Sunday, 10 September 2017

Colonialism, coloniality and opportunities for necessary engagement, critique and reflection

A comment on the current debate around the Humboldt Forum in Berlin

Martin Porr

After a long period of relative obliviousness, an extensive public debate has recently erupted in Germany about the significance and role of ethnographic museums and, more broadly, the colonial dimensions of Germany’s past and present. For decades, public debate about historical responsibilities, effects and trajectories were dominated by the Holocaust, the atrocities under the Nazi regime and during the Second World War. The centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 2014 has contributed towards a shift away from this focus and other events in Germany’s past are now receiving more attention. This shift now includes a renewed interest in Germany’s colonial past (see e.g. Hamburgs postkoloniales Erbe). The Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin ran, for example, a high-profile exhibition on the topic from October 2016 to May 2017.

In this way, public debate in Germany is now linking up with developments that have been a focus in other countries for some time, particularly within the academic fields of social anthropology, cultural studies and archaeology.

 A central aspect of these debates is the crisis of ethnographic representation. Over the last twenty years, this so-called crisis has profoundly affected ethnographic museums and other similar Western institutions and contributes to current debates around the question of their current and future role and legitimacy. Institutions still must come to terms with the situation that “the historic shape of ethnographic collections does not easily match that of the contemporary world because they usually either map the contours of colonialism or concur with the pre-established disciplinary boundaries of anthropology in their emphasis on particular regions and the construction of indigeneity” (O'Hanlon, 2013, p. 12). Many institutions are consequently under pressure to engage with their own collections and displays in relation to these ongoing academic and public debates. In the context of the latter, museums as publicly funded institutions are in the challenging position to navigate a path between a dynamically developing academic landscape and a range of public and political interests (as well as financial and bureaucratic constraints).

These issues affect all relevant institutions alike. However, in Germany, key aspects have recently acquired new levels of public attention and prominence in the context of the extensive debates about the planning of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. The available literature on this project is already almost impossible to fully digest and summarise in this short post, but this prominent project has certainly contributed to a much broader awareness of the above-mentioned themes and challenges (Bähr, 2013; Flierl & Parzinger, 2009; Schuster & Bredekamp, 2016).

At the centre of debates about the Humboldt Forum is the treatment of non-European cultures and material artefacts in light of Germany’s colonial past and how these themes are reflected in the planning of the overall project and the preparatory and experimental exhibitions, for example in the Humboldt Lab Dahlem (Scholz, 2015). Tensions have rapidly emerged between more academically-oriented social anthropologists, who have called for the inclusion of critical and reflexive perspectives on processes of colonial and postcolonial knowledge production as well as Indigenous communities (see overview and documentation in Schuster & Bredekamp, 2016). The responsible curators and the museum management, in turn, have particularly drawn attention to the strong political influence that is exerted as well as to conflicting interests between different stakeholders (Kraus, 2015, pp. 16-18). In contrast, the directors of the Humboldt Forum (a project of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz) have themselves stressed that the project continues to present an almost unique opportunity to create a place of international engagement and the chance to discuss the most pressing global questions and challenges (esp. König, 2016; Schuster & Bredekamp, 2016).

The Humboldt Forum will bring together and present the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum as well as the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the very centre of the German capital. The involved institutions with their specific histories and orientations reflect a further significant point of controversy, which, again, is an issue that is not restricted to this context alone. Should ethnographic objects be treated as art objects or art works in European museums? This question is a continuation of a long-held ambivalent relationship between ethnographic and art museums (Förster, 2013; Karentzos, 2012; Wullen, 2016). Such institutions must balance the advantages and disadvantages of emphasising an art historical orientation and presentation of objects that can either lead to an enhanced appreciation and evaluation or to their decontextualization and appropriation into the European interpretative tradition, which would continue the problematic idea of ‘primitive art’ (Förster, 2013, pp. 194-196). (These issues also continue to be major points of controversy surrounding the Musée du quai Branly in Paris as a musée des arts premiers that has been criticised to perpetuate revisionist political agendas (Kraus, 2015, p. 23; Lepenies, 2009; Price, 2007).)

Sand drawing by Abel Taho (top) and display (below) showing how sand drawings are made on West Ambryn, Vanuatu, by Augustino Merane. The sand drawing was made specifically for an exhibition that was shown in the Humboldt-Box in Berlin in 2016. The sand drawings have been recognised by UNESCO as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. (Photographs: M. Porr)

Discussions about the relationship between art and ethnography are further complicated or, rather in my opinion, enhanced by the views and interests of Indigenous communities. Some ethnographic museums have started to collaborate with contemporary artists from non-European countries to provide a contemporary Indigenous perspective onto their institutions and collections (e.g. Deliss, 2012). These residency approaches can build bridges between historical collections and contemporary viewpoints and can challenge the traditional ethnocentricity of institutions. The sand drawing shown abov is also a product of such a collaboration that enabled artists from Vanuatu to spend time in Germany to work with local curators.

However, such residencies have also been criticised for perpetuating the decontextualization of ethnographic artefacts and giving up on the traditional strengths of ethnographic museums, which is their ability to provide more general academic insights into the complex cultural background stories of their collections. The collaboration with Indigenous artists can provide valuable interventions, but they are themselves only able provide a specific perspective. They are consequently no substitute for social anthropological analytical and interpretative research. However, as Förster (2013, pp. 195-196) has noted, contemporary artists from so-called ‘source’ communities do sometimes prefer to work with or have their creations exhibited in art rather than ethnographic museums. The reasons for this preference are variable and complex. They can range from a desire to break with the colonial tradition of ethnographic museums to the prospect of better business opportunities through contacts with the commercial art trade. Navigating these processes and demands can be difficult for museums and other institutions, especially when they only have limited funds available.

These considerations draw attention to questions surrounding the collaboration between ethnographic museums and the so-called Indigenous ‘source’ communities, which is currently one of the major topics of debate (Brown & Peers, 2003; Fienup-Riordan, 2005; Scholz, 2015; Sleeper-Smith, 2009). The benefits of such projects appear to be straightforward for both sides involved. Collaboration with Indigenous communities can enhance the understanding of collections in museums and can also contribute to trans-cultural exchanges, which can have beneficial effects for all parties involved and even in the source communities’ home countries (Kraus, 2015, p. 15). However, there are can be significant pitfalls. One should distinguish careful and measured approaches that consider the aims and perspectives of all parties from politically driven projects that cynically attempt to bolster their credentials without any genuine desire for collaboration or change.

In the spirit of encouraging greater understanding of the importance of collaboration in this sphere, I share some background on such a project I have been involved in over the last few years and which shapes my response to the ongoing debates about the Humboldt Forum.

Since 2009, I have been involved in a project that is aimed at understanding ethnographic materials from the Kimberley, Northwest Australia, together with Aboriginal Traditional Owners and community members based in Broome, Derby and Kalumburu from a region that was visited by German expeditions in 1938/39 and 1954/55 (Doohan, Umbagai, Oobagooma, & Porr, 2016; Porr & Doohan, 2017). The material consists of archival documents, photographs, copies of rock art images and several objects, which are currently kept in institutions in Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne.

The origins of the project go back to an extensive digitisation initiative of the Frobenius Institute at the University of Frankfurt, which made photographs and other images from the respective expeditions available online a few years ago. I was consequently able to receive funding from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to make a first record of this collection in Frankfurt, engage in a dialogue with community members and make some materials available to the community art centre in digital form. (Being based at the University of Western Australia and being a native German speaker certainly helped in this respect.) There is a great interest in the materials held in Germany within the Aboriginal communities concerned and there is also great support from the German institutions involved, but setting up a framework and processes of engagement have been equally rewarding and challenging so far.

The materials in question are related to several different Aboriginal communities and a number of people are responsible and authorised to speak for different aspects of those materials. It can be quite challenging and time-consuming to identify the relevant groups and individuals, often without access to contemporary communication infrastructure in remote areas of the Kimberley. However, this work has been crucially important from the very beginning of this project to integrate cultural sensibilities and establish relationships of trust. One of the main points of interest of the Aboriginal partners was the proper treatment of photos and objects in the German collections to, for example, make sure that gender-specific access was understood and respected.

The overall aim of the project is a better and deeper understanding of the materials held in the German collections. While this interest is largely academic from the perspective of the German institutions, for the Aboriginal partners this interest is also firmly related to cultural survival and reconnection. There is also an interest in checking and, when necessary, correcting the cultural information that is contained in the collections and included in the published literature; most of which is only available in German. Furthermore, there is also a commercial interest involved, because the sale of contemporary Aboriginal art works is one of the main sources of income for the collaborating communities (e.g. Mowanjum). The planning and construction of an exhibition on these materials in Germany will not only provide opportunities for Indigenous artists to engage and reconnect with a range of so far largely unseen cultural materials; it certainly also generates new business opportunities for the sale of contemporary Aboriginal art.

At this stage, the provenance of the objects and archival materials is broadly known. All available information seems to suggest that they have been acquired with the consent of the Aboriginal people in the 1930s and 1950s. However, the devil is always in the detail and the exact processes of acquisition and fieldwork methods are still to be reconstructed. How informed and independent were the Aboriginal people and informants in their interactions with the German researchers? How restrictive were the administrative conditions? What were their interests in sharing or withholding certain information? Were the researchers able to establish proper relationships with authorised members of the communities? In the past, different opinions were expressed by members of the contemporary Aboriginal communities in relation to these questions. This is an ongoing dialogue that will certainly develop further with new insights.

Clearly, such a project needs time and it needs to be conducted in a dialogical fashion that considers the views, perspectives and needs of all partners involved. One also must take into account that interests, ideas and convictions can change over time. For us, it has definitely been beneficial that we have been able to form a team between museum experts in Germany and Australia, academics in both countries, professional anthropologists with a long experience of working in Australia as well as members of the relevant communities. A dialogue is important to create a mutual understanding and appreciate the respective interests and expectations of all parties.

The current discussion surrounding the Humboldt Forum highlights the issue of colonialism, colonial exploitation and the unlawful acquisition of objects. These are certainly important aspects that must be addressed and European museums need to invest into research into the provenance of ethnographic objects. However, these specific questions should not distract from the wider and deeper significance of interrogating the discursive, social and economic colonial structures that underlie these collections. Colonialism has shaped the past and continues to shape the present. Our views of the human past, present and future are entangled in the experience of colonialism. It has shaped the view of other cultures and it has dialectically shaped the understanding of Western cultures themselves. These entanglements are both obvious as well as subtle and unrecognised.

The creation of a new ethnographic museum or institution should not only focus on questions of colonial exploitation and provenance research on specific ethnographic objects. The institution itself needs to consider the logic of colonialism and its ideology, its links to modernity and its legacy and responsibility in the contemporary world.

Several authors have put forward the term ‘coloniality’ in this context to describe a discourse that views modern social and economic power relationships as expression of a Western understanding of nature and a universal paradigm of (Western) rational knowledge (Mignolo, 2011; Quijano, 2007). Coloniality persists as the dominant framework to understand nature and human relationships with nature. The experience of technological dominance during European colonialism itself provided the fabric through which the modern understanding of nature and knowledge were created. These aspects draw attention to the fact that European colonialism from the 18th century onwards was not only an economic, political and military process. It also had lasting intellectual, moral and spiritual effects, both in the countries that were colonised and in those of the colonisers (Mishra, 2013).

The experience of colonialism has fundamentally affected today’s understanding of humanity and its history (Porr & Matthews, 2017). Therefore, today’s ethnographic museums should provide opportunities for the critical understanding and exploration of these processes. This can only happen when dialogues about these aspects are initiated that consider the perspectives of both the (former) colonisers and colonised. Today, intercultural competence and an understanding of the historical dependencies and legacies that shape our current thinking seem to be more important than ever. Ethnographic museums and collections are in a unique position to critically and productively contribute to these challenges and towards the creation of a richer and balanced understanding of the past and the present.

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