EuropeTest / Positions
Europe as an Archipelago
A Critical Exhibition Tour Around the Theme Islands of “EuropeTest”
My task was to assess and throw scientific light on interesting aspects of the “EuropeTest” project, based on my own expertise. I do this relatively unencumbered, because I made the conscious decision not to gather any information about the project beforehand, and neither did I know what the curators’ goals were, nor how much had been budgeted for the exhibition.
In this respect I represent one position, but adopt two perspectives. On the one hand I comment as a cultural anthropologist, on the other I take the view of a layman with an interest in anthropology. My own field of research is not Europe, but rather Southeast Asia, but I read widely on European ethnology. I am interested in museums and popular-scientific anthropology; I enjoy visiting museums privately and have already been to the Dahlem Museums five times. I am a member of the Humboldt-Forum’s international advisory board and so am broadly aware of the challenges it faces. I am also aware of the current discussion around the Humboldt-Forum but only to the extent that it has been reported in the press.
To begin with I would like to convey my first impression, concerning, above all, the formal appearance and orientation. I spent four hours in the Ethnologisches Museum and concentrated solely on “EuropeTest” – well, apart from ten minutes in between with the Polynesian boats, which is a must for each visit. A flyer explains that “EuropeTest” is marked turquoise in the exhibition rooms. There is no audio guide.
The basic idea behind “EuropeTest” is to supplement the usual museum inventory with various thematic “islands.” Great idea, but the complex structure is nowhere explained clearly. The archipelago stretches from large islands, via concentrated island groups and a dispersed sub-archipelago, all the way to the remote outlier. The orientation system is a real challenge here: there are terms like “Lab,” “Probebühne,” “theme island,” the enumerated Probebühnen, theme-island letter-coding, all topped off with aestheticized scribbles on signs and flyers. The letters themselves are missing on the theme islands, but then are used in the museum map to denote other things. The offer of special guided tours with trained museum staff, on the other hand, is wonderful because the visitors can decide the direction in which the tour should go and which themes they are interested in.
Content-wise, the core message of interlacing cultural spaces is conveyed well. Here, history and the present are in equilibrium. The perspectives on offer, “Europe from outside,” “Europe from above”, “Europe from below,” are straightforward and easy to understand for a lay person. The concept of Europe as a construct is well explained. Various world maps succeed in transmitting the different perspectives appropriately. The idea of Europe as a plural – “Making Europe(s)” is good, but could have been illustrated in a more tangible way. The same goes for the image of the parade of European loaves of bread in the Japanese Minpaku Museum, where it could have been made more tangible. What is shown is a museum perspective from outside. But why show a mediocre photo and no real loaves? Why not show rice as an Asian foodstuff or Sushi as a Berlin Japan indicator?
Without a guide, it only gradually becomes clear to what extent “EuropeTest” is orientated on the European inventory of the Berlin museums. The visualization of the timeline as a river with tributaries is good, but leaves unanswered whether that is meant purely as a metaphor or whether it actually serves as a timeline for the years when inventory was added or withdrawn from the European collections. In “Making Europe(s)” interesting figurines have been placed in the cabinets but the information on them is as paltry as the old and venerable presentation of Mesoamerican archeology in the large room next door. Why are small Colon figures shown, instead of the impressive ones from the South Seas department? The baby slings exhibited under the title “Carried to Europe” are a wonderful illustration concerning relations between Europe and extra-European cultures, but the message remains nebulous. Why is the evergreen bestseller by Jean Liedloff, which half of all parents have on their bookshelves, not exhibited? In this way the connection could be made between personal experiences of alternative child rearing methods.
What conclusions do I draw and what are my suggestions? Folklore and ethnology enrich one another in a museum. The idea of combining inventories of European and extra-European cultures within the same architecture should be taken on board. In this way, theme islands could be displayed logically and reciprocally: non-European theme islands in the European presentation, European in the extra-European collection. In “EuropeTest” the variety of curatorial presentation formats ranges from descriptive or essayistic-playful implementation, to the “border-crossing” app. That is exciting – test passed. I would, however, recommend working with a clear didactic approach. Where exoticized human zoos are concerned, one should, for example, show a picture of a modern-day theme park in China’s Yunnan, where replicas of Neuschwanstein Castle and the Eiffel Tower are placed directly next to traditional houses from Chinese minorities. I would have liked to see a little more text on the exhibits. The panel texts should be formulated in short sentences and, in terms of content, should be less reliant on meta-information. The idea of flexible guided tours is a very good one and should be firmly anchored in the budget plan for the Humboldt-Forum. My dream would be a content-based training for museum staff, so that they could provide spontaneous information, as in the Tate Modern. To summarize: Europe must be part of the Humboldt-Forum!
Prof. Dr. Christoph Antweiler is head of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the Institute of Oriental and Asian Studies (IOA) at Bonn University.
Non-Europe is not a Place
Berlin is a city in Europe. Germany is a European country. Europe is in the West, we say. But east and west really only make sense as directions from where we stand. Earth is a globe that floats in space and has no center. Non-Europe is not a place.
In recent history, the last couple of hundred years, a few European powers managed to put themselves at the center of history, economy and science. This was a brief moment in the cultural life of man. Still, we live very much in the shadow of this period, with many of its results deeply affecting global relations: postcolonial injustices, industrial ecocide, scientific Eurocentrism. Europe drew maps, divided earth into continents and civilizations, collected information and objects, and created museums in order to understand in what ways Europe was more advanced than other cultures. This was identity formation, conquest and a European superiority complex – no open attempt to understand the cultures of the “Others.”
The category of non-Europe only makes sense if the subject of attention is Europe. Continental and civilizational categories are European and only make sense from a European perspective. This should be openly stated, not only as a “EuropeTest” intervention but as an initial explanation stating why there are sections of Asian art, African or American ethnography. The objects on display were not produced within those categories. European men collected them from their specific cultural situations to create those broad categories.
Africa, Asia, America, and Oceania are categories that only exist because of European colonial history. For example: Africa as a landmass relates to different systems of exchange via oceans and lands. It has never been a unit per se. The “EuropeTest” exhibition shows this clearly. It could be taken further; the landmass of “Africa” is three times larger than “Europe,” even if this fact is not visible on the Eurocentric Mercator map projections most often used. China is four times larger than Greenland, Asia more than four times larger than Europe. The global North is some 50 million square meters, the South is twice that size.
Dr. Klas Grinell is the curator of contemporary global issues at the Världskulturmuseerna in Göteborg. He participated in the symposium “EuropeTest – and now?” in Berlin-Dahlem in November 2014.
From the Knowledge Perspective of the Present
Not only the objects of ethnological collections, but also the idea of collecting itself is a deeply European construct. Its purpose was once to register, map and represent the “world of the others,” often in the interests of colonialism. The future Humboldt-Forum must attempt to historicize and deconstruct this “genetic” defect in a conceptual way. The Humboldt Lab can serve as a decisive corrective in this process: its reflections and interventions can, on the one hand, critically interrogate these Eurocentric perspectives, and, on the other hand, track the European interconnectedness within global and “world cultural” contexts. Especially in Berlin, at this symbolic location of German as well as European ruptures that led to new historical and world views, this is a particular obligation.
The ethnological collections certainly provide enough points of reference for such an intellectual re-vision: with regards to cartography and ethnographic inventories, to documentary as well as iconographic pictorial traditions, ethnic as well as religion-based communal idols. And above all with regard to the multifaceted patterns of “other cultures,” from the oriental bazaar to the African kraal. Here it invariably concerns outstanding analyses of historical objects as well as case-study style references to contemporary topics. The illuminating perspective on it though must be developed from the present stage of media development and knowledge as well as be “read” anew in opposition to the customary logics of collecting.
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kaschuba is the managing director of the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He participated in the symposium “EuropeTest – and now?” in Berlin-Dahlem in November 2014.
Only Intervention Can Provide an Answer
What do interventions signify for the expansion of permanent exhibitions?
If Europe does not wish to see itself accused of intellectual frailty, it must confront the experiences of non-western societies, with their political, intellectual and cultural traditions. Only intervention can be the answer to the global crisis in social, political and ecological terms; only through them will cultural exchange become credible. The origins of our dynamic world, the exchange of goods and ideas, the development of hybrid cultures and changing identities have already been exhaustively explored. The question now is: do we, as a museum, want to continue to cultivate the Eurocentric world view or, by re-positioning, confront socio-political reality? A consistent conceptual change in terms of the ensemble, the public and the content-related agenda is necessary.
What role do our entangled history and transcultural relations play in the communication of transregional cultural links?
Transcultural, dialog-based and multi-perspectival approaches for the museums of Europe will ensure a new significance for the future. The Humboldt-Forum should be able to play a pioneering role in this. At a time when museum collections continue to be divided into different subject categories, according to scientific specialization (a continuation of the “art and curiosities cabinet”), we need to search for new paths. A new way of dealing with one’s own collection history should be found, just as with the (post)colonially-tainted projections, by bringing their motives and intentions into focus. Considering the increasingly intercultural composition of Europe’s communities, it is vital to use the potential of the collections to build transcultural bridges, demonstrate the interlocking aspects and to point out the phenomenon of reciprocal perceptions of foreignness. The European hierarchy of arts, tiered into fine, applied and everyday art, should be broken down accordingly, and also circular historical approaches adopted by other cultures (as developed for example in the 14th century by the Tunisian-born historian Ibn Khaldun) should be allowed to contribute to the concept. Phenomena like the waves of neo-orientalism and even neo-primitivism, arising in the European as well as the Islamic realm in the 21st century, can thus be readily explained.
A new museum epistemology should recognize the opportunities for communicating an historical anthropology, which, despite all diversity and its own cultural modes of expression is also a reminder of the commonality of humanity-embracing themes.
How can the collections – which are in the main historical - be utilized in terms of confronting contemporary issues?
By presenting the collections in the context of their collection history. Europe needs to question its own narcissistic universalism, just as, vice-versa, Asian countries should examine why, in the past, they subsumed the European world view without offering any resistance and set up their own collections on that basis. The construct Europe must make way for a critical cosmopolitan tradition whose basis was created before the takeover by American ideology. In this process, transparency and contradiction, with regards to collection strategies, amongst others, will be the foundation for success.
In order to present cultures literally at eye-level with each other, historical artifacts should be juxtaposed with those of contemporary artists from different cultural origins. Because only contemporary art can be called truly international, due to the fact that it is rooted in a common artistic vocabulary.
Dr. Schoole Mostafawy is head of the art and cultural history department at the Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe where she is responsible for extra-European art and cultural history. She participated in the symposium “EuropeTest – and now?” in Berlin-Dahlem in November 2014.