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Towards a Museum That Is Sensitive to Diversity and Free of Discrimination

The Museum für Asiatische Kunst, founded in 2006 as the result of the merging of two existing institutions, is one of the few museums in Europe that is exclusively dedicated to the preservation, study and presentation of art from Asia. The Museum always strives to incorporate both local and traditional Asian discourses as well as international (professional) discourses into its practices, with the overarching aim of scrutinizing an exclusively European–American worldview.

The Museum für Asiatische Kunst brings together a range of institutional and disciplinary traditions, and its collections display a vast range of regional and formal variety, which originates in the very heterogenous contexts in which the objects were produced and subsequently acquired.

To different degrees, the Museum’s predecessor institutions and their employees (along with the academic disciplines and discourses in which they were grounded) were involved in European processes of studying, exploring and appropriating the world, as well as those of imperialism and colonialism. They also participated in the barbarism of the Nazi regime.  

International, Sensitive to Diversity and Featuring a Range of Perspectives

As part of a museum and research institution that is always learning and evolving and strives to be sensitive to diversity, the Museum’s staff feel they have a duty to critically reflect on their own perspectives and engage in a critical appraisal and overcoming of the practices and mindsets of museum-associated traditions of collecting and of disciplinary discourses. The collecting traditions of the institution cannot be liberated from a context in which injustices have been committed in any simple fashion. This process of decolonising art history and museums is guided by the ideal of openness, and of incorporating a wide range of voices and perspectives.

The notion of incorporating a range of voices is already embodied in the staff’s wide range of perspectives, research focusses and methodological approaches. Rather than restraining this diversity in order to preserve a unified institutional image, they are instead given space to exist alongside one another. But this aspect is not limited to the Museum staff, with the institution including the voices of local and international partners and knowledge producers, in keeping with our desire for multiperspectivity,.

Multiperspectivity and a critical questioning of perspectives and attitudes are only possible by means of a constant critical engagement with social and academic discourses that are understood to be always in flux. This must be complemented by dialogues with international partners and a diverse public, and we seek to continue and intensify these dialogues moving forward. The staff at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst are conscious of the fact that they are working in a changing environment, one which requires a re-conceptualising of the role of art history on both a local and global level. This entails a re-evaluation of epistemologies alongside a discussion of the diverse array of processes of knowledge production and learning, which – where possible – is then tested in dialogue with international partners in concrete collaborative projects.  

Overcoming Discrimination and Eurocentrism

Openness means an awareness of the subjectivity and relativity (shaped by a person’s living environment and its associated privileges) of all forms of articulation and activity. The primary goals of openness are the overcoming of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism and other discriminatory practices (for example, discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation), along with the transcending of Eurocentric perspectives that claim to be universal. Through its traditionally in-depth dialogues with international partners, and by making use of local textual cultures, philologies and historiographies, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is acutely aware of the need to take into account epistemologies, terminologies and taxonomies from beyond the European tradition. The global dominance of Western languages (particularly English, but also German) as shared languages for academic communication is a principal factor in the emergence of inequalities in academic knowledge. Because of this, the Museum therefore communicates and publishes in multiple languages where possible. As a kind of lingua franca, however, English does play an important role – particularly in the multilingual region of Southeast Asia – in the study, preservation and revitalisation of indigenous traditions, and for the creation of networks that are able to extend beyond single regions and can even transcend national and linguistic boundaries. The Museum strives to use traditional Asian terminology and to translate them and convey their meaning to local audiences, something made increasingly possible by means of digital communication, social media and online databases. Undertaken in collaboration with international experts and framed by the objects in the Museum’s collections, the study of historical texts and languages in collaboration with international experts and the dissemination of this knowledge have long been the academic standard and are thus also ongoing goals of the Museum.

The Museum’s collections, which form the basis of its work, serve as sites for the still-young but increasingly sophisticated discipline of provenance research, which seeks to shine a light on the diverse history of how objects have been acquired and to interrogate and discuss the contexts in which they are embedded. Individual objects and mixed lots from the collections are increasingly being made more accessible to a diverse public by being digitised and made available in online databases, and presented in a number of languages. This process helps contribute to a decentralising and reconfiguration of methods concerning the compiling, presenting and distribution of knowledge, with new approaches being developed together with international partners through concrete projects.

The initiatives outlined here represent the first steps being taken by the staff of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst on the path towards decolonisation and a museum that is sensitive to diversity and free of discrimination.