Königin Wilhelmina weiht das neue Gebäude des Kolonialinstitutes in Amsterdam ein / Queen Wilhelmina inaugurates the new building of the Colonial Institute in Amsterdam, 1926
How can ethnological museums – a growing number of which now call themselves museums of the world’s cultures – deal with their legitimacy deficit? The exercise of colonial power was what allowed them to amass their collections, for which objects were accumulated under the aegis of an idea of science that now feels distinctly anachronistic. Susanne Leeb analyzes and questions the strategies ethnological museums propose to resolve this difficulty, from exhibition programs to name changes. One such strategy is especially popular right now – contemporary art. Anke Bangma, curator at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, and Sylvester Ogbechie, an art historian at UC Santa Barbara whose work focuses on African and African-diaspora art, respond to Susanne Leeb`s essay, addressing the interplay between contemporary art and ethnological museums.
The observation that quite a few artists are currently working on ethnological museums, their colonial past, and the colonial archive raises the question: Which two “worlds” intersect in these projects, and how is mediation between them possible? These “worlds” – on the one hand, works of contemporary art; on the other, artifacts, usually from non-European cultures, regardless of whether they are pieces of high art or implements of everyday life – are first and foremost historical effects of institutionalizations and classifications. They are marked by a temporal disparity: In a global world, art has been declared the paradigm of contemporariness, whereas the objects congregated in ethnological museums were admitted to them during the colonial era only because they were denied the status of the contemporary. Nineteenth-century anthropology constituted its objects by defining other cultures as prehistory – a construction that justified rescuing evidence of “dying cultures” by transferring their “relics” to European collections. In the constitution of modernity, time is an irreversible arrow, a “formation of capital,” “progress”: “The more they (i.e., the moderns; S. L.) capitalize, the more they put on display in museums. Maniacal destruction is counterbalanced by an equally maniacal conservation.” The primary purpose of the museum was to promote scholarly study of other cultures, demonstrate control over them, and advertise the colonial project. As the ethnologist Johannes Fabian emphasizes, the links between anthropological praxis and imperialism as well as colonialism are an epistemological rather than a moral or ethical issue.
Besides the temporal disparity I have mentioned, there is a second discrepancy: Whereas the concept of art currently stands largely undisputed, the status of non-European artifacts in the Western world is very much a problem. For a symptom of this problem, look no further than the terminology employed by ethnological museums. They are under the sway of a European concept of science and burdened by the legacy of a scientific practice that stems from the colonial era as well as the epistemological status that practice then had within an exclusively Western production of knowledge. When the museums are named after European collectors, discoverers, or patrons (the Pitt Rivers, Oxford; the Rautenstrauch-Joest, Cologne; the Grassi, Leipzig; the planned Humboldt-Forum, Berlin), they celebrate their eponyms and leave the problematic aspects of the collection’s historical genesis unmarked. Another terminological option is to name museums after climate zones (the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam), suggesting that climate is what defines the cultures exhibited in these institutions. Yet names of this type echo classifications in eighteenth-century racial theories, when certain ethnic groups and racial types and their shared cultural characteristics were described as effects of climate conditions.
A solution several museums have recently resorted to is to change their names: In 2001, Frankfurt am Main’s “Museum für Völkerkunde,” or museum of ethnology, became the “Museum der Weltkulturen,” or museum of World Cultures, which was changed again in 2010 to “Weltkulturen Museum.” In April 2013, Vienna’s “Völkerkundemuseum,” or ethnological museum, was renamed the “Weltmuseum Wien,” or museum of the world: The slogan on its website, “Discover a new world,” perpetuates the myth of the discoverer in the mold of Christopher Columbus, the sparing use of capitals notwithstanding. Yet a name change does not affect the epistemological status the collection’s holdings once had as objects of colonial knowledge, which most ethnological museums uphold. That is manifest at the Musée du Quai Branly, for example, where the visitor can walk around a tower in which the museum’s storage is on display. What this structure reveals more than anything else is the massive accumulation of objects necessitated by the era’s idea of scientific rigor: Its goal necessitated completeness and the aggregation of series.
Most museums are not even able to display such holdings. The Ethnological Museum, Berlin, has around half of the ca. 700 ancient Peruvian khipus or quipus – devices in which information, primarily statistical data, was recorded in knots on threads – in existence worldwide but exhibits only a tiny fraction of them.
This persistence of epistemological “conditionings” from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries perpetuates a convergence of universal and national time the art historian Tony Bennett diagnosed for the nineteenth century: Owning objects from earlier and earlier times, from more and more distant places, Bennett argued, meant having power over history in general. Museums were the sites where this history was institutionalized, where objects from excavations – Bennett primarily studied the race for archaeological treasures in the Middle East – were not only declared national property, but also said to be valuable and universally valid for all time, for humanity as a whole. The nation that owned them was thus able to portray itself as the culmination of a universal historical development toward civilization. Although a construction of the nineteenth century, the convergence of national and universal time is currently being prominently reactivated with the plans for a world museum behind the façade of a Prussian castle on Berlin’s Museum Island, and remains linked to the question of ownership and symbolic power over objects.
The absence of a positive conception of the non-European artifact is symptomatic of how the status of these objects has become questionable in the Western context now that they have lost the legitimacy they had in the past. What, then, are they? An African sculpture in a glass case is at least as much an object subject to scholarly classification and the conventions of museum presentation as an African sculpture. And even the descriptor “African sculpture” as such is a Western category. What the ethnologist James Clifford criticized about the Musée de l’homme, Paris, which was set up in 1937, is still true for most museums today: There is not a single piece of European culture on display in them, while the West’s techniques of presentation and classificatory terms are omnipresent.
These things are also not aesthetic objects, if by that term we mean the modalities of production and experience circumscribed by a specific discursive and value system; or if they are aesthetic objects, then only by virtue of their inclusion in a museum. Yet they are no less also high art or court art or formerly religious objects, just like many masterworks in European collections. They were ethnographical evidence, and that is what they may still be, by the premises of an ethnology that has long changed, if they are accompanied by an ethnology (of its own procedures) that explores convoluted histories and respects incomparable and untranslatable aspects. Still, even as scientific objects they are the effects of a division: Objectification by the categories of Western ontologies, the anthropologist Viveiros de Castro has argued, entails the desubjectivation of objects and the severance of interrelations that underlie or underlay other ontologies.
So are they maybe documents of material cultures? Yes – but why should artifacts from the global South be more “material” than the arts of the global North? When they are labeled world cultures, the question immediately arises – who can share in this world? And the “world” being represented and exhibited is usually inaccessible. Documents of a history? Yes, but whose history, and which one? The history of former colonial collections? Or the national histories of the creation of postcolonial nation-states? A shared colonial history? And how are we to conceive a shared history based on relations of fundamental disparity? A convoluted history? Yes, but then the presentations would have to address relations of power as well as forms of agency.
More than a decade ago, Mirjam Shatanawi, a curator at the Tropenmuseum, raised the question of how to escape a dilemma: Shouldn’t these museums be either closed or merged with art museums or transformed into centers for debates around multiculturalism and migration? But when they are threatened with closure for reasons that command our assent no more than what led to their establishment – say, the potential disruption of national narratives of success, as is currently the case with the Dutch Tropenmuseum, even if the threat is camouflaged as an austerity measure – these museums deserve a qualified defense, though not without a redefinition of their role. Speaking at a conference, the Tropenmuseum’s current director, Wayne Modest, recently urged that “institutions such as the Tropenmuseum are a necessary part of public life that should haunt the multicultural present. Given their history and their collections, ethnographic museums should maintain their agenda of discussing the colonial past, and contributing to more nuanced understandings of the trajectories to our multicultural present. In addition, such museums should take on the larger project of reframing the language of cultural difference and distance that pervades political discourse, which these museums themselves helped to create.” So he argues that museums should begin by challenging the categories the same institutions engendered through their history in the first place; in an essay co-written with Helen Mears, he singles out the section “African Worlds” at the Horniman Museum, London, as a positive example. As Modest and Mears write, the presentation not only addresses the longstanding racist historiography that was, and occasionally still is, constitutive of narratives about Africa and the African diaspora, it also takes the multi ethnic difference into account that defines today’s London. And it uses the collection to give a voice to diverse forms of African and diasporic articulation. A conspicuous feature of the many debates over ethnological museums, most recently during a conference on “The Future of Ethnographic Museums” held at the Pitt Rivers, Oxford, in July 2013, is that they are much more vigorous and controversial in countries where colonial histories are more present in the cultural and political consciousness or antiracist struggles are active than, say, in Germany, where historical museums do not present adequate documentation of the colonial past, no public funding has ever been allotted for a migration museum, and ethnological museums are patently loath to expose their entanglements in colonial history.
Another solution currently being proposed is “contemporary art”. At the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Clémentine Deliss has made it a principle of her work as a curator to invite artists, designers, and cultural producers to undertake “fieldwork” – fieldwork in the museum rather than for the museum. She thus breaks the outdated principle to which these museums hew; to exhibit evidence of the material cultures of people who have long ceased to be “Others.” By turning the ethnological tables, the museum is supposed to transform itself into a research institution. The holdings, however, remain unaffected by this transformation; the collection is a fact. The cultural producers she invites are free to work with the entire collection as well as the film and photography archive, as long as the conservators do not object. What they do is up to them, as is the selection of objects they feel speak to them. A “prototype” of the artist’s work, created during a four-week residency under positively luxurious conditions – an apartment, a studio, access to the collection, financial and other resources, communication with the conservators – remains in the collection; everything else goes to the producers or the galleries representing them. It was not so much programmatic as symptomatic that the artists invited for the inaugural exhibition, “Objekt Atlas” (2012), had not necessarily been chosen for their past experience in institutional critique, their in-depth engagement with the colonial legacy of these museums, or (with a single exception) their prominently critical approach to globality, racism, or colonialism. As Deliss argued, the goal was to create “new interpretations” and a “post-ethnological museum.” The operative term was “remediation,” a concept the anthropologist Paul Rabinow defines in his book “Marking Time” as a process that implies a form of correction or the generation of new impulses. Thomas Bayrle, Helke Bayrle, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Sunah Choi, Antje Majewski, Otobong Nkanga, and Simon Popper were commissioned to contribute to “Objekt Atlas.” Generally speaking, it is hard to object to new interpretations, as long as reflection on the old interpretations is part of the process. As Issa Samb, a member of the group Laboratoire Agit’Art, Dakar, emphasizes in a video conversation with Antje Majewski produced for “Objekt Atlas,” to negate the meaning of an object is also to negate the culture in which it originated.
Deliss, whose concept ruffled feathers all around and drew skepticism or worse from ethnologists, museum people, audiences, and art critics, correctly notes that it is no longer possible to exhibit the documents of material cultures of other “peoples” one is not a member of, although she also expresses doubts about the idea of ethnic membership. But by staking everything on contemporary art without also addressing the failure of the Frankfurt museum to examine the history of the collection, let alone restitute objects, it seems she glibly dismissed a complex issue. The show upheld the dichotomy of contemporary vs. the past instead of exploring how these temporal layers and disparities condition one another or what of this past might continue to affect the present.
The Frankfurt museum would be an especially fruitful place to start investigating the colonial entanglements of ethnology and the history of its own collection. The exhibition opened with drawings by the artist Alf Bayrle, who documented Ethiopian megaliths in drawings and photographs during an expedition in 1934–1935. The expedition was led by the Frankfurt-based ethnologist Leo Frobenius, a glowing admirer of Africa who received financial support from the Nazis. Frobenius prominently laid out several concepts that became important for the African Négritude movement led by Léopold Senghor. In his writings, he framed the identitary concept of an African “cultural soul,” the so-called paideuma. In his view, every human culture constituted an organism; it was not just an aggregate of techniques, customs, and objects, but the manifestation of an awareness of life shaped by the environment and self-formation. Each culture, he argued, had a unique cultural style defined by a particular mentality or “situation of the soul.” The cultures of Germany and sub-Saharan Africa, he believed, were defined by the same situation of the soul.16 There is much to be said about Frobenius; but it was not (yet) said in the Frankfurt exhibition, which opened with those drawings by Alf Bayrle as well as a room featuring the Ethiopian stone steles the expedition had simply picked up and taken away. Bayrle’s drawings, meanwhile, are documents of the practice of the travel or expedition sketch, which adapted three-dimensional objects – in this instance, funerary steles with a religious as well as commemorative function – to the representational conventions of the European travel drawing and scientific photography. So they were not just physically transferred to Europe, but also transformed into European scientific and aesthetic objects and coveted collectibles.
What other works made manifest, though probably involuntarily, were the framework conditions set by the museum, which is to say, the artists’ unlimited access to objects that were at their disposal because the museum had neutralized them, and the collection’s holdings being accepted as fact. Consideration for history and subject positions associated with it might have interfered with their control. Recontextualized as museum property, by contrast, the objects seem to be pretty much at the artists’ command. Antje Majewski selected prehistoric stones from Papua New Guinea and used painting to transform them into abstract, intensely colorful and appealing shapes that bore titles such as “Armband und Batterie” (“Armband and Battery”) or “Leere Null” (“Void Zero”); the point, as Deliss put it, was to translate “the subliminal emotive-psychological level of ancient objects” into a contemporary visual language. How one might know about this level remained unexplained. The “remediation” that takes place here primarily generates psychological intensity out of an obviously fascinating object that now rests in its glass case, stripped of its former ritual function, an erratic thing. Majewski’s work would seem to stage the fascination of an exoticizing perspective on others as an effect of painting, one whose meaning is no more defined than the collection object that has lost its old meaning, a “void zero.” It might be argued that the artist effectively undertook a critical investigation of the object and art status of painting itself – according to Isabelle Graw, painting, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, is especially alive with the quasi-animist energy of the commodity fetish, so Majewski arguably translated the collection fetish into one of the market, both under the premises of a Western construction of the object – but such reflection is hardly patent in the work and remains an interpretation, in Graw’s terms, on the animistic status of painting.
The only contributor to “Objekt Atlas” to deliver the artifacts from the immanence of the museum was Otobong Nkanga, who translated the objects back into the world from which they had once upon a time been collected, looted, or purchased under the conditions of a colonial infrastructure. Nkanga had fabrics woven and posters printed that explain the former function of weapons, currencies, and jewelry from West African countries. The textiles were manufactured in Tilburg, the Dutch town that still produces “characteristically” African fabrics for the West African market; the posters were printed in Lagos; in other words, her work reflected on the places of production as much as the places of circulation. West Africa is also where the posters are to be distributed. Weapons and currencies were transformed into media of instruction, which is to say, put to a new use, rather than being given new meaning. Nkanga notes how astonished she was to learn, in Frankfurt, about weapons and currencies from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria that she had never heard of, even though she had grown up in Nigeria. She was also the only artist to at least raise the question, in the book accompanying the exhibition, whether the museum might need to consider returning objects. Her work may be read as a form of symbolic restitution, in a situation in which real restitution is obviously not (yet) possible or has not been attempted. The objects were not relocated but resituated, in popular usages and a discourse about their re-appropriation. Whether this symbolic form is a mere substitute act, or the deliberate negation, as a substitute act, of the question of ownership and a bet on circulation and immaterial appropriation, is virtually impossible to tell as long as ownership of the original object as such is not up for debate.
The work by Thomas Bayrle, Alf Bayrle’s son, again suggested the rift that exists between the collected artifacts and contemporary art, and made no attempt to mediate between them. Indonesian, Papua New Guinean, and West African fish traps were the models for his basket woven out of bands of paper highway, a “trap for stupid cars,” as the title indicated, in which a toy model Hummer SUV had gotten caught. The corny object joke reflected the mild absurdity that fish traps – objects that came to Frankfurt in ways that make sense to the student of history yet also seem somewhat haphazard, brought back by returning exhibitions supported by colonial and postcolonial infrastructures to satisfy a European mania for collecting – are now among the holdings of a municipal museum and as such part of the public national cultural heritage.
West- und Südfassade des Humboldt-Forums Berlin / West and South Facade of the Humboldt-Forum Berlin, 2019
That is not the end of what is happening in Frankfurt. Other exhibitions have followed “Objekt Atlas”; more will follow, the museum plans to build a new wing, and the exceptionally rich program of events proposes to transform the museum into a center of debate. On a more general level, we may ask why contemporary art is currently such a popular solution, also in contradistinction to other ways of dealing with the legacy of the ethnological museum that would now be possible. One might write and exhibit entangled histories or cultural histories of contact, enter into bilateral negotiations over restitutions or a shared heritage, or engage the discourses around difference, as Wayne Modest proposed. Frankfurt is not alone in betting on contemporary art. The Tropenmuseum recently hired a curator of contemporary art, Anke Bangma, who responds to the question of the role of contemporary art at the Tropenmuseum in the next essay. In 2012, the Grassi-Museum commissioned artists to engage with the problematic archive built by the racial anthropologist Egon von Eickstedt. At the Ethnological Museum, Berlin, a “Humboldt Lab” was set up, an experimental platform for the Humboldt-Forum, which, one hopes, will never be built; artists were among the invitees.
Contemporary art seems to hold out the promise of extracting meaning from something that is either extremely questionable and fraught with problems or whose former meaning is lost to a Western context, to shift the discourse to a different level. It is not only the object of social desire, but also one of the few domains that resist the pressure to defend their legitimacy. But to a certain degree, to delegate the problem of the collections, and with it the museum’s historical responsibility for a history, to art is to functionalize this illegitimacy – to borrow some of the unassailable status art happens to enjoy. Moreover, art is apparently expected to reconcile the “anachronistic” museum object (which must be considered in light of the collection’s history) to the world of today by tying it to a contemporary subjectivity. But unless the latter implies a specific structure of contemporariness, the exercise is merely tautological.
The aesthetic theorist Peter Osborne has sought to analyze this structure in an essay. Contemporariness, he writes, implies the projection that a lived present is unified and sharable. But “there is no actual shared subject-position of, or within, our present from the standpoint of which its relational totality could be lived as a whole, in however temporally fragmented or dispersed a form. Nonetheless, the idea of the contemporary functions as if there is. That is, it functions as if the speculative horizon of the unity of human history had been reached.” The contemporary, that is to say, operates as what he calls, in distinctly Kantian terms, an “act of productive imagination,” projecting a nonexistent unity on the fragmenting and mutually exclusive relations between contemporaneities. And as in the period around 1900, when the labeling of other cultures as prehistory went hand in hand with the imposition of a geopolitical order, the order of colonialism, this temporal structure likewise entails an order of space: “The fiction of the contemporary is necessarily a geopolitical fiction,” transnational and now produced by global capital. Osborne’s analysis sheds light on the identification of global with contemporary art, which, he writes, is manifest in the ease with which artists and international major exhibitions travel the world: “The transnationalization of art via its production for and inscription within a transnational art space that mediates the global dialectic of places, non-places and flows, via the institutional forms of the large-scale international exhibition, the market and the migrancy of artists.” Yet Osborne also indicates the direction of an escape from this homogeneity produced by capital in which the “imagination” becomes operative as a “profoundly contradictory process in which artists and art-institutional and market forms negotiate the politics of regionalism, postcolonial nationalism and migration.” The heterochronies and heterotopies implicit in these histories, he writes, need to be taken into consideration as well.
Conceived in these terms, contemporariness is not a matter of temporal uniformity but a form of subjectivity involved in that contradictory process. But then it is also not to be had without working through the past and its epistemological presumptions. That is why I am not making a fundamental case for, or against, contemporary art in these museums. What I propose instead is that we leave such institutionalized object categories, including the category of “contemporary art,” behind and understand working through a past that is not sharable, or sharable only under the condition of radical disparities, to be part of what constitutes contemporariness.
Reconceiving the purpose of these museums and jettisoning the old epistemological orders of the nineteenth century would not leave the status of “art” unaffected. Modernism, in particular, had constituted itself by cutting off its prehistory, which it then described as “traditional.” Displacing such temporal horizons that remain inherent in institutional orders to this day because their epistemological structure has remained unchanged, and restituting not just objects but also the respective historic contemporaneities, would be a second step. Such reorganizations would not necessarily mean shelving the idea of getting art involved. On the contrary, art deserves to be defended (though my saying so may now sound like a desperate plea) as a universal whose “institutional strength” derives “not from the fact that the institutions in which [it is] embodied are absolute themselves, but rather from the fact that [it is] the site of endless contestations on the basis of [its] own principles, or discourse.” So it is precisely not self-evident, as models of delegation sometimes suggest. But such endless contestations can only be waged in concrete terms and specific situations, one such situation being art’s role as a problem-solver. It would merit being strengthened as a raiser of problems in the framework of the complex conglomerate of art institution and market conformity, of regionalisms, postcolonial nationalisms, and migration, that Osborne describes – something individual works of art already accomplish.
Yet understanding art as more than merely a new interpreter implies another issue that concerns not so much “Objekt Atlas” in particular, but rather the legacy and possibility of institutional critique in art as it resurfaces in the works I mentioned above: The question of who bears responsibility for its critique if it is to be more than the satisfaction of an institutional desire for the appearance of critique. As long as this question remains unaddressed, we are stuck with a state of affairs Carl Einstein criticized as early as 1919: “The European work of art serves the protection and stabilization of the propertied bourgeoisie. This art establishes the fiction of an aesthetic revolt that allows the bourgeois to harmlessly vent a desire for change in the purely intellectual realm.” That, too, is a model of compensation. Yet there is virtually no critique without a desire for change, whence the question of who will take charge of its realization. But as long as the distinction between the museum of art and the museum of world cultures persists in the existing order of the collections, the latter will probably never be more than material for the former. The temporal disparity remains in place.
(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)