Europe is dwindling, but certain claims are not yet ready to let go. Claims that should be perceived as after-images of the imperial fantasies and civilizing missions of yore. These claims appear today as resentment – the feeling of deepest grievance in view of the loss of all the privileges that Europe had secured for itself in centuries of violence and exploitation.
The claims of yesteryear also endure in places dedicated to endurance: museums. The dilemma is obvious in view of the debate about the restitution of stolen cultural objects. But there is more to it as the entire museum matrix is permeated by imperialism, colonialism, and selective humanism. This affects the classifications that museums make (what is art, what is non-art, what is European, what is overseas), the narratives that are served, but also the form in which objects are displayed or suppressed. more…
However, museums are not worse than related institutions such as universities. They are a mixed bag of power and representational interests. This mix has slowly evolved, absorbing and digesting all sorts of things: museum prototypes, such as the Wunderkammer, but also methods inspired by the Enlightenment. Museums have benefited from miltary campaigns such as the Opium Wars, they have internalized principles of Eurocentric science, and they have exploited the aesthetics of world exhibitions with their lust for the new, the strange, and the exotic. Some have learned from modernism, from the “white cube” and the autonomous existence of certain objects.
“Mobile Worlds” is an attempt to account for the systematic omissions in this mishmash. That means starting where the museum starts: with the collection. But it means to start differently – without the divisions that owe themselves to the arrogance of yesteryear. The European nation-state cannot be universalized any more than the established divisions of space and time (à la modernity, antiquity, Asia, Africa). The world is interconnected! It is complex and to do justice to it requires some effort and needs above all many voices. At least more than the voices of the museum staff (with all due respect).
The “museum” as a socio-political institution is too important not to fight for it. The main challenge today is opening up spaces for the post-migrant society, where the society “of tomorrow” can rummage in its mostly unexplored history “of yesterday”. This history of yesterday has rarely been told and understood as a common history. But Europe would not be Europe without plantation colonialism and the “Scramble for Africa”. And modernity would not be modernity without rubber, crude oil, opium and slavery. Rummaging through shared history, looking at museum objects that have many facets rather than just the one meaning – this rummaging is fraught with conflict.
The process at the end of which the exhibition “Mobile Worlds” (2018) was realized at Hamburg’s Museum of Arts and Crafts (MKG) was also ridden with conflict. Global entanglements were its subject, but also determined the method, which was characterized to a great extent (and unusually for a museum) by improvisation. The objects as nodes of multi-layered narratives were confronted with highly diverse curatorial actors: the custodians of the MKG as well as artists, Kurdish activists, the barber stores in Hamburg’s Bahnhofsviertel (the lively area around the main station), a school, and many more. It was always clear that the desired change of perspective on the museum matrix requires an open team, one that is eager and capable to imagine a different type of institution.
The website does not claim to reproduce “Mobile Worlds” one-to-one. It is neither a catalog nor a documentation, even though it works with elements of the exhibition. It is more driven by the desire to continue the curatorial method – into the realm of digital possibilities. More than a working sketch, an exploration, a few first steps have not (yet) come out of it. But there is a great curiosity to explore the technical, epistemological and aesthetic possibilities of a digital museum.
For the time being, this website is far removed from the spirit of the collaborations that characterized “Mobile Worlds”. The texts are penned by the curatorial team, but have been edited and adapted. They are patchy, subjective, and “situated.” The text-image relationship is similarly patchy. It makes no attempt to imitate the analog space of the exhibition, but follows its own associative form. As evident as the limits, but also the possibilities of the analog space are, as little tested are the forms of digital curating. Our desire is to use the digital space for further collaborations.
Like the selection of objects, the texts and photographs are the result of an engagement with a particular collection, that of the Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts (MKG). Other key objects were lent by the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, from various collectors and artists.
In the depths of Western museum collections, one finds a considerable amount of objects that quite blatantly convey a racist imaginary. We have decided to include just some of these objects and to reproduce them blurred. With a mouse click they become accessible as historical documents.
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A bit of order can’t hurt. But what kind of order suits our collection? Areas and epochs? “Art,” “Africa,” “manuscripts,” “Islam,” “modernity”? Museums operate with such terms – visitors are used to them.
Our order, we readily admit, feels a bit unusual. It has no patience with the old categories. “Fertile crescent” – never heard of it. And then “pattern”, “hair” or “rubber”… What are we talking about? Well, “modernity” or “art” are not that much descriptive either. At least, our terms have the advantage to exhibit their arbitrariness. After all, everything could be completely different.
The museum is supposed to serve whom? The public, of course, but who is it? Museum administrations use surveys and outreach programs to solve that mystery. And then? Much remains the same. There is a better way to get to know the audience: active participation, and not only according to the museum´s rules. First of all, it needs to be clarified under which conditions people are willing to come together.
Does the museum dare to share curatorial responsibility with the audience? Who learns from and with whom? And how do we deal with conflicts that always arise when things get interesting (when it’s about more than just “participating”). “Mobile Worlds” was developed in exchange with the custodians of the MKG, with artists, Kurdish activists, a school and many other actors.