Collaborative Museology Exploring New Paths

Aztec head of Xipe Totec (Our Lord, the oppressed), old Mexican spring god, dressed with a stripped human skin. Stone. Hamburg, Museum am Rothenbaum - Cultures and Arts of the World (MARKK).
Aztec head of Xipe Totec (Our Lord, the oppressed), old Mexican spring god, dressed with a stripped human skin. Stone. Hamburg, Museum am Rothenbaum - Cultures and Arts of the World (MARKK). | Photo (detail): Werner Forman © picture alliance/akg-images

Cooperative ventures between museums in the Global North and those in the Global South are likely to be structured quite differently in future, and will increasingly be controlled or initiated by the latter.

By Barbara Plankensteiner

Until now, cooperative museum ventures have largely been characterised by capacity building strategies, with museums in the North running training sessions in museum practice for their colleagues, and in return those colleagues were invited to contribute to the interpretation of collections in ethnographic museums – so that these perspectives on historical collection artefacts would ensure a diversity of influences in the exhibitions. Less commonly, there were joint exhibition productions, so that they could be displayed at both locations. These were generally typified by inequality in financial backing and resources, and therefore dominated by the Northern partners.

A light at the end of the tunnel

Now, especially against the backdrop of discussions about the recently-proposed ICOM definition of a museum, new models of cooperation are emerging that could encourage capacity building with the emphasis reversed or with mutual benefit – with museums from the North discussing cooperative strategies with colleagues from the South, questioning traditional museum practices, opening up their premises and relinquishing the prerogative of interpretation. The intensification of provenance research in collaborative communication, as well as initiatives to make collections more transparent, will help to develop a new culture of cooperation. A key role in the context of restitution procedures will also be given to the museum partners in the Global South, which will include the responsibility of interfacing with local origin societies. The restitution of important historical works or illegally obtained artefacts from the colonial era will encourage new forms of partnership and communication.

“We're only just beginning our provenance research. That restitution isn't about a single, completed action, but in fact is represents a process that goes for a long time. We still arn't really ready for it, so we still have a lot to do for our part to make things possible, on the side of the German museums.”

Barbara Plankensteiner in the interview

These changing relationships and decolonisation in the sense referred to by Sarr and Savoy as New Relational Ethics have obvious potential. But there are some huge challenges, especially with regard to the human and financial resources needed to achieve this, because the museums on both sides are insufficiently prepared and equipped for this.

Artists and museums

However it isn’t just cooperative projects between museums that can initiate new reflective processes on both sides, but also similar ventures with creative and contemporary artists. A crucial role in the context of repositioning the ethnographic museums is played by the involvement of contemporary art and collaboration with artists. Many artists deal with questions of otherness and representation criticism, as well as their connection or solidarity with self-determination and decolonisation movements – and this results in some productive interfaces. Cooperation with contemporary artists is part of the transdisciplinary opening of ethnographic museums. The viewpoints of contemporary artists can provide inspiration, offer a visualisation of complex theoretical thought processes, or express emotions.
One example of such a cooperative project at the MARKK (Museum am Rothenbaum World Cultures and Arts, Hamburg) was the exhibition Ovizire ∙ Somgu: From Where Do We Speak, which marked the end of a one-year art and research project. In a joint venture with the Research Centre Hamburg’s (post)colonial heritage of the University of Hamburg, artists Vitjitua Ndjiharine, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja, Nicola Brandt and historian Ulrike Peters looked at a photo collection housed by the museum that was put together during the German colonial occupation of Namibia (1884-1915).

“That really stands out, is how difficult and also how painful the confrontation with certain collections can be for descendants, when they are confronted with them. Because of course the works have communicated these emotional and these difficult stories as part of their statement.”

Barbara Plankensteiner in the interview

The project encouraged discussion about the shared history between Germany and Namibia, the (post)colonial heritage, and the inconsistent memory of the genocide of 1904-1908. The exhibition presented performances, (video) installations, sound spaces, photographs and photo collages, all based on the research findings. The Ojtiherero and Khoekhoegowab terms used in the exhibition title, Ovizire and Somgu, can both be translated as “shadow”, and refer to the ambition to stimulate a critical interpretation of the photo collection.
The artistic analysis in this project visualised the discomfort with the colonial heritage and the racist viewpoint inherent in the photographs. Furthermore, it showed that it would also be possible to forge alternative relationships between the past, present and future, and create new memory cultures from the same sources. The exhibition was initially shown at the National Art Gallery of Namibia in Windhoek and is now being continued in Namibia thanks to an artists’ initiative. They are using their knowledge and access to the photo collection to develop art and history workshops about the photographs and their colonial history and to carry on the discussions started in the museum where people showed a particular interest.

On museum cooperations and sustainable handling of restitution issues – an interview by the Goethe-Institut with Barbara Plankensteiner at the conference “Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 2020:

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