Museums and indigenous societies: New forms of sharing and cooperation

12.06.2020 | LAB 1

Museums and indigenous societies: New forms of sharing and cooperation


Dr. Georg Noack
Senior Curator South and Southeast Asia
Linden-Museum Stuttgart

Museums and indigenous societies: New forms of sharing and cooperation

The LindenLAB project gives us the opportunity to try out new forms of museum work. This way, various questions have emerged from the regional departments of the Linden-Museum, which will be investigated. The current (public) discussions about coming to terms with the colonial past of ethnological museums are strongly focused on the duality between German (or European) colonialism and African victims of this colonialism. In many cases, however, this seems to me to fall short of the mark, as it completely ignores intercommunal relationships in the former colonial areas and also over-homogenizes different forms of colonialism, exercised by different colonial powers and in different phases of time.  The colonization of indigenous territories within independent post-colonial nation states by the respective governments (e.g. in the Americas, but also by states such as Myanmar or Indonesia), for example, still plays hardly any role in these discourses, nor does colonial rule exercised by non-European powers such as Japan.

In Southeast Asia, indigenous societies and ethnic minorities were often at the centre of ethnological interests. They are also represented far more strongly in the Linden Museum’s collections than the majority societies of the respective region. There were a number of reasons for this, which changed over time. Although the collecting activity there began in the late 19th century, it continues to the present day.

Colonial powers partly instrumentalized the alleged “primitiveness” and “wildness” of the indigenous minorities in order to confirm the “white superiority” through descriptions and exhibitions for their own population and to justify with propandistic arguments colonial rule as a “civilizing mission”.

After the end of colonialism in the 1950s until the 1990s, ethnology often regarded oral societies as its primary research subject, since their history and culture could not be made accessible by philologists and historians from written sources. The Linden-Museum also has important collections of indigenous everyday culture from this period, which were collected by scholars from Baden-Württemberg who did field research in the region.

In addition, there are many collections from the past fifty years collected by tourists, diplomats and development workers. The indigenous people, known as “Naturvölker” (“people close to nature”), their assumed “primordiality” and “closeness to nature” exerted a special fascination on them, which often triggered extensive collecting activities.

For many of the communities in Southeast Asia from whom these collections originate, however, European colonialism was replaced by more or less pronounced forms of oppression in the post-colonial nation states. After gaining independence, strongly centralized political systems in many countries propagated a homogeneous national identity that was constructed solely from the traditions of the majority societies. They exerted considerable pressure on minorities to assimilate. This in turn often triggered resistance to state power and armed conflicts, and led to the situation of many indigenous societies in Southeast Asia remaining extremely precarious to this day. I am not aware of any requests for the return of indigenous objects from European collections to the communities of origin – and certainly not to the institutions of the respective states.

Much of what may be on the agenda of talks with the government of Namibia or the royal house of Benin can only be applied in a limited way to the relationship between our museum and such communities. The question I asked myself as curator instead was a different one: what can we, as a museum, do for such societies to improve their situation, strengthen them and support their own efforts to preserve and revitalize traditions and cultural identities? There are interesting models of new forms of partnership with indigenous communities from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. However, since these countries usually work with local communities and can thus implement long-term projects with little logistical and financial effort, the experience gained there can also only be transferred to our context with certain limitations. Nevertheless, a lecture by Joe Horse Capture, then curator at the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution and member of the A’aniiih Nation, served as the starting point for the design of our lab.

The lecture makes the following central statements:

  • „By representing a culture without proper native partnerships that have significant input into the critical areas of the exhibition and education materials, one presents a culture under false pretenses. It creates a romanticism that doesn’t exist, […]reinforces stereotypes, […] and completely ignores the continued vitality of native culture.”
  • „Historically – and even today, the vast majority of people who present native […]culture, is often through non-native anthropologists that have little contact with native people. Or they use them as consultants. And the problem with a consultant is that […] you can reject their opinion. But I recommend a partnership, where the professional works with native […] people in a partnership way, so the presentation, the display, and the philosophies that are presented in the exhibition need to go together.“
  • “The best way to help native people is to educate non-native people about native people.”
  • „What are the next steps?  […] I come from the perspective that the the future actually is to work with tribal museums. There’s over 100 tribal museums in different communities all across the United States. And the tribal museum […] represent their own community within their own community. And it’s best, from my point of view, to work with partnerships with these tribal museums because they obviously already know the community, they know who to work with, and oftentimes they break the model of what a museum should be. They act as a cultural center, a place of exchange for knowledge, and they also […] preserve cultural knowledge. So, instead of having a museum outside of the community, you have a museum within the community. And I would argue the future of partnership, for a larger museum to work with a tribal group is to go through the tribal museum.“
  • „One of the things I’m wrestling with is how we resolve this issue, where we have oftentimes the community [on the one side] and we have the museum [on the other side] who want to present the community [on the one side] within the museum [on the other side]? […] So, one of the things I think we need to think about in the future is what if we train native people [in the communities] to be curators [in the museum]? This way we no longer have to work with the tribe, because we have representatives of the tribe within the museum. So, no longer are their cultures being presented by someone outside of their culture, but instead the culture is being presented by members of the culture. One of the things we’re doing at the National Museum of the American Indian is, we’re developing two fellowship programmes. […] We’re creating a fellowship where native people can come into the museum and be trained and either go back to their community to work as a museum professional or they train to work as a museum professional throughout any museum within the United States. So, from my point of view […] we also need to think about the next steps, because as you know it’s been a very, very long since native people have had a chance to have input on how their culture is presented. In my point of view, it is our moral obligation to be able to give [native people] the tools through education, and through training in order to give them the opportunity to present their own culture within a non-western institution.”

Since 2016 , I had already been involved in provenance research on objects from the Kayan and Kayaw – two indigenous groups from eastern Myanmar – which a German diplomat had collected in the 1960s. I had travelled to their region and was in contact with the cultural committees of both groups. They told me about their own touring exhibitions and plans for their own indigenous museums. At the same time, they also described the inadequate, very paternalistic presentation of their culture in the state provincial museum. After some communication by e-mail, I travelled back to the region in March 2019 as part of the LindenLab, in order to explore together with both committees whether ideas such as Joe Horse Capture’s for new forms of partnership cooperation can be established over a greater distance, and how we can provide members of both communities with curatorial and conservation knowledge that is also helpful for exhibition design and museum planning in their region.

I will write on this trip and the first workshops held on site in the next blog post.

Dr. Georg Noack is the Curator for South and Southeast Asia at the Linden-Museum