Ethnological museums as institutionalized bearers of meaning


An interview with Peggy Buth


The Berlin-born artist Peggy Buth (*1971) is known for her resourceful and multi-faceted perspectives on the history of ethnological museums and their collections. Consequently, in 2013 she was invited as an Artist in Residency to prepare the exhibition “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)” at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. In August 2016, I met her in the garden of the Jewish Museum in Berlin to talk about her experiences and insights.


Beatrice Barrois (BB): In the last few years, various trends have emerged which changed the way ethnological museums present their collections. An attempt is to shed new light on the precarious colonial history and its testimonies by collaborating with artists. I am thinking, for example, of the “Humboldt Lab” in Berlin and the “Grassi invites” project in Leipzig, but of course also of the “Weltkulturen Lab” in Frankfurt. What do you basically think of this development of inviting artists to ethnological museums?


Peggy Buth (PB): In general, I think positively about this, although I believe that this development should not be treated completely uncritically. I can understand certain critical attitudes. What I find particularly interesting are the reactions and the ways of dealing with what artists fabricate in ethnological museums. It is exciting to observe how artists use this situation for their own work and how the institutions of the Ethnological Museum, but also representatives of cultural studies and art studies position themselves within the discourses. I read a lot about it and have been following different aspects of the topic for quite some time. The mere fact that an artistic examination of ethnological collections is obviously seen as a disruptive factor is interesting. I was recently in the exhibition “FREMD” at the Grassi Museum in Leipzig. When I looked into the guestbook, I noticed how violently visitors, even scientists, express their anger at the work of artists who worked with ethnological collections. It’s interesting how people feel attacked by an exhibition like this. There’s something alive about this. In this respect, I see this development as quite positive. Of course, here and there a lot of nonsense or rather helpless commissioned work was produced by artists for the museums, showing only a standstill, a helplessness in dealing with the existing collections from both sides. On the other hand, there are also many examples in which it was possible to stimulate reflection through artistic works or interventions and to demonstrate the necessity of change. As an artist, one experiences different reactions when realizing a work within an institution: standstill, stagnation and refusal, but also openness, the urge to move and moments of change. Within the framework of the exhibition “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)”, I was able to experience such moments of movement within the institution through the collaboration with the director of the Weltkulturen Museum Clémentine Deliss. The aim was to break up and question established structures. This caused a lot of unrest and resistance on the ground.


BB: There was strong criticism from some quarters about this new concept of the World Cultures Museum. How did you experience this and what do you think about it?


PB: Some accusations were repeated, e.g. that Clementine Deliss’s actions as the director of the museum were sometimes unscientific, that the invited artists were dilettantish, and that the scientific discipline was “endangering the collection” or even “damaging the ethics of ethnology”. Artistic as well as scientific research in various fields and social areas shows that ethnological museums were and still are institutionalized bearers of the significance of colonialism. Christian Kravagna spoke about “monuments of colonialism”. I’d go along with that. I think one should look at ethnological museums from this point of view. But unfortunately, this very fact is ignored or even rejected by some (museum) ethnologists and custodians who have been working at the museums for many years and want to realize their life’s work there. In addition, old and new working conditions come together, which further stretches and stimulates the situation. Artists who come to the museum to work are perceived in some places as disruptive factors that supposedly penetrate a subject area in which “much has already been achieved”. The artistic external perspectives can be very unpleasant for the rather set institutional structure of the Ethnological Museum. I think this is a serious problem. The set museum institution defends itself, does not simply allow itself to be swept away in its self-image. This is accompanied by an ignorance of contemporary art, sometimes indifference, rejection, even condescension. Of course, this is not generally the case, but in my experience, there is more uncertainty and rejection of artistic research in scientific museum institutions. As an artist, however, I can still deal with this most easily. I don’t have a problem with someone not taking me seriously. Somehow this also belongs to the work with or about these institutions.


BB: In 2009 your exhibition “Desire in Representation” opened at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart. In previous years, you had carried out a project for the exhibition on your own initiative at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in the Belgian municipality of Tervuren near Brussels. Since you were not officially invited as an artist, you have certainly come across closed doors during your research. To what extent did this experience sensitize you for the work in the Frankfurt Weltkulturen Museum?


PB: The project in Belgium ran for several years, from 2004 to 2008, and was stopped twice by the museum itself. It was classified as strange or even suspicious that as an artist, I wanted to photograph again and again in the archive or in some corners of a museum or in closed collection rooms. I was often asked whether I was a scientist and why I was interested in research work in the museum archive as an artist. There was a lack of understanding for the fact that artists in a certain way apply very similar working methods to scientists, but also work artistically, process the results of their research differently. For example, I have photographed empty showcases and visible blanks or broken displays. At some point, my activities caused an unpleasant suspicion and my work came to a standstill because I was no longer allowed to visit the museum or allowed to take photographs. This changed due to a constantly necessary mediation work and renewed inquiries on my part. It was a long and sometimes quite tough process. Through the project in the Belgian Africa Museum, I learned a lot about the ethnological museum as a discursive power apparatus. I met Clémentine Deliss at the conference “The artist as ethnographer” at the Musée du quay Branly in Paris in May 2012. Scientists, curators and a few artists who had realized projects in ethnological museums were invited to this conference. Clémentine Deliss soon invited me to the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. At the beginning, I was rather sceptical, just because of my experience in Tervuren, Belgium. In Frankfurt, however, everything seemed to be allowed. I had access to the picture archives and the depots. No door seemed locked. I was able to live in the museum, to deal with the picture archive day and night, to get to know the working structures of the institution. The restriction of access that I experienced in the Belgian Africa Museum was a major obstacle. You had to go against mistrust again and again. In Frankfurt, on the other hand, there were opportunities to move freely and, unlike Tervuren, I felt this was an opportunity, a strange freedom of movement, which I found almost vulgar. By vulgar I mean the complete availability of the collection. I was suddenly a part of the whole thing that was bothering me.


BB: The term “artistic research” is very popular currently. You have just described that during your research in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, you partly worked with scientific methods. How would you describe what you actually did during your time at the Weltkulturen Museum? Was it some kind of research? Or was it more an artistic process? Could you please give me a description of your activities?


PB: In Belgium, I originally intended to realize a documentary or conceptual photographic work in order to question the museum as an institution of colonialism. The state and size of the museum, the scientific research facilities and the links with Belgian colonial history were very interesting. A huge field opened up in front of me. Ultimately, I focused specifically on a story that
I found in the archives. It was the youth book “My Kalulu, Prince, King, and Slave” by Henry Morton Stanley from 1873, which is closely linked to Belgian colonial history. In Frankfurt, I initially wanted to keep an open mind about what I would do in the museum. However, a special feature quickly emerged. In the picture archive, there is a larger collection of photographs taken by missionaries. Of course, I also looked at the depots with the ethnographic objects and received several guided tours from the custodians of the museum. However, it quickly became clear to me that I didn’t want to do anything with the objects. For me, the depot was a pretty tight place. At first, I had the idea of making a film work into a depot as a social space, but the focus would have been more on the activities of the custodians and the other employees and not on the ethnographic objects. Clémentine Deliss’s approach was to transfer special objects from the collections to the so-called Weltkulturen Lab and to work with them. This idea is very interesting, but for me the archive was more important as a discursive power space and social space with its different working processes, subjective positioning, identification and naming. In the end, I came across this special collection of mission photographs in the picture archive that had a direct bearing on the history of the Frankfurt Museum. I wanted to develop a work out of it. In my approach, it is very important to me to interlace different elements and to constantly expand these interweavings, to let them overflow, to link them differently. With my art, I never want to produce only one possible readable answer, but rather create a kind of supplement with a productive blur or project a kind of void. The viewers are invited to think along. I always try to develop works that allow different interpretations and readings. For example, the addition of objects, such as those shown in the exhibition “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)” with the group of historical mannequins, allows new levels of meaning. I have intensively studied the history of photography and found the special treatment of photography in the context of ethnology interesting. During my research in the picture archive, I noticed that these photographs came to the museum in very different ways. Actually, I only wanted to deal with the mission photographs. The Kubai Schaufiguren became however an additional and important element of my installation and thus also of the exhibition as a whole. They had a strange relation to the photographs.
I was interested in the photographs of the different photographic representations or approaches of the missionaries. The archive images can of course also be used to examine the complex history of the development of photography and its changes in the representation and photographic depiction of people from an allegedly ethnological perspective. A comparison of photographs taken around the turn of the century 1900 with images from the 1960s reveals much about the view of ethnologists and missionaries and how they approached people. One recognizes adequate connections to the respective status quo of photography as a medium of science but also of art. In addition, I was interested in the materiality of the images, how the photographs were worked with, where they were published and how, in which scientific discourses they appeared.
These are all studies that belong to the tools of the trade of art and cultural scientists or other humanities scholars. I’m not afraid of these superimpositions. I do not describe myself as a scientist, but decidedly as an artist. For me, scientific aesthetics are interesting, some of which I also take over or process. In my research, for example, I often document archive registers with the entries of archivists, some of whom come from very different periods. I am interested in the shifts in the respective attributions of meaning and the archive systems that are supposed to fix them. For example, I worked in the Africa Museum of Belgium with a picture in my research which I later rediscovered in other archives. This picture circulated through various publications and also various collection activities. It turned out that the same picture was partly marked with erroneous information, different dates, names or other place descriptions or attributions. I am interested in these movements of the images, what a part of their materiality represents or is produced. In the Frankfurt picture archive, I found a postcard with a picture of Kubai, a Papua from New Guinea. The photograph was made by the founding director of the Frankfurt Ethnological Museum, Bernhard Hagen. As a colonial physician in New Guinea, he had provided medical care to plantation workers, but at the same time he had also measured them as a hobby ethnologist, documented them photographically and conducted anthropological studies. His publications show a great meticulousness with which he carried out numerous measurements on his patients. The figure of Bernhard Hagen and the abundance of his anthropometric photographs from the archive was also of interest to Clémentine Deliss as curator of the “WARE & WISSEN” exhibition and thus also became part of the work begun on it. The focus was on the history of the museum, background knowledge on the figure of founding director Bernhard Hagen and his anthropometric photographs. Finally, the colonial history of the museum’s origins became an important part of the exhibition. Bernhard Hagen’s anthropometric publications as a plantation doctor may have been considered ambitious science in his day. His legacies, however, also bear witness to the immense aggressiveness and colonial self-image of his time. These facts must not be ignored in the historiography of such a museum. Why were and are there ethnological museums? Who were the founders? What interests led to their justification? What is their function today?


BB: The disclosure of the scientific standards of the time around 1900 and the colonial entanglements of the museum were a basic aspect of the exhibition “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)”. Do you think the visitors know what ultimately resulted from this?


PB: It is obvious what these developments ultimately resulted in that. They were deliberately pursued in the sense of imperial expansion and profit interests to the perfidious mass murder, which was accepted under the guise of science and research. Not to process these connections as part of one’s own history and to think about dealing with ethnological museums accordingly is a fact that is unacceptable. Sciences that only repeatedly refer to their truth content and their supposed ethics are obsolete. Comments claiming that the reworking of a connection between ethnological museums and colonialism had been done long ago and that one no longer needed them are both astonishing and interesting. When I look at the state of ethnological museums in Germany, or at the project currently being planned in Berlin, a cold horror grips me. The lines of argumentation for the Humboldt Forum are transparent, such as “a unique centre for art, culture, science and education”, “cosmopolitan, humane and liberal”, “dialogue between cultures” or “a castle for everybody”. That’s cynical and lying. Colonial conditions still exist all over the world and Germany benefits from them. In this respect, there is a calculated continuation of colonial conditions and at the same time an aggressive stupefaction. As an artist, I find it interesting how this self-conception materializes, for example how it formats itself in displays, texts, descriptions and specifics. If an actual cut or a rethink were desired, the Humboldt Forum could also be conceived in a completely different way.There would be very productive possibilities and of course there have already been many efforts, reflections and initiatives etc., such as the international alliance campaign “No Humboldt 21” or “AfricAvenir”. However, they were unable to make their voice heard because they did not belong to the political and cultural establishment.


BB: In its new exhibition halls, the Humboldt Forum in Berlin will show objects by indigenous peoples, such as the Kogi Indians from Colombia. Carola Wedel recently filmed an interesting reportage entitled “The Indians are Coming – Indigenous Peoples at the Humboldtforum in Berlin”. The film is about the bizarre relationship between the museum people and the people who once owned these objects. It is absurd to see how the representatives of the Kogi Indians are only allowed to look at the masks of their ancestors under strict supervision and touch them with gloves during a visit to the Berlin collection. For the two Kogi men, the masks are sacred, ritual testimonies of their ancestors. They demand a return, which is notoriously rejected by Berlin. How do you feel about that?


PB: There have been isolated restitutions, but they are the exception. The cellars and depots of the Dahlem museums are well filled with ethnological objects, colonial treasures and bones of colonized people. How these cultural assets came into the collections is largely unresolved. As part of this discussion, I was told at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, for example, that many of the objects and cultural assets had been righteously purchased or exchanged. In individual cases, this may be credible. However, these are collections of these “colonial monuments”, which often came to Europe through robbery, looting and murder. That must always be in the foreground! It’s not just about a mere restitution or this strange material way of thinking, but about an ethical reflection or an appropriate form of action. Dealing with the existing collections is an expression of a cynical demonstration of power. The people whose ancestors once owned these cultural assets are assigned the role of petitioners.


BB: Let’s get back to “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)”. In one room you have rearranged the mission photographs found in the image archive on three long tables. Which groups have emerged for you and how did they proceed?


PB: In the artistic process, it was always subjective decisions that were recognizable as such. They were therefore not scientific categories or structures of order as they appear in archives. I am interested in the contradictions or empty spaces in the archives, constructed patterns of order, which often speak of the very subjective interests of the archivists. For my work, I have created new groups and arrangements of my own that do not appear in the archive. I also worked with formal comparisons between images that are separated from each other in the archive. I followed the viewpoints of the authors or even the refusal of the portrayed. In addition, I have dealt with the existing archive comments on the pictures, such as “sitting boy”, “man in the forest”, “woman at the fire” etc. and brought these text fragments into a new classification, arrangement. This resulted in a strange stuttering text. It was important to me that the descriptions were not explicitly assigned to individual images, but to the newly created image groups. The descriptions come from the archive. However, the new arrangement had resulted in a rather deconstructive strangeness. I would almost say that my work took the supposedly objective view of categorization to absurdity. It was important to me to make this archive material accessible. The presentation of the pictures under glass on long tables, the availability and the view from above down onto the photographs created an unpleasant feeling for many visitors. I wanted to try to reveal where the pictures came from or that it was not possible for me to determine the origin of the pictures. These were missionary collections that were never or only occasionally published. In most cases, the museum’s exhibitions and publications never showed complete series, but only individual pictures. It was important for me to show the complete series in order to show the processes, relationships, viewing regimes between the viewer and the considered one.


BB: In the adjoining room, there were four Kubai dolls, their gaze fixed on the windows. What’s it about?


PB: The Kubai figures were very important for me, because there was also a connection to the photographs in the museum archive. Some of the photographs were used around 1900 for the production and naming of invented scientific categorizations. The installation of the Kubai figures showed this unconditional will to name and display the “Other”. Many of the colonial mannequins still exist in various museums. We have borrowed three Kubai figures for the exhibition, one of which was in the Archive in Frankfurt. The inter-library loan system allowed us to see how critically or innocently the museums dealt with these show puppets. Some museums were very proud to own these dolls and to lend them for an exhibition, others thought that one should consider whether to exhibit these dolls. On a wall in the exhibition, I documented the request and reactions of the loan traffic in the form of a poster. I found it important to make this institutional process visible as undidactically as possible in this way. The room in which the dolls were standing was inaccessible due to a barrier. With this I wanted to set a clear limit and not make it available. Through the lock I tried to point out the “showing” of the room itself. The dolls stand on the side facing the window to make a clear refusal to look and not to be made accessible. The visitors have to make an effort to see the figures and compare them with each other. For example, the dolls are not presented in such a way that one could walk around them. It was important to me that they weren’t freely available.


BB: Unfortunately, your lecture entitled “The Ethnographic Museum as a Wish Machine”, which was to take place on 10 April 2013, was cancelled due to illness. It should be about the “function of representation and significance of semiotics in an ethnographic museum”. Can you remember what the content of this presentation was, and if so, could you perhaps briefly describe what it should be about?


PB: The lecture should be about many things that I have already mentioned. I am still working on several topics. A lecture has the advantage that many things can be presented in a compact and precise way and that you can usually also work with text, which you can then read and change again and again. Questioning the museum as a production or wish machine is something that can be edited very well in a text. I have a draft I’m working on.


BB: In an article (www.bielefelder (22.11.2016)) you wrote that you were constantly asked questions like “How is it that your artistic work is so closely linked to ethnological museums?” or “What is your relation to ethnology?”. Instead, you would wish for other questions that are relevant from your point of view, such as “How do you work as an artist to generate knowledge about historical processes and events?” or “What part or significance can art play in writing history or representing history?”.


PB: I have used different ways of working so far. Some of them are very similar to those of scientists, but in many cases things are different again. This is characterized by a different handling of the material. In recent years, an enormous development has also taken place in the discursive sciences. In contrast to enrolment and fixation, it is a question of new forms of productive processing and presentation. It may also work with many young scientists around the search of a localized function of science within a society. What is the purpose of the investigation? What is the purpose of the research? These are very fundamental questions and as an artist I see myself as one who keeps getting in the way. In the form of an open error analysis with artistic means, I have a greater freedom in dealing with the material. At the moment, many contacts or cooperations between artists and younger scientists which encourage each other are developing.
I am interested in moments of confusion, destabilization and rewriting. I work with themes that many others don’t dare or don’t care about because they think that’s not the job of art. I have a great interest in history, in the literary function of historiography, in fragmentary traditions and in subjective forms of recording or oral transmission of history(/ies). I work with these materials for installations in space, in books or even in films.


BB: In another interview, you talk about the concept of blurring in relation to the artist’s image. You say: “As a desired error, as a factor of restlessness or indeterminacy, artists claim fuzziness for themselves, while it causes discomfort among actors from the fields of political theory, sociology or cultural studies rather than fuzziness of interest, inaccuracy and supposed lack.” ( (22.11.2016)) In the sciences, validity is decisive. Ethnology has had to reinvent itself time and again through the crises of representation. A strong subjective character has emerged and this permeates history. If you transfer that to ethnological museums, many questions arise. Don’t ethnological museums in particular need the freedom of a certain blur in order to break through hegemonic structures? What do you think of this idea?


PB: One could also speak of a greater openness. In many ethnological museums, visitors are taken by the hand, objects and contexts are explained to them and supposed validity is staged with artistic means. In ethnological museums, however, other things have to be considered, e.g. the representation of contexts and a more complex transfer of knowledge. In the museum, you feel safe, we are surrounded by constant explanations, security, opening hours and the museum restaurant. We are in a constant mode of observation and consumption. In the museum, we are given the feeling that we have everything under control. But where’s the unknown, indefinite?
I remember when I was a kid I liked to go to museums, because everything was in order there. It was a place where everything seemed thoughtful, peaceful and quiet. Today, this must be thought differently, because it is about knowledge transfer and complex processes of reconditioning.


BB: Elsewhere, you state: “It seems important to me to interpret and present processes of collection activity in relation to the acquired objects. With regard to art history it is also important to find out why certain artefacts have been and are being collected. I believe that this can be done in a public or private institution. This form of self-reflexive research is an essential part of the task of a museum or a collection in order to make processes of becoming a subject clear and to reveal them." (ibid.) The exhibition “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)” was such a self-reflexive process. What were the strengths of this exhibition for you?


PB: For me, the strength of this exhibition lay above all in its complexity, which was difficult to grasp, and in the various actors, voices and quotations. It was a reflection and the beginning of a critical reappraisal of the museum’s founding history. The transdisciplinary work, the workshops that took place in advance, were also part of the exhibition. The exhibition had begun long before the exhibition. Some critics accused the exhibition of not being factual enough. It was criticized that much remained unclear or was only implied. These are needs that repeatedly collide with courageous exhibition concepts. I believe that “WARE & WISSEN (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)’ has achieved something special in this place.


BB: In your contribution to the catalogue, you point out that “the institution museum plays an important role in the age of global, post-industrial capitalism and transnational corporations.” (Peggy Buth, „Wir Alle“ Trauma, Verdrängung und Gespenster Im Museum, in: Clémentine Deliss (Hg.), Weltkulturen Museum (Hg.), Yvette Mutumba (Hg.), Ware & Wissen (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger), 2014, Diaphanes, ISBN 978-3-03734-659-4, p. 286) In your opinion, what can the visitors to these institutions do to bring about a change towards the processing and decentralization of hegemonic knowledge?


PB: I think that unfortunately, many visitors still go to the museum with the consumerist expectation of being offered something, of being entertained. On the basis of many, more consumer-oriented offers for groups, children and families it can be seen that there is a rather strong economic factor behind this. Museums are very much influenced by this economic desire; they should bring as many visitors as possible to the museum. And this in turn has to do with what is exhibited in museums, how, and which programs are offered in parallel. Many museums act quite single-track. In order to achieve the highest possible number of visitors, spectacles will be organized. Of course, the visitors simply couldn’t go there anymore, but many ethnological museums are subsidized and it doesn’t matter if someone comes or not. Closing a museum wouldn’t be a solution for me, either. One could show displays or presentations from the colonial period and try to convey the history of colonial representation. Visitors would have to demand a different museum policy. And especially the sciences, which in a certain way are bearers of authority, should in a much more radical way be able to use other forms of knowledge transfer in museums and first and foremost in the educational institutions. It also depends on how this globalised society evolves. Calls for security, safeguarding, demarcation and nationalism are becoming loud again. Certainly no climate for new designs.


BB: Thank you very much for this rich conversation!