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EuropeTest / Project Description

Europe – a Powerful Fiction

by Helmut Groschwitz

The starting point for the exhibition intervention “EuropeTest” is a blank space. The persistent focus on the “extra-European” collection, to be presented in Berlin-Mitte according to the concepts of the Humboldt-Forum, creates a division between “us” and “the others” that gives rise to discomfort. Does Europe really play no role in the Humboldt-Forum? In terms of the manner in which the acquisitions were made, in the forms of knowledge generation and in its presentation, “Europe” is deeply embedded in the ethnological collections and objects. Even when the exhibitions purport to represent the “alien,” the “distant,” the “other,” in essence it is the “European” perspective that is made visible. So the question should be: How can “Europe” be integrated into the extra-European exhibitions; how can the “implicit Europe” be represented in the exhibits?

As a precursor to “EuropeTest,” the teaser project “Why not?” was launched in October 2014. Objects from all three Dahlem Museums, as well as several objects on loan, were placed in unexpected places between the permanent exhibitions’ artifacts, and created a dialog with them: provocative, complementary or contrasting. A transgression of collection boundaries that raised interesting questions, but in its sparse implementation also provoked head-scratching and cried out for further elaboration.

“EuropeTest” is the product of this further development: a collaborative project, with curators from all three Dahlem Museums contributing ideas. For Probebühne 4, six theme islands were created, and placed at different points throughout the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst. In order to designate this space clearly as “joined in” and at the same time to avoid disturbance to the interior architecture, the islands were marked out by turquoise floor indicators and front panels. In view of the numerous objects and approaches, only a few central aspects of the project are mentioned in the following.

Exposing Constructs, Revealing Instrumentalizations

Europe is no fact, but a powerful and effective fiction. Neither geographically, geologically, nor historically, symbolically or culturally can Europe be considered a unified entity: “Europe” is present throughout the world not only politically. But the underlying constructs, discourses and instrumentalizations can be revealed and unmasked. The theme island “Making Europe(s)” makes this visible by using, in one example, varied maps of Europe, which all show a different Europe – better: some possible Europes. The “Europe in our heads” is illustrated by means of a “growing cabinet” as well as a pinterest board. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, objects or photos that represent personal concepts of “Europe” can be added or photos posted.

Collection history and object biographies show that the delineation of borders in the museums and collections, as well as the categorization of objects, do not correspond to any inherent order of things. With changing political mores and organizational changes, boundaries have often shifted – and they continue to be negotiable. “Europe Collected” illustrated this fact with various artifacts whose designated place had changed several times within the Dahlem Museums. A timeline illustrates how “European” and “extra-European” collections were integrated, then newly categorized.

The talk of “extra-European collections” suggests that the world can be ordered according to region. But the division of the world into regions, “cultural groups” or “ethnic representations” is outdated. They are often based on hegemonic colonial techniques, which served as a legitimization for intervention. For a contemporary approach to the collections therefore, it is crucial to demonstrate their entangled history: the common and interwoven histories, an equality in terms of the historicity of cultural forms as well as of transcultural influences and connections. There is no such thing as European cultural history (whatever demarcation one would use to define it) without relations, cultural contact and cultural exchange beyond Europe – and the reverse. In the exhibition these interconnections could be discerned in the “Little Box of Relationships” for example: an ivory box from the 16th century, decorated by Ceylonese ivory carvers with motifs from a French book of hours, which was a diplomatic gift to the Portuguese, who were being courted as new players in the field of trade and relations in the Indian Ocean.

It was a colonial technique to keep cultural narratives separate. We are now faced with the task of reconnecting the narratives and writing a common history. Thus “Provincializing Europe” juxtaposed a statue of the cultural hero Chibinda Ilunga, who served to legitimize the rule of the Chokwe in Central Africa during the 19th century, with the reproduction of a painting of Napoleon. Placing these two images alongside each another is an attempt at illustrating how the history of African societies is enmeshed in global developments and does not represent some “timeless, traditional culture.” Modernity is not a European product, but came about through the expansion of worldwide relations of exchange as a collaborative project on a global level – which brought about significant changes and crises in a number of regions of the world. Such complex interconnections require, however, further creative additions in order to adequately communicate the multi-layered contents.

On a further level of reception the museum visitors had the opportunity to download an app developed especially for the museum called “BorderCheck” showing the “borders” between global regions that are represented in the different departments of the Ethnologisches Museum. At each “border” you could test and improve your knowledge on borders and migration with quiz questions.

EuropeTest – and now?

One paradox was embedded in “EuropeTest”: It persistently asked for something that doesn’t exist: namely the distinguishability between Europe and extra-Europe. With this aim different approaches were taken, to make “Europe” visible and to establish connections between world regions within the “extra-European” collections – and vice versa! The potential that lies in the combination of European and extra-European ethnographics became very clear. But it also showed that merely creating a physical dialog between objects offers the viewer barely options of decoding what is seen. What is crucial is the contextualization, the making-visible of links by using further media or exhibits. But as epistemic confrontations, the object juxtapositions are certainly suitable as starting points for a debate.

Without European ethnographics, the colonial differentiation between “us” and “the others” would only deepen further in the Humboldt-Forum – which is diametrically opposed to current academic and museological discourses. Reflections on museum-historical thinking, the disclosure of the mode of acquisitions as well as former research assumptions are inevitable. Equally, the historical backgrounds of (European) concepts like “Europe,” “primitive people,” “ethnicity,” the arbitrary differentiation between “art,” and “culture,” must be critically reflected on and deconstructed. Just as ethnological museums once underpinned the colonial perspective, the Humboldt-Forum can now help to revise this dominant gaze.

If the Humboldt-Forum wishes to meet its goals of being contemporary and promoting participation, then relationships, influences and parallels will need to be revealed. Categorical counterparts and the interconnections of a common history need to be shown. This will require the prerequisite objects from Europe. They are available in Berlin’s museums, primarily in the Museum Europäischer Kulturen. Which is why we need to set up an unbureaucratic system of exchange and collaborative presentations. The use of exhibition interventions is quite suitable as an appropriate solution when it comes to “supplementing” Europe, but it also requires the necessary space in the permanent exhibitions, funds for infrastructure and the involvement of all future participants in the ongoing planning.

Dr. Helmut Groschwitz is a cultural anthropologist and curator with a research focus on the history of science, cultural heritage, museum theory and narrative research. He curated the project “EuropeTest” for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

You can find further reading on this project here.