Postcolonial Museum Laboratory, Clémentine Deliss in conversation with Joanna Sokołowska

Line-up of objects collected on the Sepik Expedition. Neckermann House, Danziger Platz, Ostbahnhof, Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Gisela Simrock, 1961. Weltkulturen Image Archive

Joanna Sokołowska: The Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, like many other ethnographical museums, could be viewed as a monument to colonial violence and the accumulation of material and symbolic wealth – the expropriation of resources and artifacts from areas and cultures conquered or dispossessed by the West.1 If I understand correctly, your goal as the museum director is to critically examine the colonial legacy of ethnographic museums, which in turn involves the reactivation and decolonization of ethnographic objects and archives. Could you say something about the context of your work?

Clémentine Deliss: In Germany there is the largest number of ethnographic museums in the world today. Apart from the major museums in Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin, there are at least ten further smaller museums and ethnographic departments. I think all these museums need to rethink, rework and decolonize their institutional situation, and in so doing - reactivate their collections. When I took on the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt in 2010, I was surprised to see that what I had expected - a kind of a decolonization process or reassessment of ethnographic museums in Germany - actually wasn't taking place in such an active a way. The colonial legacy has not been made the subject of public debate, in the same way as, say, the Holocaust has. That means that even if there is a major discussion around the Humboldt Forum in Berlin (which will bring together the collections of the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, The Museum of Asian Art in Berlin and the Humboldt University), the discussions on how to construct a post-colonial museum with these collections are not very advanced. Post-colonial debate in Germany may be advanced in other ways, but not in relation to collections themselves or to the bulk of the five million or more objects stored in ethnographic museums. Furthermore, these collections are not fully recognized for what they are - testimonies and material realities of world histories and world art histories. The collections constitute a unique material legacy from a pre-colonial and a colonial period which has not been included in the narratives of Western historical museums or the narratives of great art collections. These artifacts from around the world could become the point of departure for a new inter-disciplinary development, one that would engage not only history and anthropology, but also post-colonial studies, and questions of materiality. This would allow for the formation of a new type of global art history.

Left: Man and woman with face painting, possibly witchdoctors. Former Cape Province, South Africa.Photographer unknown, 1930. Central Province Archive of the Pallottines, Limburg. Weltkulturen Museum. Right: CASSETTEPLAYA: Digital print silk, melton wool/digital print cotton, screen printed tee, metallic leather. Carni Cannibal Palace A/W 2011/12. Photo: Alis Pelleschi

I consider the ethnographic museum a highly contentious monument. It is a controversial museum: on the one hand the collection is inherently part of German history, yet it doesn't actually belong to Germany. It's merely taken care of by the museum. The question is then, how can this collection be placed in the forefront of new debates about the post-colonial condition today?

This is why I took on this role for the museum. I saw it as the opportunity to create a new paradigm, one that would be collection-centered. It would work from the objects outwards to develop new methods, new organizing principles, new politicized understandings of the way people live in or conceptualize the world. To begin with, I had to reactivate the dialogue - one that already existed in the Frankfurt museum - about the relationship between contemporary artistic practice and anthropology.

When you speak about a monument to colonial violence, I would argue that one major dimension of this monument is the volume, the bulk, the sheer physical presence of all these things- stored in highly specialized and hermetic reserves, in depots. If you were to try to repatriate this huge bulk of objects, it would take a long, long time. So the deconstruction of this monument to colonial violence has to happen in my opinion along a number of different routes. The route that I have chosen to develop is one based on external impulses, that makes the claim that the ethnographic museum cannot heal the problems that it faces only from within. The expertise of museum anthropology and anthropology as a discipline is not sufficient to remediate the situation in the ethnographic museum in 2014.

Exhibition View, Headdress and Photographs, TRADING STYLE – im Dialog, Weltkulturen Museum 2012. Exhibition Design: Mathis Esterhazy, bausprache Wien. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel

JS: In order to introduce these ‘external impulses,’ you established the “Weltkulturen Labor” residency program. You invited artists, designers, writers, lawyers and curators to work closely with the collection and in this sense to do ‘fieldwork in the museum.’ In this way you reversed the traditional direction of anthropological expeditions to distant countries.

CD: The collection consists of approximately 70 000 objects, 120 000 photographs and films and 50 000 books. For me, it is out of the question to collect further ethnographica, to go on expeditions to acquire more or bid for further pieces on the tribal art market. In the 1960s, the Frankfurt museum still went out and collected thousands of objects from cultures as part of so-called ’salvage anthropology.’ That legitimated collecting on a massive scale. But the idea of a collecting expedition today is impossible. So we produce a new collection through the work in our laboratory and don’t acquire any ethnographical objects. We are often given donations, but sometimes we also refuse them.

When I started working in the museum, I wanted to initiate a paradigm shift that would be collection-centered. It would require working on the objects in the museum itself and reframing, rethinking and reinterpreting them. To do this we would need a location, a venue that would be neither an exhibition space nor a storage space where everything is preserved and conserved along regional divisions: South-East Asia, Americas, Africa and Oceania. So the Weltkulturen Labor is the third location where objects from different departments can be brought together for research, where new investigations and intimate engagement with these artifacts is possible. It is located in the same building where our guest residents live and have studios. This all means that Otherness is produced and defined within the museum itself, making it possible to experiment and develop new interpretations of the objects.

JS: In your work you often advocate experimental inquiry and research as a major task of the museum. Drawing on Carl Einstein's ideas on research collections, you call this model a ‘dynamic school’ or an ‘interdisciplinary museum university.’ How do you understand and use these concepts in the Weltkulturen Museum?

Exhibition View, CassettePlaya, TRADING STYLE – Weltmode im Dialog, Weltkulturen Museum 2012. Exhibition Design: Mathis Esterhazy, bausprache Wien. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel.

CD: In the 1920s, Carl Einstein described a relationship between permanent collections and research collections. He claimed that for a museum to be intellectually vigorous, there has to be movement between the exhibition of objects over longer periods of time and the investigations that are behind the scenes - the backstage where research takes place. Otherwise, he says, you end up putting a bell jar onto history; you make it stagnant, you obfuscate the dynamism of the way that ideas and the history of ideas are produced. The research collection is always dependent on the times of the inquiry with which it's connected. The second point about research collections is that they operate outside of the art market. If the invited artist - for example Antje Majewski or Marc Camille Chaimowicz - produces a work in the museum in relation to our collection, they are also leave behind a prototype. Together with other historical artifacts, this prototype contributes to a new research collection. It is not sold or traded anymore. The objects that the artists give to the museum are uniquely evaluated in relation to the past collection - outside of the artist’s market evaluation.

I think this collection has the energy and the capital to bring together a new kind of competence that will reflect the hybrid disciplines that are being developed in many parts of the world today: curatorial studies, post-colonial studies, cultural studies. New forms of art history, are, I believe, begging for new foundations. And the foundation is contained within this mass of global objects of ethnographica waiting to be reformulated. In this sense, I can see that what we're doing at Weltkulturen Museum could be the seed of what I would call a 'museum university’. It takes as its cue the remediation and reactivation of this enormous body of objects that belong both to the world and to the specific source communities from which they were once taken. The ‘museum university’ is the idea of an emancipatory education that would be artifact-centered and would emphasize knowledge production on the scale of a university - but in the museum. It does not return to the 19th century or the 20th century model of the university-gallery in which a university has a gallery attached to it. Rather, the whole museum becomes the university. We bring the backstage and experimental investigations to the forefront to form the basis of the development of the museum. We dissolve the distinction of a permanent collection and the back storage.

Buki Akib and Object of the Collection 2012. Photo: Julia Ziegler

JS: As I can see, you aim to intervene in the systems of classification of knowledge about objects in the museum. Do you exhibit these taxonomies as well? Can the public access them?

CD: We are trying to engage the public in the museum, but it's very difficult to quickly deconstruct the bulk and the weight of the taxonomies that have been produced through colonialism. It's a lengthy process. While some museums persist in explaining the meanings of ethnographic objects according to the ethnic groups and cultures that made them, my proposal is to produce alternative taxonomies and metaphors. But to do this, we have to be slightly heretical towards the discipline of anthropology itself, and we can achieve this by interpellating the collection. The exhibitions that we've done so far at the museum – “Object Atlas,” “Trading Style,” and “Foreign Exchange” – certainly engage audiences, but they also require audience members to suspend their expectations. And their expectations are, as very often in such museums, to be catapulted back to the exotic locations where these objects once came from. They expect to see exoticism in the display or within the descriptive wall text or label. They want the as much information as possible about any given object so they can be transported back into the enigma that once produced the relationship of that object to another culture. And I have a lot of problems with that, actually I think that reworking the ethnographic museum in terms of taxonomy and audiences leads one into a worse situation. Another option is to work more behind the scenes and to prepare the audiences gradually to understand the objects in a new way.

JS: It seems to me that one of the most powerful and critical attempts to reveal the backstage colonial history and the primary taxonomies in the museum was the exhibition “Foreign Exchange.” In this exhibition, you exhibited extremely fragile and problematic archival materials, ones exposing connections between colonialism, capitalism and ethnography. More specifically they point to relations between the accumulation, commodification and appropriation of artifacts belonging to conquered cultures that have been objectified and exploited by the colonizer. As your point of departure, you chose photographic representations of the body from the museum

1The Weltkulturen Museum was founded in 1904 by the citizens of Frankfurt. It holds a unique collection of 67,000 ethnographic artifacts from Oceania, Africa, South East Asia as well as from North, South and Central America. This is complemented by a picture archive of some 120,000 historical and contemporary ethnographic photos and films.