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Lehrforschung / Fieldwork Seminar „Decentering the Museum“

Instructors: Martin Zillinger & Anna Brus in co-operation with Michi Knecht (Univ. Bremen) & Ciraj Rassool (Univ. Western Cape)

At the university of Cologne, for a selected group of graduate students, the M.A. Programme in Social and Cultural Anthropology regularly offers the opportunity to partake in directed fieldwork.

The current fieldwork seminar „Decentering the Ethnographic Museum" is organized as an exchange with graduate students from the African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Western Cape, South Afrika, and will take place in co-operation with the Department of Art History, Cologne,  and the Department of Anthropology and Cultural Research at the University of Bremen  and museum experts and students from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea .

Participating students are expected to follow the discussion on the boasblogs DCNtR, to prepare extensive literature and, over 12 days, to take part in a study visit programme to museums and colonial collections in Cologne, Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin with the South African and Papuan counterparts, before they visit Capetown in autumn 2021 for fieldwork in Museum collections.

Please note that, due to the current pandemic, the detailed schedule of the programme is subject to change, also on short notice.

Participation in the programme is restricted. Preference will be given to students who will take part in (1) the preparatory seminar, (2) the study visit programme in Germany and (3) the directed fieldwork in Capetown. All participants are expected to write a small letter of motivation, which they need to bring to the first seminar session (not more than one page). 

The Outline

In recent years, anthropological and ethnographic colonial collections have increasingly taken centre stage in the momentous debate on (post)colonial legacies. Museums are facing the challenge to decolonise their exhibition practices and examine their collection history for looted art, violent entanglements and systematic exclusion. Not only between the Global North and the Global South, also within societies in Europe and Africa, struggles for recognition and a new relational ethic increasingly manifest themselves around museum spaces. These debates draw on transnationally circulating concepts (e.g. notions of cultural property, (world) heritage, restitution or art), but evolve differently in different national, regional and social settings. They are deeply enmeshed with discourses on social inclusion and exclusion, (dis)integration and belonging, which redefine the composition of contemporary societies and publics. This holds true for societies of Southern Africa emerging from long histories of repression, but also for European societies, which are experiencing a steady rise of nationalist movements and xenophobia.

Germany has come rather late to the table of these museum debates, but some of its anthropological museums are currently being transformed into pressure-cookers of change. Confronted with new groups of actors claiming another politics of memory, the return of objects and an equal share in representational policies, museums are starting to decentre: to open up to diverse perspectives and claims on what a museum is or wants to be. 

This programme seeks to enable future researchers and curators from Africa and Germany to engage with the transformation of colonial collections and anthropological museums, with local archival situations, curatorial strategies and politics of cultural identity in an interconnected world. It will establish a space for negotiating dominant epistemic regimes and questions of access. Ultimately it seeks to develop new forms of co-operation in in higher education, cultural studies of the museum, and in research and curatorial practice. 

The Programme

Scheduled: Wintersemester 2020/21

During the preparatory seminar participants will prepare the study visit programme. With the help of digital platforms, interdisciplinary and international student-teams will explore the current debates and zoom in on case studies related to different dimensions of the decentring process of the museums. Students and teachers will learn how to engage critically with archives of and curatorial practices in German museums.

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Scheduled: February/March 2021. Due to the current pandemic the visit by our colleagues from South Africa and Papua New-Guinea might well be postponed to September / October

During the 12-day study-visit in Germany students from Cologne, Bremen, Cape Town and Port Moresby will work together in seminars and workshops, in jointly visiting exhibitions, depots and archives and by engaging with leading museum directors, restorers and curators. The program in Germany is geared towards opening up Eurocentric and nationalised perspectives, foster intercontinental knowledge transfer and explore different epistemic practices by visiting and working in

(1) the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum Cologne,
(2) the Überseemuseum Bremen,
(3) the Museum am Rothenbaum Hamburg, and
(4) the Dahlem Research Campus Berlin.

Student teamwork and one-day workshops will explore

(1) forms and possibilities of resistance (Cologne: Resist!),
(2) challenges and pitfalls of restitution (Bremen: Reconnect!),
(3) museum spaces of reconciliation and healing (Hamburg: Repair?),
(4) and radical new forms of co-operation (Berlin: Re-Imagine!).

At each site students will hold a workshop together with the museum staff and document their work experiences.

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Scheduled: April/May or September/October 2021

Students will be expected to stay up to six weeks in Cape Town and work together with students and colleagues in Capetown on museum collections and heritage sites by applying ethnographic research methods, documenting their findings and continuing to document their work experiences.

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The Output

Over the 12 days of the study visit, documentary film makers Sebastian Eschenbach and Visual Anthropologist Anna Lisa Ramella will accompany the students in the museums, seminars and workshops. Students will produce smart-phone photography and films, and have time during the study visit together to conceptualise the multi-media-online publication that will form one core output of the project and will be accessible to Universities’ and Museums’ webpages.

A second output will be a short blog written by small teams of students about each of the four workshop for the well-established blog “DCNtR” (https://boasblogs.org/humboldt/)

The Follow Up

After the return visit with research and workshops at UWC a long-term exchange between the participating institutions, building on this initiative, is planned.

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