National Showing Off and Telling Off

Reflections from the Ethnological Museum in Germany's Humboldt Forum

in Museum Worlds
Author:
Sharon Macdonald Professor, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

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Abstract

This article considers the implications of using ethnological collections in the making of a national museum. It focuses on the case of the recently opened Ethnological Museum within the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany, about which there has been much public debate and criticism, including about Germany's own colonialism. Through an analysis of the modes of display used by the Ethnological Museum, the article identifies how these variously engage in unreflexive “showing off” while others involve what is here called “telling off”— criticism directed at the German national self. The implications of the forms that these take, as well as their coexistence, are discussed, as is the case for replacing an ethnological approach with an anthropological one.

National museums, it has long been argued, tell, show, and show off a nation: they help to imagine the nation, narrate its history, express a national self-image and values, and celebrate these.1 Making a national museum that includes ethnological collections has, however, become problematic due to reappraisals of ethnological collections, which give increasing emphasis to their colonial entanglements and histories of violence, as well as to questions of possible return and restitution. At the same time, the idea of the nation as a homogeneous imagined community has come to be questioned, particularly with respect to issues of its internal diversity. What role is there, then, for ethnological collections in museums with national status? What ideas of the nation—and what values—are being shown, and shown off, today?

To probe these questions, I look primarily at the recently opened Humboldt Forum in Germany's capital city, Berlin. Containing exhibitions from the national ethnological collections, the Humboldt Forum has been much discussed and is highly controversial. How the ethnological collections are displayed—or not displayed—is the result of years of planning, discussion and also opposition. During this time, many questions have been raised not only about styles of presentation but also about such matters as the right of Germany to possess these objects, the country's—and Europe's—relationship to other parts of the world, and the category of “ethnology” itself.

While some of the debates about the Humboldt Forum relate to specificities of Germany's history—especially that of its colonial and socialist (i.e., German Democratic Republic) periods—and its contemporary political organization and concerns, there are also many aspects that have wider resonance for questions of what to do with ethnological collections in national museums. In what follows, I begin by considering the category “ethnological”—which is relevant beyond the German instance—before looking more specifically at the case of Germany and, in particular, the debates about, and resulting exhibitions in, the Humboldt Forum. This very framing, I argue, sets its own particular challenges, which sometimes run against other intentions, leading to a display that is not unambiguous. This is further compounded by the fact that showing off is accompanied by another powerful approach—that of “telling off” the German “self.” In the conclusion, I consider the wider implications of this for making a national museum with ethnological collections today; and I suggest that what is needed is not ethnological framing but, rather, anthropological approaches and perspectives.

Ethnological Collections

A brief discussion of what is referenced by the term “ethnological collections” is useful, as it highlights some of the challenges that these collections pose. The term “ethnological” is a translation of the German term ethnologisch, which tends to be used more often than the term ethnografisch (“ethnographic”) in the German museum context. So, what defines a collection as ethnological?

One answer that is sometimes given in Germany (and often elsewhere) is that these are objects gathered from outside Europe.2 Indeed, most objects in Germany's ethnological collections do come from outside Europe. But not all do. Moreover, there are many collections of objects from outside Europe that are not regarded as ethnological. For example, the objects in the Museum of Asian Art, which is also located in the Humboldt Forum—are not referred to as ethnological. In addition, there are objects within ethnological collections that do come from Europe, including from within Germany itself.

Another answer to the question is that these are objects of everyday life. Again, this characterizes most of the objects but not all: some are sacred objects and artworks. In addition, objects of everyday life for the majority of Europeans, or Germans, tend not to go to ethnological museums but to other kinds of museums, such as those of social history or of what in German are called museums of everyday life (Alltagsmuseen).

To understand the application of the term “ethnological” and some of the contemporary problems that it raises, we need to look to the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, when the idea of ethnology was institutionalized and most of Germany's, and indeed Europe's, ethnological collections were formed. The motives for creating them were multiple and could vary between cases, but almost always present and preeminent was the sense that modernity was sweeping away traditional ways of life and that evidence of these needed to be gathered and preserved before it was lost.3 More than anything, this desire to save—to salvage—shaped the selection of places from which to collect. Outside Europe was seen as teeming with traditional cultures that were on the brink of vanishing—a process being brought about by colonization and related developments instigated by the nations and cultures of the collectors. Ethnological collecting was greatly assisted by colonial presence, and, in some cases, this involved outright plundering, from which museums profited by acquiring objects directly, or more often indirectly, through networks of sale and donation.

A sense of looming disappearance also shaped collecting within Europe.4 Collections came primarily from the margins—from villages a long way from urban settlements, from places where ways of life seemed to be those of former times. In the process of collecting what was regarded as about to vanish, those doing the collecting were simultaneously articulating visions of change and of modernity, and, in effect—by a kind of reverse-shadowing—of the modern nation. At the same time, those collected from were generally imagined as “communities”—as relatively self-enclosed and functioning cultures—thus replicating, at the micro-level, the bounded entities, each with their own distinctive heritage, that modern nations also sought to be. Yet, while all of these “non-modern” collections could play something of this same role, the home collections, unlike those from overseas, were seen as belonging to the nation's own past, representing both part of the nation as well as what it was (seen by some as in danger of) leaving behind.

In various countries, including Germany, this difference in location of origin, as well as in relation to contemporary nationhood, led to making a division between the two kinds of ethnological collections, even as the same terms were sometimes used for both. In Germany, this is linked to a major disciplinary (and collections) division between Völkerkunde—relating to the non-Europeanand Volkskunde—relating to European rural ways of life. The term Völkerkunde refers to peoples (Völker) in the plural, and later increasingly went under the name Ethnologie. Volkskunde literally refers to ‘the people’ (Volk), singular, and was later often replaced by “European ethnology” or other related terms. The analytical usefulness of such a division is questionable, particularly as it risks importing certain assumptions about fundamental differences and even a hierarchy between them. Moreover, it is problematic in light of multiple migrations and diaspora, including those resulting in people from previously colonized nations beyond Europe now residing—often over many generations—within it.

The term “national” tends to be used somewhat reluctantly in Germany, due partly to the federal structure, in which the various states (Länder) have a good deal of autonomy, but also to a legacy of nervousness about the national, left by Germany's terrible history of National Socialism—that is, Nazism—from the 1930s until 1945 and the atrocities committed as part of its attempt to realize a certain vision of the nation. No ethnological museums or collections go under the German term “national.” Nevertheless, the collections of what are called the state museums of Berlin (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) can be regarded as national—and sometimes translate their name into English as such—in that they are funded primarily from the central government and their main posts are appointed by it. There are also museums elsewhere in Germany that have national status in this sense, including the ethnological museum in Stuttgart.5

Location and the New Germany

Within Berlin, what was originally called a Royal Museum of Ethnology (königliches Museum für Völkerkunde) was founded in the late nineteenth century, drawing its collections partly from the Royal Kunstkammer, and including items from the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific, along with a smaller number of items from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. The collections were later expanded, those from Africa considerably during Germany's colonial period, and the museum was variously reformulated and relocated, and given the name Ethnological Museum—under the umbrella of the state museums—in 2000. Immediately prior to this, in 1999, it was divested of its European collections, which were moved and joined with others in a new Museum of European Cultures (also a state museum of Berlin).6

At the same time, during the decade following German reunification in 1990, discussions were underway about what to do in the historic center of Berlin, which is where many great state museums, built mostly in the nineteenth century, are located on what is called Museums Island, which has held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1999. Particularly at issue was the site of the former Berlin city palace, which is at one end of the Island. This had an important place in the history of Germany's nation-making, as it was the seat of the first emperor of the German nation-state when it was declared in 1871.7

Having been damaged by bombing in WWII, the palace was demolished by the socialist government that took over afterward, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) of the divided Germany. In place of the city palace, the GDR government built a starkly modernist building—the Palace of the Republic—in which they brought together governmental functions and those of popular leisure, conjuring up and enacting a vision of national community. After the dissolution of the GDR and German reunification in 1990, many proposals and much discussion ensued about what to do at this symbolically important central location. Would and should “nation” be presented here? And, if so, what kind of nation?

Eventually, the Palace of the Republic was dismantled and a partial reconstruction of the earlier palace—restored to its nineteenth-century national heyday—was built on the site. Involved here was a clear symbolic return to a past of earlier German imagined national community—one before the terrible events of WWII and prior to the socialist period. While some within Germany welcomed this vision as restorative, others were concerned and even deeply disturbed by it. Did Germany really want to make such a backward-looking move in this highly politically charged central location? Was it acceptable or desirable for Germany to ignore the intervening problematic histories in its twenty-first-century self-presentation? And was the Prussian nineteenth century really the period to invest with such apparent longing?

When, during the debates, it was suggested that the reconstructed city palace might contain displays of the collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Arts, this was grasped by some of those involved as a way out of the mounting criticism of the political conservatism involved in the palace reconstruction. Essentially, including those collections was seen as a way of showing that the new Germany—unlike the last unified Germany (that under the National Socialists)—valued diversity. By bringing the collections that were currently in the outskirts into the center—into the capital's, and the nation's, new heart—Germany would perform itself as cosmopolitan and open to the world. Quite common in the documents produced and speeches given was a new kind of salvage discourse—of rescuing these collections from second-class status and elevating them to the same status as the other collections, which were mainly of European art—on the Museums Island (see von Bose 2016, 2017; Macdonald 2016a).

History was also mobilized to justify this move. The fact that some of the objects in the ethnological collections had come from the imperial curiosity cabinet of the city palace was given as an added reason for the future display of them there. But history so often irritates and contains possibilities for alternative narratives. In this case, the fact that those reigning in the palace, especially Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II, had been involved in colonial endeavors unsettled the idea that returning the collections to the palace was an act of appropriate return. Instead of constituting a convincing argument in favor of putting these collections into the reconstructed palace, the Humboldt Forum, it instead further stoked the fires of opposition. In the process, it also brought much more public attention to questions of ethnological collections and the colonial legacies involved. While collections from former colonies were at the heart of this—with African collections being the subject of particular emphasis in the German, and Humboldt Forum, cases—the critique also extended beyond and into questions about ethnological collecting and collections more generally, and it was sometimes even applied to the very idea of the museum, regarding it as an essentially colonial, extractive format.8

Controversy over the Humboldt Forum

The years between the laying of the foundation stone, in 2013, for the palace reconstruction and the opening of the exhibitions of the Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art in 2021 and 2022 have been mired in controversy and dispute. The issue of removing East German history, by dismantling the Palace of the Republic, rumbled on. There was also a major controversy about placing a cross on the cupola of the reconstructed palace and a Latin inscription which translates as: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given to men, than the name of Jesus, to the glory of God the Father, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under earth.”9 All of these disputes raised the question of which pasts should be brought into the present, as well as the question of authenticity. For example, while some claimed that the cross and inscription were part of the original building and should, therefore, be reproduced, others pointed out that they were not part of the initial design but were added later. Also involved in these disputes were questions of nationhood and diversity: whether Germany's own recent division should be referenced and remembered; and whether the ethnological and Asian art collections should be placed in a building whose pinnacle spoke of Christianity, and moreover, of a Christianity that proclaimed that others should supplicate themselves to it.

Above all, however, the controversies came to focus on the ethnological collections, and, within these, especially on the African collections (von Oswald 2022). With approximately 75,000 objects out of a museum total of around half a million, the African collections are substantial but certainly not the majority of the museum's holdings.10 The number of objects, however, is not in and of itself the main reason for them featuring so prominently in the debates; it is rather Germany's colonial history in Africa, and especially its brutal activities as part of that, particularly in the genocide of the Nama and Herero peoples of what is now Namibia, and the Maji-Maji war in Tanzania. Until fairly recently, Germany's colonial history did not really register in wider public consciousness. It was not taught in schools, and if members of the population knew anything about it, this tended to be thought of as a short episode of relative unimportance compared with the much longer and more extensive colonization activities of nations such as Belgium, France, and Great Britain. The “overlooking” of German colonialism was to some extent part of a wider inattention to the violence of colonialism that is evident in other nations, too, though in Germany it was compounded not only by the relatively short period during which Germany held colonies,11 but also by a tendency to regard any focus on other atrocities as somehow detracting from giving due weight to the Holocaust of Jews and others by the Nazis.12

The shift to greater attention to this history has been propelled by a number of factors, including a wider movement across Europe and beyond to acknowledge the brutality of colonialism and its lasting effects, and, alongside this, a mounting—and increasingly vocal—criticism of European museums holding objects acquired through colonialism and a rise in calls for restitution.13 The ripples of these wider developments were felt in Germany too, and have come together with academic scholarship on German colonialism, as well as activism, including from groups of Nama and Herero, to bring this to public consciousness. Germany has also come to face calls for the return of objects from its collections, especially its Benin Bronzes, famous sculptures from West Africa, acquired not directly through its own colonialism but through trade following British colonization and violent ransacking of Benin.

There is much more that could be said here about these debates and also about the various collections held by the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, but hopefully this short background is sufficient to show some of the issues prominent in public culture during the period in which the displays for the Humboldt Forum—this important national site—were being prepared. Here, I should note that the very long time period involved in making exhibitions also meant that much content had already been defined before the debates became so dominant (see von Oswald 2022). So, as we will see below, the resulting opening displays are not a unity but, rather, a mix of approaches. In addition, the Humboldt Forum consists not only of displays of objects from the collections of the Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art—though these do cover by far its largest area—but also the exhibition space (Humboldt Lab) of Humboldt University, an exhibition (Berlin Global) from the City Museum, exhibits about the history of the building (Museum des Ortes), and various temporary exhibition spaces. Moreover, both the Humboldt Lab and Berlin Global, as well as some of the temporary exhibitions, include aspects that address questions relating to colonial collecting and in some cases have shown objects from the ethnological collections, so how these are presented is not in the hands of the Ethnological Museum alone. While these other exhibits increase the range of strategies adopted for dealing with collections, however, it is, inevitably, in the Ethnological Museum where the tackling of ethnological collections is most prominent and extensive.

European Ethnological Collections

In reflecting above on the meaning of the term “ethnological,” I pointed out that, while in Germany it has come to refer predominantly to collections from outside Europe, it previously and in some cases still includes collections of objects of everyday life—usually rural and traditional—within Europe. Although long foreshadowed and in the making, it was only at the very end of the twentieth century that a full division was made in the Berlin collections between those from within and those from outside Europe, resulting in the establishment of the Museum of European Cultures. Before the opening of the Humboldt Forum, this museum occupied a shared building together with the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art in the suburb of Dahlem. But since the latter two vacated the building in 2017 to move to the Humboldt Forum, the Museum of European Cultures remained alone, thus making the distance between the collections from within and those from outside Europe even greater, both geographically and symbolically.

What does this mean for how the nation is being performed? One interpretation might be that Germany is distancing itself from Europe. However, during the justifications of showing the non-European collections in the Humboldt Forum, Europe was often positively invoked and also identified as a presence at the center of the city. What was referred to here were the collections of high culture—art and archaeology—filling the other museums on Museum Island. Already being performed through the museums at the center of the city, then, was Germany as part of a great European history of civilization, and Europe as capable of gathering from, being connected with, and knowing about many other parts of the world. What the ethnological and Asian art content of the Humboldt Forum did was demonstrate an even greater global scope of such an endeavor. Together with the neighboring museums, then, those in the Humboldt Forum show—and show off—Germany and its capital city as operating on a world stage.

Why the collections of European ethnology were excluded, then, was not so much that they were from Europe as that they were seen by those making the decisions as being predominantly about pre-industrial everyday life and, as such, not readily fitting the outward-looking, cosmopolitan narrative that was being fostered. But leaving them out meant that ethnology—and the diversity of everyday life as opposed to high culture—came to be cast as only relevant to the non-European. This not only meant that within-European diversity was downplayed but also that the opportunity for more cross-cutting themes and topics was more limited than it would have been otherwise, a matter to which I return in the conclusion. But first, let me turn to some of the approaches that have been taken to displaying the ethnological collections in the Humboldt Forum, for these demonstrate not just various exhibitionary strategies but also specific assumptions, including about “nation-ness” and Germany.

Ethnological Displays in the Humboldt Forum

The display area of the ethnological collections in the Humboldt Forum is extensive—two full floors with a total space of over 16,000 square meters are devoted to the Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art, with displays from the former covering more than half of this. I am able, therefore, to make only some overall observations concerning the most predominant approaches taken.

Although there was a call for it during the making, there is no strong or clear narrative that threads through the whole. The official website begins with three rather general keywords: multifaceted, spacious, surprising.14 (“Spacious” is a somewhat curious translation of weiträumig, which here would be better translated as “wide-ranging.”) The multifaceted-ness is, indeed, key, and is reflected in the fact that individual areas are largely autonomous and use varied internal narratives and approaches. The opening text in the joint foyer leading to both the Museum for Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum, thus, does not claim a single aim but is a long (254 words) and rather dense text that contains 11 seemingly disparate questions. These are not questions that are systematically addressed in the exhibits but, instead, are ones that could potentially, in various ways, be brought to bear upon them. The questions include, for example: “What images express the human desire for protection, orientation, and spiritual grounding? . . . To what extent can tradition serve as a source of identity? . . . What are the ripple effects in the present resistance to colonial oppression in the past? How do the objects communicate the interconnected world of ideas?”

In some ways, this multifaceted, many-questioned, approach makes sense given the large space covered—one single thread might be somewhat repetitive and even tiresome. But it means that the visitor is confronted with different tacks in fairly rapid succession, which can, as I have experienced with visitors and student groups, sometimes be disorienting or prompt queries about why, for example, certain questions, such as those of provenance, are only raised in relation to some objects and not others.

While lacking an evident “red thread,” the space is primarily structured into geographical areas—by continents. Indeed, a visitor reaching the exhibition enters through a door labeled “Africa” rather than “Ethnological Museum.” Under the continental categories, there is further subdivision, sometimes into nation-states, sometimes by the name of collectors and occasionally by thematic topics, such as Aspects of Islam or the Benin Bronzes (though geography is still evident in this designation). In addition to the continental divisions, there are some further areas, especially devoted to temporary exhibitions, which may be thematic. On the one hand, geographical organization uses categories that are likely to be familiar to visitors, and curatorial expertise and the collections themselves are organized that way.15 The latter is also the case for organization by the name of the collector. Yet precisely this familiarity and curatorial “obviousness” means that these European-made and focused categories are reproduced rather than questioned. The taken-for-granted use of these—and also of “Germany”—is part of what Michael Billig (1995) has called “banal nationalism,” a naturalization of nations as actors. There is, however, some content that runs against this, in particular that concerning the division of Africa at the Berlin conference of 1884–1885, and references to the complex history of what is now Germany. But those points mostly remain contained in specific areas, with the more taken-for-granted ideas of nations pervading texts and labels, and being structured into displays.

In terms of modes of display,16 there is again a mix in the Humboldt Forum, often alongside each other and overlapping. Especially prevalent is an aesthetic or artistic emphasis. This involves the exhibition of beautiful and intriguing objects—sometimes spectacular and often of religious or ritual significance—presented individually, with spot-lighting, and fairly unobtrusive text (see Figure 1). While some of these objects may well have been in daily use, few seem to be those of mundane everyday life, and there are no reconstructed scenes or mannequins. It is not that ethnology, as earlier defined, is entirely absent—the accompanying information is often oriented towards explaining aspects of culture or society. But this is ethnology with a strong skew to the artistic, and more specifically to showing off the beautiful—a consequence, at least in part, of the stated ambition of those leading the Humboldt Forum development to put these “objects on a par with” those elsewhere on Museum Island and in the Museum of Asian Art. There are, again, positive reasons to adopt this mode of display, including that many of the objects are indeed capable of attracting the visitor's attention when shown in this way and it makes for an attractive exhibition; it also highlights the skill involved in making these objects. But it risks subsuming the objects to a “European optic” (Berger 1980) in which they are considered primarily as artworks, potentially and in various instances leaving visitors with little sense of the life of these objects in their original settings, and overlooking their original functions and meanings. In an insightful analysis of the American Museum of Natural History, cultural theorist Mieke Bal distinguishes “showing off” from “showing” by the fact that the former “refrains from telling its own story” (Bal 1992: 594), which I interpret as meaning that it lacks reflexivity about its own approach. While there are exceptions amidst the Humboldt Forum displays, the prevalent artistic mode is not in itself self-questioning—it is, thus, in Bal's terms, “showing off.” Neither does this approach lead to harnessing the potential of the fact that these objects may not accord with, or may even disturb, European understandings, nor to questioning an implicit priority of evaluation given to art.17

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Throne “Mandu Yenu” with footrest. Photograph by Thomas Beaney, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110102

Another mode of display that recurs throughout the Ethnological Museum is that of visual storage (sometimes also called “open storage”), which in German is called the Schaumagazin, which literally translates as “show storage” (see Figure 2). Large, dark, historical-looking vitrines are filled with numerous objects, often with large numbers of similar ones, accompanied, sometimes, by small handwritten labels with an accession number and possibly a short description, but little or no further accompanying information within the case itself. This mode does indeed seem to evoke “its own story” in its self-reference to both museological history and an implied “behind-the-scenes.” In the last couple of decades, many kinds of museums, especially but not only ethnological, have been adopting it, partly because it allows for showing relatively large numbers of objects and so helps counteract criticisms of museums having only tiny percentages of their collections on public display, and partly because it taps into a wider rhetoric of accessibility and transparency (Reeves 2017). (Approximately four percent of the Ethnological Museum's collection is displayed in the Humboldt Forum,18 a figure that is fairly typical of such museums.) Personally, I rather like the way that variations of similar objects suggest a more routine and distributed creativity than that of special singularity evoked by the more art-oriented gaze. Such displays also resonate with the ideas of Adolf Bastian (1826–1905), an important figure in the history of the Ethnological Museum, who argued that mass presentation of objects would enable one to perceive patterns and connections, assisting the cross-cultural identification of what he called “elementary thoughts” (Elementargedanke) (Penny 2003).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Visual storage in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum, 2023. Photograph by Sharon Macdonald, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110102

However, although visual storage hints at “its own story,” not much is “shown” in Bal's sense (cf. Reeves 2017). Cases are headed with the names of European collectors or expeditions, but the visitor must go elsewhere, to further information points, to find out more about these and the problems of such collecting. As Bal (1992: 592) also points out, “telling” through written information may not be enough to counter the messages of visual “showing off”—perhaps especially where it is physically distanced from it. The “own story” of stored objects behind the scenes risks leaving visitors with just a sense of amassed stuff, of objects separated from any kind of context other than that of having been collected; though even the highlighting of the scale of European collecting—of the Sammelwut (the collecting craze) involved—is mitigated by the fact that only a tiny proportion of what is held is actually displayed. Moreover, the visual storage seems to me to be tidier and to place a greater emphasis on beautiful objects than is typical of regular storage, thus making it more a technique of aesthetic showing off than revelatory showing. Presenting the objects under the names of the collectors or the expeditions is historically correct and indexes colonial collecting practice but does not in itself bring it—or the Western capacity to collect—into question. As such, visual storage remains an incomplete showing, that is, still primarily a form of showing off.

Elsewhere, and in the further accompanying information, however, there is direct addressing of the colonial histories of collections. Mostly, this is done discursively—through telling. In her analysis of the American Museum of Natural History over 30 years ago, Bal (1992) observed that an increased awareness of post-colonial critique had led to texts being later added to displays in order to (at least to some extent) raise questions about the displays or the collecting practices with which they were associated. The same has been the case in the Humboldt Forum, reflecting the mounting criticism of the museum and especially of its insufficient attention to provenance—questions of where objects have come from.19 Thus, special panels labelled “provenance” giving information about this have been placed adjacent to the displays. (Figure 1 shows a small red sign at the edge of the exhibit, which indicates that such a panel is nearby.) In other sections, however, where there was still time to make adjustments or it had indeed been longer planned, there is more concerted attention to questions of provenance, including the appropriation of objects, and to German colonialism. This includes, for example, a section called “Conflict, resistance and aggression” (see Figure 1), which contains hard-hitting statements about the “disastrous” and continuing consequences of German colonialism in Cameroon. The most high-profile instance, however, is the section on the Benin Bronzes (see Figure 3). Here, these objects of extraordinary skillfulness are shown, but prominence is also given to the history of the British looting of the objects and their subsequent acquisition by German collectors. A case is made for transferring their ownership (in a video installation) by representatives from Benin and Nigeria, as well as from German museum organizations.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Video installation in the Benin Bronzes exhibit in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum. Photograph by Thomas Beaney, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110102

Apparent in these displays, then, are forms of telling the museum's “own story” in “showing” mode—that is, acknowledging at least some of the histories of violence and inequity involved. Moreover, in some places this goes beyond telling to what might be called “telling off,” directed at an implicit (and sometimes explicit) addressee, which in this case, I suggest, is a white German citizen. This is particularly evident in a temporary opening area of the museum, called “Matter(s) of Perspective,” in which the visitor is confronted with the quotation, “I have a white frame of reference” (see Figure 4).20 The aim of this exhibit, according to the official website, is to “examine[s] some radical perspectives that expose colonialism as a macrosocial occurrence.”21 To this end, it includes examples of racist depictions in school textbooks, and the experiences of migrants from various African countries in the GDR. Laudable though the quotation is in its provocation, it raises the question of who is speaking. Is this the museum, proclaiming its whiteness, or is it assumed that the visitor is white? Either way, it seems that this—white and German—perspective is given priority, even if it is to be questioned. Here, the museum is not just showing and telling for whoever might deign to look and listen but, rather, is telling off the white German self.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Matter(s) of Perspective in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum, 2023. Photograph by Thomas Beaney, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110102

Discussion

The modes of display outlined above—and the varying degrees of showing, showing off, telling and telling off that they entail—are not exclusive to Germany. Presenting them here can hopefully contribute to a wider project of identifying the repertoire of possible modes of display available to museums, especially but not only ethnological, as well as to their various connotations and implications, positive and negative. Nevertheless, the mix shown here—and the prevalence of some modes over others—is also specific to this German national ethnological museum. As the analysis above suggests, Germany is itself very much the central focus of the museum, even though its collections come from far and wide, and even though “Europe” would have been another potential primary, operative category. While collections from many nations—though specifically not from Germany itself—are on display, most of all, it is Germany that is the implicit actor and addressee in the Ethnological Museum. What kind of nation, then, is imagined through the display of ethnological collections in the significant national space of the Humboldt Forum?

A large and well-filled national museum—especially one replete with beautiful and rare pieces—has long been an effective mode of showing off the significance of a nation and its capacity to operate on a world stage. This is still more so through ethnological collections, especially in the form of the distinctive and impressive objects that are selected for display in the Humboldt Forum. The extensive and artfully exhibited pieces serve as evidence that Germany was capable of collecting from many parts of the globe, and they show a discerning German sensibility (of named collectors) to be able to seek out the valuable from distant and diverse cultures. In many ways, this is part of a classical narrative of national ethnological museums—showing their nation as capable of collecting well beyond its own shores. It is also part of another classical narrative performed in different ways by all museums, of showing the past as valuable but also as potentially vanishing, and thus in need of being rescued and saved. In this case, as in many others, it is the nation that has managed this vital achievement.

But this strategy of “showing off” is, in the case of the Ethnological Museum, not only accompanied by instances of more reflexive showing—that is, drawing attention to the museum's “own story” (as Bal puts it)—but also by a strong and directed version of this: telling off. Those being told off are Germans: those now dead German colonialists, as well as other collectors, and also visitors today, who are informed that they have a “white frame of reference.” Although the latter does not necessarily only refer to Germans, all of the content of this section of the museum refers to Germany. As well as Germany being the implicit actor in the Humboldt Forum displays, Germans are, then, frequently the implicit addressees too. Moreover, continuities are drawn between past and present: the nation is one that needs and deserves serious criticism, and it is seen as a crucial task in this significant national location, and one that Germans must carry out. Germans are, of course, already well-versed in a discourse of national contrition over the nation's “difficult heritage,” something that it began in relation to its National Socialist past (Macdonald 2009). Indeed, this has become a central feature of its very nationhood—of how Germany is “done.” As I have argued elsewhere (ibid.; Macdonald 2016b), this is now no longer restricted to Germany but has become a well-established mode of performing nationhood on a world stage—it highlights a nation's capacity and will to act ethically at a global level. It is an international mode of articulating trustworthiness. By pointing that out, I do not mean to imply that it is cynical—a mere performance—but it does need to be evaluated against what is actually done: in this case, for example, in relation to restitution, on which there has been considerable movement, especially in relation to the Benin Bronzes, which are due for return, something that seemed highly unlikely only a few years ago.

Showing off and telling off are in many ways at odds with one another: one is about the pride of achievements and the other a (self-)criticism for wrong-doing. Showing off is typically unreflective, manifest in the choice of architecture of the building as well as in certain display modes, as discussed above. Telling off involves an identification of what should not be and would better be otherwise; it can be directed towards the self as much as, or more than, toward others, and it leads to different kinds of display content and approaches. While distinctly different, showing off and telling off are not, however, entirely mutually exclusive, either in the displays of the Humboldt Forum or in the nation. Indeed, I suggest, it is precisely their co-existence that is a major dynamic of Germanness. This does not need to be psychologized or even necessarily seen as a problem. The fact that these tendencies are co-present in German society, and within certain individuals, as well as within the Humboldt Forum, flows from the facts of a complex history, and it feeds into and even enlivens public debate, though producing a tendency towards polarization. The coexistence of both within the Humboldt Forum can be jarring, readily opening itself up to charges that the self-criticism is insincere or a “fig leaf.” But the friction between the two can also prompt questioning and reflection that would not necessarily result from an approach that restricted itself only to showing off or telling off.

Although these two modes can and should be distinguished, telling off can also become its own mode of showing off. As already noted, the public performance of outing the dirty laundry of a difficult past—a task for which museums are highly suited—has become a mode of gaining credence and status in international arenas, and it is surely particularly effective in an age in which nationalism is so frequently questioned and regarded with suspicion. Again, this does not need to be regarded cynically. It is commendable that Germany is now at the international forefront in facing up to its colonial crimes, and still more so if this results in substantive acts to address and redress these.

What ethnological collections can do, however, is not restricted to showing off and telling off. Frequently, and as emphasized in the promotional materials of the Humboldt Forum, what is promised is a highlighting of diversity (see Macdonald 2023a and 2023b). Certainly, the Forum contains a large range of objects and these speak to a greater and lesser extent of diverse practices and ways of life. In the Ethnological Museum, however, this is largely contained within the semi-geographical ethnological framing, and through collections that are historical. This limits, I suggest, some of the anthropological potential of the museum to move beyond an illustration of difference attached to people-categories: tribes, communities, and nations, a representation in which difference is cast as located particularly in the past and peripheries, which can easily lead to a re-inscription of divisions and hierarchies. By “anthropological” I mean an approach that is concerned with questions of relationships between people, and between people and things and other beings, as well as with the affect, politics, inequalities, environmental consequences, and so forth that may be involved, and that, unlike the “ethnological” approach, does not necessarily tackle these through the lens of predetermined categories of people or identity (though it might sometimes consciously choose to do so). It involves “showing,” in Bal's (1992) reflexive sense, and may adopt thematic approaches that bridge space and time without losing sight of historical and spatial consequences and implications, and that allow for the exploration of connections and overlaps, similarities and commonalities, as well as sometimes intriguing and subtle differences and relationships.22 Themes might include, for example, inheritance, repair and recycling practices, household furniture, coffee, relationships with ghosts (including online), and travel (including across time and into the future).

This more anthropological approach and emphasis would mean further pursuing the potential of ethnological collections to open up other ways of perceiving, being, knowing and doing—alternative epistemologies and ontologies. There is, certainly, already some of this in the existing displays, including those that have been developed through collaborative projects with those from source communities (see, for example, Macdonald forthcoming; Reyels, Ivanov and Weber-Sinn 2017; Scholz 2017). But there is scope for further escaping conventional people and display categories—of moving across and between—and potentially informing the very modes of exhibition itself.23 So, the categories by which particular peoples group their own objects could be used to display those of others, instead of relying on museum taxonomies, or the properties of certain objects could themselves motivate what is brought together, or, instead of an artistic mode for presenting all manner of objects, some European art objects, as well as those of others, might be presented as though in everyday settings, perhaps in many places around the world.

Finally, a more anthropological approach could also be a means of addressing a current diversity absence, namely, diversity within the nation, especially that resulting from migration.24 Very few of the peoples from whom the ethnological collections come have a sizeable diaspora within Germany, and the collaborative projects that have been realized have mostly not been carried out with diasporic communities. Moreover, a division of labor with the Museum of European Cultures means that it is the collections of the latter that are witness to intra-German diversity—and these collections did not make it to the Humboldt Forum. Curiously, then, despite the great emphasis on diversity in discourses surrounding the Ethnological Museum, this does not extend into the German nation itself. Real diversity is that of others.

Conclusion

In this article, I have considered the role of ethnological collections in making a national museum, focusing on the case of the recently opened Humboldt Forum. As I have argued, although these collections come from many parts of the world, their display is very much about Germany, and, more specifically, about a particular imagining of the nation, one caught between national pride and self-criticism. The displays cannot, however, be reduced to this and there is undoubtedly a great wealth of information and insight contained in them. Nevertheless, my contention is that this can be drawn on and enhanced still further if an ethnological framing were to be replaced by an anthropological one. Essentially, this means closing the gap between the old division within ethnology (Volkskunde vs. Völkerkunde in the German case) and transcending the very ethnological framing itself. I have argued this for the German case. But my plea is for museums elsewhere too—to become more anthropological.

Acknowledgments

My research in Berlin on the Humboldt Forum has been funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, for which I am very grateful. My understandings have been developed in discussion with others at the Humboldt Forum and within CARMAH, the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage. This article is based on a keynote lecture that I presented to the third Chinese Museum Anthropology conference in October 2021, and a version of it is due to be published in Chinese translation. I thank the conference organizers, especially Pan Luo, for the invitation and for discussing the content with me, and I thank the other speakers and participants for their stimulating questions. Further discussion with Mike Rowlands was especially helpful. I am grateful for permission to publish an English version of the article here, and for the input of editors Alison Brown and Conal McCarthy. This version has also been improved by encouragement and further helpful comments from Mike Beaney, Gordon Fyfe, Duane Jethro, Margareta von Oswald and two anonymous referees. I also thank the many people, including student groups, friends and family, who have visited the Humboldt Forum with me, and especially Thomas Beaney for the photographs. I am responsible for remaining infelicities or failure to do justice to the comments made.

Notes

1

The specific formulation of “telling, showing, and showing off” has been used by Mieke Bal (1992) in her analysis of the American Museum of Natural History. A classic argument about the role of national museums is Anderson 1983, and other works that make these points include Macdonald 2003 (with a revised and expanded version in Macdonald 2013), Aronsson and Elgenius 2014, Levitt 2015, and Watson 2021.

2

For helpful discussion of this and other points relating to museum ethnology in the German context see Edenheiser and Förster 2019 as well as Kraus and Noack 2015.

3

For this and other points in this paragraph, see Penny 2002 and Penny and Bunzl 2003.

4

For this and other points in this paragraph, see Buchczyk 2023 and Macdonald 2013.

5

Its title is Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart.

6

This very abbreviated history is drawn from various sources, including Penny 2002 and the following websites of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin: https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/museum-europaeischer-kulturen/about-us/history/ and https://www.smb.museum/en/museums -institutions/ethnologisches-museum/about-us/profile/ (accessed 7 May 2023).

7

For the history of and debates about the city palace see Bach 2020; Binder 2009; von Bose 2016; Bredekamp and Schuster 2016; Morat 2019.

8

Oswald 2022 discusses this in relation to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. The point in relation to museums more generally has been made by Bal (1992: 560) among others.

9

See Goldenbaum 2020 for a summary and documentation of the issues involved. See Jethro forthcoming for further discussion and analysis.

10

The term “Africa collections” is the museum's own category and, in fact, only includes sub-Saharan Africa. Items from North Africa are part of a collection that also includes West and Central Asia. That latter collection comprises 25,000 objects.

11

Germany had colonies in various parts of Africa—including in what are today Cameroon, Togo, Namibia, and Tanzania—mainly from 1884 until just after WWI. It also had colonies in Papua New Guinea in the same period, Samoa beginning in 1899, and China (Kiautschou Bay–Tsingtau) from 1897 until 1914.

12

For discussion of this in relation to German history-making in museums see, for example, Sieg 2021; and Hilden, Macdonald and Zavadski (forthcoming).

15

Friedrich von Bose (2016) has discussed and critiqued the use of these categories in the planning of the Ethnological Museum displays for the Humboldt Forum.

16

I am using the term “modes of display” to describe what seem to me to be identifiable approaches or strategies of exhibition, constituted by particular design features (for example, the presenting objects individually and spot lit) and certain value and semantic assumptions (for example, that objects should be primarily valued on aesthetic criteria). This is a use that is found elsewhere in the literature (e.g., Dias 1998; and Kirshenblatt Gimblett 1998), though to my knowledge not extensively theorized; though see Prelli (2006) for relevant discussion. My interpretation is not based on a strict formal analysis but is informed by approaches and techniques that have been developed within exhibitionary analysis, often drawing on semiotic techniques within literary analysis. Insightful examples relevant to national museums and ethnology include Mieke Bal's (1992) discussion of the American Museum of Natural History (and, to a lesser extent, the Metropolitan Museum of Art) which is itself an insightful example. Moser (2010) is a very useful review of features of exhibitions that may be involved in knowledge-making. Modes of display adopted are not necessarily fully coherent—that is, there may be details that evoke different possibilities—which can also be an outcome of the inputs from various players, especially curators and designers, as has been shown by ethnographic research on exhibition production (e.g., Bouquet 2001; Shannon 2014; and Shelton 2000). Examination of how the different modes of display in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum came about would be fascinating (and see Di Blasi 2019 for discussion of some of the experimental approaches trialed) but is beyond the scope of the present article. What “makes it” to the exhibition floor, however, remains, nevertheless, significant.

17

The tendency for art to be placed highest in museum hierarchies has been pointed out by various commentators, including, now classically, Carol Duncan (1995) and James Clifford 1988.

18

This is calculated from figures available on the websites concerning the ethnological collections: https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/ethnologisches-museum/exhibitions/detail/ethnological -collections-and-asian-art/ and https://www.smb.museum/en/museums-institutions/ethnologisches-museum/ collection-research/about-the-collection/ (accessed 22 August 2023).

19

Oswald 2022 documents the rise of this criticism. Central here was Bénédicte Savoy's resignation from the Advisory Board of the Humboldt Forum in 2017, and the subsequent report that she wrote with Felwine Sarr (Sarr and Savoy 2018).

20

This is a quotation from a 2018 book by Robin DiAngelo called White Fragility. Why it's so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.

22

Although not described as anthropological, two temporary exhibitions at the Humboldt Forum have been thematic—on ivory and on death—and have drawn on collections from the museums within the Humboldt Forum and also from the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, and the Museum of European Cultures. Further such exhibitions are under discussion for the future.

23

The Amazonia area of the Ethnological Museum does to some extent, in drawing on the motif of the round house in its exhibition style. The Multiversity Galleries at the Museum of Anthropology of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, are a notable example elsewhere (Krämer 2015; and Shelton 2015). Macdonald 2020, Penny 2021, and Schorch et al. 2020 make the case for tapping the potential of ethnological museums to open up alternative epistemologies and ontologies.

24

While almost entirely absent in the Ethnological Museum, intra-German, or more specifically intra-Berlin, diversity is a major theme of Berlin Global, another space within the Humboldt Forum that was organized by the City Museum of Berlin. See Macdonald 2023b for discussion.

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Contributor Notes

SHARON MACDONALD is Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Social Anthropology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where she directs the Hermann von Helmholtz Centre for Cultural Techniques. Her recent publications include Doing Diversity in Museums and Heritage: A Berlin Ethnography and (with Katarzyna Puzon and Mirjam Shatanawi) Islam and Heritage in Europe: Past Developments and Future Possibilities.

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Museum Worlds

Advances in Research

  • Figure 1.

    Throne “Mandu Yenu” with footrest. Photograph by Thomas Beaney, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

  • Figure 2.

    Visual storage in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum, 2023. Photograph by Sharon Macdonald, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

  • Figure 3.

    Video installation in the Benin Bronzes exhibit in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum. Photograph by Thomas Beaney, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

  • Figure 4.

    Matter(s) of Perspective in the Ethnological Museum in the Humboldt Forum, 2023. Photograph by Thomas Beaney, June 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

  • Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

  • DiAngelo, Robin. 2018. White Fragility: Why it's so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press

  • Aronsson, Peter, and Gabriella Elgenius, eds. 2014. National Museums and Nation-building in Europe 1750–2010. London: Taylor & Francis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bach, Jonathan. 2020. “Berlin's Empty Centre: A Double Take.” In Re-Centring the City, eds Jonathan Bach and Michael Murawski, 7989. London: UCL Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bal, Mieke. 1992. “Telling, Showing, Showing Off.” Critical Enquiry 18 (3): 556594.

  • Berger, John. 1980. About Looking. New York: Knopf Doubleday.

  • Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

  • Binder, Beate. 2009. Streitfall Stadtmitte: Der Berliner Schlossplatz. Cologne: Böhlau.

  • Bose, Friedrich von. 2016. Das Humboldt-Forum: Eine Etnografie seiner Planung. Berlin: Kadmos.

  • Bose, Friedrich von. 2017. “Strategische Reflexivität: Das Berliner Humboldt Forum und die postkoloniale Kritik.” Historische Anthropologie 25 (3): 409417.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bredekamp, Horst, and Peter-Klaus Schuster, eds. 2016. Das Humboldt Forum: Die Wiedergewinnung der Idee. Berlin: Wagenbach.

  • Bouquet, Mary. 2001. “The Art of Exhibition Making as a Problem of Translation.” In Academic Anthropology and the Museum: Back to the Future, ed. Mary Bouquet, 177197. Oxford: Berghahn.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Buchczyk, Magdalena. 2023. Weaving Europe, Crafting the Museum: Textiles, History and Ethnography at the Museum of European Cultures, Berlin. London: Bloomsbury.

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