Study Visit "Decentering the Museum: Resist! - Repair! - Restitute! - Reimagine!"

A critical examination of colonial collections and museum practices in German museums by students from Bremen, Cape Town, and Cologne.

A program of the research platform Worlds of Contradiction, the Department of Anthropology and Cultural Research at the University of Bremen (Prof. Dr. Michi Knecht), the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Department of Art History at the University of Cologne (Prof. Dr. Martin Zillinger and Dr. Anna Brus), and the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape (Prof. Dr. Ciraj Rassool)

In recent years, colonial collections and the colonial past of ethnographic museums have become a focus of the debate on (post)colonial heritage. Museums are faced with the challenge to decenter or “decolonize” their exhibition practices and to examine the history of their collections for looted art, violent entanglements, and systematic exclusions. This is where the teaching cooperation “Decentering the Museum” of the Universities of Bremen, Cologne, and the Western Cape comes in. It aims at enabling future researchers and curators from Southern Africa and Germany to deal with the transformations of colonial collections,  museums, archives, curatorial strategies, and the politics of memories and positionings in an interconnected world.

From March 30 to April 10, 2022, 40 Master's students from Bremen and Cologne as well as Master's and PhD students from Cape Town came together in Germany for a tour de force through missionary and ethnographic collections and museums. The exchange program built on previous joint online seminars in the winter semester 2020 and summer semester 2021, in which students from the three universities had already discussed critical perspectives on museums and archives and conducted their own small collaborative research projects on individual holdings of German collections.

During the 12-day study visit, the participants visited various museums, collections, and archives in Germany, including the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, the Vereinte Evangelische Mission in Wuppertal, the Haus Völker und Kulturen in Sankt Augustin (Steyler Missionaries), the Überseemuseum Bremen, the MARKK - Museum am Rothenbaum. Kulturen und Künste der Welt in Hamburg, the exhibition "zurückgeschaut / looking back. The first German colonial exhibition" at the Museum Treptow Berlin, and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. In discussion rounds and lectures, the group critically analyzed these institutions and their curatorial practices.

They investigated forms of resistance, the challenges and limits of restitution, museum spaces of reconciliation, and radical new forms of collaboration. The group engaged in intensive dialogues with museum staff, curators, and academics at the locations they visited. They discussed different narratives and positions on the responsibilities of museums in light of restitution claims and their colonial past. A key observation was that emotional aspects in the institutional handling of colonial history and objects as well as the perspectives of visitors from former colonies and countries of the “Global South” were often not considered. This was also a constant challenge within the very heterogeneous group, in which participants were unequally affected by racism and colonial violence. Spaces of dissension emerged, opening up prospects for a critical contemplation of the traces and connections between colonial pasts and present conditions. Ongoing reflection on forms of collaboration in academia, museum studies, and curatorial practices in the context of dominant epistemic regimes accompanied the encounters.

Through the program, a more long-term exchange between the participating institutions has been initiated. In summer 2022, students from the University of Cologne travelled to Cape Town, where the critical examination of colonial collections and museum practices was continued. In autumn 2022, students from all three universities reconvened to work with the film material recorded by filmmakers Britta von der Behrens and Sebastian Eschenbach during the study visit. The result of this work, the video installation re|despair - Painful Encounters in German Museums documents the difficulties of co-operative research from various positionalities. It tells of silences, shame, anger, and grief in the face of epistemic violence. How can forms of knowledge be decentered in a politically heated debate? What does it "cost" - emotionally, individually, institutionally, politically - to make "unheard" voices heard in Germany? The video installation was shown in May/June 2023 as part of the European Conference on African Studies at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne and in September 2023 at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. During the conference “The Elephant in the Room: Confronting Bremen’s Colonial Legacy”, the installation will be shown at the House of Science in Bremen on November 30and December 1st. The group will present their project on December 1st between 3:30 and 4:30pm in the small hall of the House of Science. Please register here to participate in the conference.

[Translate to English:] Besuch im Museum auf der Hardt in Wuppertal
[Translate to English:] Besuch im Museum auf der Hardt, Wuppertal. © Carla Tiefenbacher
[Translate to English:] Besuch im MARKK - Museum am Rothenbaum. Kulturen und Künste der Welt, Hamburg.
[Translate to English:] Besuch im MARKK - Museum am Rothenbaum. Kulturen und Künste der Welt, Hamburg. © Teresa Ellinger