Decentering the Museum

A teaching and workshop project by and with Anna Brus, Martin Zillinger (Cologne), Ciraj Rassool (Capetown), Michi Knecht (Bremen), Alphonse Aimee (Madang) and students from Cologne, Capetown, Port Moresby, Madang & Bremen.

Assistance: Christine Dietze, Vera Heimisch, Fabian Lüke & Annette Steffny

In recent years, colonial collections and the ethnographic museum’s colonial past have increasingly taken centre stage in the momentous debate on (post)colonial legacies. The traces of colonial violence, which have been silenced or ignored for a long time, are re-emerging in today’s post-migrant societies and globalized world. This re-emergence is shaking the grounds of the museum as a space where culture was/is canonized, where belonging and non-belonging were/are debated, and where imperial projects and national identities have been formed /are still formed via the exclusion of the “Other”.

Museums are facing the challenge to decolonise their exhibition practices and examine their collection history for looted art, violent entanglements and systematic exclusion. Not only betweenthe Global North and the Global South, also within societies in Europe and Africa, struggles for recognition, restitution, reparationand a new relational ethic increasingly manifest themselves around museum spaces.

These debates draw on transnationally circulating concepts (e.g. notions of cultural property, (world) heritage, restitution or art), but evolve differently in different national, regional and social settings. They are deeply enmeshed with discourses on social inclusion and exclusion, (dis)integration and belonging, which redefine the composition of contemporary societies and publics. This holds true for societies of Southern Africa emerging from long histories of repression, but also for European societies, which are experiencing a steady rise of nationalist movements and xenophobia.

Germany has come rather late to the table of these museum debates, but some of its anthropological museums are currently being transformed into pressure-cookers of change.Curators are forced to radically rethink former representational logics and to expand their practice from caretaker and specialist to activator and provider of objects, confronted and working with new groups of actors claiming another politics of memory, the return of objects, new forms of collaborative research and at least equal shares in representational politics and administering the collections; museums are starting to decentre: to open up to diverse perspectives and claims on what a museum is or wants to be.

Beyond the supposedly objective museum knowledge about them, artefacts are enmeshed in relationships with other objects and persons and harbor the chance to be agents in attempts to rethink, resist, reconcile, restitute, repair and collaboratively reconfigure new practices for museum assemblages and new meanings when reconnected or returned. Thisseminar and workshop programme takes up these questions under the heading of “Decentering the Museum”. For a new, experimental, “post-ethnographic” museum it will not suffice to change displays and presentations alone. It will be necessary to invent different global institutions, infrastructures and formats of interaction, to counteract asymmetries of power and very often, to reject the politics and politization of “ethnos” and “identities” that have characterized the history of ethnographic museums / museums of world cultures for long.

Our programme seeks to enable future researchers and curators from Africa and Germany to engage with the transformation of colonial collections and anthropological museums, with local archival situations, curatorial strategies and cultural politics in an interconnected world. It will establish a space for negotiating dominant epistemic regimes and questions of access. Ultimately it seeks to develop new forms of co-operation in higher education, research and curatorial practice.

The program starts with seminars in Capetown, Cologne and Bremen during the winter term 2020/21 and will expand into a study-visit programme and a series of workshops in 2021. The dates for these workshops will most probably be in the summer term and in September 2021. The program will bring together 15 PhD and graduate students from the University of the Western Capewith students from Cologne and Bremen University, including (if corona allows) ERAMUS-guest students from the University of Papua New Guinea at Port Moresby, and the Divine Word University in Madang (PNG) and generatedialogueswith researchers, artists, activists and emerging curators. The study visit will start in Cologne and finish in Berlin, visiting the Hanseatic Port Cities of Bremen and Hamburg in between. In each city, we will attend a mix of university seminars, talks by curators and museum staff, guided visits of exhibitions, research projects, museum archives and depots as well as cultural and educational events such as a postcolonial city walking tours and further visits to cultural institutions, theatres and museumsthat position themselves in the field of “decolonising cultural institutions”. The students will get to know the departments of Anthropology, Transcultural Research and Ethnology at the Universities of Cologne and Bremen and will meet for seminar discussionsat two recently formed academic institutions geared towards new forms of co-operation with partners from the Global South: the Global South Studies Center Cologne and the interdisciplinary research platform “World of Contradictions.

The Online-work and webinars will help students to get to know each other in advance and prepare international project work. Assigned with starter packages they will work in international and interdisciplinary working groups on particular research tasks and think about questions such as (i) why restitution alone may not be enough to decentre museum practices, (ii) how structures and infrastructures of German museums may have to change in order enable a symmetrical collaboration, (iii) how ontological happenings (Helen Verran) can be created, (iv) what relational ethics may actually entail, (v) how to make inequalities visible, (vi) what the purpose of provenance research should be, (vii) how the re-emergence of neocolonial patterns can be identified and countered, (viii) in which ways museums -their depots and curatorial practices are marked by forms of violence, (ix) what the potential of objects is to address past and current issues,(x) how to create forms of mutual memory in moments of repairand/or reparation(xi) how to bring objects, museums and people together beyond the museum space, how (xii) students envision the interruption and alteration of existing power relations and (xiii) how more collaborative curatorship can be established. Work on these questions will be organised in working groups already starting in Winter 2020/21. Results will be presented by working groups at one of the four museum workshops and in an online-multi-media-presentations.

The program wants to open up Eurocentric and nationalised perspectives, foster intercontinental knowledge transfer and explore different epistemic practices by visiting and working in (1) the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum Cologne, (2)the Überseemuseum Bremen, (3) the Museum am Rothenbaum Hamburg, and (4) the Dahlem Research Campus Berlin. Student teamwork and one-day workshops will explore (1) forms and possibilities of resistance (Cologne:Resist!), (2) challenges and pitfalls of restitution (Bremen:Reconnect!), (3) museum spaces of reconciliation and healing (Hamburg:Repair?), and (4) radical new forms of co-operation (Berlin:Re-Imagine!).

All 40 students will start to collaborate in four online-meetings in December -February 2020/21 and be together over the course of the 12 days of the study visit in 20201, accompanied by Prof. Martin Zillinger, Dr. des. Anna Brus, Prof. Michi Knecht and Prof. Ciraj Rassool. The whole programme -consisting of the preparatory seminars, further workshops during the summer term 20201, the study visits with all meetings, discussions and workshops, probably in September and the publication of results in a form of multi-media online presentation -will take place predominantly in English.

The program seeks to enable exchange of perspectives across multiple boundaries and envisions postcolonial moments of collaboration for the next generation of museum researchers, academics and curators in the near future.