The Repositioning of Hamburg’s Ethnological Museum
Museum für Völkerkunde
With the completion of its new building in 1912, the Museum für Völkerkunde became a place in its own right; an emancipated institution of the colonial apparatus to which it has belonged ever since. Tailored to the specific needs of ethnological work, it was one of the many places in Hamburg where the colonial scenography was materialized. The rooms were filled with artefacts and human remains from all over the world, many of which were colonial loot, forcibly gathered by European colonists to be explored by German society. The museum was one of the central places where German citizens learned to see themselves as the centre of the world and as a superior culture, through the construction of an opposing Other—long before the Nazi regime. Showcasing foreign (non-European) cultures as savage, exotic and underdeveloped, it created a backdrop against which modern society could differentiate itself as the pinnacle of human civilisation. With these discriminatory depictions, the museum solidified the violence of the colonial empire; the wasting away of life and resources.
This hurtful past brings us to another point in time: in the year 2018, Hamburg ́s Ethnological Museum, which to this day houses the ethnographic collections of the city, was renamed to Museum am Rothenbaum – Künste und Kulturen der Welt. After a change of artistic director the year before, this was another symbolic gesture in the course of repositioning; an attempt to break away from its own colonial roots; the opening of a new chapter in Hamburg ́s postcolonial legacy. The museum ́s “decolonial turn”, which also aligned with the goals of the federal government at that time, must be viewed in response to growing public interest and the need to take a stand in public debates. Worried about its reputation and further existence, the “new” institution not only adapted to the discourse but made it its own. To this end, the museum started to align itself with the global art world and contemporary design. The museum’s new name, in its abbreviated form, MARKK, evokes associations with well-established art museums such as MOMA, MACBA, and so on; while temporary exhibitions present the works of established and emerging international artists, preferably from the Global South.
The year 2018 not only marks the starting point of this transformation process; it is also the year when I started working as a freelance designer for the museum, developing designs for various media and exhibitions in the following years.
Reflecting on the extent to which the museum still benefits from continuous colonial structures, I wondered: what has actually changed in this context apart from the rhetoric? Trying to understand what I was getting into, I started to ask:
What interests underlie the appropriation of the decolonial movement? How are institutions still profiting from the colonial wound?
How am I profiting from the commercialisation of the colonial wound?
Who holds control over the means of production and representation?
How far can the institutional framework be bent? When does it break open? How much control do I actually have when I work for a client?
To what extent do my personal and professional privileges blind me to colonial difference?
How offensive is my own gaze? How abusive is my own practice?
What changes are necessary in the structures that underpin my work?
CDU, CSU, SPD. Koalitionsvertrag zwischen CDU, CSU und SPD, 19. Legislaturperiode, 154. Berlin: CDU, CSU, SPD, 2018. Accessed Mar 14, 2023. https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/service/archiv/alt-inhalte/koalitionsvertrag-zwischen-cdu-csu-und-spd-195906
Museums am Rothenbaum (MARKK) e.V. Aktuelle Pressemitteilung vom 24.05.2018 des Museums zur Umbenennung. Press release, May 24, 2018. Accessed Mar 14, 2023. https://freunde-markk.de/texte-und-informationen/
Thilenius, Georg. Das Hamburgische Museum für Völkerkunde (Berlin: Berlin G. Reimer, 1916). Accessed Mar 14, 2023. https://archive.org/details/dashamburgischem00thiluoft
Vázquez, Rolando. Vistas of Modernity – Decolonial Aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund, 2020)
Photo: Edward Greiner