Recommendation: Symposium “Positioning Ethnological Museums in the 21st Century”

Are you interested in ethnology and cultural anthropology? If so, did you know that the traditional way in which culture is exhibited in ethnological museums originated with the curiosity cabinets of the Enlightenment?

Bild: Maske des Meereswesens Yagim. Kanada, Britisch-Kolumbien, Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), Holz. Museum für Völkerkunde, Wien | Gryffindor unter CC-By 3.0

Maske des Meereswesens Yagim. Kanada, Britisch-Kolumbien, Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), Holz. Weltmuseum (ehemals Museum für Völkerkunde), Wien | Bild: Gryffindor unter CC-BY-SA 3.0

Until today, not much in exhibition practice seems to have changed at first sight. Ethnological museums underwent a boom in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the high tide of colonialism. Many ethnological museums continue to exhibit their collections just in the way they always did. There is still not enough reflection on the thought behind the collection, or on the context in which the objects of the collections were assembled. But, considering the period of origin of most collections, this is crucial. It is important to think about what was considered worthy of display and how it was presented to a (mostly) western audience, especially if we do not want to continue racist practices and racial predjudices forever.

To address this issues and find better ways of representing non-European cultures the Volkswagen Foundation will host a symposium in cooperation with Deutscher Museumsbund at the Herrenhausen Castle (Hannover) from June 21 to June 23, 2015.

Why It Matters How We Think About Objects
According to one of the leading experts in thing theory, Indian ethnologist Arjun Appadurai, an object can obtain very different meaning within its ‘life’, depending on it’s contextualization and the perspective the interacting human takes.1 So, if we don’t reflect on how we contextualize and display objects in ethnological museums, we fail to aknolwedge its previous life, the attached ‘colonial’ perspective. This means we, the museum visitors, take (unvoluntarily or not) a colonialist perspective on the displayed object, thereby dragging this view and all the nuances of meaning implied by it along with us, just like carrying around ‘the corpse’ of the objects past ‘life’ – to stay with Appadurai‘s imagery.

Herrenhausen Symposium
During the Herrenhausen Symposion, topics like the history of museum collections, provenance research, the special case of “restitution”, different forms of cooperation as well as how these aspects can become part of ethnographic exhibitions will be discussed. The overall goal of the event is to tackle the need for a critical appraisal of the past, present, and future of ethnological museums.

There are going to be four different panels, each addressing a different problem ethnological museology struggles with in the context of appropriate representation of (predominantly) non-European art:

1. History of Museum Collections / Provenance Research
Recently, the public has called for more in-depth research into the provenance of ethnological objects. The discussion on whether only objects with untainted provenance should be exhibited continues. But what should such provenance research entail in concrete terms? Is there even a thing like untainted provenance and if so, how do you define it? What are the necessary prerequisites? What results are expected? This session will explore examples of provenance research and the consequences for museum collections.

2. The Special Case of “Restitution”. Legal Aspects and Others
Restitution issues frequently spark public interest in the topic of ethnological collections. There are both: International standards that determine how to deal with these collections as well as the possibility of finding individual solutions. The reason for restitution claims vary, depending for instance on whether they refer to objects or human remains. Both aspects will be discussed in this session.

3. Cooperation/Networking/Knowledge Transfer
Debates on provenance, restitution, ethnology in universities and museums, and the role of ethnological museums have inspired various approaches for cooperation between museums and countries of provenance or source communities. In this session several examples of how to deal with collections will be presented and discussed in the context of the foregoing discussions.

4. Exhibitions
How can issues like provenance, restitution, and the history of collections be included in actual exhibitions? How do museums position themselves when it comes to the history of their collections and their institution? And does this fit in with the goal and the function of museums to mediate knowledge about other (predominantly non-European) cultures and contribute towards better understanding between peoples?

For a more detailed overview of the program as well as information how to get to Herrenhausen Castle click here.

There is no fee for the attendance of Symposium at Herrenhausen, but registration is essential.

  1. Arjun Appadurai. Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value, in: The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective / ed. by idem. 5th ed., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press (2007), pp.3-63. []

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