April 05, 2016

The Museum in Reverse? Decolonizing the Ethnographic Collection


In November 2014 the curator Clémentine Deliss delivered a startling address at the Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona. At the time Deliss was the director of the Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) in Frankfurt, an ethnographic museum established in 1904; her talk was part of a conference titled “Decolonising the Museum.” Her talk stood out for its frank discussion of the nature of the institution she was tasked with leading. Rather than defend or justify it, she openly attacked the violence of its colonial history, condemning its anthropomorphism and fetishism. To work in such museums, she claimed, “is to become contaminated,” a condition from which “there is no redemption.”1

Such charged rhetoric characterizes the ethnographic museum as something like a nuclear power plant after a major disaster, as a place forever poisoned. Within these doomed conditions, is anything like decontamination possible? Or, to put it in other terms, can such museums ever be properly decolonized? And how might such “contamination” reach out to museums of other kinds, and to modern and contemporary art museums in particular? Even in collections assembled according to less “radioactive” premises, Deliss’s descriptions of exploitation and fetishism can strike uncomfortably close to home.

To answer such questions, it is first necessary to come to terms with the relatively recent and still under-theorized concept of decoloniality, which in turn requires us to reckon with the recent vicissitudes of a related term: postcolonialism. Postcolonialism was a discourse that, in the wake of national independence movements of the 1950s and 60s, aimed to interrogate the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. In recent years, however, and under the impact of changes in world politics and economics post-1989, this conversation has found itself under new pressures — a fact which the title of the 2008 Guangzhou Triennial, Farewell to Post-Colonialism, aimed to acknowledge.2 The curators of that exhibition — Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj, and Chang Tsong-zung — argued that postcolonial discourses, however important, had now been sapped of their critical potential, whether by neoliberal institutions or the repressive tolerance of multiculturalism. Instead they called for a “fresh start” in which “new modes and imaginative worlds are possible for art.”

The blithe optimism of such appeals might seem easy to dismiss as a sort of naive neomodernism, carelessly rebranded like some second-rate fast food chain. All the same, the curators’ gesture reflected a more widespread sense that postcolonialism has somehow run out of steam.3 The arguments behind this view vary and range in credibility; some smack of curatorial trend chasing, while others stem from a more rigorous reckoning with the accomplishments and contradictions of postcolonial critique. This said, they share a common vulnerability: namely, that their desire to become “post-postcolonial” neglects the ongoing legacies of colonialism, and risks being complicit with the interests that stand to profit from them.

It is against this background, and the sense that postcolonial critique has become exhausted, that we can best figure the recent emergence of a distinct rhetoric, that of decoloniality. This concept, which is not to be confused with the historical phenomenon of decolonization, has been elaborated in the work of a number of Latin American critical theorists, of whom Walter Mignolo is the best known in the North.4 Though its specific articulations vary, decoloniality typically entails the radicalization of certain premises of postcolonial critique; it also takes the failures of decolonization, more specifically its recuperation by institutions of globalized neoliberalism, as its condition of possibility.

This renewed engagement with colonialism, at once more radical and circumspect, has informed a number of recent critical and curatorial projects, including the one at which Deliss delivered her address.5 Deliss’s initiatives at the Weltkulturen Museum since 2010, however, provide one of the most rigorous and thought-provoking examples of decolonial curating. Unlike the majority of work in this field, which has taken place in institutions of contemporary art, Deliss’s activities have intervened in an ethnographic museum, one whose extensive collections date back to 1817. This relationship has been decisive in enabling a particularly intensive mode of critique, one whose point of departure is its immanent relation to the institutions of colonialism.

As is well known, the ethnographic museum was inextricably linked to the political economy of colonialism.6 This was true in the most literal, material sense, since it was colonial ventures that supplied these museums with the objects that built their collections. However, other relations were also in play. Economically speaking, ethnographic museums served as a means of enhancing trade at a moment of increasingly global competition for markets. And such museums formed a site at which the modes of knowledge characteristic of natural history were hybridized with the pseudo-sciences of ethnology and social Darwinism; such discourses would go on to influence the development of the discipline of anthropology. In the early 20th century, collections like the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro would become an essential resource for modernist artists during their romance with primitivism.

Deliss’s signal intervention was to recognize that the “contaminated” collections of the Weltkulturen Museum might nevertheless comprise a rich resource for artists, scholars, and writers seeking to confront or otherwise engage this history in the present. To this end she established the Weltkulturen Labor (laboratory), a renovated villa housing a photo archive, an exhibition space, a seminar room, studio spaces and guest apartments for participants in a residency program.7 Since its foundation, the Labor has been the site of two major projects, each of which has combined international research symposia with exhibitions of the residents’ work. The first of these, OBJECT ATLAS: Fieldwork in the Museum, took place in 2012. The second, FOREIGN EXCHANGE (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger), opened in 2014.

Either of these exhibitions offers a useful case study in decolonial curating. FOREIGN EXCHANGE in particular questioned the relationship between the ethnographic museum and global trade. Crucially, the latter term was conceived both historically and synchronically, which is to say that the project concerned itself not only with the accumulation of the museum’s collection, but also with the system of globalized finance in which Frankfurt, a major banking center, is an important node. Drawing extensively from the museum’s archive of ethnographic photography, the project scrutinized the function of colonial visuality by tracking the means through which colonized peoples were objectified before the camera, even as the artifacts they produced were “personified” through their aestheticization in the museum.

As such positionings make clear, the exhibition imagined “foreign exchange” as a highly troublesome category, recalling relations of power that were uneven but not necessarily unidirectional, imposed but not always unwelcome. Within these terms the concept of exchange itself took on a certain labile quality: It referred not only to economic transactions, but also to interactions between different symbolic and cultural systems, collisions whose effects continue to be felt in the present. Whereas in neoclassical economic theory, exchange is typically discussed in terms of the rational action of homo economicus, in Deliss’s exhibition it assumed a different aspect. Exchange was imagined as a more provisional and less predictable type of event — something more like an encounter.

This deductive and defamiliarizing approach was extended by the exhibition’s invocation of “the stranger.” In a text written for the show’s catalogue, co-curator Yvette Mutumba poetically described this stranger as the figure before whom we become aware of our illicit or unshareable secrets. Would you tell a stranger that members of your family had been colonial officers? Forced laborers? Missionaries? Could you tell a stranger about the uncanny intimacy that sometimes arose between members of these different groups, or about the ways these histories intersected?8 By asking such questions, Mutumba sought to locate FOREIGN EXCHANGE in a liminal space, one that expanded the notion of a “gray zone” between victims and perpetrators to include interactions between cultures or generations.

Deliss and Mutumba also imagined decoloniality as calling for a certain uneasy hospitality, even if such an action is incompleteable or in some strict sense impossible. This obligation is most evident in the museum’s residency program, in which Labor assumes the role of host for visiting artists, writers, and scholars. These strangers effectively make the museum a stranger to itself: they search through its collections to display all-but-forgotten objects; they tell stories the museum previously kept from the public; they ask questions whose very terms would have been unthinkable to the museum’s founders.

Such inquiries can resonate with a quiet force generated by the peculiar agencies of art. One thinks here of Luke Willis Thompson’s project Museum in Reverse. This project began from Thompson’s study of a skull mask collected in 1879 in Melanesia, which he exhibited as part of a “research assemblage” in the Labor. Inspired by this encounter, Thompson decided to pursue an active intervention unimaginable within the boundaries of ethnographic study. He devised a project in which the Weltkulturen Museum would aid a migrant family in Frankfurt by sponsoring the repatriation of the body of a deceased family member to their country of origin.

Working with Moustafa Shahin, an Egyptian-German imam who served as a liaison to the local immigrant community, Thompson and Mutumba found a family willing to collaborate. Although Thompson initially planned to exhibit documentation of the deceased person, Shahin convinced him not to do so, thus ensuring the privacy and legal protection of the family. Instead, he offered Thompson objects belonging to his own son, who had died recently but had been buried in Germany against his family’s wishes to take him back to Egypt. This complex arrangement initiated multiple circuits of exchange, each of which situated estrangement as a kind of ethical relationship.9

As is clear from the title of Thompson’s work, Museum in Reverse, this gesture also turned the mechanism of the ethnographic museum back upon itself. Rather than gathering ever more objects into its world collection, Thompson evacuated the space of the museum, moving first into the local migrant community and from there to an undefined space outside German borders. Such a trajectory didn’t so much reverse the coordinates of colonialism, as it destabilized or even deterritorialized them. Even more crucially, Thompson’s gesture underlined the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of repatriating the objects housed in museums like the Weltkulturen.

By situating the museum in such a double bind, Museum in Reverse suggested the larger challenge facing curators who wish to rework ethnographic collections. Even if such holdings could somehow be cleansed of their colonial associations, their violent history can never be undone — such debts cannot be repaid. In this sense, Deliss is exactly right in foreclosing the possibility of redemption. Her questions assume a particular urgency in the current moment of the refugee crisis across Europe. One sorely regrets the fact of Deliss’s recent dismissal from the Weltkulturen Museum under contested circumstances.10 Having established such a powerful and generative precedent for decolonial curating, one can only hope that Deliss and her team will continue such efforts from within another host institution.

Artwork by Dana DeGiulio

  1. Clémentine Deliss, “Collecting and Curating Life’s Unknowns: Past Ethnography and Current Art Practice,” public lecture, Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona, November 28, 2014.
  2. Gao Shiming, Sarat Maharaj, and Chang Tsong-zung, eds., The Third Guangzhou Triennial: Farewell to Post-Colonialism, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China, 2008.
  3. For an incisive survey of this development, see Anthony Gardner, “Whither the Postcolonial?” in Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, eds. Hans Belting et al., Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, Germany, 2012.
  4. See for example Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011.
  5. Prominent examples of related critical projects include the collections Decolonising Museums and Decolonising Archives, both produced by the consortium L’Internationale, or the special issue of e-misférica “Decolonial Gesture.” Among the recent efforts to curate decolonial exhibitions, one noteworthy case has been The Potosí Principle: How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land, organized by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2010. The Potosí Principle sought to link “Andean Baroque” paintings from the Spanish colonial era with works of contemporary art, positing an analogy between their legitimating functions. Curated by the artists and researchers Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer, and Andreas Siekmann, the show traveled from Germany and Spain to Bolivia, effectively reversing the geographical movement of colonization.
  6. See Robert Goldwater, “The Development of the Ethnological Museum,” Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, ed. Bettina Carbonell, Wiley-Blackwell, Medford, 2012.
  7. A list of these residents, 2011-2013, can be found in the institution's "manifesto": Buki Akib, John Akomfrah, A Kind of Guise, Bruce Altshuler, Marie Angeletti, Lothar Baumgarten, Helke Bayrle, Thomas Bayrle, Benedikte Bjerre, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Friedrich von Bose, Peggy Buth, CassettePlaya, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Sunah Choi, Hamish Clayton, Clegg & Guttmann, Minerva Cuevas, Mathis Esterhazy, Patricia Falguières, Michael Fehr, Heather Galbraith, Bryce Galloway, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Matthias Görlich, Ros Gray, Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, Werner Herzog, Michael Kraus, Pramod Kumar KG, David Lau, Armin Linke, Antje Majewski, Tina Makereti, Tom McCarthy, Markus Miessen, Renée Mussai, Otobong Nkanga, Michael Oppitz, Peter Osborne, Perks and Mini, Francis Pesamino, Simon Popper, Paul Rabinow, Ciraj Rassool, Olivier Richon, Markus Schindlbeck, Richard Sennett, El Hadji Sy, Luke Willis Thompson, and David Weber-Krebs. See "Curating Neighborhoods: A Manifesto for a Post-Ethnographic Museum," published online at Blouinartinfo, August 31, 2014.
  8. Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba, eds., Foreign Exchange (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger), Diaphanes, Zurich, Switzerland, 2014.
  9. See Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba, "Dialogue with Luke Willis Thompson: A Museum in Reverse," Weltkulturen Museum, 2014.
  10. Deliss’s dismissal has yet to receive sustained attention from Anglophone arts journalists. For a survey of the basic facts in the case see Benjamin Sutton, “Director of Frankfurt’s Ethnographic Museum Fired Without Explanation,” published online at Hyperallergic, June 18, 2015.
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