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The Debate(s) Around Colonialism and the Role of the Museum in Society: A Position Paper by the Ethnologisches Museum

Colonialism and the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin

The term colonialism refers to a practice of domination – one that is associated with the claiming of territories. This form of domination is motivated by economic, political, and strategic objectives. To achieve these objectives, the colonised societies are subjected to political oppression and economic exploitation. In addition, their cultural, intellectual, and religious autonomy is severely restricted, if not completely precluded.

The colonisers appropriate the resources and labour of the colonised, often using force to overcome the resistance of the colonised societies, and justify their actions with ideologies of superiority.

Colonialism also refers to the phase of (primarily though not exclusively) European expansion from the 15th century onwards: this began with the conquest of the Americas, reached its peak with the colonisation of large swathes of Africa, Asia, and Oceania in the 19th century, and continues to have an impact today. Key factors included the economic exploitation of the colonies and – especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – the search for new markets. Since power relations are still reflected today in public cultural institutions such as the Ethnologisches Museum, we argue that the term “colonialism” should not only be used merely in reference to artefacts, but that greater attention should be paid to the historical and contemporary economic interconnections of global capitalism with power relations and political interests.

Large parts of the material and immaterial collections from all over the world that are now in European museum collections were compiled under colonial conditions, and often with the use of force. Museum experts and collectors took advantage of the (infra-)structures of European colonialism and also strengthened those structures through their collection focuses. However, these colonial ideas and claims could not only be seen in collection practices ; they were present in other museum activities, too.

Berlin’s museums are of particular importance, as they were declared central collection points for natural and cultural historical objects from the German colonies in the Federal Council Resolution of the German Empire in 1889. One of the things that the Resolution stipulated was that all collections appropriated on state-financed “expeditions” in the colonies and declared as “scientific” according to the standards of the time were to be sent to the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde, the Museum für Naturkunde or the Botanisches Museum in Berlin. From 1896 onwards, the provisions of the Federal Council Resolution were explicitly expanded to include military campaigns, which at the time were referred to as “punitive expeditions”, essentially legitimising their violence.

Colonial and racist worldviews were also reproduced in the museum’s exhibition practice and in the way it disseminated knowledge. The objects on display were said to be representative of certain regions and to showcase groups of people who were supposedly entirely homogeneous. Their role in world history was negated, depicting them as not existing in the same temporality as European societies. While the official goal was to promote a better understanding of foreign cultures, the exhibitions often promoted stereotypical and racist ideas.

Position on Confronting Colonial History, Structures and Their Consequences for the Ethnologisches Museum

Critically working through the history of colonialism, the way it shaped European modernity, and its persistent continuities are processes that affect society as a whole. The Ethnologisches Museum plays an active role in this process. This work does not only implicate the history of the collections but also their contemporary relevance. At the root of this process is a critical confrontation with the museum’s own history and the role of Berlin’s museums in colonialism. A systematic reappraisal of the acquisition contexts of the collection holdings, wherever this is possible, is of particular importance.

Cooperating with the descendants of the producers, users, and previous owners in what are referred to as the societies of origin of the objects, with the present-day nation states, and with members of the diasporas is of great importance for the museum staff. This form of cooperation has been part of the everyday work of the curators at the Ethnologisches Museum for decades. The aim is to establish sustainable and lasting relationships that provide a basis for open, cooperative processes in which the partners are able to jointly define fields of investigation, objectives and create space for a range of perspectives. This doesn’t just mean broadening perspectives on the collections; rather, by breaking down museum categorisations, the museum can question the Eurocentric production of knowledge and proprietary relations that govern the objects. Collaborations can thoroughly examine and reveal the persistence of colonial structures, images, and narratives, and produce alternate practices and perspectives.

The interrogation of colonialism in a museum setting is not self-referential. Exhibitions, educational programmes, and events should be conceived more strongly as forums for discussion and dialogue than before. This will make processes of knowledge production and all aspects of work in the museum more transparent to the public. One of the requirements for this is to publish the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection holdings and archives digitally, making them globally accessible.

In order to advance serious decolonising efforts of the museum and to avoid the risk of succumbing to institutional navel-gazing, the Ethnologisches Museum is seeking to institute a structural diversification of its staff at all levels of the museum’s work, in addition to developing equal relationships with cooperation partners.

Continuous Development and Adaptation of all Activities of the Museum

Engaging in a critical confrontation with the colonial contexts of the collections changes the work and the way the museum views its role in society. It transforms the museum from a place that preserves and stores archives of the past into a place that enables a dynamic and open process of communication, encounter, critical reflection, and respect. This affects all areas of its work, including how the museum categorises, catalogues and stores collections, how it understands the role and goals of conservation and restoration, and how exhibitions and educational programmes are conceived, planned, and presented. The examination of the academic discipline of ethnology, the history of the museum as an institution and its actions in the present are indispensable for this transformation and for opening up the museum. The staff of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum actively strive for such a self-reflexive, self-critical practice, one that is critical of existing power relations and incorporates decolonial approaches.