the context of the ontology debates. Following anthropologist Matei Candea, Tinius asked what it might mean, methodologically, to “take seriously” one’s interlocutors. The panel, then, was as much an interrogation of alterity as it explored ways of co-producing knowledge “otherwise,” in exchange with interlocutors whose epistemological and representational repertoires fall outside the field of anthropology, and include those of contemporary art (curating) and critical museology.

The first speaker, Henrietta Lidchi, drew on her long-term experience working in museums, as Keeper of the Department of World Cultures at National Museums Scotland and, most recently, as chief curator of the Nationaal Museum van Weredculturen in Leiden. Katharina Schramm, Professor of Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin, reported her experiences of co-organizing an exhibition that responded to the 2015-16 student protests at Stellenbosch University. In both Lidchi’s and Schramm’s accounts, the politics of refusal and the rejection of recognition emerged as sites for contemporary instantiations or means of retaining alterity. For Lidchi, alterity as refusal became manifest in the actions of Native American researchers and curators, who rejected an invitation by the London Royal Academy of Arts. In 2014, the institution had been meaning to consult about a planned exhibition of Native American art, and the predicament of how to “encompass the excess of history,” according to Lidchi. She cited Tlingit scholar Candice Hopkins, chief curator at IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and a member of the curatorial team of documenta 14, who had commented that the most radical response lay not in an engagement with the invitation, but in the more material stance of refusal.

Lidchi further gave an account of the recent dismantling and subsequent ceremonial burning of artist Sam Durant’s work Scaffold, a sculpture that was partly based on the design of the gallows used in the execution of 38 Dakota men in Dakota War of 1862. Durant and the Walker Art Center responded to vehement protests by Dakota activists against the work’s inclusion as a cornerstone of the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. A significant break with museological values of preservation, public edification, and the realization of artistic freedom, the decision to destroy Scaffold resonated with the idea of repatriation or restitution as discussed by Förster. Despite the seeming loss of valued heritage and the violation of core museological values, both acts may also be constitutive of new or changing relationships—between the Walker Art Center and local Native American communities, in Lidchi’s example. Lidchi situated her discussion in the history of epistemic violence entailed by previous museological “otherings.” She questioned the effectiveness of current representational strategies—authentification, immersion, or contextualization—in conjuring up and remitting this inheritance. Such shortcomings become hyper-visible today, she suggested, as representational forms become dated at ever shorter intervals and rapidly lose their ability of responding to emergent notions of identity or alterity. Ideas and acts of refusal, then, also seem to address some of the impasses inherent in the critique of Native American and Indigenous artists, who have been extraordinary successful in penetrating institutional spaces from which their work and perspectives had previously been excluded. If such postmodern or postcolonial interventions always run the risk of inadvertently legitimizing the very structures they critique, does refusal open up new spaces for debate that point beyond appropriation and toward negotiations of incommensurability?

The politics inherent in the institutional infrastructures and conventions of representation also formed a core problem in Katharina Schramm’s account. As part of a research project on political subjectivity, Schramm collaborated with Greer Valley and activists of the Fees Must Fall movement at Stellenbosch University. What had started as the idea of a living archive of the student protests—directed against forms of exclusion inherited from apartheid South Africa—was soon confronted with some of its own structural and representational limitations. After distancing herself from the student protests, the curator of the exhibition stepped down, arguing that a living archive was impossible to realize if archivists themselves were not fully involved in the movement they sought to document. Greer also questioned whether the project’s de-colonial objectives and critical engagement with institutional hierarchies were fully realizable in an academic context. With respect to representational conventions, she worried about the modes of visual consumption prescribed by the format of the exhibition and how they might conflict with the modes of critical engagement pursued by the participating artists and activists. Schramm recounted how their conversations about the initial failure of the project resulted in new forms and formats of debate—a panel on the relationship of art and activism, a series of film screenings and performances and, resulting from these, the exhibition “Phefumla! (breathe)” at District Six Museum and Goethe Institute Johannesburg.

Discussant Alya Sebti, director of the gallery of Berlin’s Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa), tied discussions of refusal and incommensurability back to the limits of representation. Sebti introduced the ifa exhibition “Carrefour / Treffpunkt,” the video work Crossings by Leila Alaoui in particular, as an attempt to develop a different language of showing and facilitating engagement. Instead of representing migrants or migration, the exhibition sought to manipulate established looking-relations and the distance they create by evoking a sense of encounter and empathy. This term inspired lively discussion among symposium participants, who questioned whether empathy could ever be fully divorced from paternalism and the power imbalances that give rise to paternalistic practices and attitudes. It was refreshing to hear Sebti address some of the working conditions defining cultural production in the field of contemporary art. Her talk raised some interesting questions as to how seemingly contradictory pressures, such as the need for big names from the field of theory and the very short half-life of artistic, thematic or theoretical currents, impact curatorial ethics or the sustainability of artistic interventions.


Throughout its development as an academic discipline, anthropology has continually redefined its relationship to the museum: from the early intimacies of “museum-age anthropology” (Sturtevant), to alienation, abandonment or outright hostility, to a critical engagement with the history of ethnographic collecting or the museum as a “contact zone” (Clifford), in which (post)colonial relationships are recovered, performed, negotiated. How then to define contemporary and emergent relationships between anthropology and the museum, especially with a view to their complex historical entanglements? This question was taken up in the panel on the post-ethnological, a concept circulating among museum theorists and practitioners today. As chair Margareta von Oswald pointed out, she didn’t select the concept in the hopes of providing definitive answers. Rather, panelists were invited to interrogate its potential to think about the changing practices, discourses, materialities, and social formations that are taking shape in and around contemporary museums. For von Oswald, the different usages of the terms “post-ethnological” or “post-ethnographic” reflect above all the ongoing contradictions, unease and discomfort that shape the field of ethnological museums today – ranging from James Clifford’s definition of it as a “following from with a difference” to a more radical opposition to former ways of working with ethnological collections, such as suggested by Clémentine Deliss’ practice in the Weltkulturenmuseum in Frankfurt. von Oswald suggested that rethinking the museum implied a reconfiguration of the role of research within its walls, and most urgently, the role of anthropology.

“the different usages of the terms ‘post-ethnological’ or ‘post-ethnographic’ reflect above all the ongoing contradictions, unease and discomfort that shape the field of ethnological museums today”

Clémentine Deliss’ work as director of the Weltkulturenmuseum in Frankfurt has offered a series of impulses for such reconfiguration. Between 2010 and 2015, Deliss curated exhibitions that were based on a residency program. The residents – contemporary artists, lawyers, poets – were invited to engage with objects from the museum’s collection and to develop new work based on their research. Deliss spoke about some of the difficulties and obstacles she encountered in her work, especially the goal of opening up collections-based research to actors from a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds. Access to collections, she suggested, continued to be policed by custodians whose reluctance to engage with theoretical, curatorial or aesthetic impulses beyond the field of classic museum anthropology are indicative of persisting divisions between museum and academic anthropology. Partly a result of this, Deliss recounted how non of the new work produced during her tenure was inventorized in the museum catalogue, whose classificatory structure represented another obstacle to the integration of commissioned objects. Moreover, Deliss argued that “Indigeneigty” has emerged as a new form of ethnicity defined by an identity politics that precludes other forms of engagement with the collections. For unprovenanced objects especially, which she described as “epistemic and aesthetic amputees,” any contribution should be understood as gift. Finally, Deliss criticized the construction of large-scale repositories away from the exhibition spaces of the museum. Contrasting these developments to the “university museum”, whose architectural make-up encouraged access and inquiry, she stated that such infrastructural decisions can effect not only how museums work but also their public perception. In order to access the potentialities of the post-ethnological, she concluded, its unfulfilled promises must be subjected to critical investigation.

In her introduction, von Oswald had proposed to think of museums as sites for the production of knowledge and meaning-making, asking what anthropological work inside the museum can look like today. Speaker Dan Hicks, who is an Associate Professor at Oxford University’s School of Archaeology and Curator of Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, took up this question. Hicks offered a tour de force through the history of theoretical shifts and paradigms in anthropology, always tying these back to their particular articulations with collections-based research. Theoretical work within anthropology, he reminded us, has always constituted a response to change—reacting to and making sense of broader political, economic, or cultural transformations. Our understandings of the museum, he noted, have equally responded to changing configurations of the public, while at the same time developing in conversation with anthropological theory.

The museum as “full of objects,” Hicks argued, is an idea closely tied to evolutionary anthropology. The museum as “full of people,” by contrast, articulated culturalist ideas, which themselves had responded to the rise of multicultural understandings of society. Hicks traced connections between relationalism, actor-network theory and James Clifford’s famous introduction of the “contact zone” into museum theory. In the context of debates about multinaturalism, ontology or perspectivism, then, museums are increasingly conceptualized as full of concepts and knowledges. This includes, he explained, the knowledge encoded by message sticks as well as the ideas developed by their collectors. Knowledge, in these scenarios, is understood as always unstable, always incomplete—a product of what Lévi-Strauss has called The Savage Mind. Hicks’ presentation enabled an understanding of museum artifacts as always provisional, as “unfolding events,” which recently have come to include the transformation of knowledge that is a product of empire. He argued that anthropological work inside the museum is especially productive in approaching the production of knowledge as informed by the collection of objects, and vice versa. Such an archaeological understanding, he suggested, is not only attuned to the ways in which anthropology constitutes a response to social change, but also to how knowledge production itself always involves (material) intervention. In making it possible to “think the nonhuman,” for instance, collections-based research holds the potential to revisit the conceptual legacies of anthropology as well as their conditions of production. In this context, the museum may constitute a privileged site from which to re-examine Western systems of thought, by asking how their development has been informed by other forms of knowledge.


“In a space that is traditionally perceived as being all about order, how does one embrace and make sense of the messiness often associated with public engagement?”

To address this question, chair Christine Gerbich pointed out, it is important to interrogate the idea of “the public” itself. This means taking into account not only museum visitors, she said, but also those who stay away, as well as other groups and representatives who directly or indirectly influence the work of museum professionals. While public engagement is a term that is hardly missing from the mission statement of any museum, Gerbich noted that its actual meanings are probably some of the least understood. And while there are few museums that would not subscribe to the goal of creating “spaces for self-directed learning,” there is little consensus as to what such a space looks like in practice or how it should be realized. What is the relationship between the interpretative repertoires created by academics and the ways in which museum-goers actually make sense of their own experience? And does emphasizing this difference necessarily imply subscribing to the idea that all interpretations are ultimately “subjective” and thus equally valid—a position often associated with the idea of “dumbing down” museum education. Gerbich mentioned the co-development of educational material between community members and museum professionals as a more integrated approach, which which tackles some of these issues by locating engagement at an earlier point in the process of exhibition-making. Speakers Laura Peers, curator of the Americas Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Professor of Museum Anthropology in Oxford, and Bonita Bennet, director of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, made clear the contextual dimensions of engagement—how they relate to individuals or groups of people involved, and to the historical times and local contexts museums are embedded in, for instance.

Peers spoke of her ongoing collaborations with members of the Haida Nation from the Pacific Northwest Coast. Inspired by a renewal of material and cultural practices starting in the 1960s, the Haida have successfully repatriated all known ancestral remains, and are currently directing a lot of energy toward reconnecting with and starting conversations around sacred and funerary objects in museum collections. Peers addressed some of the central questions coming out of her collaboration with the Haida: How does one critically account for the various forms of value that arise from community engagement practices, including the generation of social and ethical capital for the institution? Such transactions, she argued, complicate established narratives of generosity, access, and sharing. In addition, the objective of building long-term, sustainable relationships throws up issues such as mobility as well as the temporalities, politics, and availability of funding.


One issue that arose throughout her work with Indigenous delegations was what Peers described as “battles over handling.” Her interlocutors’ desire to hold masks up their faces or to dance certain objects in the Pitt Rivers Collection frequently entered into conflict with the concerns of museum staff over conservation. Engagement with the Haida therefore required finding solutions that satisfied both sets of concerns. For curators and conservators at the Pitt Rivers, this meant adopting different ways of reading and valuing the materiality of museum objects. Physical alteration, for instance, came to be understood not as damage, but as marks of an object’s continuing social life. In closing, Peers agreed with Förster’s reflections about the potentials of repatriation. Rather than closure, repatriation in the context of her work with Haida representatives took the form of deep and ongoing engagement. The future of engagement, she concluded, would require putting an end to token consultations without decision-making capacities and replacing them with forms of curation based on active sharing, reciprocity, and dialog.

“How can museum work contribute to human rights?” Bonita Bennett introduced this as a central question motivating the founding of Cape Town’s District Six Museum. Established in 1994, the museum started as a space of memory for those black South Africans who had been forcibly displaced from the Sixth Municipal District of the city, which had been a vibrant community of freed slaves, immigrants, merchants, artisans, and workers until the beginning of the 20th century. Through what Bennett called a “model of engagement with engaged members of the public,” the museum began to collect items that people had held onto after their forced removal from the district, which was declared a “white area” in 1966. Work with artists and artisans, storytelling projects focused on food and food production, or collaborations with local seamstresses in designing a project series—Bennett introduced a number of examples to illustrate the museum’s investment in the building of long-term relationships. Visiting scholars, she explained, were asked to actively integrate these connections into their research at District Six, and many of the museum’s programs are designed to cope with local issues such as poverty. Throughout her talk it became clear that District Six as an institution would be unthinkable without its relationships to members of the local community. Central to this, one could argue, is the realization that no collecting institution would exist without the social relationships embedded in its collection, however varied or contested their form.

Commentator Ute Marxreiter, an educational curator for the Ethnological Museum Berlin and the city’s Asian Art Museum, offered insights into her work for the Humboldt Forum, the large scale museum project that will house the new exhibitions of both institutions (among others) from 2019 onwards. Marxreiter elaborated the complex institutional setup of the Humboldt Forum, explaining the relationships between its founding directors, the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, the Humboldt Forum Kultur GmbH, and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, itself responsible for the management of a variety of different cultural institutions. This framework, she noted, resulted in a challenging environment for museum educators, charged with the task of conceptualizing general strategies of engagement while at the same time coordinating the activities of different stakeholders. Marxreiter introduced the project “Watch out, Children,” the second exhibition realized under the aegis of the Humboldt Forum steering committee. Consisting of 160 objects from various collections in Berlin, the show sought to highlight ideas and practices of child protection from a broad array of cultural and historical contexts. Marxreiter presented a research project she was involved in at the Ethnological Museum, which focused on the history of missionary schooling at the Beagle Bay Mission in Australia, and thus introduced critical questions about the role of colonial power relations to the exhibition and its concern with “protection.” This project, she explained, illustrates the need for critically reflexive approaches to engagement and education in postcolonial contexts. She critically pointed out that, however, that despite its constructivist orientation, the institution’s educational approach did not necessarily allow for the incorporation of reflexive formats.

Wrapping Up?

In her concluding remarks, Erika Lehrer (Concordia University) suggested that collaboration could be understood as the “infrastructure” behind all other conceptual discussion. This was a reference to Sowparnika Balaswaminathan’s contribution to the World Café tables which had concluded day two of the symposium. An exercise in theory-speed-dating of sorts, this format introduced a proliferation of concepts that have not yet found full entry into museum scholarship, while also dynamically intervening into the hierarchies among established and early career scholars that often characterize academic events. CARMAH researcher Duane Jethro concluded his reflections by emphasizing the need not only for new concepts, but also for strategies of unlearning and undoing—an epistemological practice, he argued, that should be central the objective of de-colonization. Another discussion that emerged in both Lehrer’s and Friedrich von Bose’s (Humboldt-Universitität zu Berlin) reflections concerned the “location of criticality” (Lehrer) in current museum research. Is criticality a domain of museums themselves, or should critical museology adopt an “arms-length approach” (von Bose) to museum and collections-based research? Throughout, therefore, the concluding remarks did not so much offer closure, but reflected the need and a desire to continue the critical conversations that were facilitated and inspired by the Otherwise Symposium.

“collaboration could be understood as the ‘infrastructure’ behind all other conceptual discussion”

Anna Weinreich is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at New York University

All photos by CARMAH

Reflection - Otherwise. Rethinking Museums and Heritage Symposium, CARMAH, 26-28 July, 2017

by Anna Weinreich

Why has China’s National Museum of Ethnology still not been completed, decades since its founding? Or, why such a museum should be!

by Sharon Macdonald

‘China National Museum of Ethnology’ is clearly marked on the street map for Beijing’s Haidian district in the North-West of the city. This is an area rich in universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua and Renmin. It is adjacent to the campus of the latter that the National Museum is located. When I ask for directions at the gate of the University, however, I am told that there is no museum – ‘mei you’.

This is correct. There is no museum that members of the public can visit. Inside a nearby building, the National Commission of Ethnic Affairs, however, there are large signs that read ‘The Chinese National Museum of Ethnology’ and two floors of offices. These house the more than forty staff who work for the museum. A significant number of employees have been working on the Museum project since 1984. But its origins are even earlier, making the question of its non-realisation still more intriguing – and also telling of the status of those who the museum is about, namely the shaoshu minzu, usually translated as ethnic minorities.

‘Ethnic minority’ is an official designation in China, there being fifty-five of such minorities, making up 8.49% of the total population according to the most recent census (2010). Discussions of ethnic or cultural diversity in China – especially official discussions – generally refer to these rather than, say, to diversity from more recent migration or to self-proclaimed diversity of groups that are not officially recognised. The National Museum of Ethnology is not, therefore, analogous to many museums of ethnology or ethnography in Western Europe, such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, where the focus is on peoples from outside the nation, and usually geographically distant. What it does share with such museums, however, is a history of regarding the peoples who it seeks to represent as ‘other’ – in the Chinese case, from the Han Chinese. It also shares a struggle to find new ways of representing that do not represent the non-Han as either less developed or as exotic, as museum staff explained to me. The difficulty, as ethnology museum staff in Europe also sometimes bemoan, is that the public may expect and even want exoticism, and might be disappointed not to find it.

Solving this dilemma, however, is not what has delayed the opening of the museum – at least not directly. Rather, the delay lies in a combination of factors, including the disciplinary status of ethnology and the ambivalence of the ruling Chinese Communist Party government towards the ethnic minorities. This ambivalence has not remained constant over time but has, nevertheless, been sufficient to contribute to the proposed National Museum of Ethnology’s longstanding liminal state of (not quite) existence.

A proposal for a Museum of Anthropology, to represent ethnic minorities, was made as early as 1921, by Cai Yuanpei, the first minister of National Education in the Republic of China and President of Peking University. During the 1930s he assembled a team of anthropologists to conduct ethnographic research for such a museum. It was during the 1950s, however, that more concerted efforts were made. As part of a process of official identification and classification of minorities, documents and artefacts were collected (see, for example, Fan 2016); and then, as part of the decennial celebrations of the Chinese Republic, the Cultural Palace of Nationalities was opened in Beijing. An integrated complex of hotel, library theatre and museum, it was a location for social gatherings related to ethnic events. Later, it was also used for commercial purposes, not necessarily or primarily related to ethnic goods. Although the museum did display some items from minorities, and sometimes held temporary exhibitions about them, it was just as often used for exhibitions about that did not mention them at all. My own first experience of the Cultural Palace, indeed, was in 2011 to stumble into the opening of an exhibition of Mao-era propaganda, presided over by an elderly couple who had featured in the first posters of the Maoist Youth League. This exhibition and others like it were evidence of a less than wholehearted dedication to minorities. But its existence was enough to weaken the case for a national museum.

Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Photograph by Sharon Macdonald, 2011.

Exhibition of Mao-era memorabilia, Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Photograph by Sharon Macdonald, 2011.

In the 1980s, after the Cultural Revolution, attempts to create more substantial collections that could lead to a national museum began again, led partly by the famous sociologist and anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong, who had played a major role in investigating minorities for their classification in the 1950s, before, like most social scientists, being made an outcast during the Revolution. He was a member of a committee of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, established in 1984, to prepare for a national museum. As part of this role he went to Hainan Island to train twenty researchers – one of whom, still working in the Museum, I met – to collect for the proposed new museum. This resulted in over 2000 objects from the Li people, a collection that remains the best from this group and that is now held by the National Museum of Ethnology. But despite those promising initial collections, and despite the fact that since that time many museums of shaoshu minzu have been established at provincial level, especially in those regions with high numbers of minorities, the national museum towards which he was working still does not have a dedicated building with displays for the public.

Making this non-existence still more surprising is the fact that the creation of such a museum has twice been listed in China’s Five-Year plans ¬ –first, in the 7th, directly after the establishment of the preparatory committee, namely 1986-1990; and then in the 12th, which ran from 2012 until last year. As far as the first of these Five-Year-Plans is concerned, there is, again, another museum that seems to have usurped the planned national museum. This is what on my free Beijing map is described as ‘Chinese Ethnic Culture Park’ but whose name above its entrance is given as ‘China Nationalities Museum’. A large site in which minorities perform various dances, songs and other activities, such as painting, within buildings in the style of their home regions, the former title seems more accurate, though the site also includes buildings displaying objects in a museum style. Privately run and for-profit, part of the site was opened in 1992 and the rest in 2001. As Kirk A.Denton (2014: 209-10) describes, it was connected with China’s bids to host the Olympic Games, which it succeeded in doing in 2008, in a purpose-built area close by. Demonstrating a willingness to embrace cultural diversity was part of the necessary culture offensive to win the hosting. The performance of China as colourfully diverse was, indeed, a hallmark of the Games’ opening ceremony (though not without controversy).

Like the Cultural Palace of Nationalities, the Ethnic Culture Park is different from the planned National Museum of Ethnology. While the Palace and the Park both have some objects, they do not have extensive or comprehensive collections and neither do they have the kind of scholarly documentation that should go with these. Researchers at the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, however, have been undertaking field research and making videos of objects in use, as well as collecting and otherwise documenting both tangible and intangible cultural heritage over many years. On a recent fieldtrip, for example, ten villages were visited and over a hundred objects were collected, together with accompanying information. Altogether, the Museum now has over 30,000 objects. But although museum staff create temporary exhibitions for a variety of locations, they still have no museum building of their own.

Images of the Chinese Ethnic Park/China Museum of Nationalities. Photographs by Sharon Macdonald, 2011.

Existing museum treatment of ethnic minorities – in the Cultural Palace and the Ethnic Park, and also in provincial Minzu (i.e. ethnic minority) museums – follow a standard historical narrative. The emphasis is on presenting the fifty-five groups as fixed and enduring facts, exemplified by differences of dress, ritual, dance and song, art, and food and drink. Typically, representations feature many smiling, especially female, faces. Family metaphors are not uncommon (see also Fan 2016). In one Minzu museum I was told, with no discernible double-entendre, by a minority guide: ‘We are one big family – brothers and sisters – with big brother Han’.

Information about the history of groups or about the history of the classification processes – in which groups came to be labelled in ways that did not always accord with their self-identifications – is virtually never given; and campaigns for recognition are not mentioned. Different religious beliefs are only lightly addressed by presenting them as matters of ritual practice. And perhaps needless to say, there is never mention of geo-political claims. Tibetans, for example, dance and sing happily in the Chinese Ethnic Park.

Including some of these issues within a National Museum of Ethnology might well be difficult and as such unlikely within the prevailing political climate, not least as museums, especially those at national level, must obtain approval from the ruling Chinese Communist Party. At present, the direction of travel on questions of cultural diversity seems to be the other way. Exemplifying this is that the government has stated that it will not allow any further ethnic minorities to be officially recognised, and that the acceptance of people listing non-recognised ethnic identifications on their identity cards – which has been permitted for the last twenty years – is no longer permitted.

Nevertheless, as in other countries around the world, it is surely important to find ways to represent the cultural heritage of diverse groups in respectful ways that do not exoticize or over-simplify. This means going beyond formulaic models in which peoples are presented as essentially unchanging and ‘peoples without history’, as Eric Wolf has famously put it in his criticism of this position. It means showing not just that there are diverse cultures but also the diversity that may be present under a single name; and it means not only presenting according to an already-decided set of criteria but also taking into account the latest research and the views of the people themselves. ‘Multiperspectivity’ – showing the diversity of viewpoints, including within particular ‘cultures’ (such as those of women and men) – has become a watchword in much contemporary ethnological museum display. Likewise, showing the processes of research – how collections were made and by whom – and the changing ideas about the peoples and cultures represented have also become hallmarks of state-of-the art ethnological museum display around the world.

Ethnological museums ¬ – as holders of collections about diverse peoples, whose artefacts and practices were usually not traditionally gathered up as highly valuable – are home to much culture, and cultural diversity, that might otherwise be forgotten or neglected. This is the case whether those collections are from within the nation-state boundaries or outside it. For many peoples – as well as China’s ethnic minorities – inclusion of their heritage in a museum is a significant marker of recognition. Recognition in the form of a national museum is an even more important statement of worth – and also of national belonging.

Ethnological museums are – or can be – about more than just illustrating cultural diversity and giving recognition to particular groups, however. Rather, they have the potential too to prompt visitors to think about different ways of living and being in the world, and about the nature of relationships between different peoples. They are able to raise questions about social and environmental change, about cultural practices and sustainability, about what can bring hope and joy to existence, as well as to what can trouble it. They can open up other ways of seeing and doing – including, potentially, of seeing and doing difference and diversity themselves.

In some ways, China’s National Museum of Ethnology is in an especially advantageous position to create a cutting-edge museum that meets and even surpasses international standards. It has a substantial and well-documented collection; it has a fascinating and long collecting history; and it is linked with other important research organisations, such as the Minzu University around the corner. In addition, it has the potential to be a museum that is not just made ‘about others’. Many of its staff members are themselves shaoshu minzu.

Screenshot from the website of the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, September 2017.

At present, the Museum continues with its work: collecting, documenting, classifying and conserving objects; creating temporary exhibitions, publications and an impressive website; helping to organise performances and conferences. In doing so, its staff are not only assembling more material for showing in the future, they are also conducting vital research on the changing and dynamic cultures and self-narratives of the shaoshu minzu. At the same time, they are attending to international debates and ideas through conferences and discussion, as part of their search for the best ways of creating a lively and engaging museum display capable of articulating cultural diversity respectfully and honestly. As for ethnological museums in other parts of the world, this also means finding ways to acknowledge and include potential complexity without baffling visitors, and allow for the possibility of multiple identifications, including with the nation as well as with the minority nationality. There is no doubt that such a Museum could be an important contribution to China’s range of national museums – further showing the diversity and history of the nation, as well as giving long-awaited recognition to its ethnic minorities.


I thank those scholars and museum staff in Beijing who have assisted me with this article. Especial thanks are due to Pan Luo. My initial work on ethnic minority cultural heritage in China, on which this article partly draws, was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. My more recent research on ethnological museums is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


Denton, Kirk A. 2014 Exhibiting the Past. Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Fan, Ke 2016 ‘Representation of ethnic minorities in socialist China’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, online version.

Gladney, Drew C. 2004 Dislocating China. Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects, London: Hurst and Company.

Kim, Keun Young 2011 ‘Museums and multiculturalism in China’, University of Michigan working paper in Museum Studies.

Varutti, Marzia 2014 Museums in China. The Politics of Representation after Mao, Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Building in which the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology is located. Photograph by Pan Luo, 2017.

Entrance Hall of the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology. Photograph by Sharon Macdonald, 2017.

Why has China’s National Museum of Ethnology still not been completed, decades since its founding? Or, why such a museum should be!

by Sharon Macdonald

Review - Engaging the Post/Colonial Archive: Collections, Museums and the Politics of Access and Display Plenary: Plenary Session 3, DGV Meeting, 5 October, 2017.

by Duane Jethro

On a night that saw the storm of the year pass over Northern Germany, the third plenary session of the biannual meeting of the German Anthropological Association on Engaging the Post/Colonial Archive was held in the main hall of the Freie Universität, Berlin. Outside the plenary venue violent winds toppled trees, ripped off tree branches and brought the public transport system to a halt.

New disciplinary winds have also been gusting through the corridors of the German Anthropological Association, as members mooted a change in the association’s name from Völkerkunde to Social and Cultural Anthropology, attempting to, in a sense, rebrand the German anthropological enterprise by shifting away from its folkloristic historical tradition.

The 3rd plenary session took up the critical, introspective energies swirling in the German academy by bringing scholars and museum practitioners together from Europe and southern Africa to engage with a probing set of questions about the historical constitution and contemporary workings of archives and museum collections in Germany and elsewhere.

Co-chaired by Larissa Förster, post-doctoral researcher at CARMAH, at the Humboldt University Berlin, and Prof. Katharina Schramm of Bayreuth University, this all woman plenary session, refreshing and important for the discipline in Germany, called for engagement with archives and collections from four angles. First, regarding the situation of the colonial archive as well as its constitution and ongoing operation. Second, the politics of heritage and display. Third, a careful reflection on ethnographic collections in contemporary German museum practice. And finally, the “vexed place of historical collections of human remains in German museums”. Approaching archives and museums from these vectors the plenary’s theoretical scope encompassed most of the major areas of debate in contemporary heritage and museums work.


The panelists each mobilised refreshing analyses that in different ways addressed the session’s main themes. The historian, Carolyn Hamilton, from the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, gave a presentation on how the category of tribe works in the southern African historical archives as an imposed term that accretes its own legitimacy. Speaking to her co-edited book project, Untribing the Archive, She discussed strategies for thinking and engaging a project of “untribing”, or reading through or beyond tribal references that code the southern African archive. Highlighting this complicated coding of archival sources, she raised questions about the relational and sometimes situational quality of knowledge and evidence. In addressing the complicated heritage of archival depots, she foregrounded that provenance was not enough, but that recognition upfront was a necessary step for all researchers who take the problematic constitution of the archive seriously.

The panel then continued with a reflection on curatorial experience and the challenges of re-curating problematic collections. Bambi Ceuppens, head curator and director of the re-curation and renovation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, which is due to reopen in 2018, highlighted the fraught personal experience of trying of reconciling decolonial expectations with the colonial history of the museum and its collections to make a new, different permanent exhibition. This challenge was made harder, perhaps even impossible, by radically different project visions held by researchers, museologists and the architects who are redesigning the building. Her paper therefore provided an unflinching look the hard choices that come with mobilising a decolonial museology.

Tahani Nadim, Junior Professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Department for European Ethnology at Humboldt University, delivered a paper that reflected on the collaborative, creative enterprise of putting on a critical intervention, Tote Wespen fliegen länger/Dead wasps fly further, in the Naturkunde Museum in Berlin, and raised important observations about how art and creative work can be mobilised to do different kinds of critical work in the museum space. Unsettling the taken for grantedness of ideas of innocence and naturalness that gather around natural history collections, the paper makes a fresh set of propositions about the entanglements between natural and cultural histories and hints at methods for their interruption and unraveling.

The bad weather directly affected the constitution of the panel as Barbara Plankensteiner the third panelist, was unable to make it in time. She was to give an account of her personal experience as a curator at the Museum for Völkerkunde in Hamburg and how it tied up with changes in thinking about European ethnographic collections. This was really unfortunate.

Sharon Macdonald, director of CARMAH, at the Humboldt Universitat Berlin, followed with a reflection on what the papers may bring to the discussion. She picket up on Carolyn Hamilton’s idea of the tribe and suggested that we could use it as a metaphor for understanding it as a metaphor for disciplinary or methodological differences, that may or may not be helpful, but which should be recognized and engaged when thinking about critical museologies. She highlighted the importance of specificity and situatedness, asking, rather pointedly, what happens when categories and kinds of museums are challenged, in say, asking is it valid to refer to natural history museums as having no cultural histories, and therefore does it still make sense to classify them in this way. Finally she highlighted that the papers suggested art and creative work could provide a method for long-term change in the museums.

The floor opened up with a question about how, when and who is allowed to use the word decolonialism in regard to disciplinary change and new museologies? The place and role of colonial monuments were also raised. Bambi Cueppens responded saying how critical reflection on Belgium’s colonial monuments, and the erection of monuments to Congolese independence heroes such as Patrice Lumumba, was triggered not by Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa, in reference to the student protests for the removal of a statue to Cecil John Rhodes, but rather the violence that erupted around the removal of Confederate Statues in the US. Moreover, the RMCA has been forced to take responsibility for colonial history materialised as monuments, as a new depot for bad history, as Belgians have come forward to donate materials they see as racist and not worthy of public display.

Considering the winds of change blowing through the discipline of anthropology, perhaps the panel could have addressed anthropology’s, and especially German anthropology’s, role in undoing collections and archives more directly. For, if anthropology is entangled in the formation of problematic archives and museum collections, then we have to wonder about what we imagine a decolonized anthropology may look like?

There are changes afoot in the German academy. The DGV did resolve to change its German name to the German Association of Social and Cultural Anthropology.[1] Against this background of change, the plenary was a timely and important stage for hosting difficult conversations about institutional critique and change. Moreover, it showed how this is and can happen, by highlighting innovative art practice, by reflecting on new approaches in history and revealing what it takes to curate difficult collections.

But like the chaos brought on by the storm, it also showed that the deconstruction of museums, and the undoing of their colonial discursive powers can be non-linear, frustrating and even confusing. Bewildering and circuitous, the unwinding engagement with archives and collections also offers exciting opportunities for re-engaging dominant expressions of the past in new and different ways.

Many thanks to Regina Sarreiter who contributed to this piece! Photo credit Timur H Kiselev.

[1] The English name will remain the same.

Review - Engaging the Post/Colonial Archive: Collections, Museums and the Politics of Access and Display Plenary: Plenary Session 3, DGV Meeting, 5 October, 2017.

by Duane Jethro

Recasting Museums as Infrastructure: Explorations in a World Café

by Sowparnika Balaswaminathan

Are museums infrastructure? -Do they facilitate flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space? -Do they shape the nature of a network, the speed and direction of its movement, its temporalities, and its vulnerability to breakdown? -Do museums undergird modern societies, generating the ambient environment of everyday life? If museums do not fulfill any of these, SHOULD they?
Aren’t infrastructures supposed to be essential, in which case, how essential really is a museum?
The World Café was a safe and reflective space to engage in free-flowing, creative, theoretical discussion by professional critical thinkers. Much like the contradictory scope of its name, the World Café was able to make the high ideals of scholarship accessible across a small table.

When the organizers of CARMAH explained the format of the World Café, what struck me the most was their reason for adopting this format. In academia, our books are very long, our talks are long too, and while our conference papers are not as long as our articles, we do try to cram in as much of our argument as we can. Or at least this has been my experience as a soon-to-finish-PhD student on the hunt for dialogue, affirmation, and a job. Can you hear me? I seem to be asking the audience. Are you sure you got everything that I want to say exactly as I mean it? This desire for a control over our discourse is understandable and understandably futile. It is rarely (if ever) possible to achieve perfection in communication, and especially so when there is not enough time for the discussion for ideas presented in talks. So at the CARMAH World Café, the focus was less on the presentation of ideas and more on the discursive possibilities of ideas at academic conferences. As the CARMAH organizers explained, this was an opportunity to emphasize exploration instead of presentation. As a host of a table, I would briefly present an underexplored theoretical intervention in museum anthropology and open the floor for discussion amongst the 3-5 participants sitting at the table. After a spirited 20-minute discussion, the participants would switch to another table to consider an entirely different intervention, and my table would receive a group of fresh discussants.



At the outset, it has to be stressed that this report of my table captures what was essentially an intellectual exercise, emphasis on the latter word. I wanted to explore the possibility of thinking of museums differently by placing them into an anthropological category that has been talked about a lot recently – infrastructure. Brian Larkin’s (2013:328) opening sentences in his review of anthropological studies of infrastructure are as follows: “Infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space. As physical forms they shape the nature of a network, the speed and direction of its movement, its temporalities, and its vulnerability to breakdown. They comprise the architecture for circulation, literally providing the undergirding of modern societies, and they generate the ambient environment of everyday life.“ Although what comes to mind when we think of infrastructure are material substrata, the anthropology of infrastructure imagines it as a network, a system.

Systems can facilitate or hinder ideological projects, raising the question, what are the kinds of apparatuses – development (Mains 2012), governmentality (Barry 2001), and power (Mbembe 2001) – that are revealed by infrastructure? At the same time, infrastructure is also perceived to be “invisible”, as structures that are always there, taken for granted, and made visible only when they break down (Star 1999). Larkin (2013:336) disagrees, arguing that infrastructures are metapragmatic objects, meaning they are “signs of themselves”, circulating in established ways to do a particular work. Born out of an Enlightenment idea of what became “the modern”, infrastructure is always geared towards the future and progress. Tied to this are some affective correlates such as fantasy and desire.

Because of these characteristics, it is usually the fundamental aspects of life such as water (Anand 2012), energy (Von Schnitzler 2013), or roads (Harvey and Knox 2015) that are considered. Are museums fundamental to life as we know it? Should they be?


Museums have been markers of progress, power, cosmopolitanism, benign urbanity, historicity and tradition, and modernity. Every city and town, at least in the Western hemisphere usually has a museum. Every visitor, school child, or even an adult with leisure visits the museum as a thing you just do. Critiques of museums have tasked them with being colonialist, static, elitist, corporate and neoliberal, and facile with difficult knowledge. The separation of museum operation from museum critique also has consequences for how they are perceived and portrayed. The World Café roundtable was an attempt to re-categorize museums to see if anything valuable could be obtained out of it. Are museums infrastructure? In terms of critique and operation, should they be considered under the category of infrastructure? What happens when we inquire into the museum and its practices by assuming that it is part of the infrastructure of a nation-state, a society, a culture, or even a city? How would this change the way we think about museums and the way the museum thinks about what it is supposed to do?


Thus, I posed a series of questions to the participants in order to generate discussion, primarily by going back to Larkin’s definition:

Are museums infrastructure?

  • Do they facilitate flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space?
  • Do they shape the nature of a network, the speed and direction of its movement, its temporalities, and its vulnerability to breakdown?
  • Do museums undergird modern societies, generating the ambient environment of everyday life?

If museums do not fulfill any of these, SHOULD they?


Larkin’s definition of infrastructure notes that being “built” is an important criterion for infrastructure. A happenstance set of elements cannot unintentionally facilitate circulation. A network takes effort. What about inheritance, a participant asked. Museums are often made of inherited artifacts, some donated, but many others plundered and procured through colonial enterprises. Can museums be called infrastructure then? One participant noted that while a collection might have been inherited, there was still an intention to collect and assemble. If infrastructure is supposed to maintain a system, museums can be seen as an element of colonial infrastructure – maintaining symbols of power, and positioning members of various societies into a world hierarchy even in a postcolonial society. In this context, the relationship between museums and anthropology was striking to the participants. American anthropology was born out of the extensive collecting of Native American artifacts and narratives by American explorers much of which eventually ended up at the Smithsonian. Thus, the Smithsonian could be seen as facilitating the discipline of anthropology, that is, the infrastructure for American anthropology. Considering that museums also shape the ways in which the “others” are perceived by society, their facilitation of anthropology (which is the discipline in which an anthropologist attempts to understand difference or similitude through personal interaction with other people and translates what they understand as the perspectives of “others”) is but a more specific rendering of their larger practice. This raised the question, however, if museums can be considered monolithic in their practice, and if we were not being traditionalist in ascribing such a function to the museums of the present. Participants wondered then how the museum as an entity was itself made of infrastructures – the physical constructed spaces, the human organizers, the bureaucratic rules, ethical codes, managed collections, not to mention the very important financial undergirding. So while the museum could be an infrastructure, it is also made of infrastructures, and analyzing those components is important for determining what role a museum is supposed to play.

One of the roles that museums appear to have in the world today is as a symbol of cosmopolitanism or liberal ethos. Tony Bennett’s (1995) argument was that museums historically used to contain a civilizing function through which the common masses could be educated into being ideal citizens of an urban centre. While such aspects of the museum have been deconstructed and critiqued, and there is a more thoughtful operative practice in play nowadays, the very presence of a museum in a city signals values beyond the cataloguing of history – museums index “culture”. Who goes to museums and who can afford to? While tourists used to and perhaps continue to be the main draw for larger museums, large and smaller institutions have branched out to acquire local patrons who are expected to support it with bodies if not money. These are the “Friends” of a museum and their support of the institution is returned with ease of entry for repeat visits and special considerations for events. In short, the present day museums situated in urban centres are building and facilitating communities composed of people who occupy particular social positions. In this sense, could museums of this sort be considered the infrastructure for cultural capital? Some participants expressed dissent and argued that this line of thought makes it seem as if every city (administration) thinks that it is essential to have a museum and that is not so. Furthermore, do we really need a museum in every city, asked a scholar. Aren’t infrastructures supposed to be essential, in which case, how essential really is a museum?


This line of thought of the essentiality of the museum was also discussed by a group of participants who explored the Marxist notions of substructure and superstructure, wondering under which category infrastructure would fall. Materially, infrastructures are supposed to support the circulation of materials, peoples, things, and ideas, so one participant wondered if infrastructure fit under the substructure. However, for Marx, substructure referred to the relations and forces that facilitated production, and these were the social practices that could be generally conceived of under economics. Shouldn’t infrastructure have to come AFTER the establishment of the substructure as Marx conceived of it? Would museums fall under the category of “superstructure”, which includes all the other aspects of society such as politics, culture, and so on? Yet, several scholars have argued that separating substructure and superstructure is counterintuitive since they are so closely tied together. To answer the question of whether museums are essential might not be as important as to acknowledge that what is “essential” depends on the circumstances of the environment, and also, it is not always the essential that becomes prioritized.


Sowparnika Balaswaminathan is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at UC San Diego. She studies ethnographic & art museums, South Asian artisans, discourse, and ethics. She has taught anthropology, world history and argumentative writing and is currently an Editorial Assistant for Latin American Antiquity.

The dialogue that proceeded was rich, diverse, generative, and interrogative. While some participants wanted to deconstruct the definition of infrastructures themselves, others questioned the position of the museum in society. As an exploratory venture, the topics came out of nowhere and sometimes returned from earlier discussions. Arguments meandered and when it seemed like we were close to exploding a concept, it slipped away. Sometimes it did not. What follows is an account of the discussion that occurred across three sets of participants numbering from two to five in each round. Keeping in the spirit of exploration, there is no unified question or argument in this report, just discussion.

Infrastructure poster that resulted from the collaborations in the World Café

The Indo-Saracenic architectural style of the Madras Museum (Chennai) hints at its colonial roots and the infrastructural function it might have served during the British Raj as a surveying, documenting, and representing institution.

The National Gallery of Art in London attracts tourists and residents, indexing many qualities that make a city cosmopolitan

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a museum of assemblages

Questioning what makes something infrastructure, a participant wondered if an assemblage (such as a museum collection) can be considered similar to infrastructure. After all, an infrastructure is considered to be a network, a coming together of multiple parts. A museum facilitates the coming together of multiple artifacts, and the term, “assemblage” has frequently been used in association with collections. So what makes an infrastructure not an assemblage? Firstly, it was discussed that an assemblage indicates a level of separateness to the objects such that while they might be together, their individuality has a notable significance. Infrastructure, on the other hand, points to an entity in which the connection is crucial. Secondly, an assemblage could be something that exists, while an infrastructure requires conscious building. Intentionality is paramount in the existence of infrastructure while with an assemblage, it could go either way.


Visitors in repose at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Part of Sou Fujimoto Architects exhibit in Cooper Hewitt’s Beauty Exhibition in 2016

Infrastructures within Museums; Roman architecture at the British Museum, London

Messiness is usually verboten in museums unless they are under construction, like the Oxford University Museum Natural History in 2013.

Art in places of Infrastructure: Highwire Travelers by Gordon Huether at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

One participant, going back to the discussion on Marxist ideologies of structure, asked if infrastructure produced anything at all and another answered that it seems to produce stability. The Science and Technology Studies background from which the category of “infrastructure” has spread to other disciplines describes it as systems in permanent maintenance. In that sense, infrastructure is a self-shaping mechanism that maintains status quo in the face of changing circumstances. Can infrastructure allow for messiness? At this point, a participant asked for a clarification: do we really mean messiness or complexity? It is important to acknowledge that infrastructure, while it might be in the service of maintaining the status quo, is not bereft of political considerations either. The places where infrastructure works well, where it doesn’t, who gets access to it, and what it facilitates are all laden with social meanings that index power. Thus, while ideally infrastructure is supposed to make things simpler, its existence and operation consist of and promote complexity.


How do museums fit here then? Are museums systems in constant maintenance? There is certainly an attempt by certain museums to adopt the white cube model literally and ideologically, and to stand as neutral spaces that host the subjectivities of others. However, critical museology has also forced museum scholars and practitioners to acknowledge the political weight of the museum, not to mention the economic forces behind it. More and more museums have actively engaged with political issues and made their subject position clear. Museums, when considered as infrastructure then can be seen as facilitating complexity – diverse meanings, nuanced dialogues, and disenfranchised subjectivities. Infrastructure, several participants concluded appears to signal complexity, and aren’t museums arbiters of complexity too?

At the end of the World Café, I was exhausted, as I am sure were the participants. While I had to merely host one topic, the participants battled three each. I use the term “battle” here lightly, but it should be noted that as scholars in academia, it was difficult to not immediately engage in critique when the discussion started. As an exploratory exercise, the World Café featured ideas that were nascent in their ideological evolution and the tables hosts were bearers of questions, more than arguments or answers. Thus, whenever a discussion became oriented towards critiquing a topic, we had to remind ourselves that this was the space for creative excesses where we could cultivate and fertilize an idea. Critique could wait just a little. Ultimately, what made the World Café valuable was the generosity of the participants and the organizers. Scholarship is supposed to nurture critical knowledge, but too often we focus on the former to the detriment of the generative potential of the latter. This is not to say that critique is not generative, but when critique asphyxiates creativity, it can become a problem. The World Café was a safe and reflective space to engage in free-flowing, creative, theoretical discussion by professional critical thinkers. Much like the contradictory scope of its name, the World Café was able to make the high ideals of scholarship accessible across a small table.

All images by the author.

All images by the author.

Recasting Museums as Infrastructure: Explorations in a World Café

by Sowparnika Balaswaminathan

On Heritage and Hauntology

by Colin Sterling

The failure of heritage to adequately account for ‘the ghostly’ emerges in various critiques of the field. Responding to the installation art of Michael Goldberg, for example, David McNeill suggests that ‘history as a séance, a conjuration, is as accurate a metaphor for the activities of National Heritage organisations as we are likely to find’ (2001: 55). This is because heritage for McNeill depends on a process whereby ‘selected “friendly” ghosts are trapped and condemned to a perpetual purgatory inside upholstered chaise lounges, bell jars, commodes, dados and stucco frames’ while others are ‘sent packing’ (ibid). Here then heritage is seen as a form of exorcism, with historic houses in particular orchestrating the ‘effacement’ of that which they claim to capture (ibid: 54). Working against this bowdlerisation of the past, Goldberg’s installations ‘invite back the ghosts that sanitised history has banished’ (ibid). A similar line of thinking can be found in Tim Edensor’s explorations of the post-industrial ruin, with the ‘interpretative encoding’ typical of heritage practice felt to ‘partially exorcise’ the ghosts that may ‘contact us’ at such sites (2005: 18).


Leaving aside the over-simplification of heritage contained in such critiques, we can begin to see that a desire to work with the spectral often goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to the affective sensualities and untold stories of place (the two share a common thread that would be worth investigating in more detail). As David Bell recognised, the language of ghosts gives us a way to talk about the ‘felt presence’ of certain sites, ‘an anima, geist, or genius […] that possesses and gives a sense of social aliveness to a place’ (1997: 815). Apprehending the tremulous qualities of the past in the present as manifest in the figure of the ghost is thus vital to understanding why heritage matters, but there must also be an acknowledgment that the very practice of heritage is as likely to smooth away such figures as reveal their full potency.


To think through this tension in any meaningful way we need to develop both a critical language to describe the ‘affective, historical, and mnemonic structures’ of such hauntings (Gordon 2008: 18), and a new means of producing knowledge that responds to the absent presences manifest in the ghostly. While such lines of enquiry seem central to the work of heritage, there has been no substantial investigation of the spectral from within the field. This is despite a wide-ranging prioritisation of the ghost over the past two decades in various connected domains, including literature studies, film, music, art criticism, sociology, anthropology, and architecture (see Blanco and Peeren 2013 for an overview of this ‘spectral turn’ in the humanities and social sciences). The exact contours of the ghostly will of course fluctuate across these different disciplines, but a broad commitment to politicising and animating the spectre as an affective force in the world permeates much thinking in this area.


This work responds to and builds upon Derrida’s 1993 book Spectres of Marx, often cited as a foundational text of what remains an intrinsically loosely defined research arena. More specifically, Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology’ has come to underpin many of the advances made in this field (if we can give it such a label), offering a critical touchstone for thinking with the ghost as part of a broader emancipatory project of political and social change.


For Derrida, the neologism hauntology is necessary because ‘it introduces haunting into the very construction of a concept’ (1993: 202). Being – ontology – is therefore displaced by the shadow of the spectre of being – hauntology. A level of uncertainty and intangibility displaces the apparent solidity of the ontological. As Colin Davis writes, ‘hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive’ (2005: 373). The ghost emerges here then as a recognition of the presence of something that is no longer, but that still remains as ‘ineffective, virtual, insubstantial’ (Derrida 1993: 10). This does not involve a belief in ghosts as such, or even a conviction that the past is alive – ‘all it says […] is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us’ (Jameson in Davis 2005: 373).


The insubstantiality of the here-and-now is thus tied to an acknowledgement of the ghost as a ‘seething presence acting on and often meddling with taken-for granted realities’ (Gordon 2008: 8, my emphasis). While this clearly draws together the past and present in an affective embrace, hauntology also has an eye to the future, or rather to the failure of certain futures to come to fruition. The first and most lasting of these is the spectre of communism itself – highlighted by Marx and Engels in the opening lines of their manifesto as ‘a virtuality whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things’ (Fisher 2014: 19). The promise of communism thus haunts ‘the capitalist realist world’ (ibid: 27), a world that has trained us to forget that any alternatives to capitalism are possible. Spectrality in this sense refers to ‘a trace that marks the present with its absence in advance’ (Derrida 2013: 39). Such traces can only be discerned tangentially; they resist direct apprehension, operating in the faultlines of received knowledge and authorised histories. Both the no longer and the not yet are to be understood in this way, as spectres that haunt the present in their very non-being.


It is important to note I think that the evasiveness of the ghost as a figure in the world does not prohibit its politicisation. Indeed, for Avery Gordon this is the unique power of the spectre, which alters the experience of being in time, and the way we separate past, present and future (2008: xvi). In their haunting such ghosts ‘demand our attention,’ giving rise to an ‘animated state’ in which a repressed or unresolved social violence makes itself known (ibid). The urgency of this point is underscored by T. J. Demos in his analysis of recent artistic practices dealing with the legacies of colonialism in Africa: ‘The problem is not one of dealing with spirits from another world,’ Demos argues, ‘rather, it’s a matter of being sensitive to modernity’s phantoms – that is, the disturbances and lingering presences, or presences of absence in the orders of visual appearance, through which current social formations manifest the symptomatic traces and uncanny signs of modernity’s history of violence and exclusions’ (2013: 13). Here then hauntology seems to suggest a parallel path to that taken by other recent philosophical and academic trends – movements that share a concern for the ultimate unknowability and strange vibrations of the world, but perhaps lack the political edge that Derrida and others insist remain front and centre in hauntology. Notions of affect, speculative realism, object oriented ontology, and new materialism all move us away from the reality-denying concerns of social constructivism, but they are open to criticism for lacking a political-ethical stance on social issues. The key point here is that hauntology offers a means for ‘capturing enchantment in a disenchanted world’ (Gordon 2008: 8) while also acknowledging injustices and seeking more ethical futures. For Demos, this is partly to be achieved through ‘a different set of documentary possibilities that bring affect, imagination and truth into new experimental configurations’ (Demos 2013: 9). How might heritage take up this call to animate the spectres it is otherwise prone to exorcise?


Ghosts are an unavoidable component of modern social life (Gordon 2008: 7). They interrupt the present and indicate that, ‘beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorised version of events’ (Weinstock 2013: 63). Hauntology recognises that in these ghosts lies the possibility of a renewed politics, a politics of ‘memory, of inheritance, and of generations’ (Derrida in Demos 2013: 43). Heritage is thus bound to the work of hauntology not just because the ghosts of place shape so many of our engagements with the past in the present, but because the constant urge to return and repeat that permeates the field leaves open the possibility of learning to live with ghosts, ‘justly’ (ibid). As Davis suggests, for Derrida, ‘the ghost’s secret is not a puzzle to be solved; it is the structural openness or address directed towards the living by the voices of the past or the not yet formulated possibilities of the future’ (2005: 379).


A question nevertheless remains around how best to animate these spectral potentialities. The concept of hauntology is only useful if it helps us to do more than simply name a situation: it must direct us towards alternative modes of production, and help us to find a route out of our current social predicament. Against the postmodern ‘extirpation of the uncanny’ (Fisher 2014: 134), hauntology allows us to work with what Timothy Morton calls ‘the weirdness of things’ (2013: 159). The task for heritage then must be to invent wholly new strategies and forms of practice to enact rather than exorcise the spectres that haunt our present moment. Bringing affect and imagination to bear on traces of the past represents an important mode of apprehension here, but this must not be at the expense of a politicised commitment to radical social change.


Colin Sterling is a heritage researcher and former curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects. He is currently writing a monograph entitled Heritage Reframed: Photography, Memory and the Affective Past. Later this year he will begin postdoctoral research at UCL investigating heritage and posthumanism.


Bell, M. M. 1997. The Ghosts of Place. Theory and Society 26 (6), 813-836

Blanco, M.D.P. & Peeren, E. (eds.) 2013. The Spectralities Reader. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic)

Davis, C. 2005. Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms. French Studies Vol LIX(3), 373-379

Demos, T. J. 2013. Return to the Postcolony: Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Art. (Berlin: Sternberg)

Derrida, J. (in interview with B. Stiegler). 2013. Spectographies. In: M.D.P. Blanco & E. Peeren (eds.) The Spectralities Reader. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic), 37-51

Derrida, J. 1993. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by P. Kamuf. (London: Routledge)

Edensor, T. 2005. Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. (Oxford and New York: Berg)

Fisher, M. 2014. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. (Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Zero Books)

Gordon, A. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press)

McNeill, D. 2001. Heritage and Hauntology: The Installation Art of Michael Goldberg. In: A. Geczy & B. Genocchio (eds.) What is Installation?: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Installation Art. (Sydney: Power Publications)

Morton, T., 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press)

Weinstock, J. A. 2013. Excerpt from ‘Introduction: The Spectral Turn’. In: M.D.P. Blanco & E. Peeren (eds.) The Spectralities Reader. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic), 61-68

All images by Colin Sterling

On Heritage and Hauntology

by Colin Sterling

Materiality and Collaboration in Steven Robins Letters of Stone

by Duane Jethro

In the exhibition, Letters of Stone, running currently at the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum (FHXB) in Berlin, Germany, you learn that the first official “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones) placed in Germany, were for Siegfried and Edith Robinski, relatives of South African anthropologist Steven Robins. Stolpersteine are brass covered pavement stones that “memorialised Jews persecuted by the Nazis”.

Placed outside the homes where deported Jews had last lived, they commemorated the painful history of Jewish expulsion and extermination. Surprisingly, then, the Stolpersteine placed for members of the Robinski family also appeared to locate South African memory in the streets of Berlin.

The installation of the Stolpersteine formed part of Robins’s decades long journey, told in his book “Letters of Stone”, to trace his family history and restore their dignity as Holocaust victims. The book revolves around a careful reading of a collection of handwritten letters but it also references the history of anthropology and German race science in southern Africa. “Letters of Stone” ties the personal story of restitution into an academic history linking Germany and South Africa.

The book is also about material stuff that makes telling stories and recalling memories possible. By referring to museums, paper texts and brass plaques, it says something about the basic stuff that makes memories possible. And while this is about one author telling the story of his family, this project involves many people contributing to a better understanding of Jewish histories. Three moments in the book bare this out.

Holocaust Museum

One major turn in the uncovering of the Robinski family story came in 1996 when Robins visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC. Struck by the “disorientating effect of the exhibition”, the sheer heaviness of mass extermination, he approached a librarian and explained that his “father’s family had perished in the Holocaust”.

The librarian pulled out a copy of the Berlin Gedenkbuch, the register of the last known addresses and dates of deportation of Jews living in Nazi era Berlin. There he discovered the names and fates of “Cecilie, David, Edith, Edith (Siegfried’s wife), Siegfried and Hildegard” Robinski, names he had until that point not known.

Robins said:

I felt like a detective stumbling across the first hard evidence… What had once been vague and abstract knowledge now took on a concreteness and facticity.

But it could have been different. The museum project was launched in 1978 by the then US president, Jimmy Carter. But progress was a struggle, as historian Edward Linenthal shows in his behind the scenes story of the making of USHMM, “Preserving Memory”. Officials wondered about how to include the story of the Holocaust into the story about the American nation.

The USHMM was officially dedicated in 1993, roughly three years before Robins’s visit. What is important here though, is that there was an institution in Washington stocked with a collection of important objects and books like the Berlin Gedenkbuch. Also, that there were competent librarians who knew what information to make available to visitors – that all made it possible for the author to find this information about his German family.

Stumbling Stones

Using the information in the Gedenkbuch, Robins was able to find his relatives’ last known address in Berlin. The director of the FHXB, Martin Dusphol, suggested that it would be a fitting memorial to place Stolpersteine outside this house. With Dusphol’s help, Robins approached Gunter Demnig, the artist who made and installed the Stolpersteine, and initiated the process of placing Stolpersteine with the Berlin City Council.

The Stolpersteine started off as part of an art project by Demnig that documented the first order for deportations in 1992 in Cologne. The project grew in that city, but then through another art project, Demnig came to Berlin and installed 55 Stolpersteine in the city’s Kreuzberg district.

Placed as art objects that were meant to make people stop, think and remember the city’s former Jewish residents, these Stolpersteine were illegal although tolerated, because of their social importance. There are now tens of thousands of Stolpersteine all over Europe, and the project is ongoing.

Much like the District Six Museum in Cape Town, which memorialises black people who were forcibly removed under apartheid, the FXHB documents the history of the colourful and rapidly changing neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. It has been instrumental in facilitating the installation of Stolpersteine across Berlin. With the assistance of this important institution and people working there, the first official Stolpersteine commemorating the last home of the relatives of a South African anthropologist was installed in Kreuzberg.

Handwritten Letters

But the story of Robins’s relatives took another sharp turn with the surprising discovery of a parcel of handwritten letters. It was a small, decades old collection documenting a fraught correspondence between relatives from 1936 and 1943, the Nazi era. Stored in a plastic bag, in a cool, dark place, they had been protected as a family archive. But the stories they were meant to tell were largely unreadable, since many were written in an old German Gothic Script. They needed to be decoded before they could be translated.

And so the letters were scanned on a computer and sent to the FHXB who helped translate them into standard German. It was through connections established at the Holocaust Centre in Cape Town, that Robins met Ute Ben Josef, an art historian and former librarian. She became the translator and primary interpreter of the letters, revealing a deep, difficult family story that stretched from Germany to South Africa.

The exhibition “Letters of Stone” shows that there is more to memory than words and ideas. Referring to letters, books, brass plaques and archives, it is also about the materiality of memory, and how material things make a scaffold that supports people’s memories. Moreover, it shows how the recovery of memory and history is social and collective, involving many people who all add in different ways in making an understanding of the past possible.

–The exhibition Letters of Stone runs until the 12th of November, 2017 at the FHXB in Kreuzberg.

–This article was first published as “Holocaust story tells how material things make a scaffold for people’s memories”, on The Conversation Africa, 10 September 2017.

All Photographs  © Röhner Ellen/FHXB Museum

Materiality and Collaboration in Steven Robins Letters of Stone

by Duane Jethro

Rosa Parks Doesnt Live Here Anymore

by Adam Benkato and Duane Jethro

Sitting in a back room of the Babylon Kino, in downtown Berlin, we listened as Fabia Mendoza proudly riffled off the numerous front pages her husband, the artist Ryan Mendoza, had made since the sensational story broke about the relocating of civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ house. We had just watched her documentary The White House, the official backstory to the project. It presents a visual chronicle of how Ryan Mendoza entangles a journey of self-discovery into the current housing blight in Detroit, ultimately rescuing Rosa Parks’ house from the demolition list and re-erecting it in Berlin.

The documentary shows Ryan Mendoza initially traveling to Detroit to acquire a house to send to Europe for an art installation. To the artist’s complete surprise, the White House project generates a slew of negative publicity, casting him as a contributor to the blight and criticizing him for promoting “Ruin Porn.” After a second urban intervention, he gains notoriety as an artist working with blighted houses in Detroit, which eventually leads to Rhea McCauley, Rosa Parks’ niece, approaching him for assistance to save the house where Parks lived in the 1950’s from demolition. Despite initial reservations about playing into a “white savior” stereotype, he takes on the project, stripping the house, packing it up, and rebuilding it alone back in Berlin.

In the Q&A after the screening, a polished, clued up, and prepared Fabia Mendoza, spun the project’s positive media impact. She was at pains to dispel any lingering suspicions about her husband being just another white savior. Yes, there was some controversy, but what was more important was “awareness”, that everyone was now talking about Rosa Parks, she explained. Yet, we wondered, when did people stop talking about Rosa Parks?

The documentary carries the tension of a good story trapped in a short-sighted race-sensitive idea of white male saviors exploiting black culture. The film calls on black working class Detroiters to tell their story about the city, about poverty and the housing crisis. We’re introduced to kids cycling on colorful, pimped-out bikes who tell us about their streets and the city. Later, interlocutors sing or rap for the director, taking advantage of the opportunity to express their black city culture. This is “real Detroit” telling its own truth.

Hearing that Ryan Mendoza wants to relocate a house from Detroit to Germany for his White House project, members of the public initially express surprise but eventually lend their support, perhaps in the belief that it will highlight their plight. And yet, strangely, while it is undeniable that this is about banks and the city of Detroit abandoning poor black folk, the voices the Mendozas coral in this footage often insist that this is not a story about race. It is one about humanity.

Against the black urban mise en scene that is Detroit, Ryan Mendoza appears as an intruder who breaks into scenes with his tallness, his goofy, larger-than-life self. He’s in the houses, down and dirty in the business of demolition. He makes a cameo in a rap song filmed in the aftermath of the demolition of Rosa Park’s house, and is shown as the lonely worker painstakingly rebuilding it again in his courtyard during a cold and dark Berlin winter. You get the sense that for him it is all pomp and drama, deeply felt. When the media coverage gets dark, he delivers candid monologues about how personal a crisis the misunderstandings are.

But what indeed has Ryan Mendoza put up in Berlin? A house, a heritage object, or an art-installation? Is a house still a house when it is dismantled, its frame moved across the world, and reassembled in a courtyard without street access? Berlin regulations do not allow one to simply up and build a house where you like. Fabia Mendoza made it clear: the Rosa Parks House is officially a “temporary installation” and as such is unconnected to utilities, only partially visible from the street, and without an interior. For us at least, this change in state is important. And indeed, members of Miss Parks’ family clarify, remarking in the film and elsewhere how the house is now “in its afterlife.”

Read in this way, Ryan Mendoza has made a personal art project out of a piece of Black history. Herein lies one of the fundamental issues of the white savior complex, a phenomenon nodded at but entirely undigested by the artist. To riff on Teju Cole’s eloquent critique, in this form of the white savior complex, African-American heritage here, and Black heritage more generally, is simply a space onto which white egos can be projected, a space in which any white European or American can satisfy their artistic or emotional needs.

In doing so, even when “making a difference” or “raising awareness”, they draw more attention to themselves than to the issues at stake, inserting themselves into a conversation that fundamentally should never be about them. “It feels good,” notes for example a Berlin Tagesspiegel journalist about Berlin being able to play host to the house. The question is never asked, though, of whether it is important or even necessary that a German city feel good about the legacy of an African-American civil rights icon.

To be clear, as one always needs to be when critiquing the white savior complex in action, this is not racism, nor do we fault the Mendozas for, as far as we can tell, they’re making an effort to help both the Rosa Parks Foundation as well as Detroit and Berlin-based youth social initiatives. Yet we wonder: was the $100,000 raised to disassemble and move the house to Berlin somehow not enough to save the house where it was, or otherwise help the Rosa Parks Foundation on the ground in Detroit? Or were other options simply never considered?

In the end, how far have we come? The problem remains that the story is still about the white savior. It is not about justice but still about the emotional experience that validates privilege. It is only enough to pause and acknowledge, as Ryan Mendoza does before continuing to tear down his first house, that one is white and this should really be about black people.

There is hence no consideration of the other ways in which a person with a certain privilege can attempt to help a community. In the end, Rosa Parks’ house is no longer part of the black heritage landscape in the United States – across the world, Ryan Mendoza’s Rosa Parks House ensures that the artist’s name now has a place next to Miss Parks’ in any conversation about her legacy. Yet, wasn’t this always about his story?

Like so many others, this rescuing of black history comes with a slick sheen of altruism. But for the Mendozas it framed as a struggle, a burden. They never wanted this house. It belongs in the US, they insist. As Ryan Mendoza himself put it, “I would like to see it here for as short a time as possible. I totally love this house but this is not my house. I’m trying to give back as much as possible.” But what is never made clear, however, is what it would take to get the house back – or where exactly it would go.

The house has taken on a life of its own, through educational projects, and art and cultural performances that riff on Rosa Parks’ place in American cultural memory. But in all of this, we cannot help sense that something is not quite right. That the house is out of place here in the outskirts of Berlin. That Rosa Parks’ story fits awkwardly with that of a white European artist seeking to reconnect with his American roots. Somehow, in this fantastic tale of rescue and re-erection, we cannot but shake the feeling that, ultimately, Rosa Parks is simply a famous guest in the big story of Ryan Mendoza’s house.

“This post was first published on 18 May 2017 on Africa is a Country

Rosa Parks Doesnt Live Here Anymore

by Adam Benkato and Duane Jethro

Decolonizing Museums in Europe and Africa

by Sebastian Pampuch

“The museum is not only an institution of modernity and ordered citizenship, but is the primary institutional form of empire. It was made and is being remade and adapted through both sides of empire’s history: by a rapacious and violent empire of plunder and pacification, and by empire as ‘benevolent colonisation’, humanitarianism and trusteeship over people and things”
Ciraj Rassool

The establishment of CARMaH has brought an urgently needed think tank to the Humboldt-University’s Department of European Ethnology. One of its major research projects, Making Differences in Berlin: Transforming Museums and Heritage in the 21st Century”, stresses “the challenge of dealing with ethnographic collections and displaying ethnography in the current Berlin developments”, thereby questioning “divisions between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’” while emphasizing that “the collections and practices of the Ethnological Museum, and the move to the Humboldt-Forum, are an obvious and central focus here”. The latter is also publicly disputed by an international association of groups acting under the slogan No Humboldt 21, an initiative which, I would argue, makes a serious engagement with non-Eurocentric perspectives on Western museums and heritage mandatory. Having the opportunity to hear – and not only to read – positions, for instance, from African scholars in a lecture and being able to discuss these issues with them in person is still a rare event in German academia. Thus, further strengthening the ties between CARMaH and the Department of European Ethnology’s research laboratory, Critical Europeanisation Studies, I searched for a scholar who would offer such a perspective. My initial choice was Kwame Opoku, a prominent lawyer from Ghana with international expertise in Western museums, cultural goods from Africa, Asia and America, and all the corresponding – although widely ignored – UNESCO resolutions. Opoku has worked as an Ombudsman for the United Nations in Vienna and has repeatedly written about Berlin and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation with respect to the delicate case of Nofretete. However, the Berlin branch of Africavenir had tried several times in vain to invite Opoku to Germany. Fortunately, this omnipresent organisation could recommend another acclaimed scholar which CARMaH had already planned to invite.

Ciraj Rassool is a Professor of History and Director of the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape; he has served on the boards of several South African museums and wrote his dissertation about The Individual, Auto/biography and History in South Africa. His collaborative project on the South African Empire – South Africa replaced Germany in 1915 as colonizing power in Namibia – was published as a special issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies in 2015. Rassool is currently continuing his research on biography during a sabbatical in Germany as a fellow of the University of Cologne’s International Colleague Morphomata and his convenient location along with CARMaH’s Margareta von Oswald’s perseverance enabled CARMaH to successfully invite Professor Rassool to Berlin.

Together with the late Martin Legassick, in 2000 Rassool co-authored the book Skeletons in the cupboard: South African museums and the trade in human remains 1907-17. This publication is a striking example of what engaged science can achieve: it initiated the repatriation of human remains from an Austrian museum back to South African soil. The story of this repatriation in Rassool’s CARMaH lecture “Rehumanising the Dead of Anthropology” demonstrated how his interest in biography, empire/colonialism and museum/objects are linked. The lecture’s provocative title served as a reminder that there was an era in Western knowledge production when Physical Anthropology, and what is nowadays known as the sphere of Social or Cultural Anthropology (or Ethnology), were not as clearly distinguishable as they are today. It was the period at the beginning of the 20th century which Legassick once labeled “the South Africanization of science”. The term refers to the trade and collection of human remains from the plundered graves of the Khoisan community which were located in the Northern Cape border region. It was this specific region, Rassool states, “through which the flows of human remains and artefacts began to be directed to South African museums in the service of a special South African concentration on ‘living fossils’, as they competed with their European counterparts”. While some of these remains became founding collections of South African museums, others ended up in an Austrian museum in Vienna.

Rassool applied a narrative strategy tending towards empathy right from the beginning of the lecture when he asked the audience to stand up and commemorate the Soweto Uprising, as it happened to be the South African Youth Day. In the intriguing speech that followed, he narrated the odyssey of two corpses that were removed from African soil for Europe’s scientific purposes more than 100 years ago. It is crucial to note that Rassool remained faithful to an empathic approach: using the biographies of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar as the central theme, he gave life to these two corpses – a married couple with documented names. He outlined the complex colonial setting in which these two Khoisans had lived their lives as servants on a farm until they suddenly died from malarial fever. He described where they were buried, the posthumous objectification of their corpses by tomb raiders, how their corpses – or what was left of them after being shipped to Europe – were transformed into European museum artefacts, how they were finally “rehumanised” in an unprecedented process of negotiation between Austria and South Africa, and officially reburied in South Africa in 2012. This unusual form of scientific storytelling enthralled the listeners.

Several different groups were engaged in that process. The research conducted by Legassick and Rassool quasi-decolonized South African museums: collections there not only included skeletal remains of Khoisans with South African origin, but also such of Namibian provenience, hence indicating the ambiguous South African status of having been colonized and colonizer simultaneously. At the same time, activist scholars and civilian groups in Austria had already criticized the manner in which the Austrian anthropologist Rudolf Pöch (1870-1921) was being remembered and officially honoured in Austria. In their book, of course, Rassool and Legassick had also named Pöch as the person mainly responsible for the robbery of the Pienaars; however, they did not know of the Austrian critique of Pöch at that time. One of the Austrian organizations involved in that critique was the Southern Africa Documentation and Cooperation Centre in Vienna. In Rassool and Legassick’s book, the Austrian activists found more detailed evidence against Pöch. Strategic alliances were forged on an international level, crucially reinforced by the involvement of the local Khoisan community represented by Petrus Vaalbooi as well as the South African government on a state level. The latter clearly demonstrates the importance of a strong state when an African country makes repatriation claims.

The process of “rehumanisation” deserves particular consideration here, because the South Africans insisted the human remains be repatriated in coffins as deceased humans. At first, the Austrian authorities rejected such a demand, arguing that there is no juridical ground for such a manoeuvre, and that what was left of the corpses could only be returned as simple museum artefacts. But the pressure from the groups involved and eventually the support of the Austrian Museum for National History’s director, Maria Teschler-Nicola, finally led to success. This success is at least partly explicable by the combination of the political power of the South African government, as seen in the speech of Jacob Zuma at the reburial of the Pienaars, together with the proof in Rassool and Legassick’s book that the remains were identified as Khoisans, and more specifically, that there is an oral history of the Pienaars in South Africa. Archival records from South Africa as well as from Austria also played an important role: it was the Western preoccupation with the provenience of its museum objects which made the complete identification, and thus the rehumanisation, possible.

The lecture poignantly revealed the underlying Eurocentrism – or plain cynicism? – of concepts like “digital repatriation”, the much too often knee-jerk answer of Western museum directors when questions of repatriation are being raised. Also in the case of the Khoisan community, such practices had already been applied. What does “digital repatriation” mean for an African people who have not only a blatant history of violent colonial suppression but also an epistemological conception of the relationship between bodies and objects, one which totally differs from an European understanding? It reduces the whole idea to absurdity. In this context Rassool mentioned the term “Survivance” from Native American studies and its importance in that case. He questioned the Western concept of museums itself: for Rassool, “the modern evolutionary museum that emerged as part of the ‘exhibitionary complex’ is a primary site of the formation and reproduction of empire”.

In the following discussion, Rassool reminded the audience that instead of being obsessed with object biographies, we should rethink what a museum is – and what the relationship between museum, object and society is. With the latter, he answered a question raised by CARMaH’s director Sharon Macdonald of whether the rehumanisation debates had changed the way in which repatriation of objects was being approached. Rassool argued that the separation between objects and bodies is a concept which simply does not work in African contexts. Other questions addressed the idea of rehumanisation, and if this is originally a South African concept. Rassool reminded us of the twenty years of discussion about recreating humanity in post-Apartheid South Africa, about family members who were objectified in their life and are now rehumanised as citizens of a nation, not just as some “Bushmen”, and about the loaded term which “repatriation” is, because it so unidirectional and exclusively refers to the nation. The emergence of a South African nation takes on a very different meaning if you look at it from a Khoisan or an Afrikaner’s point of view. New museums, Rassool hence argued, need to be spaces which problematise the nation. An interesting moment was when he asked us to think about what rehumanisation means when you can no longer identify the body parts.

The last question was raised by Reinhart Kößler who just recently published a book titled Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past. This book not only broaches the issue of remembering the genocide perpetrated by Germans against the Herero and Nama in what is nowadays known as Namibia, but also the issue of human remains from there, remains that were brought to Germany for the grand cause of racial science. Some of them have already been given back to Namibia. Kößler pointed to competing narratives which exist in Namibia, one of the government which constructs the victims of the genocide as national heroes, and one articulated by the Herero and Nama – underrepresented in the Namibian government – which emphasizes them as ethnic heroes. Of the remains that were returned, Kößler stated, some were neither Herero nor Nama, and, as a German and thus a member of the perpetrator’s group, it gave him an uneasy feeling saying this to representatives of the victims. Rassool explained that these remains probably still lie in a Namibian ethnographic museum instead of having been given back to one specific group, and that the national structures in this country are just too different from those in Germany. By saying this, Rassool suggested that Kößler was applying a German perspective on Namibia in this case; according to an African understanding, bones can tell history – which makes questions of ethnicity secondary. He then ended even more pragmatically, museums make persons, and are thus a project of person formation which shall always be open to new forms.

Sebastian Pampuch is currently research assistant and doctoral student at the Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-University Berlin. His research project is about African exile in a divided Germany.

Further reading:
Ciraj Rassool: Re-storing the Skeletons of Empire: Return, Reburial and Rehumanisation in Southern Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 2015, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 653–670,


Report on Ciraj Rassool’s lecture “Rehumanising the Dead of Anthropology” on June 16, 2016

Decolonizing Museums in Europe and Africa

by Sebastian Pampuch

In the shadow of the Palace: Unhomely objects in and out of the DDR Museum

by Magdalena Buchczyk

It is the building that always catches and holds the sun, the grey center of the city, its regime-orange reflective glass mirroring the setting sun perfectly as it moves from panel to panel along the chequered surface, drawing you in to notice it on the way up the Unter den Linden to Alexanderplatz. (…) When the Palast der Republik was first opened in 1976, it was clad in white marble with 180 meters of windowed facade, triumphant in its transparent splendor, and so named “the house of a thousand windows”. There is now no trace of the white marble; the structure is raw wood and the windows are tarnished like dirty metal. It is as if the state is letting time make up its mind, letting entropy do its job and make the decision it is loath to make. But the sore in the centre of the city is too public and so, a month ago, the wedding cake won and the Palast der Republik was condemned. The revivalists were triumphant. Soon Museum Island will be homogenised into stone-white fakery and will no longer twinkle with a thousand setting suns.

Tacita Dean’s (2004; cited in Carvajal, et al. 2008) description of the facade of the now demolished Palace of the Republic evokes the ambiguities surrounding its erasure from the city fabric and the wider dilemmas of presencing the GDR past (Macdonald 2013). Having visited the site over a decade later, walking around the construction site of the new Berlin Palace, I could not find any traces of the artist’s experience. No remnants of the “house of a thousand windows” are to be seen. The emerging Berlin Palace – intended to house the Humboldt Forum – is not a light trap. With its empty windows, this raw, matte facaded concrete structure appears similar to many residential blocks found in post-socialist cities (image 1).

The accompanying fundraising catalogue meticulously presents the cost of every part of the building’s future window decoration – members of the public are encouraged to make financial contributions to the new palace’s expensive baroque ornaments (image 2).

In front of the construction site, other types of objects are on sale. Street vendors sell GDR memorabilia to tourists on their way to Museum Island – there are matryoshka dolls, GDR car stickers, replicas of military hats and toy Trabants. These ersatz artefacts in front of the demolished Palace of the Republic replace the absence of GDR material culture of the site. (image 3)

On the opposite site of the river, with an entrance directly facing the construction site, the DDR Museum is strategically positioned to cater for those who want to learn about the formerly divided city in situ. Alongside other GDR heritage sites and museums scattered around Berlin, such as the Stiftung Haus der Geschichte Museum in the Kulturbrauerei, the Cold War Museum, Checkpoint Charlie, the Stasi Museum, Berlin Wall Memorial Bernauer Straße and others, the DDR Museum represents one of the many facets of Berlin’s GDR past. As a visiting researcher at CARMaH, I spent an afternoon at the museum tracing the material from the demolished Palace of the Republic and participating in its guided tours. This short review emerged out of the visit experience and from discussions with the academic researchers at the Department of European Ethnology at the Humboldt University in Berlin.


A window into a socialist past?

Within its historically resonant location, the popularity of the museum is striking – on a summer day, the space is full of visitors. German and international tourists line up to explore the exhibition individually and in groups. The traces of the Palace of the Republic are located next to a Trabant – one of the museum’s highlights. The Palace exhibition includes an architectural model of the “house of a thousand windows” and an example of the lavish modular ceiling lamps that once illuminated the interiors. The explanation panel, “Palazzo Prozzo”, emphasises the symbolic role of the Palace as a state spectacle. One of the copper window panels, that once enchanted Tacita Dean, hangs from the ceiling. The corresponding label describes the chequered surface of the facade as a cabinet of mirrors:

This pane of metallised thermo-glass from a Belgian manufacturer was part of the curtain facade of the Palace. 25 metres high and 6870 m2 in the area, the metallised cladding produced a golden mirror-effect. Rumor has it that Erich Honecker decided personally on the appearance of the palace, against the wishes of the architect. Designed to reflect sunlight, he felt it added extra prestige to his parliament building.”

Alongside these objects that emphasise monumentality and status, a display cabinet presents a restaurant menu and a coffee set. These functional artefacts remind of the utilitarian uses of the Palace and its numerous amenities, restaurants and entertainment venues, bringing up the social memory related to daily life of the space. This display (image 4) evokes one of the key dilemmas of ‘past presencing’ GDR material culture – reconciling the ambiguities of the mundane and the political, the monumental and the ordinary.

On entering the GDR apartment exhibition space, the first German-speaking tour guide jokingly remarks that some visitors come into the space and immediately notice the lack of windows. This is just a museum – he comforts them – there were windows in socialist blocs. In a dictatorship, the guide explains – everything is government-controlled – life is characterised by homogeneity and scarcity. There is no individuality like that found in the West – everything is geared towards uniformity. Objects are produced fast, cheaply and all look the same. The guide points at the toilet tiles – in the GDR these were seen as a scarce resource – produced almost exclusively for export. He proceeds to explain the co-dependence of GDR manufacturing and West German consumption – the Westerners were supporting the dictatorship through purchasing cheap Eastern products. He remarks that this morally dubious exchange is similar to our consumer behaviour now.
The German tour of the living room begins with a question: Where can you watch TV from the toilet? In the DDR Museum! As with the windowless room, the toilet’s lack of a door is not a reflection of actual living conditions under socialism, but rather explained as a mere decision of museum design. “There were doors in the GDR”, the guide reassures. The guide proceeds with a description of GDR television, emphasising the political uses of media and the risks associated with tuning away from state propaganda programmes. He tells a story of GDR children being asked by their teachers about the look of the clock shown before TV news programmes. Via the child’s description of the clock’s hour markers – points or stripes – a teacher could learn whether the children’s parents watched East or West German television, and report them to the authorities if the latter.

On the next tour of the exhibition, our German-speaking guide focuses on the specific mode of consumption under socialism. All products and domestic objects – he explains – were unified to reduce social tensions – the logic was that the same products meant no jealousy and this led to lack of war. At the same time, he points out, enforced uniformity inevitably led to “problems with being an individual” and most East German citizens had “arranged their lives” to overcome the state-imposed similarities. Illicit Western music in a cassette player was one of the many examples of tactics of resistance. Beyond the mode of dictatorship-led interpretation, the guide presents a reality of negotiations and tensions of everyday life.
As another English-speaking tour enters the space, the guide lifts a wall painting to reveal the “bug”. We are being recorded; in the East your private sphere is infiltrated by the Stasi. The recording device is situated opposite the television set – almost all East Berliners had a TV set to watch West German channels. “You’re trapped in the communist world” – the guide concludes – “but you can still watch West German news”. The guide explains that television was instrumental in building an appetite for a Western lifestyle. After the Wall fell and welcome gifts were offered from banks for their new potential customers, many went to pick up the welcome money (Begrüßungsgeld) to use it in purchases in West Berlin’s department stores. The former East Berliners commonly chose products they had seen on West German TV. In this way, the guide explains, “TV played an important role in bringing together the nation” after reunification.

The last tour is presented to a group of German adolescents. The visitors are encouraged to pick up the phone to listen to people speaking with a “bad Saxon accent” and take a group photograph while exclaiming “Stasi”. The discomfort of socialist life is best exemplified through toilet paper – grey and uncomfortable. It was lucky that the regime was stopped by a friendly revolution – so unusual in comparison to what has recently happened in Ukraine – the guide remarks. It is important to know history – he continues – in order to identify certain patterns and tendencies. He mentioned that we are currently experiencing a situation in Poland and Turkey comparable in some ways to Germany in 1935. After this introduction, the group is invited to further explore the contents of the room.

For Susan Buck-Morss (2002), domestic space under socialism was a place “where people actually experienced the differences between socialism and capitalism in daily life (byt), both as dream and as reality” (2002: 190). The living room presented in the DDR Museum and interpreted by the tour guides evoked dream-like qualities of a multifaceted, ever-changing place of control, enforced uniformity and struggle for individuality. Notions of entrapment and acts of everyday resistance are evoked, bringing out discomfort of things as well as notions of homeliness. Paradoxically, the tour guides’ kaleidoscopic interpretations of the domestic space are reminiscent of a Soviet anecdote reported by Geoffrey Hosking. A listener calls the Armenian Radio with a question: “Is it possible to foretell the future?” The presenter answers: “Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. The problem is with the past: that keeps changing.” (cited in Watson 1994).

In the DDR museum’s eerie representations, the imaginaries of “grey life” under dictatorship are punctuated by “Stasi” jokes. Repeatedly, the typologised realism of interactive in situ display is being contested by the guides who emphasise the artificiality of the space, reminding the visitors that “this is just a museum”.



Unhomely palaces, uncomfortable objects


Representations of the GDR past have been one of the most problematic challenges of German historiography and museology. The DDR Museum, like many other private museums presenting the period, was built on donations of everyday material culture and chose to focus on daily life. As one of the tour guides pointed out, some of the contributors of the collections have sent their objects with labels. He pointed to a photo album sent by an anonymous donor with a homemade, printed label stating: “Typical GDR holiday album” (bottom object – image 5). This object signifies the ambiguity of the artefacts – was the album of a typical type, did it represent typical destinations or did it denote a typical GDR family’s holiday experience? This ambivalent act of giving away personal belongings and self-classifying them as “specimens” of the time is typical for the challenging processes of musealising the GDR. Objects such as a family photograph or the Palace building where many East Germans met for meals do not escape the ambiguities of classifying and interpreting GDR material culture and its museological representations.

For me, this accumulation of GDR objects in the shadow of the erased Palace is the greatest contradiction. Taken together, as a paradoxical whole, the demolished building and the crowded museum demonstrate that the representation of the GDR and its material culture remains a space of tensions in Germany. Complex histories and multiple memories, absences and conflicting reconstructions of the past are drawn together. It remains to be seen what the position of this part of Berlin’s past in relation to the new Palace and the Humboldt Forum exhibitions is. Will the GDR past enter the future-oriented, cosmopolitan vision of the new Forum? Or will it always be relegated to its shadows?


Magda is a Senior Research Associate working on the Reinventing Learning Cities project at the University of Bristol. Her PhD (2010-2015) combined ethnographic fieldwork with research in museums and archives. As part of this project, she co-curated exhibitions at the Constance Howard Gallery and the Horniman Museum. Magda is currently a co-organiser of the Forging Folklore Research Network. She was a visiting researcher at CARMaH in July 2016

Key research interests: heritage and material culture, curating, urban anthropology, design and innovation research


Selected references:

Berdahl, D. (2008) ‘Re-Presenting the Socialist Modern: Museums and Memory in the Former GDR’ in K. Pence and P. Betts (eds) Socialist Modern: East Germany Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 345–66.

Bach, J. (2015). Collecting Communism: Private Museums of Everyday Life under Socialism in Former East Germany. German Politics and Society, 33(1/2), 135-145.

Buck-Morss, S. (2002). Dreamworld and catastrophe: the passing of mass utopia in East and West. MIT press.

Clarke, D., and Wölfel, U. (Eds.). (2011). Remembering the German Democratic Republic: divided memory in a united Germany. Springer.

DDR Museum. The permanent exhibition of the GDR Museum focusing on everyday life in the GDR. Available at: Accessed: 27 July 2016.

Dean, T. (2008) ‘Palast’. In: Carvajal, R., Dean, T., & Fer, B. Tacita Dean: film works. Charta.

Jampol, J. (2012) ‘Problematic Things: East German Materials after 1989’. In: Divided dreamworlds?: the cultural cold war in East and West. Romijn, P., Scott-Smith, G., & Segal, J.(eds.) Amsterdam University Press.

Macdonald, S. (2013). Memorylands: heritage and identity in Europe today. Routledge.

Ludwig, A. (2011) ‘Representations of the Everyday and the Making of Memory: GDR History and Museums’. In: Remembering the German Democratic Republic: Divided Memory in a United Germany, David Clarke and Ute Wölfel (eds). Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 37-53.

Saunders, A., and Pinfold, D. (Eds.). (2012). Remembering and rethinking the GDR: multiple perspectives and plural authenticities. Springer.

Watson, R. S. (1994). Memory, History, and Opposition. School of American Research Press.

Winkler, A. (2015) ‘Remembering and Historicizing Socialism: The Private and Amateur Musealization of East Germany’s Everyday Life.’ In: Exhibiting the German Past: Museums, Film, and Musealization. McIsaac, P. M., & Mueller, G. (Eds.). University of Toronto Press.



In the shadow of the Palace: Unhomely objects in and out of the DDR Museum

by Magdalena Buchczyk

Europas Interne Andere?

by Jonas Tinius

Jobst Moritz Pankok (geb. 1974 in Mülheim an der Ruhr, arbeitet und lebt in Berlin) ist ein deutscher Bühnenbildner, Regisseur, Kurator und bildender Künstler. Sein Interesse gilt sozial engagierten Kunstprojekten, die zumeist mit der Kultur der Sinti und Roma in Zusammenhang stehen. Seit 2011 ist er künstlerischer Leiter der von ihm gegründeten Galerie Kai Dikhas (dt. “Ort des Sehens”), der ersten ständigen Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst der Sinti und Roma im Aufbauhaus am Moritzplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Die Galerie vertritt u.a. das britische Künstlerehepaar Damian und Delaine Le Bas. Seit ihrer Eröffnung hat Pankok über 70 Ausstellungen in der Galerie kuratiert und ist Herausgeber der Katalogreihe „Ort des SehensKai Dikhas. Place to See“ über zeitgenössische Kunst der Sinti und Roma sowie die KünstlerInnen der Galerie.



Ein Gespräch mit Moritz Pankok, Künstler und Kurator der Galerie Kai Dikhas
Jonas Tinius
Jonas Tinius
Jonas Tinius
Jonas Tinius

Einige Tage vor unserem Interview traf ich Pankok auf einer Podiumsdiskussion im Rahmen des European Month of Photography (EMOP) im November 2016 mit den KünstlerInnen und KuratorInnen Valérie Leray und Nihad Nino Pušija in der Galerie. Die Galerie ist nun zum dritten Mal in Folge auf der in ganz Berlin stattfindenden Veranstaltungsreihe EMOP vertreten. Um uns herum steht die Ausstellung von Pušija (Parno Gras) und dem an dem Abend leider verhinderten André Jenö Raatzsch (Your Beautiful Blue Eyes), dessen dekorierter Tisch mit Bildern und Stühlen auf Abwesenheit, Repräsentation und Fremddarstellung hinweist: Ein Stuhl am Tisch ist scherzhaft für die “Bild Zeitung” reserviert. An dem Abend wurde (deutsch-, englisch-, und französischsprachig) über die Darstellung von Sinti und Roma im “Zeitalter der Partizipation” gesprochen. Welchen Einfluss hat das Medium der Fotografie auf die Darstellung von Realität? Und in welchem Zusammenhang steht Kunst und Dokumentation, vor allem mit Verweis auf die Frage nach der Selbst-Repräsentation von subalternen oder ausgegrenzten Minderheiten? Hinter den Stuhlreihen und im Eingang befindet sich die Rauminstallation “Your Beautiful Blue Eyes” von Raatzsch, bei der man nicht erahnen könnte, dass es sich um Kunst von Sinti und Roma handelt – überhaupt verzichtet die Galerie auf solche Hinweise, die die Kunst bereits im Voraus beschreiben und rahmen würden. Ein Zitat von Roland Barthes im Ausstellungsflyer verdichtet diese ästhetische Position: “Letzten Endes ist die Fotografie nicht dann subversiv, wenn sie erschreckt, aufreizt oder gar stigmatisiert, sondern wenn sie nachdenklich macht.” (aus: Die Helle Kammer)

Otto Pankok
Nino Nihad Pusija

Wie kam es zur Idee einer Galerie in Berlin?

Ich habe mich seit Schulzeiten, seit den 1990er Jahren, mit der Kultur der Sinti und Roma auseinandergesetzt, habe im Flüchtlingsheim gearbeitet, Jugendarbeit gemacht, zum Teil deutlich in Richtung Sozialarbeit. Dabei wurde mir klar, dass es einen Teufelskreis gibt bei der Ausgrenzung dieser Minderheit: Aufbauend auf Stereotypen und der öffentlichen Meinung über Sinti und Roma werden immer wieder dieselben Mechanismen der Diskriminierung in Gang gesetzt, die zur Folge haben, dass es Armut, Ausgrenzung und vielleicht auch Kriminalität und Abschiebungen gibt. Das sind traumatisierende Erfahrungen für alle Beteiligten.
In der Stadt Mülheim an der Ruhr, in der ich aufwuchs und zu dessen bekanntem Theater an der Ruhr ich meine Doktorarbeit schrieb, kennt man den Namen Pankok. Manche assoziieren damit den Maler, Grafiker und Bildhauer Otto Pankok (1893-1966), der dort geboren wurde und viele Jahre in der Stadt und Region wirkte. Seine künstlerischen und politischen Arbeiten widmeten sich dabei unter anderem der Ermordung und Verfolgung von Sinti in Düsseldorf, mit denen er selbst lebte und für die er sich auf unterschiedlichen Ebenen einsetzte. Pankok selbst ging während der Zeit des Dritten Reichs notgedrungen in die ‘innere Emigration’. Ihm wurde ein Arbeitsverbot erteilt, seine Werke wurden beschlagnahmt. Viele assoziieren den Namen Pankok heute in Mülheim mittlerweile vermehrt auch mit den Großneffen des Malers und Bildhauers, Jobst Moritz Pankok, der 1974 in der Stadt geboren wurde und dort ebenfalls künstlerisch und politisch aktiv wurde. Moritz Pankok widmet sich dabei dem Erbe Otto Pankoks etwa durch seine Rolle als Ko-Vorstand der Otto-Pankok-Stiftung, die das Otto-Pankok-Museum in einem alten Barock-Landhaus in Hünxe-Drefenack unterhält, oder durch zahlreiche Ausstellungen der Werke Otto Pankoks, die er u.a. in Prag, London und Budapest kuratiert hat. Moritz Pankok geht es jedoch nicht nur um den Erhalt der kritischen Tradition dieses Verwandten. Er arbeitete ebenso als Bühnenbildner des bekannten Roma-Theaters Pralipe, das in den 1980ern aus Skopje nach Mülheim an das Theater an der Ruhr floh und dort beispiellos integriert und zu einem künstlerischen Partner der Institution wurde. Moritz Pankok erhielt auch 2004 den Ruhrpreis für Kunst und Wissenschaften der Stadt Mülheim an der Ruhr und hat eine Reihe von anderen Projekten entwickelt, über die wir uns in einem gemeinsamen Gespräch unterhalten konnten.
Seit über zwanzig Jahren widmet sich Pankok verschiedenen Projekten, die mit der Kultur der Minderheit der Sinti und Roma zu tun haben. Er arbeitete als Ausstatter und Dramaturg für „Das Verschlingen“, eine Produktion über den Holocaust an den Sinti und Roma im TAK – Theater im Aufbau Haus, dessen Kulturverein er seit einigen Jahren leitet, und ist Mitglied im Beirat des RomArchive, einer digitalen Platform bzw. den Archiven der Sinti und Roma.
Im Aufbau Haus, einem imposanten Betonbau am Moritzplatz, gründete Moritz Pankok die Galerie Kai Dikhas, für die er 2016 mit dem Preis ‘Premio de la Cultura Gitana 2016’ des Instituto de la Cultura Gitana (Madrid) ausgezeichnet wurde. Wir begegnen uns nach vielen Jahren sporadischer Kommunikation in Berlin wieder und verabreden uns für ein Gespräch.
Pankok leitet an dem Abend das Gespräch ein: “Gerade in der Fotografie ist das Fremdbild ein immer wieder auftauchendes Thema”. “Daher”, führt er fort, “versteht sich die Galerie Kai Dikhas als Plattform für KünstlerInnen, die sich dieser Minderheit zuordnen – so präsentieren wir ein Gegenbild. Ein Gegenbild, das von den KünstlerInnen selbst besteht und nicht von sozusagen ‘den KünstlerInnen fremden’ Menschen.” Wenige Tage später, bei unserem Interview, spreche ich ihn auf diese Idee an und frage ihn nach der Öffentlichkeitsarbeit der Galerie und der Rolle von kleinen, privaten Initiativen, die in der Stadt verteilt sind.
“Gleichzeitig interessieren uns natürlich auch Projekte wie das Schloss (Anm. das Berliner Stadtschloss auf der Museumsinsel), denn wir sind der Meinung, dass auch die Sinti da rein gehören, unter anderem, da sie da früher eben nicht rein durften. Wenn sich Berlin heute divers darstellen möchte, gehören die Sinti und Roma dazu. Wenn man sie früher vertrieben und vernichtet hat, sollte man heute ihre Sichtbarkeit fördern.” (Moritz Pankok)

“Für eine solche Darstellung benötigt es innovative Konzepte, die Tradition mit Zeitgenössischem, zum Beispiel in der Kunst, nebeneinander darstellt, wie beispielsweise im Jüdischen Museum.” 

“Ich beschäftige mich selber mit Kunst, bin auch selbst Künstler. Ich habe in Performance Design und Scenography studiert, erst in Liverpool dann in London am Central St Martins College of Art and Design. Neben meiner Arbeit mit professionellem Roma-Theater in Deutschland, habe ich in England ein Festival für Roma Kultur, das Baro Ziro (Big Time) Festival, gegründet. Im Rahmen dieses Festivals habe ich KünstlerInnen kennengelernt, die damals in soziokulturellen Zentren ausgestellt haben, aber eigentlich in öffentliche Museen und Galerien gehörten, da ihre Kunst absolut auf dem Niveau des Zeitgenössischen war.”
“Zeitgleich gab es 2007 den ersten Pavilion der Sinti und Roma in Venedig (Paradise Lost, kuratiert von Tímea Junghaus), bei der auch KünstlerInnen ausgestellt wurden, wie das Ehepaar Le Bas, die ich bereits aus England kannte – und als dann 2009 die nächste Biennale anstand, gab es keine Fördergelder. Das ist zwar für Minderheiten besonders schwierig aber umso mehr für KünstlerInnen allgemein, da es immer nur zeitlich begrenzte Projektförderung gibt, obwohl es eigentlich daran mangelt, Kontinuität aufzubauen. Um wirklich gut wirken zu können, und das Momentum einer künstlerischen Darstellung – sei es im Theater oder der bildenden Kunst – zu ermöglichen, muss man kontinuierlich arbeiten. Dafür braucht man bestimmte Strukturen, die KünstlerInnen helfen. Es gibt Stipendienprogramme, Galerien, Museen, die sich um die Kunst einer Mehrheitsgesellschaft kümmern. Aber innerhalb der Minderheit gelingt es nicht einmal ein solches Projekt, wie einen derartig erfolgreichen Pavillon der zeitgenössischen Kunst der Sinti und Roma auf der Venedig Biennale, einen follow-up zu organisieren. Erst 2011 kam es dann zum zweiten “Roma Pavillon”.”
Da habe ich gedacht, man müsse Institutionen schaffen. Ich habe dann zunächst einen Vorschlag geschrieben für einen nächsten Pavillon in Venedig und habe diesen aber dann hier in Berlin Mathias Koch, dem Eigentümer des Aufbau Hauses gezeigt, eigentlich um ihn zu korrigieren und daran zu arbeiten. Es bestand damals der Plan hier auch eine Galerie im Rahmen dieses Hauses der Kreativwirtschaft anzusiedeln und es stellte sich heraus, dass die Idee eine solche Galerie mit einem solchen Thema zu machen gut passte. Ich habe von Anfang an gedacht, genau, dieser Ort hier in Kreuzberg ist der richtige Ort. Diese Idee wurde aufgegriffen und das Aufbau Haus und, indirekt dadurch auch der Aufbau Verlag, sind somit die Unterstützer und Träger der Galerie.
Eine Galerie ist eine bestimmte Form von Institution. Über Deine Nähe zum ‘TAK Theater im Aufbau Haus’ in Kreuzberg hast Du auch die Möglichkeit über andere Kunstformen und Organisationsformen mit Menschen zu arbeiten. Was siehst Du mit einer Galerie für Vor- und Nachteile was eure Arbeit mit KünstlerInnen angeht?

Eine Galerie ist natürlich im weiteren Sinne ein Ort der Kunstvermittlung, deswegen machen wir auch Veranstaltungen, die über das enge Programm einer Galerie hinausgehen. Aber ein Kerngedanke einer Galerie ist nicht nur, dass durch Kunstvermittlung die Galerie als Ort für BesucherInnen entsteht, sondern für uns ist ganz klar, dass wir die Galerie auch als einen kommerziellen Ort sehen. Es ist uns ganz wichtig, dass wir hier nicht aus einer Art von “Mitleid” die Kunst präsentieren und dies als geförderter Ort machen. Wir meinen, dass die Kunst die wir ausstellen daher auch “marktfähig” ist in dem Sinne, dass sie eine hohe künstlerische Qualität aufweist. Ich glaube, dass Kunst, die eine gewisse Dringlichkeit hat und aus einer bestimmten Kommunikationsnotwendigkeit entstanden ist, also auch einen kommerziellen Wert haben kann und “darf”. Die Kunst, die wir ausstellen, hat also einen besonderen Wert und kann das Interesse von Sammlern wecken – und sollte dies nicht aufgrund ihrer Exotik, zum Beispiel, sondern weil durch die Umstände und Kommunikationsnot der Minderheit gerade hier eine besondere Kreativität zum Vorschein kommt. Es entstehen viele interessante und ausgefeilte Konzepte, mit dem Thema der Minderheit sich auseinanderzusetzen. Das wir ein kommerzieller Ort sind ist daher sozusagen Teil der Emanzipation von Kunst aber auch eine Forderung, die im Raum steht.

Die Kunst der Sinti und Roma ist in keinster Art und Weise ein Nischenthema, sondern man kann anhand gerade dieses Feldes zum Teil exemplarisch über gesellschaftliche Strukturen in Europa nachdenken und einen Ausdruck für bestimmte Missstände finden, die vielleicht sogar allgemein gültig sind. Das, was Sinti und Roma von sich fordern und was in der Kunst auch immer wieder auftaucht, geht über die Situation der Sinti und Roma hinaus – es ist ein Zugang zu einem Gespräch über Gleichberechtigung. Das bezieht sich auf Fragen nach Gender-Disparitäten, auf andere Minderheiten, auf unser aller Zusammenleben und auf Demokratieverständnis.
Ich versuche regelmäßig zu widerlegen, dass es so etwas überhaupt gibt wie “die Sinti und Roma Kunst” und finde es aber gleichzeitig auch produktiv, dass hier ein solches Spannungsverhältnis gibt. Es ist gut, dass Leute, die mit solchen Annahme in unsere Galerie kommen, denn sie wird hier mit jeder einzelnen Ausstellung widerlegt.
Du erwähntest, dass Dir irgendwann aufging: “Diese Kunst ist so gut, sie gehört eigentlich in ein Museum”. In vielen Museen, nicht nur in ethnologischen Museen, wird Kunst, die nicht der Mehrheitsgesellschaft zugeordnet wird, häufig in Regionen und “Ethnien” eingeteilt. Arbeitet ihr nicht gerade gegen das Risiko solcher Ordnungen?
Natürlich. Aber man sollte auch sagen, dass es Beispiele gibt, wie diese Probleme gut gelöst werden kann. Aber natürlich ist es problematisch, wenn die Kunst anderer Menschen mit Exponaten aus einer völlig anderen Zeit, oder sogar aus der Kolonialzeit dargestellt wird. Es werden dann natürlich beeindruckende Artefakte herangezogen, große Schiffe oder bunte Häuser, wie wir sie aus den Berliner Museen kennen, aber es ist ein großes Problem, wenn sich KünstlerInnen, die bei uns ausstellen plötzlich in einem ethnografischen Museum wiederfinden würden und dort rein “ethnologisch” nach Ethnien und angeblichen Ursprungsorten, oder zudem noch in der Vergangenheit, verortet würden. Das ist eine große Gefahr.
Viele KünstlerInnen, mit denen wir arbeiten, sagen auch von sich selbst, dass sie nicht nur “Roma KünstlerInnen” sind, da sie nicht die ganze Zeit nur über sich und ihre Hintergründe reden. Natürlich reden sie auch über ihr persönliches Leben oder komplett andere Themen. Im Falle einer Minderheit, die ausgegrenzt wurde und wird, ist die Frage daher wahrscheinlich wichtiger, wie sie dargestellt wird, als wenn ich mich als deutscher Künstler frage, ob ich nun “deutsche” Kunst mache. … Mir wird direkt ganz unheimlich wenn ich so spreche! In einer Ausstellung, die ich einst in Hamburg gesehen habe, wurde beispielsweise der Künstler Daniel Baker neben Joseph Beuys ausgestellt, mit seiner Installation zum Rudel. Da ging es um Ideen des Nomadischen in der Kunst generell und nicht nur in Bezug auf die Sinti und Roma. Es entstand so eine Sensibilität zu dem Thema, auch wenn es immer noch ein stereotypes ist. Auch wenn wir die Arbeit solcher Institutionen gerne beeinflussen wollen und dort intervenieren wollen, wären ich und viele andere KünstlerInnen natürlich lieber in Institutionen, die eine größere Freiheit mit sich bringen, als diesen Fokus auf die ethnische Zugehörigkeit – und die umgekehrt vielleicht eher das Allgemeingültige in der Kunst sehen.
Die Sinti und Roma sind seit Jahrhunderten in Europa, werden aber dennoch häufig als nicht- oder außereuropäisch dargestellt. Das ist eine liminale Ausgrenzung durch geografisches Othering, das innerhalb von Europa vielleicht schwer zu greifen ist: dass es eine andere gesellschaftliche Position gibt, außerhalb der Ordnungen der europäischen Mehrheitsgesellschaft. 
Diese Position Teilen die Sinti und Roma mit anderen. Man könnte auf eine andere Art und Weise auch sagen, KünstlerInnen sind eine solche doppelte Randgruppe der Gesellschaft. Es gibt also mehrere Formen von Randgruppen oder Randperspektiven, die aber eigentlich von verschiedenen Richtungen zu einem sehr plastischen Bild werden können. Innerhalb der Minderheit der Sinti und Roma sind die Künstler dann eine weitere Minderheit. Das, was die KünstlerInnen bei uns darstellen und damit zur Diskussion bringen, erzeugt auch Widerstand und Widerspruch von Seiten der eigenen Minderheit. Das heisst, viele haben eine doppelte Funktion und Rolle, die sehr wichtig ist. Zum Teil ist die Erfahrung einer Minderheit innerhalb der Minderheit, also die der Sinti und Roma KünstlerInnen, mit ihrer Arbeit öffentlich gehört zu werden, voller Spannungen, da sie häufig, pars pro toto, für die ganze Gruppe sprechend verstanden werden. Solche Spannungen verhandeln wir auch hier in der Galerie. Dadurch, dass aber hier im Haus alleine sechs Organisationen der Minderheit tätig sind, miteinander arbeiten und Büros hier haben, gibt es viele Anlässe, bei denen sich neue Publiken erschließen lassen. Da werden junge Roma aus Rumänien beispielsweise plötzlich mit der Kunst hier in der Galerie konfrontiert:. Das erzeugt natürlich einen starken Effekt und ermutigt Leute, sich auch persönlich zu äußern, auch über Dinge, die in der Heimat oder der eigenen Community schwierig sind anzusprechen.
Die andere Beobachtung ist eine “von außen”, d.h. von unserer europäischen Mehrheitsgesellschaft gesehen. Die Idee der “internen Anderen” ist hier ein ganz eigenartiges Phänomen. Viele Roma sind ja auch deshalb resigniert, da sie sich fragen, wie man nach 600 Jahren Präsenz in Europa immer noch von ihnen als den “Fremden” spricht. Kunst erzeugt da eine Wechselwirkung, die nach innen wie auch nach außen wirkt.
Die Galerie Kai Dikhas ist für sich gesprochen bereits eine besonders komplexe Institution mit vielen Querverbindungen in andere Teile des internationalen Kunstfeldes. Dennoch hast Du auch beschrieben, dass es aber dennoch wichtig ist, nicht nur am Rand zu arbeiten, sondern in die Institutionen hineinzugehen, beispielsweise in große Museen und Projekte.
Wir haben im Oktober 2016 im Heidelberger Schloss eine Ausstellung gemacht. Das Schloss war da for mich ein starker Reizpunkt: Ob wir da wohl reinkommen würden, ob die Verwaltung uns dort haben wollte, ob es nicht lukrativer ist, dort Hochzeiten zu veranstalten, usw. Aber wir haben es geschafft. Ich halte es für enorm wichtig, in Orte hineinzukommen, mit Menschen, die dort früher ausgegrenzt waren, nie dort hineindurften und selbst auch nie gedacht hätten, dort jemals hineinzukommen. Es ist unheimlich wichtig, dass man eben solchen Menschen besondere Wertschätzung zukommen lässt, insbesondere in solchen für sie immer geschlossen Zentren der Macht. Sinti und Roma waren zu verschiedenen Zeiten ja im Prinzip “vogelfrei” und solche Entscheidungen sind in auch in Schlössern gefallen, d.h. es handelt sich auch natürlich um symbolische Akte, wenn man diese öffnet. Wenn man, im Falle des Humboldt Forums, ein Bild von Berlin schaffen will, das vollständig ist oder das überhaupt einen Wert hat, muss man die Minderheiten, die man versucht hat zu vertreiben, in solch ein Bild ganz selbstverständlich aufnehmen. Es ist nämlich immer wieder überraschend für eine Mehrheitsgesellschaft überhaupt zu sehen, welchen regen Austausch es auch gegeben hat. Sinti und Roma waren nicht immer nur die ausgegrenzten Bettler des Stereotyps, sondern es gab schon immer einen intensiven Austausch mit der Mehrheitsgesellschaft – im Kanon der klassischen Musik, beispielsweise, ist dies musikhistorisch sogar nachweisbar. Dann gab es Beispiele von einzelnen Musikern, die so bekannt waren, dass sie eine ganze Epoche geprägt haben. Aber hier sind wir wieder beim Stereotyp der Musik. Es gab auch ganz alltäglichen Austausch, vom Handwerk, Handel, Gastronomie, bis hin zum Theater oder dem Kino. Diese Traditionen waren lebendig, bis sie schon zur Weimarer Republik ausgegrenzt wurden. Die Nazis haben ja nicht damit aus dem Nichts begonnen, sondern Gesetzesgebungen übernommen. Das mündete dann in Internierungslagern in Marzahn, oder in Düsseldorf, wo auch ohne Anweisungen aus Berlin Deportationen organisiert wurden. Wenn man ein Bild von dieser Stadt erzeugen wollen würde, wäre es gut, wenn man ganz natürlich die Minderheit aufnehmen würde, aber ohne ein Bild zu erschaffen, was auf Zeittafel und historischen Fotografien beruht, sondern dass man es zum Leben erweckt, in dem man es aus einem heutigen und ganz klar mit einem künstlerischen Beitrag, verbindet. So entstünde im lebenden Gedächtnis eines Museumsbesuchers auch ein lebendiges Bild, nicht einer vergangene Zeit, sondern eines aktuell, akuten Zusammenhangs. Es geht darum, sozusagen lebende Erinnerungen den Besuchern oder Zuschauern mitzugeben, um bewegtes, aktuelles und lebendes Bewusstsein anzustoßen.
Dafür sollte man das Potential, das bei diesen Künstlern der Minderheit besteht, aufgreifen. Oft ist es so, dass historische Fotos in dokumentarischen Ausstellungen zudem noch Täterdokumentationen sind. Diese prägen so dann heute noch die Vorstellung von solchen Ausstellungen und den dargestellten Minderheiten. Man sieht zwar Menschen und entwickelt möglicherweise Empathie, aber es entsteht eine große Distanz. In dem Zusammenhang ist Kunst eine wichtige Komponente. Natürlich kann man behaupten, dass unwissenschaftliche Perspektiven dadurch entstehen und ich will auch nicht sagen, dass Künstler nun nur noch zu diesen Themen beauftragt werden sollten. Das wäre auch nicht der richtige Weg: Im Gegenteil, die Spuren und die Rückstande eines solchen Traumas tauchen ganz natürlich in der Kunst auf. Ich brauche keinen Historiker, der KünstlerInnen den Hintergrund zu ihren Geschichten liefert: einem Künstler wie Alfred Ulrich, der 13 Angehörige aus der Familie in der Nazizeit verloren hat und der den Namen eines Bruders trägt, den er nie kennengelernt hat, da er im KZ umgekommen ist, brauche ich nicht zu erzählen, was da passiert ist. Er muss auch keine figürliche Darstellung dieser Zeit anfertigen, da in seiner Kunst diese Erfahrung reflektiert und zu finden ist – aber auf eine diskrete und zeitgenössische Art und Weise. Es braucht Mut, mit einer solchen Geschichte an eine Öffentlichkeit zu treten, auch wenn die Bilder, die dabei entstehen nicht klar zuzuordnen sind. Es geht hier nicht um die Illustration von dem, was man in historischen Tafeln erfahren würde: es handelt sich hier um einen neuen Beitrag, ein neues Schaffen, das entsteht.

Dieser Text basiert auf einem Interview mit Moritz Pankok, geführt am 4. November 2016 in der Galerie Kai Dikhas. Jonas Tinius ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (post-doc) am Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Er schrieb seine Doktorarbeit über politisches Theater und Migration in Deutschland und forscht seit 2016 im Rahmen des Projektes “Making Differences in Berlin” (AvH-Stiftung) zu kuratorischen Praktiken und zeitgenössischer Kunst in Berlin.

Europas Interne Andere?

by Jonas Tinius

Ein Museum wirft sie auf keinen Fall weg! Thoughts on Preservation, Disposal and Destruction

by Mirjam Brusius

“Was macht eigentlich ein Museum?” The headline on a label at the children’s corner of the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin caught my eye the other day. One thinks one knows the answer, but in fact, presenting an unambiguous response to this seemingly easy question to a child would pose a problem. “Now let’s see how they manage to get that across”, I thought almost gloatingly. Only recently I was fascinated by how the DHM managed to break down complex historical facts on German colonialism on specific labels in so-called ‘accessible language’. Curious to find out what museums do, I read on: a museum collects a great variety of things, the label told me, it examines and displays them. It obtains valuable but also very ordinary objects. There is one thing, however, these different objects have in common: under no circumstances will the museum throw them away! (“Ein Museum wirft sie auf keinen Fall weg!”).

Rather than the statement as such, it was more the affirmative nature of the exclamation mark that gave me some thought. It added an indignant and defensive layer to the label, anticipating the possibility that someone might think that throwing away things is what museums might do; unacceptably so.

The polite word to use for such a process in a museological context is ‘de-accessioning’, but even under this label the phenomenon as such has not been widely discussed in museum studies and related fields. Why this is so, and why museums are (apparently) bound to keep objects forever has been subject to a book I recently co-edited on museum storage areas, spaces where thousands of objects continue to exist without ever being shown (ed. with Kavita Singh, Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt, forthcoming with Routledge). What are these objects, and why do museums feel an obligation to keep them? During my two-month fellowship at CARMAH these questions became pertinent in the conversations I had with various team members in the context of a variety of seemingly different projects, which pose very similar questions: what do we keep, and why? How do we know whether what we keep might be of interest for future generations? What do we get rid of, and how can we guarantee that we will not regret such decisions? Whose interests do we need to recognize when we keep objects for the future? These questions also came to the fore on a more political level at a roundtable I was involved in about ‘Heritage and the Politics of Recognition’, following an inspiring lecture by Laurajane Smith at CARMAH in December 2016. But most people would agree that they also play a role in our daily life. “Surely, you too own something which you will keep forever”, the museum label in the Jüdisches Museum concluded. Indeed, everyone who has undertaken some serious spring-cleaning has been confronted with this question. In these odd moments we envision our personal belongings as a potential archive for a future we cannot predict and for an audience we do not know; a moment, which can trigger thoughts much deeper and more existential than the original meaning the objects in questions ever had for us.

Halfway through my fellowship, I was confronted with these questions when I had to help clear the room of a great-aunt of mine who had died in an almshouse. She left no immediate descendants. The awkwardness naturally attached to such an occasion was enforced when my grandmother asked me to pick an object or two of my choice. Her sister (my great-aunt) loved playing the recorder, crocheting, and teaching budgies how to speak. Her tiny room was full of objects, which represented these peculiar passions, but I feel no particular affinity to any of these things. What to take? Something which was meaningful to her? Or meaningful to me? Unable to take a decision I observed how the dynamics unfolded: the family split into people who have “a thing with things” (and love owning many), blithely piling all sorts of strange knickknacks in bags and boxes, and those who don’t, like my ‘purist’ aunt who impatiently waited forever at the doorway, constantly asking whether we were finally done. For some reason I still need to figure out why no male family members had turned up in the room. I later found my uncle, enjoying cake in the kitchen.

"do we keep things for us, for those who originally owned them, or for our descendants?"

In retrospect, the experience felt like a microcosm of many of the questions we had discussed at CARMAH about the material culture of the future: do we keep things for us, for those who originally owned them, or for our descendants? A workshop I carried out at CARMAH in January 2017, ‘Beyond the insular view: Berlin’s Museumsinsel in the light of current museological transformations’, took these questions further by looking at current debates about preservation both in Berlin and in the Middle East. Preservation, we discussed, is more related to disposal and even destruction than we often tend to think. Objects not being ‘selected’ for preservation are likely to be quickly disposed. It is often the case that the removal of former buildings, i.e. destruction, is a condition for the preservation of another. Palmyra’s construction as an empty tourist site in the early 20th century by the French Mandate, for which a lively village inside the ruins had to be destroyed, is a case in point. Up to then temples had been used as mosques, churches and even as a space to give birth. In Berlin, the ‘resurrection’ of a Prussian castle at the expense of the removal of the DDR’s Palast der Republic is one example of a collective decision in which one historical past was prioritized over another. Deciding which objects and buildings should and should not be preserved in the historically charged architectural and geopolitical infrastructure around Berlin’s museum island adds an additional layer to a debate, which is already highly controversial. Going far beyond Berlin’s large construction site on the Schlossplatz, the hardly noticeable and seemingly innocent clearance and removal of material culture in the city – former DDR flag poles and border posts – might today be labelled a necessary ‘disposal’ in a place with countless building projects. But, in the future, these small acts of removal might also be considered by some an act of violent destruction of historical traces.

The museological reflex to keep as many things as possible ‘just in case’ may counteract such potential conflicts, but even here, canons, taste and preferences change. Storage space is limited. Be it in a museum, during house-clearance, or in urban structures; the preservation of material objects is in fact a complex and multi-layered process in which several groups of interest are likely to remain ‘unrecognized’ (to speak with Laurajane Smith). Given the variety of possibilities and the complexities it is all the more noteworthy that preservation tends to not only be presented as a moral duty, but that is also subject to specific normative regulations adopted by institutions throughout the Western world; institutions which extend their values to remote territories and material culture, for instance, in the Middle East. In other words, current debates rarely consider that preservation and destruction are not necessarily opponents, but potential accomplices in many ways. It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies that these values and their seeming imperturbability are part of the reason for widespread destruction in some parts of the world: Objects seen of value by some but as “idolatrous” to others were sometimes destroyed precisely because they were considered valuable and worthy of preservation by opposing parties. In short, attacks on so-called ‘shared’ heritage in the Middle East may be targeted subversions of the preservation paradigm. But this – to use a German metaphor – is yet another construction site.

Mirjam Brusius, is a research associate at TORCH, University of Oxford.

I managed to avert an ill-fitted winter coat and several hair clips after it was suggested that those were the things I should take. The problem was that there were things I actually did want to take, such as a tiny photograph of my great-grandmother in a silver amulet. But alongside other photographs this precious thing instinctively made its way to a red paper box, which everyone agreed my grandmother should inherit (who was in fact too busy with finding future homes for all those worn out coats in the wardrobe to even notice the amulet). Going through the piles of papers I found an envelope stamped in Cambridge, Mass, which contained a pile of photographs I had taken myself and sent to my great-aunt in 2013. I let it slip into my bag. Odd as it may seem, I liked the idea that my photographs went in circles and decided to archive the envelope and its content as a record of my cordial relationship with my relative. After much pondering I also took two further things, which I felt represented not only my great-aunt more specifically, but also the charged situation we were in on that day: a crocheted ladybird made out of wool and a nutshell, and a peculiar styrofoam bird – quickly adopted by some children present – which contained an authentic beak and feathers, possibly to serve as a substitute for one of my great-aunt’s birds, which had recently passed away. This bird itself (and in a way also the ladybird made out of a nutshell) carried baggage related to the issues of preservation and memory.

"Be it in a museum, during house-clearance, or in urban structures; the preservation of material objects is in fact a complex and multi-layered process in which several groups of interest are likely to remain ‘unrecognized’"

Ein Museum wirft sie auf keinen Fall weg! Thoughts on Preservation, Disposal and Destruction

by Mirjam Brusius

Heritage and the Politics of Recognition

by John-Paul Sumner

Silenced, ignored or ‘unrecognised’ people are, by this very definition, not part of the regular media-museum discourse. The CARMAH event, Heritage and the Politics of Recognition sought to explore how diverse communities in a city can be given a voice, listened to and represented in heritage and museum culture. So whose heritage is represented in public spaces? And who decides what is ‘our’ shared heritage?

Three stimulating lectures on people-power, the methods by which citizens are facilitated and enabled to, not only, have their stories represented, but also in doing so change the present and influence the future. All three lectures featured apparently disenfranchised citizens and the story of how these communities insisted that their heritage be represented in an often indifferent society. The three examples that were presented by each speaker were: the lives of de-industrialised Coal Miners, oppressed Inner City populations in London, and the exploited citizens of Newhaven, USA.  A panel discussion sought to examine how the experiences of diverse communities in other cities could be useful in defining how Berlin will represent its history, heritage and communities. I have a special interest in this topic, with experience in working with disengaged young people in museums. My role in Berlin is to help develop the Museum für Islamische Kunst at the Pergamon into a visitor focussed and inclusive experience.

In their talks the speakers outlined communities that could be described as being ‘unrecognised’, ignored or unenfranchised community. Laurajane Smith (Head of the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra) discussed how in the 1980’s the mining communities of Great Britain were disenfranchised by the then Government, whose leader Margaret Thatcher decreed ‘that there is no such thing as society’. Towns’ and even some cities economies were destroyed and once proud communities humiliated. For thirty years these communities have been victims/survivors of destitution and neglect. As a group of people the British coal miners, their families and the towns that they lived-in can be seen as one community. Gareth Millington (Department of Sociology, University of York) presented the example of the people of Brixton. Brixton was a mainly Afro Caribbean neighborhood in London. For an accurate depiction have a look at the film Babylon from 1980. The 1981, the last days of the post-war settlement, riots were the result of, ‘institutional racism’ by the police and other agencies caused a community to be oppressed. David Huyssen (Department of History, University of York) described the cultural and economic influence of Yale University on the city of Newhaven, USA.  A post-industrial town, Yale, in the centre of the city, is the most powerful employer and has redeveloped swaths of the city. However, Newhaven has been subjected to ‘progressive inequality’ between the wealthy university in tandem with its business partners and the people of Newhaven many of whom are employees of the University.

One observation that could be suggested is that the process of heritage formation is borne by conflict, civil disobedience, strikes, revolution and political movements. Perhaps to find the heritage of the future we need to look for disquiet in the present. So we have examples of three ‘unrecognized’ communities and how these people harnessed heritage to become visible to either the authorities or general society.

The post-coal mining community of Overton and Wakefield, West Yorkshire, felt that there was mis-recognition, that they were underrepresented. Their story was not being told. The working mines were never going to return. So for regeneration and economic reasons the community government decided to re-develop the mine as a Heritage Museum, The National Coal Mining Museum at Caphouse Colliery in Yorkshire England. A significant aspect of the museum experience is the underground tour led by ex-miners. The community turned to heritage from which they developed self-esteem and recognition to acquire re-distribution of resources, which they achieved. The people of Brixton who were often treated with prejudice sought their ‘Right to the City’. The right to the city is an idea and a slogan that was first proposed by Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le Droit à la ville. Lefebvre summarizes the idea as a “demand…for a transformed and renewed access to urban life”. So the initial cultural reaction to unrecognition were riots (an observation by the author is that the end of the Coal mining industry was also marked by conflict, perpetrated by the police against the miners), but subsequently the revolutionary culture of that period is now celebrated and admired. Cultural developments that lead directly back to the riots of ’81 include the Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square and ‘First Child’ Sculpture which is a Soweto uprising memorial. The heritage is also in the nostalgia for the agitators and the civil unrest.  And in Newhaven, The university workers union has joined forces with the city’s other two main unions to create a powerful voice of the people. This union of unions have broken-down spacial and racial barriers that were originally constructed by the actions of the university. They have created a political movement that seeks to address racial and economic divisions and they have acquired a degree of authority by being voted onto the local council. They have used this authority to re-instate a sacked college kitchen worker, Corey Menafee, an African-American dishwasher, who knocked out a stained-glass window-pane that showed black slaves harvesting cotton in the fields. As Corey related, he no longer wanted to be subjected to seeing the “racist, very degrading” image at his place of work. The union is also challenging the college over its name Calhoun College, in honour of its alumni, slaver John Colhoun.


To this writer a similarity between these examples is that the ‘authorities’ did not approach these groups and invite them to tell their stories .These groups insisted that their concerns be discussed. In the case of the coal miners it was the local council who represented these communities that triggered the idea for the heritage museum and in London and Newhaven, it was people self-organizing to create change. Top level authorities did not beckon them into the establishment.

A thread that runs through these three cases is that of the politics of recognition. Professor Sharon Macdonald cheerfully introduced Laurajane with the observation that French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur has distinguished as much as 23 different usages of the notion “to recognize” grouping them under three main categories, namely recognition as identification, recognizing oneself and mutual recognition.

Recognition is a tool that Laurajane described. Heritage and identity are intertwined with commonsense and with policy. How can we define the power and consequences of the heritage we create? What power does heritage have? Heritage is a resource of power and the politics of recognition. In our lifetimes civil rights, indigenous rights and gender rights have developed to confront monocultural national identity. How is recognition defined? It is a struggle where a particular group demands a say in the politics of the day. Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth defined recognition as a search for recognition and esteem. Respect is a form of recognition. Receiving respect is essential to wellbeing and recognition. Negotiation of social values is esteem plus recognition. Nancy Frasier commented (2000) that lack of recognition causes disenfranchisement. A lack of recognition denies participation the distribution and redistribution of resources and rights. There can be no recognition without redistribution of resources and rights. People who seek recognition must first realize that they have a heritage that is not recognized. For recognition to occur, powerbrokers must first realize that they are excluding others.

The emotional skills of offering recognition include shame, pride, envy and compassion. Empathy is key to be able to offer recognition, empathy is often described as superficial. But, sincere empathy is required for recognition to proceed.

So there are six key elements relating to identity and heritage.

1)    Authority creates Heritage

2)    Individuals turn to museums to seek validation of their own identity, museums reinforce identify and some people use museums to see how their identity is being portrayed.

3)    Museums are often in a position to withhold recognition.

4)    Those who seek recognition, by definition, only have access to discussion and a voice out with the usual media.

5)    Heritage is a negotiation process.

6)    Self-recognition is a fundamental stage in any recognition process.

Laurajane’s ‘emotion-effective’ practices remind me of my work on the use of ‘values’ to engage with visitors, which I cannot resist in sharing. A case study that I developed in Scotland in the late 1990’s echoes the importance of emotion and recognition. The community that the museum worked with was disengaged young people to help develop their self-confidence.  A World Health Organisation study indicated that levels of personal self-confidence amongst children of school age were low across Europe, particularly in Scotland which ranked 23rd out of 29 countries in terms of confidence (Currie 2000, 26). Looking at this research again, Germany has even lower levels of wellbeing in young people! The Scottish Parliament published a discussion paper identifying concerns about the negative impact of low levels of confidence (and identified that low self-esteem is a risk factor for victimisation by others, adolescent eating disorders, teenage pregnancy and poor economic outcomes) and outlined activities that could contribute to raising levels of confidence. These activities included engagement in educational and cultural opportunities. The issue of confidence is also addressed in the Scottish School Curriculum. A cornerstone of this curriculum is to enable young people to become confident individuals, with self-respect, a sense of well-being, secure values and ambition.

Self-efficacy (the belief of ones’ own ability to reach specific goals) underpins confidence. The objective of a programme that was in operation at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, UK to improve young visitors’ self-efficacy. The aim was to use the museum to help young people develop life skills. The outcome was that teenagers used the museum collections to discover their own character strengths, and this improved their self-confidence.

The young people were asked to define their role models and crucially, what it was about these people that they found admirable. There are four main themes or values that young people found attractive in others: Determination; Endurance; Trust and Compassion. Our innovation was to find stories of these personality strengths in our collections in the museum. By completing video games the visitors are compelled to express their own compassion, trustworthiness, determination and endurance. Our visitors discover that they, in fact, share the attributes of their role models and heroes.

Back to Berlin and part two of the evening and the intellectual prowess was fortified with valued guest contributions during a lively round table discussion moderated by Katarzyna Puzon (CARMAH) that was dedicated to some of the issues presented earlier: Claudia Gemmeke (Director Department Forum, Stadtmuseum Berlin) represents a national collection of over 4.5 million objects that address the history of Berlin. Much of the collection is Art and Decorative Arts and they have five locations across Berlin and the surroundings. All this City Museum of Berlin collecting is in addition to the district museums of Berlin. The City museums do projects with pupils and committees to make them aware of the collections and to evaluate what types of exhibitions the citizens want to see. The goal is that different diversities are apparent in the museum. Noa Ha (Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Technische Universität Berlin) highlighted that when creating a City archive it is often the immigrants to that city that are often neglected. The Roma people of Berlin had to create their own archive and some of the black people of Berlin and wider Germany have developed a ‘No Humboldt’ movement to protest against any proposals to glorify violence in the new Museum. Mirjam Brusius (Faculty of History, Oxford University) observed that Museums tend to pick and choose what is inclusive and what is seen as ‘other’. For example, Ancient Egyptian culture is seen to be embedded in European heritage and is presented as such, however, Islamic culture is seen as separate, ‘other’, and so it has its own special museum to mark it out.  Susan Kamel (University of Applied Sciences, Berlin) nailed it when she asked ‘how do you turn the philosophy of recognition into practice? And Sharon concurred, perhaps like Schrodinger’s cat, the moment you heritigize a movement you stop it in aspic.

For me Laurajane summed it all up nicely when she reminded us that the process of using recognition is just a tool. Alongside all the other tools at a museum’s disposal. What is important is what our higher calling is as museums. What we actually do in museum. Plus what can museums cause to happen? What are the consequences of our actions as museums…?

John-Paul Sumner is a Kulturstiftung Des Bundes International Fellow based at The Museum für Islamische Kunst Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. This role involves introducing an interpretation protocol for the permanent re-display of the museum.

Heritage and the Politics of Recognition

by John-Paul Sumner

„Cultural heritage“ as political means

by Fabian Stark

On 21 June 2016, Regina Bendix, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen, and Stefan Groth, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bonn, held their talk about „‚Kultur(-erbe)‘ als flexibles Konzept in EU-Kulturpolitik und Außenbeziehungen“ („Culture (-al heritage)“ as a flexible concept in EU cultural policy and foreign relations), framed by the colloquium at the Department of European Ethnology under the heading European Heritage and Memory Politics. Together, Bendix and Groth had contributed to the DFG-Research Unit „The Constitutions of Cultural Property“.

Whilst „culture“ is much commented on and instrumentalized on a high political level, anthropological studies have so far neglected “policy on the ground”, the speakers claimed. Leaving „cultural heritage“ in scare quotes, Bendix and Groth traced the genealogy and tactical usage of cultural concepts in EU policies  dealing with identity and economics.

Bendix and Groth argued that the short timeline of „(cultural) heritage’s“ usage in European policies displays the incoherence, flexibility, and ambiguous contextualities of the concept. What is crucial, according to Bendix and Groth, is that „culture“ took on a life of its own for legitimizing politics, beginning as a vague claim for European ”unity in diversity“ and moving to a means of soft powered governance, economic success, identity mediations, and strengthening of international relations. Likewise, the speakers remarked that it is important not to neglect that the EU is not one, but quite a lot of actors with often contesting interests.

As one vantage point in 1954, the European Cultural Convention was initiated in Paris and was to become one opener of the Bologna Process. It states that a „common heritage“ fosters a „greater understanding of one another among the peoples of Europe“, and a  „development of European culture“. As such, according to the speakers, the European Cultural Convention conceptualized culture for the first time as a political and identical means.

In 1972, the UNESCO recommended „the protection, at the National Level, of the Cultural and Natural Heritage“ ( What followed, according to Bendix and Groth, were normalizing practices that enforced an imbalance of cultural heritage, which was conceptualized as materialized European values. Furthermore, in 1985, the Council of the European Union introduced the European City of Culture, now known as the European Capital of Culture, which aims to show the diversity and common grounds of European cultural heritage.

In 2008, with the European agenda for culture in a globalizing world, cultural diversity, creativity for growth and jobs, and vitalized international relations were promoted. Thus the paper conceptualized „culture“ as means of European „soft power“ and cultural diplomacy, and was explicitly instrumentalized for economic purposes.

This economic instrumentalization of cultural concepts was taken further most recently in 2015, when the European Commission published their report Getting Cultural Heritage to Work for Europe, which pushes the economic capabilities of cultural heritage: „Evidence demonstrates that relatively modest investment in cultural heritage can pay substantial dividends.“ Bendix and Groth reflected that politically, „culture“ is currently treated as an investment, rather than as a source of identity or commons.

Consequently, during the discussion that followed it was asked: What are the topological conditions of negotiations of cultural concepts? And how to relate the research of (policy) documents with participant observations in EU institutions, and with interviews conducted with their agents? Finally, the question was asked as to what distinguishes ‚heritage‘ from ‚culture‘In response, Bendix argued for heritage’s status as a product of processes of identity politics, which are elaborated with the help of cultural concepts.

Fabian Stark studies European Ethnology in Berlin, his forthcoming Master thesis follows European used clothing markets and its relationship with the fast fashion industry.

Monte Urgull in San Sebastian. European Capital of Culture 2016. Photo Fabian Stark

Rathaus San Sebastian. European Capital of Culture 2016. Photo Fabian Stark

„Cultural heritage“ as political means

by Fabian Stark

Review: “What are museums good for in the 21st Century”

by Anne-Sophie Reichert

Taking the lead from Nicholas Thomas’ new book  “The return of curiosity. What museums are good for in the 21st century,” CARMaH invited some of Berlin’s most prominent curators and museum directors to discuss Thomas’ book in particular and the function and value of museums today more broadly.

As Thomas explained to a crowded and attentive audience, his forthcoming book seeks to tackle the following conundrum: On the one hand, scholars of museum studies have critiqued anthropological and archeological museums for being outdated, reaffirming and reiterating colonial and classist historical narratives in their exhibition curation and design. In this sense, museums seem outdated. On the other hand, numbers of museum visitors have never been higher than today. New museums are built and existing museums are expanding, investing in innovative infrastructure and exhibition formats. What then makes people go to the museum? Thomas argued that museums function as places for collaboration and collective exploration; they promote a sense of community in the shared process of acquiring knowledge. As spaces in which one can participate in public life, museums foster civil society. Relatedly, Thomas held that collections should be understood as more than an agglomeration of material things—they represent complex assemblages of places, times, peoples, atmospheres and economies. In this sense, collections are a repository that is contingent and can be used for the creation of new work, exploring or altering established relations.

The ensuing panel discussion centered around three main themes.

The first was brought up in Bernd Scherer’s critique of Thomas’ central notion of curiosity. Scherer argued that curiosity presupposes an object to be curious about. A curious attitude would reaffirm the colonial gaze, objectifying materials and peoples for scientific observation and imperial governance. Sven Sappelt commented that while Scherer’s critique holds true, it is not enough if one is to engage in cutting edge curatorial practice.  Sappelt explained that he is working with artists who have advocated postcolonial critique for the past decades but are now already moving a step further. In this sense, they are ahead of the average museumgoer who hasn’t heard yet of Said, Spivak and Hall. The exchange between Scherer and Sappelt reflected the difficulty of finding a museum narrative and design that can be educational as much as on the forefront of research. While postcolonial studies has been a hot topic in the academy and the arts for a number of years already, they are only now arriving in museums. Although the desire for academic research and museum display to merge more closely was articulated by Verena Lepper, its practical realization still proofs quite difficult. Second, the political responsibility of museums in face of rising xenophobia in Germany was debated. While Scherer held that cultural institutions are not equipped with the language to tackle problems which were prior taken care of by government institutions and will consequently not produce interesting work if they are under the pressure to ‘be political,’ Lepper argued that museums are funded by the government and are thus already shaped by its political directive. Inka Bertz underscored that it is imperative for museums to differentiate their own mode of action in the European refugee crisis from that of scientists and politicians. Third, Thomas’ central argument that museums are spaces for collective experience and collaboration was questioned by Bertz who argued that one thing which museums are good at is providing solitude for undisturbed individual experience. Therefore Bertz was skeptical in face of the trend to think of museums predominantly as communal spaces. She argued that it remains unclear how the nature of collections and archives and the community approach go together in practice.

Given the panelists’ comments, it remains in doubt whether curiosity as an attitude at the core of the revitalization of museums can be understood simply as the spirit of discovery of a child, that is, without judgment, like Thomas suggests. In this light, panelists and audience alike had more questions than answers as to the future of museums. From an anthropological perspective, it is difficult to not ask the obvious: Why not start with ethnographic fieldwork in the locations at stake? From Thomas’ argument about what museums contain one could set out to ask: What do visitors do with museums—how do they handle what is offered? How do people—visitors and employees alike—feel and move, think and talk in the museum? Can we understand a museum without focusing solely on individual experience, for example by mapping its atmosphere? Being curious about how humans and non-humans alike are in museums might reveal unknown and surprising things museum are good at.

Anne-Sophie Reichert is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research lies at the intersection of socio-cultural anthropology and historical epistemology of emotion, cognition and embodiment.

Review: “What are museums good for in the 21st Century”

by Anne-Sophie Reichert

Recapitulation of the exhibition visit to „Deutscher Kolonialismus“ and subsequent panel discussion on “Ethnographic Museums and the Question of the Postcolonial”

by Christian Beeck

Taking the visit and Lecture of Wayne Modest, Head of the Curatorial Department at Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam as an occasion to observe the latest developments in the Berlin Museum Landscape, CARMAH invited him to visit the exhibition „Deutscher Kolonialismus“ [German Colonialism] at Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) and to join the exhibition’s curator Heike Hartmann to discuss the heritage of the colonial and the (re-)presentation of its objects. I and a small group of CARMAH staff and affiliates, as well as students from the Institute for European Ethnology were to join the exhibition walk.

„Deutscher Kolonialismus“ is remarkable for being the first stand-alone overview exhibition in a German State Museum on the (active) role of the German Empire in the colonial project, after years of debate and demands by activist groups and initiatives for a more thorough engagement with the time of colonial expansion and its legacy.

After an individual visit of the exhibition the group came together to engage with Hartmann on a broad range of questions, especially regarding her own position as a white curator in relation to colonialism but also colonial continuities in the museum landscape.

All of this touches on the question of the ‚post‘ in postcolonial, but what kind of notion can we have of Europe in a postcolonial context? Modest proposed here to consider the role of the Scandinavian states which were not, according to Modest, officially involved in the colonial project. Are they not part of the postcolonial Europe? In any way this postcolonial Europe can be said to be governed by a sort of anxiety politics, in which the anxiety the white hegemonial class feels over a loss of homogeneity, of everybody looking alike is projected onto those who – in their eyes – lack this likeness.

Modest then examined the role an ethnographic museum or museums in general can play and if and how museums can structure other kinds of politics – politics which are able to confront the perception of the colonial past culminating in the proverbial: „but it wasn’t all that bad!“. The ethnographic museum with all its potential has some serious inherent limitations, foremost the initial separation of those who belong (oftentimes looking at the exhibitions) and those who don’t belong (those whose artefacts are exhibited and who all too often don’t become visitors). „Migrants“ belong to the Volkerkunde museum, „Europeans“ to the national museum. Until we release ethnographic museum as a place solely speaking of the other, the migrant, the other, will always stay trapped.

Alternatively, museums can and should support and strengthen notions of citizenship not linked to race, ethnicity or blood. Referring to his own work in Amsterdam, Modest provided the example of how to exhibit Slavery and the Colonial Age, a period which is rooted in Dutch history as the ‚Golden Age‘. According to Modest, both can only come together in a specific moment, one as a trace within the other. If we speak of the Golden Age, the harrowing shadow of slave trade looms in the back ground. But if the latter is evoked, people will always conjure up images of those times when the ‘Dutch’ ruled the Globe. Another example is the removal of racist terminology from the exhibition texts at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam – is this a progressive act of banning words forever poisoned with inhumane connotations, or is it a mere act of denying historical facts?

From this he moved on to thinking about multiculturalism and (mainstream) politics of diversity. Stemming from his own experience Modest concluded that ‚diversity‘ is an empty word if it does not imply (and it seldom does) an intervention into the structure in an attempt to decolonize the whole institution. On the contrary, perhaps the tasteful multiculturalism is just as bad (or good) at making real histories of oppression invisible. Maybe a possible way out of this can be to start an exhibition from the decolonial moment, use the museum as a tool to address the inequalities of the present. A practical example is the intervention of an Amsterdam decolonial activists group in the galleries of the Tropenmuseum. It consisted in placing yellow text boards next to the exhibitions official text boards, without any kind of limitation or censorship from the directory board of the Tropenmuseum. In this way two alternative ways of referring to material culture, two alternative histories were laid out for visitors to engage with – both closely interconnected but still opening a gap in which new understandings can be formed.

Modest then closed his lecture on a hopeful, albeit explicitly not optimistic note; with the hope that we can manage to inhabit the ruins of history (and of museums riddled with their colonial past) and make something new of them.

The ensuing discussion for which Wayne Modest was again joined by Heike Hartmann on the panel circled around the questions the lecturer had introduced so emphatically. What is our role as academics or as visitors, as whites, blacks or people of color in this reforming of the museum? And how can the museum then go on to reach out beyond the limited scope of science and the arts? Both panelists highlighted the ambivalent nature of a museum, Modest talked of the Tropenmuseum as a place which often adopts a racist grammar in its worldviews on the one hand, and on the other a place that never tried to hide its colonial past, and that always took it as something that has happened and that needs to be engaged with in the present moment. As long as a museum remains a space only for the production of representation, such an engagement is impossible. Referring to her own exhibition at Deutsches Historisches Museum, Heike Hartmann points out the broad spectrum of comments and feedback from visitors. There is a lot of praise and constructive criticism, as well as people criticizing the necessity of such an exhibition and denial of the German implications in colonialism, coupled with racist world views and language. But even though not everybody might be in agreement, Hartmann argues that especially those who are in opposition to the idea of engaging with colonial history in such a critical way are addressed. This is because the irritation testifies to the confusion and to a clash of differing worldviews, and might be the beginning (at least for some) to question their own ideas and preconceptions.

Christian Beeck is an M.A. student at the Institute of European Ethnology.

After having returned to CARMAH´s rooms at the Institute for European Ethnology the audience was more than well-prepared to listen to Wayne Modest talk on „(Ethnographic) Museums, Anxiety Politics and the Question of the Postcolonial“ and the ensuing podium discussion with Modest and Hartmann, introduced and moderated by Larissa Förster and Susan Kamel.

Contrary to the established proceeding of a talk structured around a central theme with linear path of argument, Modest straight away established that his lecture would be more focused on introducing a set of projects and ideas on the relationship between anthropology (and anthropological collections) and history. What emerged here was the central theme that Modest continued to touch on and which functioned as a form of implied question in all of the following problematizations. The question of how ethnographic museums as institutions with all their historical entanglements but also all its resources (human as well as material) function in the present moment. Talking from his own professional, but also personal point of view, Modest introduced his current employer, the Tropenmuseum at Amsterdam. Having been opened as the Koloniaal Museum in 1871 – its mission having been to ‚inform’ the public about life in the Dutch colonies – the museum reformed, and in 2014 was merged with the Volkerkunde Museum and the African Museum. It has, in recent years, hosted a number of exhibitions aiming not to shed but rather to light on its role in propagating a racist worldview and colonial exploitation and oppression. Taking this as his starting point, Modest invited us to think about the different implications such a museum has in the present day. What does one make of a museum that broaches the issues of colonial history situated in a mostly non-white neighbourhood of east Amsterdam? What to do with a collection of over 375 000 objects and more than one million photographs? And, what does it mean for Wayne Modest – an academic on the one hand but also a person with afro-Caribbean heritage – to be working in such an institution? Is he a traitor to his own ‘origins’ – as he is being accused of?

Recapitulation of the exhibition visit to „Deutscher Kolonialismus“ and subsequent panel discussion on “Ethnographic Museums and the Question of the Postcolonial”

by Christian Beeck

Aus aktuellem Anlass: Kommentar zur Debatte um das Humboldt Forum

Es geht um mehr als Raubkunst: Ethnologische Provenienzforschung zwischen Erstcheck und Sisyphusarbeit

by Larissa Förster

Als die Kunsthistorikerin Bénédicte Savoy vor gut vier Wochen aus dem „Internationalen Expertenteam“ austrat, das die Gründungsintendanz des Humboldt Forums berät, forderte sie vor allem eines: mehr Provenienzforschung, also mehr Forschung zur Herkunft und zum Erwerb der Objekte, die im Humboldt Forum ausgestellt werden sollen, vor allem wenn sie aus kolonialen, gewaltförmigen Kontexten stammen.

Die FAZ schlug daraufhin vor, eine „Provenienzstelle“ am HUF einzurichten. Die Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz erklärte in einer Stellungnahme, alle Exponate des HUF seien bereits „einer ersten Prüfung der Provenienz unterzogen worden“. Dennoch legte Präsident Hermann Parzinger im Interview nach: „Wir brauchen dringend eine Stelle, die uns bei der Finanzierung solcher Provenienzforschungsprojekte unterstützen kann“. Und auch dieser Wunsch ist in den letzten Monaten immer wieder geäußert worden: Die Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste möge ihr Portfolio – und damit ihre Förderung – auf koloniale Provenienzen ausweiten.

Es liegen also genügend Vorschläge auf dem Tisch, die sich aufgreifen ließen, um Provenienzforschung im Humboldt Forum wie an deutschen ethnologischen Sammlungen insgesamt langfristig zu verankern. Doch wer die Debatte verfolgt, kommt nicht umhin sich zu fragen: Welche Art von Provenienzforschung ist hier eigentlich gemeint? Wieviel davon braucht es – und wieviel davon ist schon geleistet worden, etwa in Berlin, Bremen oder Stuttgart, wo es ja schon seit einiger Zeit Drittmittelprojekte in dem Bereich gibt? Und schließlich: Mit welchem Ziel soll Provenienzforschung letztendlich betrieben werden?

Zunächst zur ersten Frage: Bénédicte Savoy hat – sicher bewusst überspitzend – argumentiert: „Für mich ist es weniger wichtig zu wissen, welche Funktion ein Gegenstand in Namibia hatte, als zu erfahren, unter welchen Umständen er hierher gekommen ist“. Das ist erstaunlich, denn was, wenn die Umstände des Erwerbs nur zu rekonstruieren sind, wenn man die „Funktion“ und Bedeutung des Objektes und damit auch den persönlichen, kulturellen oder auch politischen Wert erkennt, der ihm von den Herstellern, Nutzern und „Erwerbern“ vor, sagen wir, 100 Jahren zugeschrieben wurde?

Geht es also wirklich vor allem um Raubgut, wie es auch der Historiker Jürgen Zimmerer mit dem Hinweis auf den „vermuteten unrechtmässigen Erwerb aller Objekte“ immer wieder nahelegt? Zunächst einmal besteht, was geraubte und entwendete Objekte angeht, in der Tat ein immenser Forschungsbedarf. Erst vor wenigen Jahren wurde im Depot des Berliner Ethnologischen Museums Kriegsbeute aus dem Maji-Maji-Krieg (1905-1907) im damaligen Deutsch-Ost-Afrika (heute Tansania) „wiedergefunden“ – also gute 100 Jahre nach ihrer Einlagerung. Solche Funde dürfen in Zukunft kein Zufallsprodukt oder Resultat des Engagements einzelner KustodInnen bleiben.

Dort, wo Kolonialkriege und koloniale sogenannte „Strafexpeditionen“ stattgefunden haben, wurden fast immer auch Haushalte, Paläste, Tempel, Schreine und Heiligtümer etc. geplündert. Eine systematischere Provenienzforschung könnte mit solchen gewaltförmigen Kontexten beginnen, zumal in den ehemaligen deutschen Kolonien, die für deutsche Institutionen auf jeden Fall Priorität haben sollten. Darüberhinaus wurden Objekte im Rahmen kolonialer Machtasymmetrien auch von Einzelpersonen abgepresst, gestohlen, zu billig ertauscht und erkauft. Forschungen und Publikationen zum deutschen Kolonialismus, auch zum kolonialen Alltag, die vieles davon erhellen können, liegen vor, sie müssen nur endlich systematischer in Beziehung zu den Sammlungen gesetzt werden. Natürlich wirft das auch die Frage nach recht- oder unrechtmäßigem Besitz und Eigentum auf und wird in einigen Fällen zu Rückgaben führen, wenn diese dann auch gewünscht oder sogar gefordert sind.

Allerdings: Wer Provenienzforschung allein von der Raubkunst-Debatte her denkt, bekommt ethnologische Sammlungen weder in ihrer historischen noch in ihrer aktuellen Vielschichtigkeit in den Blick. Zunächst einmal beherbergen ethnologische Museen auch neuere Sammlungen – nicht zuletzt solche, die EthnologInnen seit den 1970er Jahren in kritischer Auseinandersetzung mit dem Kolonialismus und in Zusammenarbeit mit ExpertInnen der Herkunftsgesellschaften zusammengestellt haben; EthnlogInnen, die sich im Zuge der so genannten Writing-Culture-Debatte kritisch mit Formen und Modi der Repräsentation befasst, postkoloniale Theorie rezipiert, die wechselseitige Konstruktion von „Eigenem und Anderem“ herausgearbeitet und sich kritisch mit globalen Verflechtungen auseinandergesetzt haben.

Zweitens bedeuten auch koloniale Erwerbszusammenhänge nicht immer gleich, dass es sich um Raubgut handelt. Nehmen wir ein Beispiel aus dem afrikanischen Kontext: Zahlreiche Objekte in den Sammlungen zeugen davon, dass sich afrikanische Künstler, Kunsthandwerker und Händler die europäische Nachfrage nach „exotischen“ Gegenständen um 1900 zunutze gemacht und explizit für den dadurch entstehenden Markt produziert haben. Afrikanische Akteure partizipierten damit zum Teil sehr aktiv am sich herausbildenden Welthandel. Genauso gab es Tausch oder Geschenke zwischen Eliten, es gab Überlassungen, wenn Gegenstände nicht mehr gebraucht wurden und viele Dimensionen mehr. Auch wenn dies alles unter kolonialen Bedingungen stattfand und daher jede diesbezügliche europäische Quelle mit kritischen Blick zu lesen ist: Schon Nicholas Thomas hat mit seinem Buch über „verflochtene Objekte“ im und aus dem Pazifik 1988 gezeigt, dass wir den Blick für die Handlungsspielräume lokaler Akteure schärfen müssen und sie nicht allein zu „Beraubten“ machen dürfen. Gerade dies ist von Anfang an auch ein Anliegen postkolonialer Studien gewesen.

Um solcherart komplexen Dynamiken zu erforschen, reicht es aber nicht, mit kolonial- oder kunsthistorischen Methoden an die Sammlungen heranzugehen. Hier sind vielmehr das Fach Ethnologie und im oben angeführten Beispiel die afrikanische (Kunst-)Geschichte mit ihren einschlägigen Methoden gefragt: mit ihrem Blick für innerafrikanische Verflechtungen, ihrem Zugang zu mündlichen Überlieferungen und ihrem Interesse an der Komplexität und Historizität von Geschichts- und ästhetischen Diskursen vor Ort.

Damit ist auch ein grundsätzliches Problem konventioneller Provenienzforschung benannt: Provenienzforschung als ein Nacherzählen der Stationen des Erwerbs und der Aneignung der Dinge durch Europäer greift zu kurz und ist eurozentrisch – und das nicht nur, weil sie die Bedeutung eines Dings wie auch die Orte, Zeiten und Distanzen, die in seiner Provenienzgeschichte eine Rolle spielen, zunächst einmal nach europäischen Maßstäben bemisst. Darüberhinaus sind viele Dinge, noch bevor sie in die Hände von Europäern gelangten, schon vor Ort verkauft, getauscht, geschenkt, bisweilen sogar geraubt gewesen. Haben wir nicht aus der Forschung zur Geschichte der Sklaverei und ihrer Abschaffung gelernt, wie komplex sich das Interessensgeflecht verschiedener AkteurInnen auf und zwischen den Kontinenten darstellen kann?

Genau hier hakt ethnologisch informierte Provenienzforschung theoretisch und methodologisch ein: Sie kann aktuelle und historische Konzepte vom Recht an einem Ding oder auf ein Ding entfalten, die sich mit seiner Herstellung und seinem Gebrauch einst verbunden haben oder heute noch verbinden. Letztere lassen sich manchmal nicht in Begriffen wie Eigentum fassen und vor allem nicht in Kategorien von „individuellem“ vs. „gemeinschaftlichem“ Eigentum einteilen. Ethnologisch informierte Provenienzforschung kann die Bedeutung der Objekte und ihres Transfers auf Seiten der verschiedenen AkteurInnen und die Geschichte der Ansprüche, die auf Objekte erhoben werden, beleuchten. Im Zuge des „ontologischen Turns“ der letzten Jahre fragt die Ethnologie auch verstärkt danach, ob ein Ding tatsächlich immer nur ein Ding ist und von allen für ein solches gehalten wird, oder ob es nicht auch andere Möglichkeiten gibt, die Verbindungen zwischen Dingen und Menschen zu deuten: Was ist zum Beispiel mit beseelten Dingen? Was ist mit den Beziehungen, die Menschen gezielt durch den Tausch und die Weitergabe von Dingen stiften? Welche Verantwortung tragen uns also beispielsweise Geschenke aus der Kolonialzeit auf?

All diese Aspekte beleuchtet eine ethnologische Provenienzforschung – vor dem Hintergrund einer Wissenschaft (der Ethnologie bzw. Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie), die international seit Jahrzehnten, etwa im Rahmen der Material Culture Studies, eine kritische historische Bearbeitung von Sammlungen vorantreibt. Entsprechend diskutierten auf einer Tagung mit dem Titel „Provenienzforschung in ethnologischen Sammlungen der Kolonialzeit“ im April dieses Jahres EthnologInnen und HistorikerInnen aus Deutschland mit internationalen Gästen und KollegInnen aus der NS-Provenienzforschung über verschiedene diesbezügliche Ansätze, Methoden und Strategien. Neben dem Desiderat einer langfristigen Systematisierung und Institutionalisierung wurden dabei zwei Dinge klar: Erstens, Provenienzforschung in diesem Bereich muss von Anfang an bundesweit vernetzt angegangen werden, weil koloniale Erwerbungen aus ein- und demselben Kontext in der Regel gleich in mehreren Museen in Deutschland zu finden sind. Gründe hierfür liegen einerseits im enzyklopädischen Ansatz der Wissenschaften jener Zeit, andererseits in der Konkurrenz der Museen untereinander. So gibt es Kriegsbeute aus dem Maji-Maji-Krieg an mehreren ethnologischen Sammlungen in Deutschland, genauso wie Objekte aus dem Besitz von König Njoya von Bamum in Kamerun.

Zweitens müssen besitzende Institutionen von Anfang an mit Individuen, Institutionen und Interessensgruppen der Herkunftsländer kooperieren. Es reicht nicht, „source communities“ zu beteiligen, vielmehr müssen Forschungsagenden gemeinsam ausgehandelt werden. Ein solches Vorgehen erfordert intensive Beziehungsarbeit und ein Netzwerk, das sich in der Regel nur durch langjährige Kontakte in die Herkunftsländer der Sammlungen aufbauen lässt. Es geht um ein neues Paradigma: um die gemeinsame – einvernehmliche, aber möglicherweise durchaus kontroverse – Produktion von Wissen über diese Sammlungen. Und dies nicht nur in exemplarischen Einzelprojekten, sondern in größerem Stil, auf nachhaltige Art und Weise.

Das würde eine systematischere Provenienzforschung auf von der bisher gemachten unterscheiden: eine größere Vernetzung in der Fläche, eine bessere Abrufbarkeit und Vermittlung der Ergebnisse in der Öffentlichkeit, so dass eine breitere Reflexion über die Entstehungsgeschichte der Sammlungen und Institutionen im Zusammenhang mit dem kolonialen Projekt und über ihre Rolle heute möglich wird. Eine dahingehende Sensibilisierung der Öffentlichkeit und der Besucher entsteht aber nicht etwa durch längere oder präzisere Objektschildchen, sie entsteht durch Ausstellungen und Vermittlungsprogramme, die explizit über die Problematik von Provenienz und über den Zusammenhang zwischen Sammlungen und Kolonialismus sprechen (wie beispielsweise die Ausstellung „Deutscher Kolonialismus“ jüngst im DHM). Solche Konzepte gilt es in den nächsten Jahren verstärkt zu entwickeln, mit einem besonderen Augenmerk auf die Frage, wie sich aus all der mühevollen Forschungsarbeit auch Ideen, Material, Visionen und Kooperationen für weitergehende zukünftibe Projekte entwickeln lassen.

Doch zurück zum Humboldt Forum: Provenienzforschung darf aus diesen Gründen nicht einfach nur die ‚Vorarbeit’ zu einem mehr oder weniger schillernden ‚Schaufenster der Wissenschaft’ in Nachbarschaft zur Museumsinsel sein – damit würde nur eine Art ‚Clearingstelle’ für den Ausstellungsbetrieb geschaffen. Gerade in der ehemaligen Kolonialmetropole Berlin kann es nicht allein um den lückenlosen Herkunftsnachweis und/oder um die Rückgabe von Raubgut gehen. Vielmehr muss ‚postkoloniale Provenienzforschung’ hier auf ein umfassendes Verständnis (post-)kolonialer Verflechtungsgeschichte und auf eine transnationale Einbettung der Sammlungen abzielen. Dafür ist ein langfristigen Bekenntnis der Kulturpolitik zur Aufarbeitung des kolonialen Erbes in den ethnologischen Museen in Deutschland vonnöten. Unumgänglich ist der Auf- und Ausbau von dauerhaft angelegten Forschungsstrukturen um die betreffenden Sammlungen herum, auch unabhängig von einem zu schaffenden „Forschungscampus“. Projektstellen für eine „Humboldt Forum Kultur GmbH“, wie sie zuletzt in zweistelliger Zahl geschaffen wurden, helfen bei der Bewältigung solcher Herausforderungen nicht weiter – stattdessen muss die Arbeit der Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler in Dahlem auf eine breitere konzeptionelle wie auch strukturelle (finanzielle und personelle) Basis gestellt werden.

Larissa Förster ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin des Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage und Sprecherin der AG Museum der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, die im April 2017 eine Tagung zu „Provenienzforschung in ethnologischen Sammlungen der Kolonialzeit“ (in Kooperation mit dem Museum Fünf Kontinente München) veranstaltete.

August 2017