22.- 25.9
2020

Opportunities and Challenges of Cooperative Provenance Research

Lars Müller, Landesmuseum Hannover
23/09/20 4– 5.30 pm Room HZ 12 (Hörsaalzentrum)

 

Short abstract:

The dealing with colonial collections is currently being challenged both by interest groups in Europe and by representatives of African countries. The panel will address the question of how to respond to this challenge collaboratively and what opportunities arise for future work.

During the colonial period, the collections of ethnological museums grew massively. For some years now, the way these collections are handled in Europe have been increasingly the subject of discussion and criticism. They have been challenged by interest groups in Europe, but above all by representatives of the countries and societies of origin: They demand e.g. the restitution of objects, access to the collections and, above all, more transparency. In response, the museums and museum associations have presented guidelines for dealing with these objects, the political side has published a “Key Issues Paper on Dealing with Colonial Collections” and national funding has been provided for Provenance Research. On a practical level, cooperative (research) projects and cooperations with the societies of origin have been initiated. We invite contributors for papers on the opportunities and the challenges this work faces: What is the respective interest in the collections and in the cooperation? How can cooperation be structured and what are the problems in working together? How can research results be brought back into the current debate? What resources are available on both sides? How can access to the collections be provided?

We also ask how to deal with the cooperation on level of the researchers – how to develop a common understanding of provenance research? How to develop a base on that we can work on an eye to eye level? How to deal with emotions? Next to these challenges we also want to discuss what potential lies in cooperation between European museums and societies of origin: How and what can we learn about the objects? How can we bring a new meaning to the objects? What can we learn about the future dealing with the objects? And how can we establish new long-term cooperations for the future – even besides the provenance research?

 

Our own experimental research approach as part of PAESE (Provenance Research on Non-European Collections and Ethnology in Lower Saxony) has shown the diversity of possible types of cooperations. In Lower Saxony as in Cameroon, we tried out different methods of cooperative postcolonial provenance research on ethnographic collections from colonial contexts. The research focuses on two collections, which were acquired by colonial officers in Cameroon during the German colonial era and donated to the Städtische Museum Braunschweig and the Landesmuseum Hannover. With examples from our experience, we would like to discuss what kind of cooperations could be productive or challenging.

To begin with, we established networks with diverse Cameroonian stakeholders: contemporary artists, academics, museum experts, Cameroonian kings, representatives of civil society initiatives and art galleries on both sites. This lead to questions about the condition and constitution of the partnership: Where does it begin and what expectations arise? How should equal partnerships be built? Who chooses whom and why? In what way do unequal power relations influence the collaboration and the research?

The modality of a cooperation can determine the outcome significantly. Various methods such as workshops, collaborative examination of museum’s artefacts and archives, exchange with experts, qualitative or oral history interviews and video statements led to diverse outcomes. The multiple perspectives on acquisition methods in colonial contexts, its evaluation today and the question about restitution has become evident.

Furthermore, with regards to self-reflection within our research, we need to examine the role that we take as German researchers towards Cameroonian stakeholders of different socio-cultural backgrounds. How can we overcome postcolonial structures? Or are we, in our efforts, actually reproducing them?

 

In 2019, experts from Namibia and from the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin conducted in-depth research into the Namibian collections held there. The aim was to better understand where the objects came from, how they were collected and what should happen with them in the future. While the German partners primarily sought to address the colonial entanglements of the collections, the Namibian scholars and artists entered the project with a keen interest to explore possible futures of the objects beyond narratives of colonisation. Moreover, all researchers involved brought to bear different ways of engaging with the past and of creating knowledge. How should we bring these different epistemic regimes into dialogue? In order to facilitate transcultural translations, sensitivity for differing historical experiences and for the emotional toll of working with collections from colonial contexts and, in particular, from contexts of genocide were key. Besides, it became crucial to address the epistemic violence of the archive. Colonial ways of categorising people and objects not only occluded and distorted historical Namibian modes of self-identification and ways of life. They also obstructed the identification of objects with people in Namibia’s postcolony today. Consequently, the German-Namibian team devised ways in which to challenge the colonial archive while still trying to obtain useful information for provenance research. The intermediary results of this ongoing debate will be presented in a small exhibition at the Humboldt Forum. In the end, the collaborative research and the transcultural translations that it necessitated not only challenged narratives about German-Namibian pasts. They also engendered new ways of narrating transcultural presents and envision possible futures. This paper discusses the strategies that the team developed to challenge the colonial archive, to introduce alternative narratives about colonial pasts and postcolonial presents and to envision decolonial futures.

In 2019, we found ourselves involved in a research and exhibition project that set about to explore the past, present and presence of Amani, a former German colonial research station in East Africa's Usambara mountains. The project took the said site as a point of departure to ask about traces of colonial scientific engagement in today's world, views, and relations. For six weeks Syowia Kyambi spend an art residency at the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg, where Mareike Späth worked as assistant curator for the Africa collection.

Together, we looked for objects and photographs in the MARKK collection link Amani to Hamburg and thus document the historical engagement as well as the contemporary entanglement of places and people. While Mareike followed a rather classical approach of provenance research departing from the collection's documentation and ethnographic literature, Syowia practiced a more intuitive and intervention-driven concept with the aim to produce a piece or performance for the exhibition. At every step during the process our individual knowledge and working routines interfered with and inspired the other's approaches and attitudes, and at the same time our common ideas and plans constantly challenged habitual procedures inside the institution.

For the proposed panel, we reflect on the questions, challenges and benefits we encountered during this collaborative and cooperative process: How can we accommodate very different ideas about how to identify and select relevant objects, or: is Makonde still Amani? Can we use historical objects of the collection for performances, and if so, what does that mean and imply? What creative alternatives can we come up with? In which way do we have to include the historic architecture in our thinking about creating and presenting contemporary art in an ethnographic museum?

The joint venture into Amani confronted us with a number of absurdities, which helped us, travel further, learn more, think afresh and bring new knowledge and meaning to the archives and the works we create from it. We argue that in this particular project, our determination to bring together our very different ways of engaging with this colonial collection not only positively influenced our individual perspectives, but also resulted in a very intimate and immediate opportunity for the audience to reflect on the question of where the colonial past relates to our today's lives.