The Museum Forum at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus

I. Background

Art museums and ethnology -- that was the topic of discussion between the German art historian Hans Belting and the Malian anthropologist and historian Mamadou Diawara, both Fellows at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 1994/95. How can one appropriately exhibit the objects of non-European cultures in the West without perpetuating the old divisions between art and ethnology, or between "high" and primitive art? Should the modern art of non-European artists be placed in art or ethnological museums? What role do museums play in historical and anthropological research?

At the time (the mid-1990s), the scholars also discussed the decision to end the symbiosis between ethnological and art museums in the Dahlem museum complex by moving the painting gallery to the Kulturforum in the Berlin city center. Hans Belting, Mamadou Diawara and other cultural scholars were alarmed. Was this not a return to a 19th-century understanding of art and culture? Art in one place, the ethnological collections in another? Art in the city center, ethnology on its periphery? "A dangerous precedent has been set in future dealings with other civilizations," wrote Belting in the 1995 yearbook of the Wissenschaftskolleg, and it was with a certain nostalgia that he mourned the end of an arrangement in which one could "flit from the European to the pre-Columbian to the African sections" of the museum.

Over the years, Wissenschaftskolleg Fellows have on many occasions discussed similar issues with their Berlin colleagues. The Fellows' international background and broad interdisciplinary orientation have been highly conducive to such discussions. In 2000/01 a group of historians, anthropologists and Islamic scholars headed by Navid Kermani (Cologne) and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Paris) examined this topic and proposed lending the discussions a certain continuity -- particularly in the context of the publicly debated plans to reconstruct the Berlin Palace in the city center and move the Dahlem ethnological collections to this location (in direct proximity to Berlin's major art museums).

The institutional context for an intellectual forum was thus very favorable. When in 2001 the "Working Group Modernity and Islam" was given the go-ahead to continue its first four years of work, it seemed only natural to establish a corresponding Museum Forum as one of its ancillary projects. Dr. Navid Kermani, a German-Iranian Islam scholar and journalist, agreed to provide conceptual support for the working group as a long-term Fellow. Together with Viola König, the new director of the Ethnologisches Museum, he also assumed responsibility for the Museum Forum. A number of experts serve as advisors, including Hans Belting (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe), Mamadou Diawara (Universität Bayreuth), Luca Giuliani (Universität München), Gertrud Platz (Antiken-Sammlung Berlin), Martin Roth (Deutscher Museumsbund) and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (EHESS, Paris). The forum is a project of the Working Group Modernity and Islam and is supported by the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Deutschen Museumsbund. Funding has been generously provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

What are the Museum Forum's main goals?

At the forum's inauguration on 15 January 2002, Dieter Grimm, director of the Wissenschaftskolleg, said: "If I were asked to state the goal of our gathering this evening and the upcoming lecture series, I would reply that we wish to contribute to the discussion among museum experts and cultural scholars in Europe and the rest of the world, acting from our position as "committed outsiders" and keeping an eye on related planning in Berlin and other cities. Using the means at our disposal, we wish to participate in these discussions. In other words . . . we would like to import to Berlin the fruits of the discussions in Germany and elsewhere. . . . The intimate nature of this forum should offer participants the chance for forthright intellectual exchange, allowing them to say aloud what they might hesitate to say in other circles."

In a nutshell, then, the Forum's objective is to promote dialogue between cultural scholars and museum experts, between Berlin and other cities, and between Europe (along with the USA) and non-European regions of the world. It seeks to bring museum experts and cultural scholars together while stimulating public debate on the reconstruction of the Schlossplatz.


II. Events

The Museum Forum began its work on 15 January 2002 with a lecture by Hans Belting on what he calls the "discursive museum" -- a public space where concrete exhibition objects spawn public debate, and where new forms of communication are tested that impact other areas of society. Belting insisted that there was a profound crisis of confidence among museums despite their apparently unstoppable rise in popularity. His views drew criticism from museum representatives, who maintained that he was demanding something that museums were already seeking to provide.

After the inauguration, lectures and follow-up discussions were held at two-month intervals:

  • In a talk on the Musée Guimet in Paris, Sanjay Subrahmanyam took a critical look at the concept behind this museum of East Asian art, arguing that its primarily aesthetic orientation came at the expense of historical and anthropological information.
  • Viola König spoke on the relationship between the presentation of objects and storytelling, drawing on the experiences of the Überseemuseum in Bremen.
  • Serge Gruzinski gave a talk on mestizo art in the 16th century, in which he questioned the criteria distinguishing arts premiers (i.e. primitive or popular art) from hybrid, or mestizo, art forms.

This lecture series was continued in the 2002/2003 academic year:

  • Islam scholar Reinhart Schulze (Bern) discussed the options available in the exhibition of Islamic culture in an era highly critical of the "Orientalism" concept; he harshly criticized the reification of culture as exemplified by European Orientalism and as expressed in the exhibition concepts for Islamic art even today.
  • Abdul Sheriff, historian, chief curator of the Zanzibar Museums, Tanzania, and Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, described the specific political, financial and practical problems facing his museum, which has only modest funding but is determined to maintain its independence from money-givers, including those from the West. In addition, in his last public appearance in Berlin before his untimely death in May 2003, Albert Wirz of the Humboldt-Universität gave an impressive co-lecture in which he underscored the political responsibility of museums in the debate on history.
  • Clare Harris from the Oxford Pitt Rivers Museum spoke on the tasks and obligations of a former colonial museum that wishes to integrate the history of its collections into its exhibitions
  • In his synopsis Sarat Maharaj, one of the co-curators of the Documenta 11 in Kassel, discussed whether today's museums should present cultures as ready-made products in response to industrially influenced consumer behavior, or whether they can participate in knowledge production by offering a forum for the experiences of emigrants, exiles and outsiders.
  • Finally, in June 2003, Orhan Silier, the former president and current secretary general of the History Foundation of Turkey, reported on the establishment of a municipal museum in the middle of the old palace district in Istanbul. The museum has become a platform for cross-border and cross-cultural communication in Turkey, even though it possesses no collection of its own.


III. Central Questions

The Museum Forum pioneered new forms of exchange between museum experts and cultural scholars. On average, about 30 people attended the events, including cultural scholars from Berlin's universities as well as museum representatives. Of course there have always been ties between these two groups, not least because many museum experts have a cultural studies background and teach at Berlin universities themselves. But previously there was no forum to promote a regular exchange of ideas above and beyond concrete exhibition projects.

Did the discussions have common themes or yield specific results? In view of the wide range of experiences and problems addressed, it is extremely difficult to point to any one topic. However, five ideas appeared to play an important role in all the discussions:

  1. Everyone who deals with the exhibition of non-European cultures in Western cities is well advised to consider the history of traditional exhibition practices (mostly from the colonial period) and reflect this history in exhibition concepts. Access to objects produced by foreign cultures cannot exist outside the context of their transmission and interpretation. On the contrary, this context has become a part of their meaning and history.
  2. One must also consider the experiences of the people in non-European countries who are currently exploring the role and conceptualization of museums. The most appropriate catchphrase for this changed situation --  one in which perspectives and experiences are intertwined -- appears to be "exhibition in cooperation with" instead of "exhibition by." The questions to be resolved in Berlin concern not only problems of Western cities, but also problems of exhibition makers and cultural scholars in other regions of the world. It is precisely such interwoven perspectives that will enliven the debate in Berlin.
  3. Museums are places that -- to quote Albert Wirz -- translate "social memories into history" and stories (or "meta-narratives"). This begs the question of whose history and whose memories are to be exhibited. As the examples from Zanzibar and Istanbul show, such a discussion is an essential aspect of current museum work, even in Europe. It is part of the historical education that museums can provide in a best-case scenario.
  4. One must continue to discuss what presentation forms are appropriate for the exhibited objects. The question of whether the focus should be on aesthetics or the objects' representative character is of particular importance for the presentation of non-European cultures. In general, museums must decide just how much they are willing to cave in to the pressures of an event-driven and theme-park culture, and just how much they wish to retain their specific educational objectives.
  5. Finally, the lectures and discussions at the Museum Forum highlighted what cultural scholars can learn from the specific experiences of museum personnel. Regardless of what one thinks about the deconstruction of cultural myths and the self-critique of the colonial forms by which non-European cultures have been appropriated -- one mustn't forget that the material objects of other cultures possess their own obduracy and resistance. Any shift toward a critical evaluation of, say, European Orientalism and exoticism would be a sterile enterprise if it merely helped repress the unsettling presence of the objects and their specific contexts. It is the task of the museum to preserve, research and exhibit such objects and contexts -- just as it is the task of the cultural scholar to study them.


IV. Future Orientation

On 9 July 2003, the Museum Forum not only took stock of its past work but attempted to map out its future. The immediate reason for this discussion was N. Kermani's decision to return to Cologne and concentrate on his scholarly and journalistic work after serving two years as a long-term Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg. In the future, Horst Bredekamp, professor of art history at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Permanent Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, will supervise the Museum Forum together with Viola König. An additional reason for the orientation debate was the changed political context: whereas the discussions were initiated in the context of the planned transfer of the ethnological collections to the Schlossmuseum in the city center, this initial reason has receded with the delays in the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace and thus the implementation of the Schlossplatz commission's recommendations. It is high time that the Museum Forum redefine its goals.

Horst Bredekamp outlined the changed discussion framework in cultural studies and the way it affected museum experts and artists. He sought to clarify this discussion in relation to postcolonial studies, the hermeneutics of the self and the foreign, and the fascination of the media and media theories. He reported that there was a growing interest in object semantics and the materiality of signs, bodies and spaces, all of which stood in opposition to the instrumentalization and virtualization of objects by politics and the media. According to Bredekamp, museums are profiting from this development in entirely new ways. The art historian underscored the extraordinary chance offered Berlin and said that, in view of the close cooperation between museums and universities, which originated in the early 19th century, it should be in everyone's interest to draw attention to the singular opulence of the collections and art treasures to be found in storerooms and other institutions. Bredekamp argued that their utilization must be given top priority, and that the Museum Forum could contribute to this goal by raising awareness of the special opportunities offered by a collaboration between cultural scholars and museum experts. Consciousness-raising could take the form of joint inspections of collections and storerooms, as well as events in the museums themselves. Thus Gottfried Benn's imperative "View your holdings!" was once again shown to be highly topical.

Bredekamp also thought that an additional task of the Museum Forum could be to breathe new life into exhibition criticism, which has fallen silent due to misplaced solicitude, self-complacency, and incompetence. An occasion for such criticism might be current shows such as the Aztec exhibition in the Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2003. According to Bredekamp, professional, lively exhibition criticism is the best way to enhance awareness of quality and ensure that public debate on museum offerings has real substance.

Finally, Bredekamp stated that the Museum Forum should closely follow any further discussions on the Schlossplatz and provide stimulus for this debate when it threatens to founder, as is currently the case. According to him, an essential aspect of this watchdog role is remaining conscious of the achievements of Berlin museology over the past two centuries.

Participants in the discussions raised three additional issues that they felt the Museum Forum should keep in mind. On the one hand, there was the necessity to broaden and enrich the Berlin discussions by inviting discerning cultural scholars from beyond the city's borders. On the other hand, it was equally imperative to address the ongoing difficulties of the ethnographic collections, which have less public visibility than art museums. Participants believed that the Museum Forum should take seriously the worries and potential of these collections. Finally, many emphasized Berlin's special responsibility, as Germany's capital, to its museums. For political reasons alone, they thought, any provincialism in museum policy was insupportable.


V. Organisation

The Museum Forum is a joint project of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Deutscher Museumsbund. As part of the Working Group Modernity and Islam, it receives funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The Museum Forum's office is located in the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Conceptual support is provided by:

  • Viola König (Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin)
  • Horst Bredekamp (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin/Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin)
  • Hans-Georg Knopp (Haus der Kulturen der Welt)
  • Michael Eissenhauer (Deutscher Museumsbund)

A number of leading figures in the world of science and museology advise them, including:

  • Hans Belting (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe)
  • Mamadou Diawara (University of Georgia, Athens)
  • Gertrud Platz (Antiken-Sammlung Berlin)
  • Martin Roth (Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden) 
  • Sanjay Subrahmanjam (St. Cross College, Oxford)

July 2003