In a cooperative project with scientists from Namibia, part of the Ethnological Museum’s collection is currently being researched anew. In an interview, the participants talk about the challenges and opportunities of the project.
Interview: Sven Stienen & Gesine Bahr
One of the most important tasks of ethnological museums today is to process their collections together with the respective societies of origin. Ethnologists of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin have been working together with Namibian colleagues since the beginning of 2019 as part of a cooperation with the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN) in order to gain new insights into their own Namibian collection of around 1400 objects. Together with guest scholars from Namibia, the aim is to make the collection accessible, but also to research provenances from German colonial rule in Namibia (1904-1908).
In a new part of the project entitled “Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures”, which was made possible with the support of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, a selection of 23 objects from the collection of the Ethnological Museum is now to travel to Namibia for this purpose and be researched there in exemplary fashion until 2022.
We spoke with the project participants Hertha Bukassa and Golda Ha-Eiros from MAN as well as the curator of the collection Jonathan Fine and the scientific assistant Julia Binter from the Ethnological Museum.
How did the project come into existence and what is it about?
Jonathan Fine: It started in 2015 when the Namibian chapter of the International Committee on Museums (ICOM) supported a project called “Africa Accessioned” to discover what objects from southern Africa are in European museums. About a year afterward, I met Jeremy Silvester, who is the director of the Museums Association of Namibia (MAN), at a conference in Zürich. He and I and Larissa Förster, a scholar of German-Namibian colonial history and ethnology started talking about whether we could do something with the Namibian collection here in the Ethnologisches Museum to start a discussion about what should happen with these objects in the future. German colonial history in Namibia was particularly violent, and it is critical to understand how that history is reflected in the collection here. But Namibian cultural objects are not merely witnesses of colonial history, they are also part of wider historical and cultural processes. We wanted to do a collaborative project to get an overview of the collection here in Berlin and to work together to understand the questions the objects raise.
What where the first steps for you to start your respective parts of the project?
Golda Ha-Eiros: Back in Namibia we went through our archives to find out what we had and how we could help our colleagues in Germany who were researching the history and provenances of their collection. We opened a drive on Google drive where the majority of the artifacts in Berlin were photographed and documented and put on there so we could have access to the images. We wanted to get an idea of what we were going to work with and what information we might need to bring along in case it wasn’t available here in Berlin. So the initial step was actually having our German-speaking team members translate the correspondences so that we would be able to understand it and put everything in relation.
Julia Binter: I started working with the project in December last year. Before that a colleague of mine had already made sure the objects were photographed and in the museum’s database. So when I stepped in, there was basic information that we could share online. One of my main tasks has been to do provenance research, to look into historical correspondence and see what information was there and what was missing. It became clear that our archives provide a very German and colonial perspective on the past and that we needed our partners from Namibia to understand their sides of the story. Another responsibility of mine therefore was to create a safe space where our colleagues from Namibia were able research the often traumatic histories connected to the collection and to listen and understand their research interests and needs. In general, my aim is to put postcolonial theory into practice. That means looking at how we can confront colonial pasts in cooperative ways and share the knowledge that we create together with the public.
How did you go about the first steps and what are your findings?
Julia Binter: We are talking about 1.400 objects from Namibia in the collection, so I couldn’t do it alone. Together with Kolja Drescher, a student assistant in the project, we identified the different collectors, researched their biographies and tried to understand what exactly happened in the German colony of Namibia, or German Southwest Africa, as it was called then. It was quite difficult because information from the correspondence can be very patchy. We tried to establish how the objects were collected in Namibia, how they came to Berlin and how they were received here. And these findings are what we were able to give as basic information to our Namibian colleagues to then ask what their questions and interests were.
The first part of the project concentrated on provenance research into collections from the German colonial era in Namibia. The second part brings a selection of the objects in Berlin back to Namibia for people there to work with them. How did you choose the 23 objects that are going to travel to Namibia?
Hertha Bukassa: Our aim is to conserve Namibian heritage for future generations. The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin has a rich collection showing the cultural heritage of Namibia. Many of the objects here are objects that we are still using today. Because culture is not static, some of them have undergone changes in usage or meaning over time. But we still have kept our culture through the period of colonization, which is something of which I am really proud. To be able to work with these objects and bring some of them to Namibia will be like an awakening. Especially people from younger generations always ask where certain items or practices come from and how they looked before they came to be what they are today. So the objects will help educate youth, and they will also open opportunities for researchers. Those were the main criteria we had in mind.
Golda Ha-Eiros: There were other colleagues from Namibia who were here before us, who made the initial selection. What they were looking for was the historical function of these objects as well as their cultural significance then and now. What does an object mean socially? The designs are often so different today than they were historically. And some of these objects were used for significant events, such as marriages, prayers, or rituals. Namibia has many ethnic groups, so it was important that the objects in the selection have a symbolic meaning not only for a certain tribe, but also to people in Namibia as a whole. Through the objects we have evidence of what the past was like, and we gain a better understanding of how things are today. We can also look forward towards how things might be in the future. I think it is important that our people are exposed to these objects of cultural heritage so that they understand these layers. Today a basket is just a basket. But a basket could mean so many different things in the history of our cultures.
So have you mostly chosen everyday objects or ceremonial items?
Hertha Bukassa: Many of the artifacts can be considered everyday objects. But many also are no longer in use, we have replaced them with something new that has the same meaning. So to be able to look back and connect different items from today with the past is very important to us. European museums preserved a rich part of our cultural heritage in very good condition, so now we have something to look back to and to make those connections. The most interesting thing is that today many of these objects are mainly used at festivities, for ceremonies, and rituals. We want to show the people back home that it was different in the past and that the objects were not only for ceremonial purposes but they represented a way of life. When you look at the items you will also see that the materials they are made of are derived from nature. It shows that to us as Namibians nature was be something that inspired us.
Jonathan Fine: I would like to pick up something that Golda and Hertha said a few moments ago, regarding your question about whether these are everyday objects. At first glance it is not always easy to see the art in and the deep meaning of many of these artifacts. Western viewers are not trained to see them as art or as culturally significant. That is because in Europe our idea about African cultures has been formed heavily by looking at masks and sculptures from West Africa. So Namibian objects do not fit into the European canon of African art. It is crucial to question this Eurocentric view about what is important and why. Namibian artifacts are often incredibly beautiful, incredibly meaningful and incredibly powerful.
Do you consider the objects as artworks?
Hertha Bukassa: I remember once Golda asked Jonathan why he keeps referring to them as art. Because they are not art to us, they are our way of live. When you put a particular design on a blanket, it’s not just a decorative shape, there are meanings behind it. So for us, everything that we do or produce symbolizes something, it has a meaning. We don’t see it as art.
Golda Ha-Eiros: But then today we can also see the artistic value in the objects and we appreciate that and we see that it can keep up with western standards as well. This is something we learned during our work in this project.
You said different things about the situation in Namibia – on one hand, there seems to be a cultural gap between the past and the present that needs to be filled with the help of the objects. On the other hand, there is a continuity that you hope to understand better through looking at the objects. Which is more prevalent, the gap or the continuity?
Golda Ha-Eiros: I think there is a gap that needs to be filled, so that we today can understand more about our heritage. There is so much that, for example, my grandmother used to talk about. The older I get, I want to know what it’s all about. But the person with the knowledge doesn’t exist anymore. So for me it’s important to fill the gap. I need to understand what the objects were used for back then, so I have a better understanding of them now.
Hertha Bukassa: For me it’s both. We have kept a lot of our culture, but we have also lost a lot. And the remaining parts have changed, in appearance and material due to cultural evolution and the rise of modernism. With all the enhancements, however, we have managed to keep the meanings and symbolisms of the objects. So of course we want to understand what was there before, and there is a sort of gap. On the other hand, I see the cultural change as a continuous process, so there is not really a gap because culture does not remain static. It changes with the times.
Jonathan Fine: I think it’s important to remember that Namibia is just as complicated as other countries. The same way that you have people in Germany whose backgrounds are from Russia or Poland and whose family histories have been changed by the course of European history, you also have different parts of Namibia that were affected by colonial occupation in different ways. In some parts of the country some traditions could be preserved continuously. In other parts of the country, things have been torn apart and may need to be pieced back together.
That leads to the next question: What will happen with the objects, once they are in Namibia? Who will get in touch with them, what kind of interactions will there be and are there already things in planning?
Golda Ha-Eiros: The second step of the project was made possible by additional funding that was provided by Gerda Henkel Stiftung. The funding provides the means for two workshops in capacity building and four research workshops. The research workshops will bring researchers, historians, local community members, the elderly, cultural officers and heritage professionals together, so that we can all look at the chosen objects along with those in the National Museum of Namibia. We can all learn more about them, putting our knowledge together. Additionally, there will be funds available for two Master of Arts students who will be doing research on the objects for two years, going into the field, staying with a particular group and learning more about the objects. The project aims to kick off an ongoing process and to equip the staff members of our heritage institutions in Namibia to preserve the objects for future generations to come. Eventually we are hoping to establish a museum of fashion in Namibia that will be inspired by these objects.
So there is a whole range of different groups that want to interact with the objects?
Golda Ha-Eiros: Yes, it’s people from local universities, fashion designers, community members and officials from the National Museum of Namibia and other heritage sectors. The museum will also be receiving storage cabinets and materials, such as gloves, masks, and gowns that are necessary for handling the objects. The staff members will receive training on how to handle the objects and a dedicated conservator will be employed for a period of three years as well as a curator for the Museum of Fashion that we will hopefully be opening. Furthermore, a new database will be established at the National Museum of Namibia.
How do you see the cooperation between Western museums and communities of heritage in a long term? What would be the ideal way to deal with the reality of colonial collections, so that people, for example in Namibia, can work with them but people in Germany can benefit from having and preserving these collections as well?
Jonathan Fine: I think one of the first ideas that animated ethnographic or ethnological museums was curiosity, the wish to understand different cultures. If these museums are to have a future it must be in finding ways to understand the world and its people in all its complexity, on footings of equality. That has to be our vision moving forward. I use the word ‘understanding’ rather than ‘knowledge’, because while knowledge can seem static, understanding is a process in which listening and talking with each other play crucial roles. What I see as our future is to find new ways to understand each other and our histories, and to engage the broader public in those discussions.
Golda Ha-Eiros: That’s exactly what I envision as the ideal outcome of this project: Learning about each other, learning about our histories, uniting us by learning and understanding what brings us together and what divides us.
What did you learn from each other in the whole process of this project so far?
Golda Ha-Eiros: Jonathan and Julia are amazing curators and I learned a lot about curating from them. Julia is such a hard worker and she always has her facts correct and on point. Jonathan really opened my eyes about how to see creativity in our cultural craftsmanship. Academically, Julia and Jonathan and our project are challenging me to do more.
Hertha Bukassa: Jonathan and Julia are enlightening us every day and we are learning so many new things we never knew about our own history.
Julia Binter: We bring different understandings of the past and the present to this project and combine them. That was hugely inspiring for me, because I studied colonial history and I can bring in many historical details of what German colonial agents did in Namibia, but this perspective is missing all of the Namibian experiences and perspectives. If we bring all this together, we can create something new. That is what I love about this project.
Jonathan Fine: What astonishes me every time when I come into our project room at the Ethnologisches Museum is the depth of knowledge that Golda and Hertha bring to every object and every question that I, after so many years of studying, could never have. They see connections I do not see. And so, when Julia says that this project is bringing different kinds of knowledge, understanding and expertise together, that’s exactly right. Together we know more, we understand more. That is one of the strongest arguments in favor of jointly conceiving projects that go beyond bringing in a few experts together for a few weeks. We need projects like this, where we work together for months and years and create connections, because together we know more.