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Sharing Knowledge / Project Description

Collaborative research en route to the Humboldt-Forum

by Andrea Scholz

For museums with non-European collections, collaboration with representatives of source communities is a key concern. In a post-colonial museum context, where an interpretive monopoly is a thing of the past, the current approach is to integrate different perspectives, in both exhibition work and collection research. The Humboldt-Forum also advocates multiperspectivity and sees itself less as a site of unilateral knowledge production and more as a “contact zone,” as described by James Clifford. Yet even a presumed contact zone is not void of power asymmetries or contradictions. And sustainability is paramount: for source communities and museum audiences alike, there is no long-term benefit in international cooperation projects that merely involve isolated museum visits by indigenous representatives.

The project “Sharing Knowledge” was initiated with the aim of creating a vibrant and sustainable cooperation with an indigenous university in Venezuela. It originated in the Guyana collection stemming from Northeastern Amazonia and housed by the Ethnologisches Museum. The goal was to develop an interactive online platform which could be used by students from the Universidad Nacional Experimental Indígena del Tauca (UNEIT) and staff of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin to consolidate, exchange, and build on knowledge about ethnographic objects. The platform serves both as a tool for collaborative collection research and as part of the Amazonia exhibition in the Humboldt-Forum.

First Approaches

In March 2014, I traveled with documentary filmmaker Natalia Pavía Camargo to the university in Tauca, Venezuela. The goal was to convince the university to participate in an exchange involving the Guayana collection. At UNEIT, an institution unique in its form, young students belonging to over ten different indigenous ethnicities (including Ye’kwana, Pemón, Eñepa, and Yukpa) study a special curriculum geared toward the specific challenges facing indigenous groups in the modern world. Graduates undergo training to become multipliers in their communities, which select their preferred student candidates in collaboration with UNEIT. Between semesters students return to their communities for fieldwork phases. Courses at UNEIT include topics such as food security alternatives as well as reflections of indigenous identity in conjunction with (non-indigenous) mainstream society, the exercise of indigenous rights, and the preservation of cultural practices. The latter include techniques such as basket weaving, wood carving, and the production of body adornment, represented in the Ethnologisches Museum.

UNEIT was therefore the ideal partner for the idea behind “Sharing Knowledge.” My first visit focused on establishing trust and collaborating to expand on the project concept. After the university’s council of elders approved the project, starting with representatives of the Pemón and Ye’kwana, seven university members visited the Ethnologisches Museum in August and September of 2014. Many of the historical objects were familiar and mundane; others were new or had been forgotten and prompted subsequent research in the visitors’ communities. Observations about the objects (for example, designations in the respective indigenous languages, information on their function or iconography) were recorded on copies of the historic index cards. For certain objects such as manioc graters that were formerly produced in the entire Guayana region by the Ye’kwana and passed along to the Pemón and other tribes through trade, the links to ethnic groups were revised.

Digital Cooperation

During the visitors’ stay in Berlin, the idea for the online platform emerged while working with the collection. Members of the Pemón and Ye’kwana expressed a preference for symbols on the platform homepage that would represent their specific “object worlds.” Below these worlds, participants all agreed on a classification model for the objects that, apart from a few deviations, reflects the exhibition layout planned for the Humboldt-Forum: a structure based on different contexts of engagement with the world or, in other words, the areas in which objects are used. Participants agreed that visual communication elements would be preferred over text to avoid prioritizing the Spanish or German language over their indigenous counterparts. All relevant languages would be available in the user interface and the object descriptions.

Based on these parameters, a call for bids was elaborated describing the platform development. The Berlin Studio NAND was selected for the job and it implemented a pilot version with 246 objects in the months that followed.

During my stay in Tauca in May 2015, the web-based knowledge sharing project started with the first objects from the Pemón and Ye’kwana. Students also added objects from Tauca to the platform that had recently been created or were currently in production. Alongside the virtual platform, this would enable the gradual development of a concrete physical counterpart to the collection in Berlin. In Tauca the objects are used or preserved in the students’ respective residential buildings.

On the platform, all object-related attributes are negotiable; changes are stored on a continual basis. Erroneous or incorrect museum documentation, as discovered in certain aspects during the Tauca delegation’s visit, can therefore still be tracked and recorded. Knowledge is thus fundamentally instable and never written in stone.

Results and Outlook

The result of the cooperation and the exchange initiated through the platform were presented to the public together with the video documentation of the project and certain ethnographic objects of the Pemón and Ye’kwana as part of Probebühne 7. Objects that were presented included baskets for carrying and storing objects, a fish trap, a cassava grater, and a shaman’s stool. Platform comments about the objects could be viewed on iPads in the museum space.

Establishing partnerships for joint projects is a central task for the Humboldt-Forum. “Sharing Knowledge” has made an important contribution in this respect. Experiences stemming from this cooperation are also valuable for future projects, since they reveal the instability of knowledge systems in museums as well as the necessity to define an alternative concept of knowledge for the exhibition and the sharing of ethnographic collections.

A first step has already been taken in this direction. The cooperation with UNEIT was exceedingly positive and fruitful and the platform prototype developed as part of the project proved to be suitable for the virtual exchange of knowledge. UNEIT has already started to use the platform as a virtual extension of current teaching material and as an impulse for research in the students’ source communities. Nevertheless, the platform in Tauca faced greater technical difficulties than those initially anticipated. Potential solutions (for example an offline platform version for interruptions in online service) could no longer be identified as part of the Humboldt Lab project due to time constraints. These technical issues aside, as the Humboldt Lab draws to a close, virtual knowledge sharing is still in its early phases and will require intensive ongoing support in order to be operational in the long term. Whether the collaboration will continue until the inauguration of the Humboldt-Forum and even beyond, and perhaps even extend to other exhibition areas, will largely depend on additional funding.

The exhibition that emerged at the end of “Sharing Knowledge” is still not a model for involving audiences in collaborative projects. While the video documentation did prove to be a valuable means of communication, the Humboldt-Forum needs to develop other formats to convey information about the knowledge sharing process itself. This undertaking will require the allocation of corresponding funds.

While financial leeway is important, it is not the sole prerequisite in this case. “Sharing Knowledge” required complex processes of building trust and personal commitment that went far beyond the standard scope of curatorial work. This clearly indicated that cooperation projects with indigenous communities necessitate a structural framework that has not yet been accounted for in this form in the Humboldt-Forum.

Dr. Andrea Scholz, initiator of “Sharing Knowledge,” is an ethnologist who specializes in the Amazon basin. She currently works as a research assistant for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem. Her past curatorial projects include “Knight Moves: Surinam/Benin” as well as “Man – Object – Jaguar.”

You can find further reading on this project here.