Decolonizing Collections – Networking towards Relationality

Decolonizing – This blog is aimed at decentering the debate on colonial and ethnographic collections, archives, and museums. Its goal is to rethink colonial knowledges and dominant epistemic practices in an attempt to undo them. We seek to destabilize center-periphery divisions by providing a platform for diverse voices from various backgrounds, provincializing taken-for-granted assumptions in museums and by reaching out to new publics. We invite indigenous stakeholders, local experts, postcolonial activists, artists, museum practitioners, and scholars from different disciplines and regions to contribute.

Collections – In recent years, colonial collections and the ethnographic museum’s colonial past have increasingly taken center stage in the momentous debate on Europe’s colonial legacies. The traces of colonial violence, which have been silenced or ignored for a long time, are reemerging in today’s post-migrant societies and globalized world. This reemergence is shaking the grounds of the museum as a space where culture is canonized, where belonging and non-belonging are debated, and where national identity has been formed via the exclusion of the “Other”. Curators are forced to radically rethink former representational logics and to expand their practice from caretaker and specialist to activator and provider of objects, confronted with new groups of actors claiming another politics of memory, the return of objects, as well as an equal share in representational politics and administering the collections. These shifts and their consequences emphasize the immense potential of artefacts in representing past and current issues and in creating forms of mutual memory. Beyond long established classifications in museum work, artefacts are enmeshed in relationships with other objects and persons and harbor the chance to be agents in attempts to reconcile and repair and to create new meanings when returned or (re-)connected to diasporic and cosmopolitan networks.

Networking – Acknowledging our mutual global interdependence appears crucial in times of rising nationalism and fragmenting globalization. The blog aims to counteract Eurocentric and nationalized perspectives and the re-emergence of neo-colonial patterns, foster intercontinental knowledge transfer, and give scope to different epistemic practices. We welcome reports on the development of collaborative research and curatorial practice at and between different locales and on the forging of new alliances and networks. How can we envision the interruption and alteration of existing power relations to establish more collaborative curatorships, and how may the structures and infrastructures of museums have to change to enable a symmetrical collaboration?

towards – Now that narratives of linear progress are increasingly being questioned, it becomes possible to look at (pre-)colonial pasts and postcolonial presents from different perspectives and to consider other models of time and world making. We want to use this historical moment of uncertainty and passage to invite people to think about different futures in which objects, places, and people (re-)connect beyond the frame of the conventional museum space. We welcome not only classical academic formats for our blog, but also all sorts of heterogenous experimental modes of conversation and expression.

Relationality – When Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy published their report on African Art Restitution in 2018, they demanded the permanent restitution of African objects from French collections and envisioned the reversal of existing power relations within the museum world. Starting from this notion of a “new relational ethic”, we welcome contributions that not only think about the obstacles, anxieties, and opportunities of restitution, but that also explore further implications for museums, community work, and the humanities in general. What does it mean to disrupt the routines and step away from individual authorship and curatorship and to allow for collaborative dynamics? What are the implications of fully committing ourselves to new forms of cooperation and diversity within the often hierarchical structure of museum institutions? How can we turn the systems of scientific reward upside down by acknowledging different ways of knowledge making?

The Backstory:

Going beyond Humboldt! – This blog started in 2017 under the name “How to Move on with Humboldt’s legacy? Rethinking ethnographic collections”. The blog responded to the heated debate over the construction of the “Humboldt Forum” in the center of Berlin. The anachronism of rebuilding a Prussian castle to house an imperial ethnographic collection in the capital of Germany was recognized, especially by diasporic communities, as an attempt to revive the triumphal gesture of a universal museum. Emphasizing the inappropriateness of the project in responding to the needs of a post-migrant and post-colonial society, the blog set out to provide a platform for a broader discussion about the Humboldt Forum and about the future of ethnographic collections in the German-speaking countries in general. While we think this initial moment has fostered an important debate, it has become increasingly clear that this conversation has to be expanded to allow for a broader cooperative exchange between the Global North and the Global South. The conference Museum Collections in Motion, held in Cologne in 2019, provided a fresh start by bringing together scholars, activists, artists, and museum experts from around the world and in particular from those communities that lost parts of their social, political, cultural, and aesthetic heritage under colonial occupation. Learning from our colleagues and collaborators, who generously shared their perspectives, knowledge, and visions on this blog, we want to signal the shift of our focus by renaming this blog DCNtR.