by Sharon Macdonald
In this reflection, we provide a brief introductory overview of some of CARMAH’s ongoing research. It is based on summaries that we produced for an event – that we called a ‘research encounter’ – held in July 2018. That event was an opportunity to reflect on the work of the Centre, and especially on its Making Differences: Transforming Museums and Heritage project, at roughly halfway through the Alexander von Humboldt funding-period. This had begun in October 2015, when I took up my Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, but the majority of researchers were only in place almost a year or more later.
CARMAH is, I believe, the only research centre in the world that concertedly brings perspectives from social and cultural anthropology to bear on museums and heritage. What is entailed in some of these approaches is illustrated below and by research – or references to it – that can be found elsewhere on this website. In summary, however, it is characterised, albeit variously, by a commitment to in-depth attention to cultural practice, to engagement with interlocutors over often lengthy periods of time, to a robust awareness of context, and to analysis that respects location, complexity, and relationality. The Making Differences project focuses on some key transformations within the world of museums and heritage in order to explore their social, cultural and political consequences – especially in relation to the making of social difference and diversity. In order to enable us to explore how far the kinds of terms, ideas or practices from one area of museums and heritage can be found in others – and also to explore the variations between them – it casts it net widely in terms of the types of museums and heritage that it takes into account. At the same time, in order to provide analytical depth, there is a core focus on Berlin itself.
What follows is organised in terms of areas of significant transformation that we are exploring in our research. As that research is identifying other issues to address and is putting us into new research conversations within, and beyond, our project, these do not map precisely onto the research areas as we usually present them. As such, we hope that this provides a glimpse into our ongoing research that can complement what is provided elsewhere on this website.
Media, Affordances, and the Digital
by Christoph Bareither, Nazlı Cabadağ, and Chiara Garbellotto
Heritage- and museum-related practices and experiences are significantly transformed through the rise of digital media. This is what the ‘Media, Affordances, and the Digital’ session was framed around, combining the toolset of heritage and museum studies on the one hand with approaches in media and digital anthropology on the other. From this perspective, the projects do not simply look at how actors ‘use’ technological tools, but rather they research the complex entanglements of human actors, bodies, experiences, and the affordances of digital media.
Opening the session, Christoph Bareither presented his research on visitors’ practices at, and experiences of, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, based on participant observation, qualitative interviews, and an analysis of several hundred posts on Instagram and Facebook. These ethnographic resources demonstrate that taking pictures and making videos are not simply documentations of the visit to the Memorial. They are in themselves practices of interacting with the memorial and thus practices of past presencing through new media. In the overall context of CARMAH, this field serves as an example for how the digital transformation of everyday life has an impact on how heritage is lived.
Nazlı Cabadağ followed by introducing the affordances of digital media in regard to practices and meanings of engagement with LGBTI+ politics in the transnational and translocal context of Berlin. Focusing on #wedisperse, which was a hashtag campaign employed by Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride Committee in 2016 in the face of police attacks, she investigated the questions: do digital media affordances implicate a new way of queer activism beyond geographical borders? If so, how? And what is valued, negotiated and maintained as heritage in these mediated practices of transnational political engagement and of self- formation in the context of post-migration?
How biodiversity is done during a guided tour of ‘citizen scientists’ engaged in the app ‘Naturblick’ was the question addressed in the last presentation on practices of public engagement at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, presented by Chiara Garbellotto. The ethnographic moment described was intended as a glimpse into how the framework of urban ecology and the museum strategy of public engagement are materially combined and performed by the participant actors. The app emerged as a boundary object in between different modes of knowing Nature – seeing, naming, monitoring, comparing. The researcher looks at this and others fieldwork experiences ın order to address how politics of Biodiversity and Partıcıpatıon are entangled ın the urban ecology of the chosen museum.
Participation, Engagement, Activism
by Christine Gerbich, Duane Jethro, and Katarzyna Puzon
As a group of researchers working on, in some ways, different research phenomena, we recognised the appearance and increasing importance of the terms participation, engagement, and activism. We used this panel as an occasion to critically engage with this assumption in our respective contexts. Specifically, we took the concepts participation, engagement and activism as a point of departure for critically thinking through the kinds of relations forged between heritage institutions, projects, and their publics. We are especially interested in how these terms have been purposefully introduced to address and negotiate forms of difference in heritage settings.
Looking at KUNSTASYL’s rehearsal session at the Museum of European Cultures, a workshop in the Museum of Islamic Art, and an Anti-Humboldt Forum demonstration, we focused on occasions where participation, engagement and activism were explicitly or implicitly mobilised as inclusive forms of social interaction in, or in relation to heritage institutions. We do not take these concepts for granted, or believe that they are distinct or unrelated. In our presentations, we reflected on how the assumed self-evidence of these terms to some extent came undone in particular ethnographic situations. In that sense, we wanted to show the kinds of power-relations freighted by the social relationships these terms are meant to frame and what the implications are for understanding difference.
Among other things, therefore, our contributions asked: who does a concept like participation serve in heritage institutions, what purposes and whose ends does a term like engagement assist in the heritage sector, and how does activism shape interpretations of minority heritage claims? In what followed, we each provided a short ethnographic vignette that illuminated how these terms appeared, played out and perhaps unravelled in their respective contexts. Katarzyna Puzon reflected upon a participatory dimension of the collaboration between the Museum of European Cultures, a neighbourhood, urban and national institution, and the art group KUNSTASYL, which includes asylum seekers and those who hold refugee status in Germany. It began with the exhibition daHEIM: Glances into fugitive lives and finalised with the performance Die Könige (The Kings). Duane Jethro’s paper raised questions about researcher insider and outsider relations in the context of an activist protest against the Humboldt Forum at the former ethnographic museum in Dahlem, Berlin. Christine Gerbich’s contribution put the spotlight on the agency of museum professionals in participatory processes by highlighting the unruliness of inherited traditions of engagement and the difficulties of overcoming them.
Collections, Colonialism, and the Curatorial
by Larissa Förster, Jonas Tinius, and Margareta von Oswald
‘Transforming the Ethnographic’ investigates the transformations that ethnographic collections and museums in Berlin and beyond, in Germany and even in Europe more broadly, are currently undergoing. The project deals with a series of interconnected questions: How do these ‘ethnographic transformations’ echo, respond to, and affect the dynamics and tensions within the broader discipline of anthropology? How are difference, alterity, and otherness, including the boundaries between notions such as ‘European’ and ‘non-European’, addressed by anthropologists, curators, activists, artists? Of particular interest to us is the question of how colonial legacies, long ignored by public institutions, have, more recently, come to be acknowledged and addressed? How do these transformations affect society more broadly, such as when negotiating Germany’s cultural memory? In their essence, these questions are also curatorial questions. For this reason, we study curatorial practices in museums and art institutions, and work with curators as key research partners. Our means and methods of investigation therefore exceed mere observation and analysis. We work collaboratively, (co-)curate and actively participate in our fields.
Among the developments that we are observing in the ongoing debates on the transformation and ‘decolonisation’ of ethnographic museums are, for instance, the spread of the debate beyond ethnographic museums and the involvement of actors from the field of contemporary arts as well as national cultural politics; a growing visibility of activities in other German cities and hence a broader mobilisation of collections; the Europeanisation of the debate, sparked not the least through French president Emmanuel Macron’s announcements on the return of cultural artefacts to African countries and German reactions to this decision. In our presentation, we traced these developments and debates by reference to our ethnographic fields.
Fieldwork situations detailed in our presentation included a public discussion on the Humboldt Forum, organised by the initiative ‘No Humboldt21!’ in 2013 (Margareta von Oswald), a conversation on the ‘Colonial Neighbours Archive Project’ established by independent project space SAVVY Contemporary (Jonas Tinius), and a conference on a Namibian restitution claim organized by the German Historical Museum in 2018 (Larissa Förster). The examples testified to the multiple levels and formats on and through which colonialism has come to be addressed, to the diversity of actors involved with their distinct aims, motivations and strategies, as well as to a recent acceleration and intensification of the debate. The discussion following the presentation addressed issues like the position and role of research(ers) in such charged processes, and how an ‘observant participation’ could contribute to a different kind of research relationship. On the research tables, we discussed these and further issues in more depth, exemplifying our research approach with material such as brochures, exhibition catalogues, publications, and films which have been part of our research.