Centre for Museum Cultures

Birkbeck, University of London

Category: Curation

Museums and Islamic Art: Whose Culture? Whose Colony?

On 1 March the Centre for Museum Cultures hosted what proved to be an engaging and animated lecture by Wendy Shaw, Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at the Free University of Berlin.

Shaw opened her talk with images of birds with multi-hued plumes preserved in their thousands at a natural history museum in Berlin, describing the systematic collection of thousands of creatures culled from various parts of the world and now housed in a form of feathered purgatory. She described the cabinet storage and display strategies designed for the delectation of the western gaze as the entombment of dead objects in the museum.

The speaker drew parallels between the collection, categorisation, curation and display of these artefacts and the processes that now define Islamic art in the museum space. She observed the lingering presence of Hegelian approaches to the production of history, and specifically art history, in modern curatorial practices. Hegel’s Philosophy of History in particular, a lecture series given in alternating years starting in 1823 delineated, she explained, a vision of history that naturalises empire, emphasising the racial and geographical superiority of the West over the East, and of Protestant Christianity over everything else.

Highlighting the colonial legacies of museums, Shaw noted that the acquisition and categorisation of objects had been carried out without an understanding of the cultures concerned. Pointing to the mismatch between the original purposes of collections of material artefacts and the manner of their display today, she underlined the necessity of acknowledging and critiquing Hegel’s legacy within the museum context. No number of contemporary exhibitions or the rewriting of museum narratives can change these structures of empire that remain embedded within the episteme she contended, arguing that the decolonisation of minds can only be achieved by the rewriting of institutional structures, not merely words.

Shaw noted that while the category of Islamic Art emerged largely in Germanic art historical discourse, with the emigration of several of its proponents to the United States the essentialist biases of several writers, curators and critics began to shape the ways in which Islamic art has been understood in the ‘West’. She argued that through these practices, and the processes of modernity, such material objects – now absorbed within notions of a ‘universal’ language of art – were effectively rendered silent. Raising the question of how to recover the voices of such worlds, Shaw problematised the development of contemporary exhibition strategies. A lively exchange of views and questions followed the lecture.

Dr Vazken Davidian

Dr Davidian recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck on the subject of The Figure of the Bantoukhd Hamal of Constantinople: Late Nineteenth-Century Representations of Migrant Workers from Ottoman Armenia.

Amazonia in Berlin: Reanimating the Museum

Symposium on co-curating ethnographic collections in the new Amazonian gallery at the Humboldt Forum


Luciana Martins

From 11 to 13 October 2018, indigenous and non-indigenous researchers and curators gathered at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin to discuss the opportunities and challenges of co-curating ethnographic collections in the new Amazonian gallery at the Humboldt Forum, due to open in 2019. During three days of unexpectedly hot and sunny weather, participants remained indoors debating intensely key questions: How can museum collections be more openly available to indigenous researchers? How can collections from Amazonia be appropriately preserved? What are the potentialities and drawbacks of digital knowledge bases? What is the value of historic collections to contemporary indigenous peoples? How can educational experiences based on objects in Amazonia be connected to public engagement activities in Berlin? What are the advantages and risks of using audio-visual resources to enable the visualization and circulation of ways of making, using and understanding artefacts? What is the role of mediating institutions (universities, NGOs, etc) in establishing collaborative research projects with museums and source communities, and what are their pitfalls? What is the role of community museums and how can the Berlin Museum work collaboratively with them?

Sharing their experiences, ideas and reflections (in Spanish, Portuguese and German), participants discussed collaborative projects involving indigenous communities in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, with museums and universities in Germany, the UK and US. What became evident was the dynamism of the indigenous initiatives and their willingness to reconnect with the collections in European and North American museums. These initiatives aimed to reanimate museum artefacts through a revalorization of their respective ways of knowing and inhabiting the world. For indigenous communities, such artefacts are relevant to the extent that, through them, and their associated documentation, the languages, chants, and ancestral knowledge are reactivated, becoming a catalyst for strengthening their social, environmental and cultural heritage. Recognition of their rights to auto-representation is key to a successful cross-cultural exchange. While the asymmetries of power reflected in the making of the collections are clearly still present in varying degrees, the symposium showed that building bridges is still possible, and much desired. Concluding with the “dance of the moths,” a performance which celebrated the transformational possibilities of transatlantic crossings, the main message of this event was that cross-cultural dialogue is central to the process of displaying historic ethnographic collections. Dr Andrea Scholz, the Humboldt Forum curator who organised this symposium, is to be commended for her openness and determination to enable other voices to be heard. While the City Palace that will house the Humboldt Forum has generated considerable controversy, let us hope that its displays reflect the novel curatorial practices discussed at this symposium.

Participants at conference on Amazonia in Berlin. Photo @ Natalia Paiva

Workshop participants. Photo © Natalia Paiva