The Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin is proud of its carpet collection. Rightly so: not only are the carpets special in themselves, but they have a tumultuous history. The permanent display that opened last year (well, permanent until it shuffles around again for the reopening of the Pergamon Museum) conveys some of how the objects came to the museum—many through private collectors involved in the "oriental" research popular in late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany—and how they fared in World War II. While the carpet exhibition is fairly traditional in its display, a couple features stood out to me. One is pictured above: large panels demonstrating three different weaving techniques. Thick colorful plastic cord is used instead of the usual fine threads to make the technique more visible. Visitors can turn each panel to see both sides and thus discover the difference between kilim and pile rugs. Namely, kilim (left) are woven such that both sides are flat, while pile rugs (with symmetrical or asymmetrical knots, center and right) result in one side being bristled with the ends of the knots poking out. It's one of the few hands-on displays in the museum, and certainly fun to play with! It's vaguely reminiscent of the weave-it-yourself activity in the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin, but better suited to the far greater number of visitors passing through the Pergamon Museum.
A permanent exhibition in the Zitadelle Spandau puts not only honorific statues but display itself in the spotlight. Unveiled: Berlin and Its Monuments thematizes the city's long history of erecting statues of various personalities, only to remove them later when the political landscape changes. What deserves to stand on public display, and when? Looking at these statues from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries makes clear how changeable the landscape of monuments is.
In 2015, the city decided to raise Lenin from the dead (below) and bring his head into this exhibition. Now it is exhibited on its side (bottom), emphasizing its fall from grace and current status not as an item of honor but a fallen relic.
Many museums are currently asking themselves how to appropriately deal with their ethnographic collections (see links in my previous posts on the subject). Some major European museums, although notably not all, are now openly acknowledging the role that colonialism played in their acquisitions. Reading the work and watching the lectures of Bénédicte Savoy on this topic would be an absorbing job for a wonderful few months. Some museums are even putting on exhibitions about their colonial past, such as Voices from the Colonies at the National Museum of Denmark. While it has been rightly pointed out that ethnographic material is not the only site of colonialism in museums—that museums themselves are colonialist structures—it is certainly one of the most obvious. And if the museums themselves do not take action, others will: the "Guerilla, Activist-Led Tour of Looted Artifacts at the British Museum" made headlines last year.
Against this background, the Landesmuseum Hannover has taken commendable action in its own ethnographic displays. Particularly striking is the section marked off by a decorative metal dividing wall stamped with the word "Kolonialismus" in the center. This is an imposing marker of the surrounding area, and invites a curious new way of looking through the cutout letters (see photo above). On display here are objects presented in a story of colonial interaction, from depictions of visiting Europeans made by Africans whose lands were being colonized, to a 19th-century painting titled "Smoking Moor" for which the Landesmuseum has provded a modified label: "Moor" has been crossed out and "Human" (Mensch) added instead. It is a small but effective way to reframe objects we might otherwise pass over, and to make us question the metanarratives of museum exhibitions.
In preparation for a public forum I'm co-organizing next week (Decolonize Mitte! Humboldt Forum, Museum Island, and Schloss—all are welcome to attend!) I've been thinking a lot about ethnographic museums. How can we make them spaces that "work for us," in the sense that they encourage learning, understanding, respect, tolerance, community building, engagement, discourse? Ethnographic collections are a focal point of current debates on provenance research and how to make museums for a modern, anticolonialist world; they are the crucible from which new metals will be poured, hopefully shaping other museums as well. Antiquities collections, more my area of expertise, can look to them for guidance not only in displaying provenance research, but in engaging visitors by telling human stories in a strikingly candid way.
Dresden's Museum für Völkerkunde seems to me exemplary in this respect. Even its online presence makes clear its priorities: connecting people through its displays of things. Its homepage centers on a wonderful statement of just this ("Erzählungen von Menschen, Dingen und Orten" = Stories of people, things, and places) and an introduction that cuts right to the chase: Where did all this stuff come from, and why is it in Germany? Museum visitors make this one of their first questions in the antiquities collections I've worked in, and especially in the current climate they are very likely to do the same in the Dresden ethnographic museum. They will appreciate the no-nonsense approach:
"Today, the uniqueness of many of the objects goes hand in hand with the necessary questions regarding their origin. Who created them and why? How did they come to Dresden? Were these objects given as gifts, sold or even taken from their original owners during the colonial era?"
This is a brave thing to put on the homepage of any museum, particularly with the final phrase raising the potential for repatriation claims. Just so the link to find out more about the collection history (pictured above), whose token photo is a Benin bronze depicting a European man aiming a rifle. A more succinct summary of the conflicted acquisition history could hardly be imagined—how honest to put it right up front!
For two more days, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin is showing its critical exhibition Hello World. Divided into "chapters" which all have their own titles and are housed in different arms of the building, the exhibition as a whole addresses one question: What would a collection of contemporary art like the HB's look like if it weren't so Western-focused? Needless to say, particularly with the Humboldt Forum being built not far from here, this topic is urgent. Because I want this blog to continue focusing on design elements (for now, anyway), here I'll just point out a few sources for reading more about the immense debates that this show takes on.
The "chapter" formed around a part of the permanent collection (the Erich Marx Collection, above), titled The Human Rights of the Eye, features the works of Rauschenberg, Warhol, Twombly, and others that don't fit into the exhibition's diversity- and global-oriented themes. To frame them in the terms of Hello World, the curators invited the graphic arts duo cyan to intervene. The artists created collages beside the Marx Collection paintings, each collage reflecting visual aspects as well as content from the painting nearby in order to "trace the multilayered cultural interweavings" in the paintings. I did not feel that this was successful to the point of recasting the collection as "global;" nonetheless, I liked very much the dialogue between modern masterpieces and contemporary collages offering a cloud of associations. I can imagine this format—particularly the large shapes like speech bubbles emerging from the artworks—for all sorts of material relevant to the object, including the usual label information, relevant archival material, or even calendar listings for related events in the museum. Here of course the focus was rather on the collages as art themselves. Still, one collage included archival material in the form of a letter by Rauschenberg about his teacher Albers, which I found philosophically inspiring; see below.
Another wonderful current exhibition at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is Fashion Cities Africa. Like the Body Art show described in the last post, Fashion Cities presents a rainbow of human creativity—and of dyed fabrics! The use of cloth in the show cleverly highlights the theme and at the same time subdivides the space into cozy sections. At the entrance (above), sheets of whitewashed plywood are used as backings for introductory images and texts. Each panel introduces a local designer of African fashion, photographed on the street as if you had just run into them personally; once again it's that intimate human connection that flows throughout the museum. The boards are hung up with thick ropes at top and bottom, a very tactile nod to the cloth-and-design theme.
The second room (or second-to-last, if you entered at the other end) is encircled with hanging yards of cloth in various patterns. With pillows and chairs inside, it offers an alluring spot to tuck yourself into—the museum version of a sofa-cushion fort! Panels outside the ring of cloth explain how the colorful patterns came originally from, for instance, Indonesia (batik cloth), reached the Netherlands through colonial exchange, and from there was sent to Africa. It's a much more complex, indeed global history than one might expect. And it stays with you much more when you can touch this stuff of history, feel it, wrap yourself in it!
*stuff: from Old French estoffe = material, furniture. The German word for fabric is in fact Stoff. There's your cocktail-party knowledge for the day!
Last week a new museum topped my list of favorites: the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. All too rarely does a museum visit energize you—but, for me, this one did! Instead of museum fatigue and an aching back, I felt revived. The energy and freshness of this museum come from a beautiful openness of worldview, reflected in both the chosen themes and the carefully-written texts (not to mention the program of events). Even the permanent exhibition about slavery manages to sound considered and non-judgmental while at the same time exposing the horrific facts.
This openness is the ideal, indeed necessary complement to the museum's main focus: people. Period. To such an extent that both the website and the museum itself refuse to limit this focus further by mentioning the "tropical" cultures which originally gave the museum its name, or any other restrictive vocabulary. The mission statement is staunchly about people, for people. It obviously intends to take a stand against the colonialist agenda that informed the museum's foundation. Still, at first I found it almost too vague—until stepping inside. People really are the focus of the exhibitions, and it's fantastically invigorating. Encountering so many vibrant cultures feels like standing in the sun streaming through a stained-glass window, all the blues and reds and greens painting and warming your skin, touched by the cosmic light.
But maybe I just came up with that metophor through the inspiration of one of the beautiful human-based current exhibitions, Body Art. Typical of the Tropenmuseum is the human focus and breadth of people included here. Bodily modifications and clothing are examined not by culture or time but according to the desired effect, from making a person feel "different to the others" (above left, extreme piercings and makeup), expressing a group identity (below center, mafia tattoos), or displaying wealth. This grouping allows for striking juxtapositions: under the title "Eigenzinnig" = "Self-Determined" or "Quirky" (above right) are, on one side, a shockingly tiny belt from the days of corsets; and on the other, a contemporary photograph of a woman with a split tongue. Just so can unexpected differences be drawn, as for instance with tattoos. Facial tattoos were carried out on the beautiful girls in a southeast Asian village so that they would appear too strange or ugly for the local ruler to claim as a wife, and could thus remain safely in their communities. A grandson of a Holocaust survivor had his grandfather's concentration camp tattoo reproduced on his own forearm as a permanent reminder (below left).
For all these reasons, I was deeply affected by this exhibition. Even more so because of the intimacy of the setting, arranged like a living room from last century. The homey feeling gives our bodies a safe, comfortable space to inhabit while we reflect on how we use them to express ourselves.
Displaying a pair of soccer star Mo Salah's shoes in the middle of a gallery of ancient Egyptian sculpture—as reported in this article in The Guardian, screenshot above—is a display tactic all of its own. Capitalizing on World Cup fever is just one element. What's more, the incursion of such a colorful, everyday, clearly modern material into a room full of old, imposing, monochromatic statues is eye-catching. In this case it's also a powerful statement about cultural heritage: keeper Neal Spencer says that "The boots tell a story of a modern Egyptian icon, performing in the UK, with a truly global impact." The same could be said of the ancient colossi surrounding the shoes. As museums are increasingly confronted with dissatisfaction about cultural colonialism and claims of presenting a "global heritage," such displays trying to engage the debates are on the rise. Successful or not, the fact that they engage at all is a first step toward improving how we teach and learn about culture through objects.
Of course, two decisions have to be made before the question of display tactics even arises.
Then, and only then:
This last question raises further questions about intended audience, etc.—the subject of immeasurable spilled ink already, and still flowing (good thing; we need the flood). The first question, about whether to display at all, is equally complex and has been addressed in a small way even on this blog. Let's turn to the second question.
What is displayed has as much impact on the message of the exhibit as how it's diplayed. (Yes, all exhibits have a message, whether conscious or not. My students seem to grasp this better than many professionals.) The Museo Egizio in Turin is currently co-hosting an exhibition that makes this clear in the most laudable self-critical move I have ever seen a museum make. Please send other examples if you know of some; in my experience, this is unique. This archaeology museum has decided to highlight the problems of where its objects come from, under what circumstances of colonialism or other duress they were acquired, and what role or right a museum even has to create knowledge around them.
How does it achieve this very tall order? By exhibiting works of contemporary art that raise these issues. Above (screenshot from the museums' Facebook site), a piece by Liz Glynn in her series "Surrogate Objects for the Metropolitan" imitates some of the look of a Greek vase while also announcing its collage-like materials as if for a humble craft project. It thus questions the value of Greek vases—after all, many were simply the red plastic cups of their day—as well as the way the museum literally puts them on a pedestal, and the effect this has on what we think of them, how we value them.
A piece by Ali Cherri in the Turin exhibition positions a taxidermied hawk triumphantly spreading its wings over a table full of archaeological objects. This is a powerful image to highlight the potential predatory nature of dealing in antiquities. For an archaeological museum to champion awareness of these issues is as surprising and new as it is exemplary. It is a typically inspiring move by museum messiah oops I mean director Christian Greco. Hopefully he will inspire many, many other museums to follow suit.
Yesterday saw the finale of an ambitious multi-year project in the National Museums of Berlin meant to probe the issues in displaying ethnographic collections today. This "Humboldt Lab" took place in Berlin's Ethnological Museum and raised some fantastically interesting questions—like the problem of displaying sacred objects not meant to be seen, the subject of an earlier post on this blog. The publication accompanying the seven "trial" exhibits constructed as part of the Lab is lovely too; I look forward to reading it. (For anyone interested in ordering a copy but undecided on which language, go for the original German—the text is much more readable than the English translation.) Although I'll be sad to see the old museum close (below is a view of the sleek South Pacific galleries, reopened in 2004), it will be exciting to see how the museum moves ahead with the results of this unique petri-dish opportunity!
This weekend sees the opening of the new Ancient Middle East gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Cause for celebration on several levels: it is an immense coup for a museum too often brought up in talk of financial crisis; it highlights the importance of this material at a time of extreme crisis in the Middle East; and, most relevant for this blog, the new gallery forefronts a nice modern display concept for some very old material. The creamy gray palette of the walls, floor, ceiling, and cases offers a clean backdrop for the variegated shapes and colors of the objects. The lighting is masterful: it is stronger on the objects than in the rest of the room, yet still diffuse rather than spotlit—hard to achieve, but worthwhile! The cases also do a nice job of hiding the light sources, while the ceiling contains a few discrete lines of track lighting. Clear plastic signboards with black lettering signpost the side galleries (apparently organized by material: metalwork to the left, ceramic to the right). The Neo-Babylonian mushussu relief provides a lovely centerpiece. To my mind, the overall effect of the gallery is very pleasing; I hope someday to see it in person.
Running across the article "Geheime Dinge" (page 46) this week was serendipitous because it aligns perfectly with the last post on how to display something too small to see. A similar display problem is facing the team behind the Humboldt Forum, a huge new cultural space being built in the center of Berlin. Among other things, the Ethnological Museum will move into this space—and has made this an opportunity to experiment with new, sometimes radical display ideas. Exhibiting objects from "non-European cultures" (the term used in all HuFo materials) is difficult to do tactfully, to say the least; and one of the most intriguing problems that has come up in this respect was addressed in an article from a promotional magazine put out by the Forum. The title and tag line say it all: "Secret Objects. How can you display objects that are so sacred, so secret, that the uninitiated are not even allowed to see them?" The sign in the case reads "Object removed for spiritual reasons."
One of the examples in the article, small inscribed stones from Australia that are considered sacred and "unshowable" in this way, was proposed for a display that included not the stones themselves but 3-D prints of them, along with authentic materials associated with how the stones were used (such as incense). This indeed follows the letter of the law by not showing the stones themselves—but is showing a perfect replica of them a respectful solution? Another proposal has the (real) objects in a case that is somehow clouded or shrouded, from which the veil is lifted for a few seconds every so many minutes to offer visitors a peek inside while still preserving the objects "unseen" for most of the time. This seems to me a dangerously titillating solution, encouraging a peeping-Tom voyeurism that would defeat any modicum of respect for the objects and their culture. It is an extremely difficult problem that the HuFo team is facing; I look forward, not without anxiety, to seeing their answer.
Once upon a time in Berlin, there was a colossal statue of Lenin. His head alone weighed 3.5 metric tons. The statue was dedicated in 1970 (Lenin's 100th birthday), dismantled under the new regime in 1991, and condemned to be buried in a nearby forest, where it still lies to this very day. Now it is meant to go into a permanent exhibition; that is, it was meant to, until the Senate suddenly and mysteriously decided to forbid it just two weeks ago. (All of this is reported in an excellent Berliner Zeitung article.) Once the Senate ends its summer recess and comes back to the issue on September 23, I will be following this story, hoping that it ends the way it should: with this amazing piece of art on show, teaching visitors about the vicissitudes of power and the concomitant struggles over putting objects on display!
Impeccable timing! This news story came out in Deutsche Welle just after I wrote the last post, and highlights precisely the same idea of viewer engagement as discussed there. In this case it's not a victory podium but a chair to stand on, and it invites you to stand on it by virtue of the three chairs next to it with people (statues) standing on them. These people all "stood up" for what they believe in, and spoke out—so here's your soapbox: what will you speak out about?
It took a visionary to put a vicious over-life-size gorilla statue in the entrance foyer of the Krannert Art Museum. Far from the most welcoming face to usher you into the beautiful glass entry, the gorilla is nevertheless one of the most powerful, memorable, even beautiful works in the collection. Its display here is therefore notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the way it straddles the line between luring and possibly intimidating visitors. Art can be scary, people! Come in and find out how! Personally, I love this bold address.
But what makes this display not only edgy but smart are the two ancillary pieces alongside. I don't mean the pendant sculpture by the same artist, which stands nearby: I mean the artist's smaller-scale practice piece and the thorough signage alongside. The tabletop version of the statue provides lovely harmony with the gargantuan final product, and shows that the artist had to carefully consider his monster — it wasn't just a nightmarish flight of fancy. Moreover, the signage explains much of the reasoning behind the artist's choice and portrayal of the subject. This is much needed, since the piece might at first look like a King Kong knock-off or, as the sign explains, an offensive piece of sexism and racism. Addressing these misconceptions right off the bat, while not making them the center of the interpretation, is a smart move. Knowing more about how this piece was painstakingly made and exhibited over many decades, as well as how it incited controversy, heightens our appreciation for the big bronze lout — as well as introducing us to the power of art. It's the perfect way to begin a museum visit.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.