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Transcultural Collaboration

The Ethnologisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin places an explicit emphasis on transcultural cooperation when curating its programme. In addition to collaborating with an international community of museums and academics, the museum is also increasingly seeking to establish channels of communication and exchange with representatives from the countries of origin of the objects in its collection. It is through our collaborative endeavours that we are able to expand our interpretation of the museum’s historical collections to encompass new perspectives. Museum objects offer a material catalyst for reactivating relationships and dialogues between the museum and the objects’ respective communities of origin. Our goal is to ensure these relationships are as dynamic, equitable and meaningful as possible in the interest of all involved.

At the Ethnologisches Museum, we understand the term ‘communities of origin’ to refer to the people who produced, used and owned the objects conserved by the museum prior to their acquisition, as well as these people’s descendants, and people who are otherwise connected to the collections by virtue of their history and cultural practices. People from the collections’ many communities of origin have for several years been involved in various elements of the museum’s projects (with partners from the Amazon region, Nagaland, Namibia, North America, the Syrian diaspora and Tanzania, among others): in generating and transmitting knowledge, in exhibition practices, and in the storage and conservation of museum objects. One of our fundamental concerns is strengthening and formalising our otherwise largely project-based relationships with institutions and communities external to the museum.

Moreover, the Ethnologisches Museum is currently in the process of expanding its diverse range of collaborative methods to incorporate other regional divisions and new partnerships, in response to what it sees as a continued imbalance in how it handles the objects in its collection. The lens through which the museum objects have thus far been viewed is one that is dominated by a Western and primarily academic perspective. This is a reflection and result of unequal relations of power; museums have historically acquired large swathes of their collections in colonial contexts and with the help of colonial structures, and have subjected these artefacts to Western systems of knowledge. The Ethnologisches Museum therefore proactively pursues a policy of renegotiating sovereignty with regard to the interpretation and disposition of the objects in its collections.

Cooperation and Collaboration

Cooperation in the field of ethnological collections enables museums to, for example, reconstruct an object’s former meaning and function by exchanging information and knowledge, and to incorporate contemporary interpretations and perspectives into its activities and programmes. Horizontal collaboration also involves sponsoring educational and other activities undertaken by the museum’s partners in the collection objects’ respective regions of origin.

Furthermore, collaboration enhances our understanding of the intricacies and nuances of global interconnections and enables us to foster a contemporary and forward-looking approach to the objects in our collections. This does not begin and end with restitution; it includes extensive processes of negotiation that encompass a range of different interests, diverse practices of knowledge acquisition, and global disparities.

The consensus that is reached with regard to each respective collaborative endeavour is shaped and supported in a spirit of commitment and mutual respect by everyone at the Ethnologisches Museum. Together, the museum staff strives to make the collections and their history as transparent and accessible as possible and to share them with the general public.