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New Concepts of Cultural Exchange
Constant Renewal

Dance performance by Kamogelo Molobye at the kick-off of the 2019 Museum Conversations in Windhoek.
Dance performance by Kamogelo Molobye at the kick-off of the 2019 Museum Conversations in Windhoek. | Photo (detail): © CreativeLab for Goethe-Institut Namibia

The present debates about colonialism, racism and restitution also influence the work of the Goethe-Institut. Its Secretary-General Johannes Ebert explains how the cultural work of the Goethe-Institut has changed over the past few decades.

By Johannes Ebert, Secretary-General of the Goethe-Institut

Bénédicte Savoy’s point hit home at the very end: It was in March 2019 in the conference room of the Musée des Civilisations Noires in Dakar, Senegal, newly built with funds from China. Savoy was reporting about her latest research on the history of the restitution of cultural assets from German museums to Africa. In the early 1980s, then Minister of State in the Foreign Office, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, announced the first returns by the Federal Republic of Germany in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. These plans were then put on hold with the change of government in 1982 and later no longer pursued. The impetus for Bénédicte Savoy’s investigation was a letter to the editor referring to Hamm-Brücher: Under the heading “Send cultural assets back to the jungle?” the writer clearly rejected the return of the art objects, justifying his stance with his concern for the safety of the objects and the reference that there are significantly fewer exhibition pieces from the “peoples of the Third World” in European museums than from other regions of the world. The writer of this letter to the editor from the early 1980s was the head of a Goethe-Institut in Africa.
A lot has happened since then. But the intense debate about German colonialism has only really picked up speed in recent years. In Germany, it was sparked in particular by French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that African cultural assets from French museums would be returned and by the various discussions about the future direction of the Humboldt Forum. The role of Germany as a colonial power and issues of restitution have been the focus of numerous conferences. The remains of African ancestors, but also the first cultural assets have been returned. The restitution process has commenced. Coming to terms with colonialism was also prominently included in three parts of the coalition agreement of Germany’s governing parties.

Moving away from presentation towards cooperation and co-production

The Goethe-Institut has also developed and changed in its programmatic cultural work and in its self-image over the past decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, its focus was on presenting cultural life in the young democratic Federal Republic abroad, with the additional aim of being accepted back into the international community after a terrible war and the Holocaust. But since the 1970s, its understanding of partnership-based cultural cooperation has evolved. This programme work, conceptually related to Germany and based on bilateral or European cooperation, is committed to dialogue and is today strongly characterised by concepts such as cooperation and co-production.
Johannes Ebert, Secretary-General of the Goethe-Institut. Johannes Ebert, Secretary-General of the Goethe-Institut. | Photo (detail): © Martin Ebert
Over the past decade in particular, it has expanded its approach to become an increasingly multi-perspective, multilateral and global one. Its focus is always on the question of what will provide the greatest benefits for the cultural landscape not only locally, but also across countries and continents, and what the specific German contribution could be. This has created cross-border platforms and networks such as Music in Africa and – in relation to Europe – Freiraum. The way the Goethe-Institut works has also changed, especially when it comes to dealing with the global discourse on colonial issues. In the latest discussions in Europe, we have made it our mission to actively make audible the voices from the relevant countries, which, at least at the start of the debates, often seemed underrepresented. The proximity of the local Goethe-Instituts and their close ties with local partners are helpful for this. The Latitude Festival is an example of this approach. It recently negotiated (digitally, due to the coronavirus) the question of how colonial structures continue to have an effect today. Intellectuals and artists from Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe dealt with subjects such as identity, racism and the culture of remembrance, while demonstrations against racism were held in German cities and German media were criticised because the issue was only discussed by whites. This reveals an important political dimension: Local and global discourses on social issues can no longer be separated from one another. In future, we have to more actively relate them to one another and negotiate them together.
The local Goethe-Instituts are working to openly discuss the era of colonisation and the decolonisation process, therefore also making the dark times of German colonialism an issue. As a critical voice at the New Ethics for Museums in Transitions conference in March of this year in Dar-es-Salam pointed out, a few years ago the institute initially had difficulties supporting a theatre production on the Maji Maji uprising against German colonial rule in Tanzania. But today, these topics are explicitly being addressed by the Goethe-Institut in conferences and art projects. As in every earnest process of reappraisal, this is sometimes painful. However, it is a fundamental human experience that remembering together, which can be painful and conflict-prone in different ways for both sides, is an indispensable prerequisite for moving forward together.

New methods of cultural exchange

New methods of cultural exchange are also being tested. Increasingly, for example, when working in Africa, the conceptual development of projects is placed entirely in the hands of African curators. The Goethe-Institut is a facilitator and a neutral platform, but takes a back seat as a maker and shaper as shown in the multi-year Museum Conversations project, in which museum experts from numerous African countries discussed the challenges and future visions of African museums. The Burden of Memory conference in Cameroon at the end of last year is another example. There, the three curators from Cameroon, South Africa and Kenya decided that cultural professionals from the former German colonies should initially only discuss their different approaches to remembrance amongst themselves before dealing with their European partners.
Museum Futures Africa, the follow-up project to the Museum Conversations, is similarly designed. The point is to move from discussion and analysis to concrete action. In particular, collective and reciprocal learning, as is planned for Museum Futures Africa, goes far beyond conventional capacity building in its constant exchange and questioning of models. It points to the future because it understands knowledge not as a one-way street, but as multi-perspective learning in an exchange by all actors.

A strength of the network of foreign cultural and educational policy

Such new concepts of cultural exchange are particularly sustainable if they are not brought in from outside, but rather emerge from the actual circumstances in the country. The local presence of the Goethe-Institut as a companion of sustainable processes proves to be a strength of the network of foreign cultural and educational policy. The SAWA Museum Academy is also committed to collective learning. There, the Sharjah Museum Administration, the Berlin State Museums, the University of Technology and Economics and the Goethe-Institut train future museum staff from the Arab world and Germany according to a tandem principle with digital and presentational programmes on both sides of the Mediterranean. The name says it all: “sawa” means “together” in German.
Self-questioning is an important basis for further developing these methods in cultural exchange. The Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, for instance, recently put its role up for public discussion as part of the Power Talks project. It received a lot of praise, but also fundamental criticism that cultural exchange is a way of soothing a guilty conscience and washing oneself clean of guilt. Critics noted that our approach to cultural exchange only works because we have the economic means for it, but that compensation and reparations for the legacy lost during the colonial era would make more sense. Nuances between the two positions became clear and also demonstrated that constant renegotiation is necessary; that cultural emancipation in South Africa, as in other countries in the region, is a process that will accompany us for a long time and that holds a great deal of potential for discussion for both sides.
Johannes Ebert in Yaoundé with Molemo Moiloa and Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja at the conference The Burden of Memory. Johannes Ebert in Yaoundé with Molemo Moiloa and Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja at the conference The Burden of Memory. | Photo (detail): © Goethe-Institut/Y. Aboueme
To connect to the world in this way requires a new willingness to learn and a quality that could also be described with the old-fashioned word “humility;” the ability to listen, to see things from another’s position and to be able to question oneself. The German-Indian political scientist Nikita Dhawan also called for “a new ethics of listening” at the Latitude festival. At the same time, it requires a mindset that considers cultural difference and diversity as an enrichment from which new common perspectives can develop from the friction and encounters.
This requires a learning process to which institutions such as the Goethe-Institut, which work in global contexts, have long been and must still open themselves. This constant renewal is not free from awkward moments, mistakes and different paces. After all, it not only intervenes in institutional culture, but also places high demands on the representatives of this form of cultural exchange.
For German society, which is globally embedded and at the same time internally diverse, there is also no alternative to such a learning process. This is particularly evident in the current debate on racism: Triggered by an incident that occurred in the United States, it is intensifying the long overdue social debate about racially motivated violence against German fellow citizens, as was the case recently in Hanau, and raises the question of structural discrimination against people of colour in our own society.

A learning process of listening

This discussion is extremely important for the future of our democracy. This democracy is based on a pluralistic negotiation process between different social groups and positions, which can only work if the voices of all these actors are equal and are heard. In an immigration country like Germany in particular, which will continue to be dependent on immigration in order to maintain its economic prosperity and social achievements, citizens of very different origins have to come together for a common future. They must have the right and the opportunity to express their interests and claims equally and to be heard openly and empathically. This also requires a learning process of listening, of empathising with others, of self-questioning. This is why it is also important to renew the world’s learning communities and promote collective cultural learning today. The Goethe-Institut can contribute to this with its expertise in global cultural exchange and against the background of its own historical learning processes.
This article is an abridged version of an essay from issue 9/2020 (September issue) of Politik & Kultur.