Concerning curatorial practice in ethnological museums
An epistemology of postcolonial debate
in Curatopia
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On the basis of our experience as editors of a debate on ethnographic museums in a German journal, we analyse the conditions and limits of the current debate on the ‘decolonisation’ of ethnographic museums in the German-speaking context. Strictly speaking, the German debate lags behind a bit in relation to the Anglophone debate, but in the face of the reorganisation of the Berlin ethnographic museum as the ‘Humboldt Forum’ it provides crucial insights into the epistemology of unfolding postcolonial debates. We diagnose certain pitfalls of this discussion, e.g. a tendency towards antagonisms and dichotomisation, an overemphasis on the topic of representation and on deconstructionist approaches, an underestimation of anthropology’s critical and self-reflexive potential and too narrow a focus on ethnographic collections. From our point of view, decolonisation must be a joint effort of all kinds of museum types – ethnographic museums, art museums and (natural) history museums as well as city museums, a museum genre being discussed with increased intensity these days. As a consequence, we suggest a more thorough reflection upon the positionality of speakers, but also upon the format, genre and media that facilitate or impede mutual understanding. Secondly, a multidisciplinary effort to decolonise museum modes of collecting, ordering, interpreting and displaying is needed, i.e. an effort which cross-cuts different museum types and genres. Thirdly, curators working towards this direction will inevitably have to deal with the problems of disciplinary boundary work and the underlying institutional and cultural-political logics. They eventually will have to work in cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional ways, in order to reassemble disparate collections and critically interrogate notions of ‘communities’ as entities with clear-cut boundaries. After all, in an environment of debate, an exhibition cannot any longer be understood as a means of conveying and popularising knowledge, but rather as a way of making an argument in 3D.

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