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Ethnographic Museums: Objects, History & Transcultural Contemporaneities

Susanne Thüringen reports on the workshop “Ethnographic Museums: Objects, History & Transcultural Contemporaneities” organized by Philippe Cordez, head of the International Junior Research Group “Premodern Objects. An Archeology of Experience“, which took place at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin on November 26th-28th 2015.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt - Berlin (Quelle: Wikipedia @Farbkontrast CC BY 3.0)

The workshop “Ethnographic Museums: Objects, History and Transcultural Contemporaneities” was organized by Philippe Cordez (Munich) as a part of the kick-off event of the “Research Network for Critical Transcultural Perspectives on Cultural and Aesthetic Practices” (preliminary title). This kick-off event took place itself on the occasion of the conference “Present’s disjunctive unity. Constructing and deconstructing histories of contemporary cultural and aesthetic practices” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin on November 26th-28th 2015.
The discussions took as their starting point the relativisation of the contemporary object concept that defines the ‘object’ as something “that lays before [a contemporary subject]”. If this category which was developed in Europe around 1800 is historically and culturally unsteady, what has it been before, and above all, what is happening with ‘objects’ when displaced and displayed in museums, exhibitions or collections?
The workshop aimed to explore ethnographic museums from a historical as well as a contemporary perspective, surveying 1. the poetics and politics of objectification (of things or of persons) that have been constitutive of 'modern' contemporaneity, 2. corollary strategies of “un-objectification” or “subjectification” especially in artistic and aesthetic practices, 3. other conceptions of objecthood and experiences with things both within and beyond what has been called “modernity.”

Three presentations on historical object-based practices before 1945 were juxtaposed with three contributions on current practices. First, Susanne Mersmann (Mainz) focused on attempts to canonize and organize non-European objects in Paris during the second half of 19th century, within the Musées du Trocadéro. Her case study investigated the various means by which non-European objects entered European collections, for instance through travellers. Hereby, she especially examined travel questionnaires, in particular the 1883 “Questionnaire de Sociologie et d’ethnographie” of the Parisian anthropological society (Société d’Anthropologie de Paris). The objective of this questionnaire was to determine travellers’ experiences with and judgements of non-European objects.
Joshua I. Cohen (New York) then outlined artistic experiences of West African objects that have been shown at the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro, arguing in particular for a much more precise reconstruction of how Picasso engaged with the constructive method he observed on specific ivory masks during the period shortly before he painted his famous ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907).
Hanna Holtz (Hamburg/Munich) described a period of complex interactions between ethnologists and Surrealists in the 1920s and 1930s. She gestured towards the lasting impact of these interactions on ethnology as scientific discipline and on the Musée de l’Homme that replaced the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1937. Concentrating on the “Exposition Surréaliste d’Objets” held in May 1936 in Paris, Holtz showed how the Surrealists – in exchange with ethnologists, collectors, and other intermediaries – brought Surrealist, non-European, but also non-artistic European objects onto a level field, presenting these objects in symmetric order and in elegant showcases. Through this, the Surrealists principally disjointed the objects from their traditional contexts, categories, and hierarchies, generating an undetermined aura (that was partly declared magical) in place of established systems of object classification.

Isabelle Dolezalek (Berlin) demonstrated that the effects of display strategies cannot be overestimated and indeed strongly shape the interpretation of an object within the museum context even today. Drawing a case study from the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin, Dolezalek examined the different ways that an Iranian Prayer Niche was displayed in the museum, making clear the challenges, even limitations, of exhibiting an object in a way that fully elucidates its meaning. The prayer niche was first displayed as an aesthetic and technologically elaborate object. Next, the focus shifted to the function of the niche as a religious object, questioning art historical criteria such as authenticity and innovation. This shift was accompanied also by changes in lighting and spatial arrangement. As Dolazalek persuasively showed, in each case the object’s mode of display elided a certain crucial aspect of its significance.
Verena Rodatus (Berlin) likewise took up this theme in her discussion of the exhibition concept of "Object Biographies", which took place at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin in 2015 and was curated by Rodatus herself together with Margareta von Oswald. By using the widely received method of object biographies, the curator team sought to fully explore the changing meanings and also the different human perspectives of each object by extending display methods especially with regard to the exhibition architecture and use of different media.

In contrast to this approach, which aims to consider almost completely every conceivable perspective and potentiality of an object’s meaning, performer and theorist Mischa Twitchin (London) gave insight into his research on contemporary practices with non-European objects in metropolitan museums. If people who die are dead, what are objects that die? Are they art? Phantasms? Twitchin explores different concepts of display or “modes of visibility” through his short films, where he for instance investigates the properties and effects of glass vitrines.

Ultimately, the workshop has shown two things. First, historical exhibition strategies have been highly influenced by collaborative artistic-scientific projects in particular during the period of Surrealism and this kind of interaction still remain very important today. Yet the possible strategies for displaying objects are probably vaster now than ever – between perspectives informed by artistic research and approaches that dedicate a lot of time, people and media to the careful exhibition of the multiple histories of each single object. This discussion profits highly from incorporating historical analysis and it will be very useful to continue in this way.
The workshop has been organized with the financial support of Junior Research Group “Premodern Objects. An Archaeology of Experience” at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

by Susanne Thürigen (Munich)

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