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Travelogue / Project Description

New Narrative Formats for Exploring Collection Histories

by Viola König, Andrea Rostásy and Monika Zessnik

The travelogue by Johan Adrian Jacobsen1, who toured the American Northwest Coast and Alaska in the late 19th century on behalf of the Berliner Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology Berlin), is an impressive historical document. At the behest of museum director Adolf Bastian, Jacobson was contracted to collect the most original, i.e. free from European cultural influences, objects he could find. The self-proclaimed sea captain returned to Berlin with approximately 3,000 items. However, his report of the expedition was characterized less by precise ethnographic observation than by the exploits of a seasoned adventurer.

As a historical document, Jacobsen’s accounts will be the subject of an exhibition module in the future Humboldt-Forum. The goal of the Humboldt Lab project “Travelogue” was to explore how the personal account could be vividly conveyed – and not simply through the objects Jacobsen collected, but also through media-contextualizing narrative forms. The experiment was also to address problems of presentation and the history of collecting itself. It was decided at the outset that two works would emerge, which did not develop didactic media contextualization analogous to exhibition content, but which instead translated the 19th century material into independent artistic entities.

Thus, when the Humboldt Lab organized a two-stage concept competition in 2013 to translate the travelogue into a computer game and a video of a puppet show, the focus was on the exploration of new strategies of knowledge mediation. From the seven invited teams, a jury selected the Berlin puppet theater Das Helmi and the Austrian artist group gold extra.

“Totem’s Sound” – Interactive Game and Discovery Tour by gold extra

With “Totem’s Sound,” gold extra created an installation for the Ethnologisches Museum consisting of an adventure computer game and an augmented reality presentation. The audience could access the latter while walking through the exhibition with a tablet in hand2. Both parts referenced each other.

By pointing the tablet at one of the markers3 on a display case, a short film was set in motion. Five objects appeared, which gave first-hand accounts of their history and discovery: a wooden mask, a copper plate, a canoe, an Indian chief’s chair and a totem pole. In the elaborately designed videos, the objects humorously “talked, in their own voices” about the past and illuminated themes ranging from mythology, the potlatch ceremony, and tourism to the functions of the chieftains today and the exploitation of the environment in the territories of the First Nations.

The computer game, designed in the post-pixel style4, could be played on site at a console. It focused on the exploration of the surroundings and the situation based on the game principle. In the game, visitors experienced a day with Captain Jacobsen and visited a village belonging to the Haida people in Canada: they encountered shamans, dancers, canoeists, wolves and mosquitoes. Wandering about between marsh and festively decorated houses, visitors had to solve a specific task in each game segment. The game is also available post-exhibition as a free download.

The interaction of the two components, the tablet and the game, which had the same five objects as their starting point, was important to the artists, as it allowed different perspectives to be presented – often with a good dose of irony. In this way, gold extra tried to present Jacobsen’s view and supplement it with the current state of research, as well as to reflect on how we deal with strangers and the unfamiliar.

“Man from Another Star” - Puppet Show Video by Das Helmi

The puppet theater Das Helmi is known for its highly individualistic homemade foam puppets, rambling improvisations and politically incorrect anarcho-aesthetics. Even for its first elaborate film production, “Man from Another Star,” it used these elements of live performance. The performers, who were always visible behind their puppets, assumed Jacobsen’s characteristics and heightened them for effect: Jacobsen the adventurer, ridiculed by the Northwest Coast inhabitants, the frenetic art hunter or the misunderstood-feeling scientist, who was denied academic honors during his lifetime. In the film, the puppet theater also critically explored issues that cannot be represented only through an object-based narrative in the museum, i.e. Jacobsen’s commission to bring “Indians” from North America back to Hamburg for the human shows in the Hagenbeck Zoo.

In the exhibition, visitors were able to sit in comfortable chairs and watch the movie on a large screen. The drawings, storyboards and images made during the film’s production covered the back wall of the sitting area and two large display cases had been used by the artists to exhibit an arrangement made of foam props from the film.

Everything Understood or just well Entertained?

Is it possible to artistically interpret and dramatize a document such as Adrian Jacobsen’s travelogue within a museum exhibition in time-based media without trivializing the material? This issue was repeatedly discussed during the project’s implementation phase. How does one avoid stereotypes in narrative formats and when does it make sense to use them deliberately? Native Americans are depicted by the Helmi as nameless chirping birds: on the one hand, as a reflection of Jacobsen’s inability to distinguish strangers from one another, and, on the other hand, as a reference to the idea of shifting identities, which allows a person to be a bird at times, a person or even a moose. The dramaturgical staging rendered the double coding comprehensible and opened up new perspectives within the exhibition presentation.

The questions that arose from the task definition and the travelogue’s implementation are virulent in current museological discourse and in discussions about knowledge mediation. How can the mediation of serious content be successful at the interface between museum, media and art? How does one address and engage younger audiences without losing older ones? What forms of mediation and communication – both live and digital - do media presentation forms need in advance, during the exhibition and in the follow-up?

Whether or not the computer game by gold extra or the film by Das Helmi will be successful in the museum setting, and whether these formats can be expanded on or transferred to other information contexts, is still unclear. Based on the prototypes created here, however, it is possible to perform an analysis that can be incorporated into a possible transfer of the works to the Humboldt-Forum.

After a two-month trial run and controversial reactions, the computer game had attracted considerable attention: there were approximately 12,000 views, 3,500 downloads and 2,200 views of the trailer. Even people who had not visited the museum or the exhibition and, thus, had not seen the show or knew nothing about Jacobsen and the collections, were interested in the computer game, which was also available online.5 The expense associated with the development of media formats for knowledge mediation is worth it when their impact goes beyond the museum in this way. Good mediation opportunities also arise, however, from direct encounters and exchanges with the participating artists. In November 2014, when the Ethnologisches Museum conducted the “Let’s Play Session” with members of gold extra, the results were exactly what had been hoped for: the attending children and adults had their curiosity awakened, connections were revealed and an educational medium was tested that was clearly enjoyable for all.

1 Johan Adrian Jacobsen: Capitain Jacobsen’s Reise an der Nordwestküste Amerikas, 1881–1883: zum Zwecke ethnologischer Sammlungen und Erkundigungen, nebst Beschreibung persönlicher Erlebnisse. Für den deutschen Leserkreis bearbeitet von Adrian Woldt, Leipzig 1884. Reprint Hildesheim 2013

2 gold extra used the augmented reality app Aurasma.

3 Augmented reality markers: The pattern of the marker triggers a sequence on the tablet, in this case, a transparent video, through which the original artifact and marker are still visible. Through this superimposition, an "extended reality" is created, the augmented reality.

4 The pixel style characterized the first computer games. Because of technical limitations, in game graphics there was a limited choice of colors and a strongly pixelated representation of figures, etc. The characters were animated with a few pictures. The post-pixel style became popular in the mid-2000s and deliberately echoed pixel graphics. Particularly with games on mobile platforms, post-pixel graphics provide an alternative, one, which makes the presentation of graphics appear smooth whilst freeing processor capacity. In addition to these technical components, the post-pixel style is deliberately used as an aesthetic means of abstraction.

5 A gamer from the USA states, “What Totem’s Sounds ends up being is a slice of enjoyable criticism of museums or, at least, how they conducted their worldly gatherings and prescribed to the colonialist attitudes of the time. It’s an effort to make us think about the historical foundations our civilizations are built upon, and how we might prioritize our pursuit of cataloging the world above the lives of native people.” (Christ Priestman, Kill Screen).

Prof. Dr. Viola König is the director of the Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

Andrea Rostásy is an artist and media curator.

Monika Zessnik is a curator for American ethnology and communications at the Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

You can find further reading on this project here.