P 13

Making Connections Through Collections: Namibian Objects in the German-speaking Museum Landscape

Panel abstract
In view of the long pre- and (post) colonial history between Namibia and Germany, it comes as no surprise that many museums and collections in the German-speaking region keep extensive holdings of objects from Namibia. In 2016, the NAMIBIA ACCESSIONED Working Group was set up to identify institutions that have collections from former German-Southwest Africa/Southwest Africa and present-day Namibia and to exchange information as well as to explore how future research could be conducted with partners in Namibia. We wish to give the working group a forum with this panel. We also aim to discuss methodical issues about, for instance, provenance research: how can colonial acquisition contexts be examined without reducing the history of the objects to ‘looted art’ (Raubkunst) or investigating them only in relation to the time point of their acquisition? How can the history of objects be told, for instance, along the lines of ‘intertwined history’? How can museums’ depositories be reactivated and become points of departure for a new, transnational network of relations in which the contemporary meaning and mobilization of the objects can be discussed? What kinds of joint knowledge production are possible and in what circumstances? How can the work on and with the collections lead to a process of decolonizing museums as institutions and their knowledge system?

Time: Thursday, 28/06/2018, 11 am - 1 pm
Venue: Seminargebäude, S 203

Convenors
Anna-Maria Brandstetter (University of Mainz)
Larissa Förster (Humboldt University of Berlin)

Panellists
Silvia Dolz (Museum of Ethnography, Dresden)
Jonathan Fine and Gabriel Schimmeroth (Ethnological Museum of Berlin)
Jeremy Silvester (Museums Association of Namibia, Windhoek)

 

Paper abstracts

Silvia Dolz
Namibian Cultural Heritage – Challenges and Opportunities. The Collection of the Museum of Ethnography, Dresden

Nearly 800 objects and 900 photographs held in the Museum of Ethnography in Dresden record the lives and history of the peoples of South-West Africa between 1840 and 1998. In the context of entangled histories and decolonization, it is not only the history of the acquisition of museum objects and research into the historical and social backgrounds of the various actors involved (producers, users, and collectors of cultural artefacts) that are important. Starting out from the question of how people manifest their identity in a specific cultural and geographical area through cultural products, this study of the Dresden Namibia collection aims to investigate the significance those artefacts have had and still have, for the processes of resistance and assimilation, and the interrelationships between them, both in the face of extreme environmental challenges and under conditions of radical social and political change. Such a perspective on cultural heritage can show that those who have born witness to history and have preserved their cultural traditions are not merely victims limited by their specific historical circumstances. Instead, both in the past and even more so today, these individuals demonstrate their agency through a cultural resilience that allows them to amalgamate and harness other cultural influences.

Jonathan Fine and Gabriel Schimmeroth
20/20 In Hindsight: Namibian and German Objects and Their Histories

Public awareness in Namibia and Germany about the countries’ shared and entangled histories has grown dramatically in recent years. The political dimension of historical memory – especially with respect to the German genocide against Herero and Nama people – has become particularly pressing. Nonetheless, the collections from Namibia in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin are largely uncatalogued, have barely been researched, and have not been exhibited (if at all) in decades. In essence, the material culture of Namibia is missing from the museum’s praxis. The reasons for this are complex: amnesia concerning colonial history, the divergent engagement concerning and awareness of Namibia in East Germany and in West Germany (against the background of the Cold War), as well as the global art market’s aesthetic prioritization of certain objects from Africa and its selective valuation of historical collections. Nevertheless, the turn of the millennium has seen the beginning of tectonic shifts in these areas. Taking the importance of the divided histories of Namibia and Germany as a starting point, the project 20/20 in Hindsight approaches the collections in the Ethnologisches Museum through the lens of transnational and postcolonial provenance research. The project takes the position that contemporary research and exhibitions with Namibian historical material culture in Germany require the engagement of Namibian partners. The activation of the objects in the collection, their exhibition, and the interpretation and communication concerning their provenance must also take place in parallel in Germany and Namibia. The core of this project is the development of joint research and exhibitions in Namibia and Germany in the coming years with the goal of building a long-term and sustainable cooperation among researchers, cultural workers, and curators from both countries. Each stage will be developed jointly: the priorities for provenance research, the themes for exhibitions, the decisions about objects and their interpretation. A goal of the curatorial and research team on the Berlin side is that the heart of the project takes place in Namibia and that a parallel presentation takes place in Berlin, effectively decentring Berlin and the Humboldt Forum in favour of Namibia.

Jeremy Silvester
Re-Locating German Museum Objects Within Namibian Historical Narratives and the Dynamics of Developing Dialogues

The ‘Africa Accessioned’ project has established good contacts with a number of curators in German museums with Namibian collections. It is striking that there are far more objects reflecting the cultural heritage of Namibian communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in German collections than there are in Namibia. However, the majority of these objects are not on display but in storage. German museums have been willing to share information about their Namibian collections and our initial impression is that many contain only vague information about the originating community and, indeed, the geographical location and means of acquisition (gift, purchase, loot etc.). Collaborative research is important for identifying the significance of objects in terms of their individual biographies and their potential role in the construction of histories. Whilst the results of collaborative research are unpredictable, the process itself is important in terms of developing a dialogue about the meaning of objects. Objects might serve as ambassadors to raise awareness of distant societies and their challenges and achievements. Alternatively, objects might also serve as tokens of reconciliation and the means of forging new international relations. Rather than promoting a rigid approach to the discourse between originating communities and museums, it should be recognized that the process will involve discussions between and within communities in both Germany and Namibia. The paper will reflect on a couple of ongoing collaborative projects and the challenges and opportunities that they present.