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Contemporary Art and/in/versus/about the Ethnological Museum

by Susanne Leeb
18 Nov 2013 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Afterlives [11] | Commons

1. The Problem

There is a lot of movement in the field of ethnological museums. Western museums under a postcolonial and global condition do not take into account that objects from different and diverse cultures, taken from their former social and religious contexts and value systems, are displayed without considering the circumstances of acquisition, without considering adequate forms of restitution, without considering possibilities of shared heritage or recapturing, and without questioning which story or history is to be told to whom. Museums are understood as sites of education and cultivation by means of object and cultural narrative display. At stake here, is the kind of gaze that museums ought to cultivate. Should museums cultivate a national possessive gaze? A nostalgic gaze towards “lost worlds”? A scientific, aesthetic or touristic gaze? The gaze of a connoisseur? Or a “long” gaze of “wild semiosis”?[1] Though museums are responsible for restoration and preservation, (aesthetic) education and governmentality are their foundational principles as well as the shaping of national identities and collective memories, as Tony Bennett has shown in The Birth of the Museum.[2] Or should they, as Mirjam Shatanawi, curator at the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam and curator of shows like Urban Islam already proposed in 2001 “either be closed down, merge with art museums or else reinvented as centers for multicultural debate”?[3]

In spite of much recent debate regarding ethnological museums, it is still striking that there is hardly any positive conception of the kind of objects and object categories being displayed and stored there, at least in Europe. Most collections are still exhibited under the notion of the Western scientific discipline–“ethnology”–which from the 19th century on, whilst in the context of colonialism and imperialism, was responsible for gathering objects and building up collections. These collections are run under the names of European collectors, patrons and discoverers (Pitt Rivers, Oxford; Sir John Soane, London; Rautenstrauch and Joest, Cologne; Grassi, Leipzig; and, planned, Humboldt, Berlin). Alternatively, the collection names sometimes indicate the location of the museum (quai Branly, Paris) or a climatological category (Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam). Furthermore, the artworks and artifacts are labeled “world culture”, implying a latent Othering, based on the assumption that the “world” in this context usually does not include European collections.

The lack of evidence of the function of these museums is furthermore reflected by the phenomenon that more and more artists are discovering the ethnological museum as a site of exploration and investigation. Symptomatic of this interest is that artistic appropriation, transformation, or working-through are facilitated once the formerly stabilized cultural meanings or legitimations start to vanish. In times of Modernism, when artists appropriated non-European art and artifacts known under the term “primitivism”, the availability of those objects went without questioning. Artists were able to see them–as well as people from the countries of origin–in world exhibitions, colonial exhibitions, recently founded ethnological museums and private collections.

The issues of availability and accessibility still seem to be relevant questions today–the more so since accessibility is only true for a European and touristic public, but not, in the age of Schengen, for most people from the countries of origin. While one could argue that such availability has been inherent to the problematic museification of non-European art and artifacts since around the 1900s, today, not only must we deal with different historical circumstances and power relations, but we must also confront an ongoing critique of museological narratives as such, which should concurrently address questions of access. While direct access is mostly still denied even on a temporary basis[4] (through Visa, material and mobility restrictions, as well as through non restitution), the access of artists towards ethnological museums has changed. Most artistic interest is no longer directed towards an artistic appropriation of singular specimens of “other” cultures, as was the case in the times of Modernism. Most artistic interests today are directed towards the museum as an institution and site of exhibiting and collecting the “Other,” towards its specific narrations and untold histories, towards their modes of display and presentation as a special way of formatting the object exhibited.

Just to name some examples: A very early way of working with and vehemently criticizing the process of private and museological collecting and exhibiting, and the enabling context of the colonialism of African sculptures, was Chris Marker’s and Alain Resnais’ film Les statues meurent aussi (1953). In 1968 Lothar Baumgarten directed his interest towards a specific museum, producing a slide projection titled Unsettled Objects (1968), which addressed aspects of the collection’s display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992) was a first major museological intervention that changed the narrative of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore by making its colonial preconditions visible and by pointing out its invisible history. Another example is Isaac Julien’s video Vagabundia (2000) which deals with the ghostly presence of colonialism in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.

Many more artworks, including most recent ones, demonstrate that the cultural techniques of collecting and exhibiting, of displaying and archiving, are not only topics of cultural studies,[5] but have also become the starting point and material basis for artistic production.[6] A very recent manifestation of this institutional critique after institutional critique was Kader Attia’s work The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, exhibited at documenta 13 (2012) in Kassel.


Fig. 2. Fig. 1 & 2: Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012, Installation view, dOCUMENTA (13) © Kader Attia/VG-Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Repair was a huge installation, consisting of partially broken objects from everyday culture bearing colonial traces by having been “repaired” with French coins, munitions or buttons from French furniture etc. Attia confronted these repaired objects with photographs of wounded soldiers from WWI, whose faces were brutally injured and distorted in the battlefield. These images also served as models for the making of wooden sculptures carved in Dakar, which resembled African masks loved by the European artists and collectors for their “cubistic” inversion of faces.

The installation, further consisted of shelves, marble sculptures made in Carrara, journals, books, photographs, copies, slide shows and “trench art” (objects that were made by soldiers out of munitions and bullet casings in the trenches of WWI). It mimicked as much a collection as a gathering of high value objects. It presented itself as an alternative collection of material culture by challenging such criteria of collecting as wholeness, good quality, extraordinariness of the handcraft etc. Wholeness, authenticity and quality especially, appear in Attia’s piece as phantasm of Western high culture. The objects on display testify that wholeness of artworks rarely exists even in the Western world. As several books show, even the foundations of European culture, Greek statues for example, just survived in fragments and pieces. Besides the question of selection and the criteria for museological collections, the overall question introduced by the title of the work Repair was, with regard to the colonial past, if something can be “repaired” at all. Obviously, the work denies this possibility through the method of absurd comparison of repaired objects and repaired faces or the comparison of African masks and masks modeled after European wounded soldiers. These are too far to be comparable and too close not to be comparable with regard to questions of repair, wounds, victims, violence.

2. One Proposal: “Object Atlas” (Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt/Main)

Whereas artists in the tradition of institutional critique have continued to question ethnological museums in their current state, museums have also started to reflect on their legitimacy. Pitt Rivers Museum is announcing a conference in July 2013 “The Future of Ethnographic Museums,” on the occasion of which a diagram is posted on their website with a number of crucial questions: “What are ethnographic museums for in the 21th century? What audiences should they aim to address and what should they contain? Should ethnographic museums retain the evidence of their entanglement with the colonial past or prioritize the contemporary in their collections and exhibitions? Who has the right to own and represent the material culture of others? To what extent have new models of curatorial practice and contemporary anthropological theories realigned the power imbalances of earlier eras? How can such institutions respond to the movement of people and things in an increasingly transnational and interconnected world?”[7]

Another approach to redefine the task of ethnological museums is to invite artists to work with their collections. Differently to the artistic examples mentioned above, in which artists have approached the museums with a critical perspective, the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main has made an explicit shift from institutional critique to institutional desire and invited seven artists to do “fieldwork” in the museum.[8] The results were presented in the temporary show “Object Atlas – Fieldwork in the Museum” from January to September 2012. With the term fieldwork, director Clémentine Deliss appropriated an ethnographic method and declared the museum’s collection and the archives themselves as a site worth exploring. This method corresponds perfectly to the exigencies and aims of artistic research.

“Object Atlas” was the first exhibition, for which the modalities for current and future exhibitions in the Weltkulturen Museum were established. Artists or designers are invited for a residency. After a first visit, aimed at allowing them to get an impression and possibly formulate initial project ideas, the artists are provided with a studio space, an assistant, and an apartment within the museum’s complex. They have access to the pieces of the collection in storage, to the film- and photo-archive and are able to choose what they want to work with, depending on the conservatory state of the objects. Once transferred in the “laboratory”, they can touch and rearrange the objects within the course of four weeks, and come up with something within the given timeframe.[9]

It is worth mentioning that for “Object Atlas” the invited artists had not especially dealt with ethnological museums before. Since there are numerous artists who have expressed such an interest, the choice of the artists was obviously not determined by a topic or a specific postcolonial perspective but by their individual artistic approaches. Unlike Attia or way before Wilson, with his re-narration of a museum’s history, no one of the chosen artists took up the heritage of institutional critique. Instead, the artists of “Object Atlas” developed a kind of dialogue with single pieces of the collection. The assumption is that the task of the museum is not necessarily to address the (post-)colonial situation, to investigate a specific history, to reconstruct a former meaning of the objects, but rather, to create new meanings and interpretations through art. Deliss who does not primarily come from ethnography but has worked in the field of contemporary art before, strives for a “post-ethnological museum”. The show was meant to update, re-animate or “remediate“ the collected artifacts. Anthropologist Paul Rabinow who was invited to write a short introduction for the catalog, based on his book Marking Time,[10] defines “remediation” as a form of correction and of giving new impulses which, according to him, and supported by Deliss, are only possible by a change of media. Contemporary art was thus set up as an extraordinary category that made this encounter between two worlds–the contemporary artistic and the ethnological–possible. While the catalogue contains essays that are related to the history of the collection of the museum, such as an article by Richard Kuba on the chance female artists of the 1920s had to escape their restricted milieu by participating in field research in Africa, the exhibition itself was mainly restricted to the two mentioned object categories: the art work and the ethnological object.

In its whole approach, “Object Atlas” was a singular endeavor based on Deliss’ belief that it is “no longer possible [to] exhibit the documents of material culture of other people (…) without being part of them.”[11] Deliss pursued an idea proposed by Carl Einstein in the 1920s during the rearrangement of the Berliner Völkerkundemuseum collection. Einstein suggested that the museum is a “dynamic, living or vivid school.”[12] As the comments in the visitor’s book would suggest, Deliss’ attempt to put forward a “post-ethnological” museum by exclusively displaying objects chosen by the artists and their corresponding works, was a very provocative gesture. An audience more or less unaware of the discussions concerning the past and the future of ethnographic museums expressed feelings of anger and deceit. Many complained that if they had wanted to go to a museum of contemporary art they would have not gone to the Museum of World Cultures. Since there is still little awareness of Germany’s colonial past–as witnessed in the visitor’s book and in peoples’ wishes to only view pieces of world culture–one could ask whether declaring a “post”-situation and striving for a post-ethnological museum may be premature, at least until the “pre”-situation is made part of public consciousness. The contemporary seems to be played out against the past, instead of investigating how the latter still informs the former. I would like to discuss this encounter, entanglement or confrontation between contemporary art and ethnographic objects by addressing three aspects: the varied approaches undertaken by the artists, the trust in the ability of contemporary art to somehow “solve the problem”, and the different object categories, which could possibly be experienced.

In the show, each artist had her or his own room, in the middle of which the ethnographic items were exhibited in a conventional form, in glass cases, surrounded by the newly produced artworks. As part of the local history of Frankfurt am Main, one could come upon stone and wooden megaliths “collected” in Ethiopia in the 1930s, which were surrounded by photographs and drawings of the very same objects, made by Alf Bayrle during the expedition led by German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, at the time when the megaliths were taken from their original locations and transported to Frankfurt in 1934.

Fig. 3: Installation view “Object Atlas”, Stone Steles from Ethiopia, drawings Alf Bayrle, Photographs from the Frobenius-expedition 1934-35, © Wolfgang Günzel.

Bayrle’s semi-scientific drawings, presented here as autonomous artworks, represent a common practice of travel drawings translating three-dimensional artifacts into the conventions of European drawing and photography, and turning them into images. This translation is not a contemporary answer to the megaliths, dating from the same time as the objects’ acquisition and collection. This modern method of transposing objects into a two-dimensional artistic convention was practiced by several of the invited artists–no longer in the “African field” but in the “field” of the museum.

Antje Majewski chose prehistoric stone tools from Papua New Guinea–clubs, mortars and pestles–and painted them in oil on canvas where they tuned into unrecognizable, abstract, but all the more colorful and beautiful forms, in order to, as the interpretation by Deliss goes, visualize the emotional, psychological quality formerly attached to these objects, which previously had a religious meaning.[13]

Fig. 4: Installation view “Object Atlas”, Antje Majewski, Series I GO GET THE GOOD THINGS, 2011, © Wolfgang Günzel.

Painting, here, works as a secularizing but also re-auratizing force. Majewski also exhibited a long video-taped conversation with Issa Samb, artist and member of the group Laboratoire Agit’Art in Dakar. In this conversation Majewski and Samb talk in general terms about personal relations to things, their ability to speak and to always contain socio-cultural meaning.

Simon Popper worked with Peruvian Moche jars, originally put into graves to accompany the dead, and with Ibeji twin figures from the African section of the museum, which were carved by the Yoruba after one or two twins have passed away to replace him or her. He also took the inventory cards of both object categories to address the museological ordering of things. His watercolor drawings on the wall repeated the mode of depiction on these cards, but multiplied and slightly distorted them: On the one hand by presenting a large number of them on paper, and on the other by showing much larger and more colorful linear renditions of the objects. While all these repetitions and different angles could be read not only as a response to the serial character of the objects but also as demonstrations of the impossibility to grasp the object and fully understand it, one could ask whether this impossibility is due to the sole method of adopting scientific drawings and turning them into artworks. In a way, the work repeats the process of emptying the objects of their cultural and social meaning by producing inventory cards and putting them into storage.

Otobong Nkanga chose weapons, currencies and jewelry from West African countries and explained their former use by adding visual or verbal explanations to a poster depicting her holding these objects in her hand.

Fig. 5: Installation view “Object Atlas”, Otobong Nkanga, Facing the Opponent, 2011/12, © Wolfgang Günzel.

She also had the objects and instructions printed on fabric, which she had produced in the Dutch town of Tilburg. Since the 19th century, the Netherlands had manufactured the “typical West-African fabric” for the African market.

And last but not least: Thomas Bayrle, the son of Alf Bayrle, responded to fish traps from Papua New Guinea und Indonesia by constructing traps for “stupid cars,” as the title goes. His trap for stupid cars was a basket woven out of paper highway stripes, in which he placed “Hummer SUV” car models. This was a clear pun since “Hummer” translates from German into “lobster,” thus keeping the objects being displayed within the semantic realm of sea creatures.

Fig. 6: Installation view “Object Atlas”, Thomas Bayrle, Fallen für dumme Autos (Traps for stupid cars), 2011, © Wolfgang Günzel.

I cannot discuss all approaches in this context, but I would like to highlight at least two opposite moves. Thomas Bayrle, who was familiar with ethnographic fieldwork being the son of Alf Bayrle, did not deal directly with the objects from Indonesia and Papua-New-Guinea. Instead, he produced an absurd analogy, translating the former and lost “function” of the trap into the non-function of the artwork as a material piece of thought addressed to Germany’s car-loving society. Since cars and highways are often a topic in his work, he remained within the logic of his own artistic production. I understand his “trap” as a refusal to take up the task of “doing something” with the artifact, and at the same time as an acknowledgment of a non-accessibility to what the fish trap could have meant or still means in the very different context of its origin. The wish for accessibility and understanding can be a trap itself.

Otobong Nkanga took an opposite approach. She used posters and fabric as instructive media to convey the former use of these objects, but transferred them to a new use. She also considered the sites of production, having the fabric woven in Tilburg, and the posters printed in Lagos. In an interview with Deliss, Nkanga talks about being amazed to learn something about weapons and currency from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria that she had never even heard of before, although she grew up in Nigeria. This not knowing is due to the complete absence of these objects in their countries of origin. Her work was a kind of re-appropriation: Explaining the former meaning of the objects in media of contemporary everyday culture and using pop-cultural modes of instruction and distribution. She creates a possibility to bring them back, at least on a symbolic level. Especially the fabric can be used for other purposes, thus replacing the lost use of the weapons and currencies by a new and common use. She was the only participant–very likely due to her Nigerian background and to her awareness of the lack of such objects there–who asked whether the approach of the museum should not be more political and radical by considering restitution.[14] But if her work cannot relocate the objects in their countries of origin, it does resituate them within a discourse on artwork, artifact, and everyday culture and opens up the possibility of a new use.

In the way they aestheticized their objects, Popper or Majewski adhered much more to certain conventions of contemporary art. That the suggested term “remediation” is no “solution” per se can be explained by a maybe slightly forced parallel to the travel drawings of Bayrle from the 1930s or to study drawings by artists of the Primitivism period. For example, the German Expressionist Emil Nolde made 150 drawings of masks and statues in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, where he appropriated them by translating the already decontextualized items into the artistic and cultural idiom of sketching and drawing.[15] Though this might be an ahistorical comparison–times of colonialism/times of global capitalism–it can show that a transformative power through media is not necessarily a value in itself. It was already the most common means of appropriating the “Other” in the Modernist times of the 1910s and 20s. What has also not profoundly changed is the accessibility to these objects, in this case reserved to a small group of selected artists, whose work remains within the world of global contemporary artistic production, with the exception of Nkanga who thought about means of how to re-distribute the objects at least on a symbolic level.

In terms of transforming the objects of use into artworks one could advocate a positive notion of aestheticization, as suggested by the philosopher Jacques Rancière. He maintains that aestheticization is a power of suspension or interruption of any former usages or forms of “distribution of the sensible” and thus facilitates new arrangements–either by singular artworks or by the institution of the museum itself.[16] But one could ask which distributions exactly are brought into question or whether it makes sense to unify all different object modalities under one basic Western principle. What is at stake is the classification system itself–ethnographic here, art there–that should be questioned, instead of retaining these fields as two different categories, as if the properties of being artistic or ethnographic would precipitate in the objects themselves. But the aesthetic, ethnographic, anthropological, or also the relational are different modes of interacting with objects as a symbolic form of social interaction. In the show, however, the differential logic of the objects was for the most part maintained: There was a visible distinction between artworks on the wall and collected “scientific” objects either in glass cabinets or on the floor.

3. The Promise

On a more general level, one can ask why contemporary art is attributed the role of updating objects, why this trust in the contemporary? We encounter this model not only in Frankfurt but also in Leipzig at the Grassi-Museum in a show of 2012.[17] The museum also invited artists to find ways of working with the archive of racial anthropologist Egon von Eickstedt. Art seems to hold a certain promise of making sense of something that is either highly questionable or that has lost its former meaning. Besides the fact that sense-making might not be the foremost “duty” of an artwork, such an approach brings up the question of responsibility and its delegation. To delegate a task usually means to consult someone with higher expertise. The expertise of artists does not necessarily lie in positivist knowledge but rather in their intellectual, aesthetic and material sensibilities. In many cases since the 1990s it also guarantees a degree of criticalness. Artistic approaches might lead to unexpected points of view, to new material approaches and surprising constellations. There are historical examples where artists have challenged the hierarchical order of things much more than any scientific discipline, such as the journal Documents, edited by George Bataille et. al. in 1929 and 1930. But at the same time “art” as both a discourse and a result of an intellectual-material process is out of question. An artistic output is not debatable in the same way as a scientific essay. And even if there were a dispute around an artwork in terms of approach, method or content, this does not mean that an artist would change her or his work.[18] This non-negotiability is due to artistic freedom or even freedom of opinion and the situation of art beyond other disciplines. As much as this is to be defended (even if one does not agree with the results of singular art works), using artistic art-facts to replace a discussion concerning the question of what (post-)ethnographic museums can mean today, means delegating the problem to a realm where negotiations do not take place in the same way, even if the artwork is very critical about the context it addresses. Certainly the singular artwork can be discussed, but not in respect to the question of sense or non-sense of ethnological museums in Western cultures, but in terms of the specific artistic proposition. Willem de Roij for example, refused to consider his installation Intolerance[19] as a proposal for a possible rearrangement of European and Non-European Collections. Art cannot/does not want to solve the fundamental questions, and it is not meant to. Obviously, the hope lies in the fact that one can displace the problems to another field. Art, being highly estimated, valuable and firmly situated within Western culture, serves as new legitimating force for a type of museum that has lost its social legitimation, and that has not yet found a convincing new one.

The second promise contemporary art seems to hold is the contemporary itself. It is problematic, when it is posited as an alternative to the past, as is the case in the questionnaire of the conference announcement of Pitt Rivers Museum: “Should ethnographic museums retain the evidence of their entanglement with the colonial past or prioritize the contemporary in their collections and exhibitions?”[20] As Johannes Fabian in Time and the Other. How Anthropology makes its Object (1983) has shown, time was crucial within ethnography around the 1900s to shape the Other as the past of Europe. He argued that the Other was not considered as contemporaneous, but as a past which was conceived of mankind’s prehistory–a construction which legitimated the exploration or even the “rescue” of “dying” items belonging to already past cultures. While one might think that the notion of the contemporary might solve the problem, another trap opens up: It is not the producers of those objects with their own contemporary or historical agency that are addressed, but rather, an aesthetic gaze which strips off the objects of their history and the history of being collected. If “prehistory” denied history, the “contemporary” produces similar effects. It abets the idea of homogeneity, which is hardly at stake in either the museum’s collections or in the relation of the artists to the artefacts. This kind of reconciliation by a modality of time hides the conditions of access to these objects, allowing their colonial context to be addressed nowhere. A postcolonial condition is merely presupposed but not worked through and actualized. The contemporary in this case is only a promise or a global token and a convention, which is ideological in that it seems to be able to bridge the gap between objects in the museum and the contemporary world by reattaching them to an artistic subjectivity and by letting the objects speak once more through the medium of contemporary art. As much as individual artworks are to be respected, used to enliven museums, some seem to work tautologically: the artifacts appear contemporary, since contemporary artists work with them. As much as one should defend Deliss’ approach within the range of ethnological museums in Germany at least (i.e. to break with old structures and conventions of ethnological museums), art as the only “method” of attaching contemporary meaning to those objects merely homogenizes the historical gaps within a contemporary aesthetic, instead of drawing art and political history together in the same constellation. This concerns at least the exhibition “Object Atlas”. As stated in the catalogue designers, writers, filmmakers and social scientists will also be invited to engage with the museum’s ethnographic collection. It is to be seen, how far their practices will be able to face this challenge.

4. Object relations and relational objects

In the case of “Object Atlas” maybe the idea of field research was not taken far enough. One could imagine that the artists might have come up with the idea that the museum is really and not only metaphorically a site of fieldwork, with all its historical implications, meaning that the task would have been to “dig out” some objects and “bring them home.” A similar fantasy of recapturing objects of African origin on a symbolic level is the topic in the song and video Tam Tam de l’Afrique by the Hip Hop band IAM, based in Marseille. “IAM”, as Christian Kravagna summarizes, “resurrects cultural artifacts that had been reified though colonial acquisition and museum storage to lively objects now capable of telling suppressed histories of contemporary racism’s backgrounds and the post/neo-colonial division of the world.”[21] What happens in this video is that IAM establishes a completely different object relation than a museological one. They actualize the statues and masks, reattach a colonial history and a temporary experience of racism.

“Object Atlas” tried to reach a similar aim, though with different results, failing to address the colonial condition of acquisition and to encourage object relations that differ from ethnographical-scientific ones.

The issue of object relations brings us back to the question of what kind of objects we are actually dealing with. The first difficulty arises with the fact that the objects in “ethnographic” collections are not homogeneous at all, ranging from basic tools and currencies to religious, memorial, ritualistic, spiritual or artistic artifacts. Also, within their history of collection they have already gone through diverse classifications: from curiosities and fetishes to mute things, to semiophores, to epistemologica or aesthetic objects, which all have a specific productivity, but which at the same time have also been critically commented on. Rheinberger defines the term epistemologica as material things playing a role in the production of knowledge, with the help of which, things can be demonstrated.[22] This is certainly at stake in most ethnological/world museums when the material proof of a different culture, its history, its society and religion shall be explained. But this scientific approach has been criticized as a specific modern construction participating to the very same colonial construction as the “prehistoricity” of the Other: According to Viveiros de Castro, a purely scientific approach of the modern Western world, was responsible for the desubjectification of subject-object relations–which denied a relational approach by splitting the world into subjects and objects. This desubjectification, which was, according to Castro, the condition of possibility for industrialization and its accompanying environmental destruction[23]–is a process, which is today signified by the notion of neo-colonialism.

Another suggestion in the course of European museological thinking was to treat these objects as “semiophores,” a term coined by Krzysztof Pomian.[24] The term semiophore refers more to meaning than to knowledge and addresses things as supportive structures of meaning, whose function it is to refer to past cultures, events or people. In order to obtain a sense of the presence of absence, it must be presupposed that the objects are authentic and thus possess a certain aura, even if this aura is produced by stories, narratives, labels, glass cases and lighting techniques, and some traces of age and use. This approach was criticized by Alfred Gell, who coined the term “material culture mysticism”[25] to refer to the belief in the presence of absence within the object.

Another seemingly neutral category is “raw object itself.”[26] In reference to Paul Valery, art historian Peter Geimes states that “thingness” itself only becomes visible when meaning is withdrawn from the objects. Even if it seems to be the case in ethnological museums, one could state, as does Issa Samb in the interview with Majewski, that to denying an object’s meaning equates to denying the culture they come from. Also, the notion of “thingness” is itself historically produced. The thinking about objects began with the development of modern capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, when new modes of production, division of labor and processes of rationalization led to an explosion of the world of things, as the cultural theorist Georg Simmel stated.[27] In an essay from 1900, he described how the personal world of the individual and the objective world of things fell apart. Objects, according to Simmel, place themselves between people, obtain an objective autonomy (“objektive Selbstständigkeit” [sic]) or even develop a hostile power. This so-called life of the objects does not come from an animistic context, but is diagnosed as a dissociation or alienation occurring within the modern world.[28]

In contrast to notions like the epistemological object, the semiophore or the pure thing, ethnological studies have highlighted categories like the gift or exhaustion, or have given up the notion of the object altogether by focussing on relational ontologies that dissolve the category of the object (versus subject). By the term of a relational ontology de Castro proposed to replace the Western notion of animism.[29] An example of overlapping indigenous knowledge as relational ontology and modern forms of legislation based on subjects and objects can be found in the constitution of Ecuador, where in 2008 natural “objects” obtained the status of juridical subjects in the country’s constitution. This means that it is possible to take legal proceedings against the destruction of nature or “pachamama” (referring to animist, indigenous knowledge) like rivers or the rain forest–by transnational corporations in the name of new juridical entities–as is the case with an ongoing lawsuit against Texaco. The same proposition was brought up by the French philosopher Michel Serres in 1992 in his book The natural contract, in which he pleads for the very same idea: to elevate “objects” like oceans, rain forests or rivers to the status of legal subjects, in order for it to be possible to institute legal proceedings. “Indeed the EARTH talks to us in terms of forces, connections and interactions, and this is enough to conclude a contract.”[30]

Within this whole array of different object relations and object ontologies, the aesthetic approach is only one of many possibilities, and not a meta-principle. One could instead investigate the aesthetic itself, not as, to quote Alfred Gell, the “study of the aesthetic principles of this or that culture,” but as “the mobilization of aesthetic principles in the course of social interaction.”[31] Then, the aesthetic would be one possible mode of social interaction. On the other hand the aesthetic is not only a form of social interaction but a special one which might suspend other forms of social interaction. The problem only seems to arise when one approach is set above the other or claims to be the foundational principle: the aesthetic, the social, the anthropological etc. Since the objects have a long history of changing categories, one task may consist in investigating these different object categories, approaches and their social implications instead of subscribing oneself only to one principle, like contemporary art, as a universal problem solver. The approaches could be treated and exhibited as conflicting.

5. Final Remarks

Within this set of questions, the more urgent ones of restitution and shared heritage have not yet been taken into consideration. If the latter lies on the level of museological politics and international or bilateral political negotiations,[32] the question still remains what art–or better–what singular artistic approaches–can be successful in this respect. This article does not stand for or against contemporary art being involved in the question of the ethnological or world museum. Art however is not “innocent”. It can also reproduce structures ethnological museums might want to get rid of. It depends very much on the singular artistic approaches, what they open up, what imaginaries they are able to create and in which way they can challenge classifications and knowledge systems.

But critical art cannot be a remedy, if it does not impose consequences, i.e. to rethink Western systems of classification, to thematize colonial history including consequences of restitution or shared heritage based on principles of injustice and imbalance. By keeping the objects, which “heritage” does the West defend or “share” if not its own colonial past? If the African public is expected to deal with reproductions, copies and replacements,[33] why shouldn’t the European public also deal with them? Very simple questions, which require very complex solutions. And even if some countries decide that their former objects should better remain in European and Western museums because of a lack of infrastructure or because of complicated political situations, it is not up to the actual possessors to decide this in advance. Otherwise we would still be stuck in a situation similar to the one Carl Einstein of the “dynamic, living or vivid school” criticized in 1919 with the following words: “The European art work still serves for the inner safekeeping and stabilization of the possessing citizen. This art establishes the fiction of aesthetic revolt, which allows the citizen to harmlessly abreact any wish for change on a mental level.”[34]

*This text is an extended version of a lecture held at the Congress of the International Committee of the History (CIHA) 2012. Section: “Missing Links: Object Manipulations in (Post)Colonial Context”. The shorter version will be published in: The Challenge of the Object/Die Herausforderung des Objekts. 33rd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, Nuremberg, 15th-20th July 2012. Congress Proceedings/Kongressakten, 4 Vols., ed. Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Supervised by Almuth Klein. Nuremberg (issued autumn 2013).


1. Aleida Assmann: “Die Sprache der Dinge. Der lange Blick und wilde Semiose”, in Materialität der Kommunikation, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht/Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer, (Frankfurt am Main 1988), 237-251. The “long gaze” is related to a “wild semiosis” and the affect of fascination. It occurs when an observer cannot detach his or her gaze from the object and the chain of signifiers is torn apart. According to Assmann the long gaze is encouraged by the “foreignness” of objects. [↑]

2. Tony Bennett: The Birth of the Museum, History, Theory, Politics (London, 1995). [↑]

3. Mirjam Shatanawi, “Contemporary Art in Ethnographic Museum”, in The Global Art World. Audiences, Markets, and Museums, ed. Hans Belting/Andrea Buddensieg, (Ostfildern, 2009), 368-384. [↑]

4. At the CIHA-congress 2102 mentioned above (see note *) Didier Houénoudé talked about the difficulties of teaching any art history in Benin without a “museographic” corpus. He mentioned the case of an exhibition at the Abomey Museum of History, which wanted to show the throne of the king of Abomey from the 19th century, residing at Quai Branly. Only iconographic material, texts and reproductions were lent to Benin. A similar case happened at the exhibition “Principio Potosí”, curated by Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer, Andreas Siekmann, which was shown in Madrid, Berlin and La Paz. The quipus from the Ethnological Museum Berlin were only lent to Madrid and Berlin, but not to Bolivia, probably out of fear that Bolivia would just keep them. (See the interview with Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer, Andreas Siekmann in this issue.) [↑]

5. Among numerous examples, I will only mention a small selection of books here: Tom Flynn/Tim Barringer eds. Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (London, 1997); Elizabeth Edwards/Chris Gosden/Ruth Phillips eds. Sensible Objects. Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture (Oxford, 2006); Constance Classen/David Howes, “The Museum as Sensescape: Western Sensibilities and Indigenous Artifacts”, in ibid., 199-222; Belinda Kazeem/Nora Sternfeld/Charlotte Marinz-Turek eds. Das Unbehagen im Museum. Postkoloniale Museologien (Vienna, 2009). [↑]

6. Amongst others, two further examples could be mentioned: Peggy Buth’s project Desire of representation dealing with the Musée Royal d’Afrique Centrale in Tervuren, Belgium, while the museum underwent a process of transition and transformation from the old presentation to a new one. The work consists of a two-volume book and a film (Peggy Buth, Desire in Representation. Travelling through the Musée Royal (Berlin, 2008); Peggy Buth, Desire in Representation, Exh. Cat. Württembergischer Kunstverein (Stuttgart, 2010). Or: Willem de Roij’s temporary installation Intolerance (Nationalgalerie Berlin 2012), which brings together in an unclear and open relation Hawaiian feather helmets and coats with paintings by the Dutch painter Melchior de Hondecoeter from the 17th century–who painted genre scenes with exotic birds, thus alluding to a kind of exoticism, even to Dutch colonial activities. A three-volume book encompasses the singular elements of the exhibition: one volume is dedicated to the feather objects, one to the paintings, and one to de Roij’s installation (Willem de Roij, Intolerance, Exh. Cat. Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin/Köln, 2012). And last but not least Wendelien von Oldenborg is about to finish a film she realized in the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam (forthcoming in 2013). [↑]

8. The artists were Thomas Bayrle, Heike Bayrle, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Sunah Choi, Antje Majewski, Otobong Nkanga and Simon Popper. A display was developed especially for the exhibition and a reading room was set up, presenting books of the influential ethnological publishing series based in Frankfurt am Main “Qumran”. See:  Clémentine Deliss ed., Object Atlas. Fieldwork in the Museum, Weltkulturen Museum (Frankfurt am Main 2012). [↑]

9. Beyond the conditions described above, the set up also includes a fee and funding to produce the artworks. One so-called “prototype” by each artist – that means a part of her or his work, like a preparatory drawing, a diagram or the whole piece etc.–will remain in the museum’s collection; the other parts of the work belong to the artists/gallerists. For each show this process will be similarly repeated. For the current show “Trading Style. Weltmode im Dialog” (until August 2013) fashion designers were invited to work with the collection. [↑]

10. Paul Rabinow, Marking Time. On the Anthropology of the Contemporary (Princeton 2008), quoted after: Paul Rabinow, “Ein zeitgemäßes Museum”, in Deliss 2012 (note 8), 7-9. [↑]

11. Clémentine Deliss, “Introduction”, in Deliss 2012 (note 8), 10-33, esp. 21. [↑]

12. See Carl Einstein, “Das Berliner Völkerkundemuseum. Anläßlich der Neuordnung”, in Der Querschnitt 6,  588-592. Here paraphrased by Deliss 2012 (note 8), 19. [↑]

13. See Deliss 2012 (note 8), 29. [↑]

14. See her talk with Deliss in the, Deliss 2012 (note 8). [↑]

15. See Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity (New Haven 1991). [↑]

16. See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, ed. and transl. by Gabriel Rockhill (London, 2004). In respect to the museums: See: Jacques Rancières, The emancipated spectator, transl. by Gregory Elliot (New York, 2009). Jens Kastner underlines that the presumed neutrality of museums was exactly at stake in former modes of institutional critique. See Jens Kastner, Der Streit um den ästhetischen Blick. Kunst und Politik zwischen Pierre Bourdieu und Jacques Rancière (Wien, 2012), esp. 82-88: “Das Museum und die Genese des ästhetischen Blicks”. [↑]

17. “The Subjective Other–Von der (Wieder-)Aneignung anthropologischer Bilder”, 22 June-26 August 2013. [↑]

18. Exceptions might occur in some cases for public commissions or art in public spaces. More often it leads to withdrawal or censorship, rather than asking an artist to change her or his position articulated within the artwork. [↑]

19. See note 6. [↑]

20. See note 7. [↑]

21. Christian Kravagna, “Beyond Restitution. Recapture as Artistic Strategy”, Lecture held at CIHA 2012 (see note *). Video online at:,tam-tam-de-l-afrique,3rxqf.html[↑]

22. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, “Epistemologica: Präparate”, in Dingwelten. Das Museum als Erkenntnisort, eds.  Anke te Heesen/Dagmar Lutz (= Schriften des Deutschen Hygiene-Museums Dresden, Vol. 4) (Cologne, 2005), 65-76. [↑]

23. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspektiventausch: die Verwandlung von Objekten zu Subjekten in indianischen Ontologien”, in Animismus. Revisionen der Moderne, eds. Irene Albers/Anselm Franke (Zürich, 2012) 73-93. [↑]

24. Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Origins of the Museum (Cambridge, 1990). [↑]

25. Gottfried Korff, “Betörung durch Reflexion. Sechs um Exkurse ergänzte Bemerkungen zur epistemischen Anordnung von Dingen”, in Dingwelten (note 21) 89-107. [↑]

26. Peter Geimer “Über Reste”, in Dingwelten (note 21), 109-118, esp. 116. [↑]

27. Here quoted after Anke te Heesen, “Verkehrsformen der Objekte”, in Dingwelten (note 21), 53-64, esp. 58. [↑]

28. The show “Animism” curated by Anselm Franke (see Animism, sed. by Anselm Franke, Extra City Antwerp (Berlin, 2010) presented a whole range of relational ontologies of this sort, i.e. mostly not in “other” cultures but within Western modernity itself. But certainly the challenging questions would be how this historically-based animism relates to other forms of relational ontologies, and how far they have influenced each other in an intermingled world. [↑]

29. de Castro 2012 (note 23). [↑]

30. Michel Serres, The natural contract (Ann Arbor/Michigan, 1995) (franz. Le contrat naturel, Paris 1992, 71. [↑]

31. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (London, 1998), 4. [↑]

32. Blocked by the Bizot-Group, who issued a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” signed by the directors of 18 mostly Western and powerful museums. The declaration condemns illegal traffic of any artifacts, but regards demands for restitution of objects in their countries of origin a “threat to the integrity of universal collections”. (The involved museums are: The Art Institute of Chicago; Bavarian State Museum, Munich [Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek]; State Museums, Berlin; Cleveland Museum of Art; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Louvre Museum, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Prado Museum, Madrid; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). For a critical discussion of this declaration see: Tom Flynn, The Universal Museum. A Valid Concept for the 21st Century? (London, 2012). The quote of the declaration is to be found in Flynn, p. 1. Also see the contribution “Debate on Restitution” in this issue. [↑]

33. See note 4. [↑]

34. Carl Einstein, “Über primitive Kunst”, in id., Werke, Bd. 2 (1919-1928), 19-20, esp. 20. [↑]

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Susanne Leeb is Assistant Professor for Contemporary Art at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Her forthcoming book is titled: Art History and its ‘Others’ - The Anthropological Configuration of Modernity and will be published in German by b_books, Berlin 2013.
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