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, which can be listened to here ( ), makes the following central statements:

  • „Wenn eine Ausstellung über eine indigene Kultur ohne indigene Partner gemacht wird, die an allen wesentlichen kuratorischen und museumspädagogischen Entscheidungen signifikant beteiligt sind, handelt es sich um eine höchst fragwürdige Repräsentation unter falschen Vorgaben. Eine solche Ausstellung produziert eine Romantik, die [in der Realität] nicht existiert, zu tun hat, … reproduziert Stereotypen […] und ignoriert die fortgesetzte Lebendigkeit indigener Kultur komplett.“ …
  • „In der Geschichte – und selbst heute sind die große Mehrheit der Menschen, die indigene Kultur ausstellen, nicht-indigene Ethnologen die nur wenig Kontakt zu indigenen Menschen haben. Oder sie nutzen indigene Berater. Aber das Problem mit Beratern ist […] dass man ihre Meinung ablehnen kann. Aber ich befürworte Partnerschaften, in denen der Museumsangestellte mit indigenen Menschen in einer Partnerschaft zusammen an Präsentationsform und Philosophie zusammenarbeiten ohne dass […] der eine vor dem anderen Vorrang hat.“
  • „Der beste Weg, indigenen Gemeinschaften zu helfen ist, nicht-indigene Menschen über indigene Menschen zu bilden.“
  • „Was sind die nächsten Schritte? […] Ich denke, dass die Zukunft der Museen sein wird, mit indigenen Museen [d.h. von indigenen Gesellschaften selbst betriebenen Museen] zusammenzuarbeiten. In den Vereinigten Staaten gibt es bereits über 100 indigene Museen in Communities im ganzen Land. Diese Museen repräsentieren ihre eigene Community innerhalb ihrer Community. Und in Partnerschaften wird es am besten sein, mit diesen Museen zusammenzuarbeiten, da sie die Communities bereits kennen, und wissen mit wem man [dort] arbeiten kann. Oft brechen sie auch mit [etablierten] Modellen, was ein Museum sein sollte. Sie übernehmen die Funktion eines Kulturzentrums, eines Ortes zum Teilen von Wissen, und Teil ihrer Aufgabe ist auch die Bewahrung kulturellen Wissens. So statt eines Museums außerhalb der [indigenen] Community, kommen sie aus der [Mitte der] Community. Ich würde argumentieren, dass die Zukunft der Zusammenarbeit mit indigenen Communities in der Zusammenarbeit mit indigenen Museen liegt.“
  • „Wie lösen wir in Zukunft die Situation, in der wir auf der einen Seite die Community haben und auf der anderen Seite die Museen, die die Community im Museum präsentieren möchten? … Wie, wenn wir indigene Menschen ausbilden, als Kuratoren in den Museen zu arbeiten? So würde indigene Kultur nicht mehr von Außenseitern präsentiert, sondern von Teilhabern an der Kultur. Am National Museum of the American Indian haben wir Fellowship-Programme geschaffen in denen indigene Menschen kommen und sich ausbilden lassen können und danach entweder zurück in ihre Community gehen um dort Museumsarbeit zu machen, oder in Museen weltweit zu arbeiten. […] Wie Sie wissen ist es sehr, sehr lange her, dass indigene Menschen die Chance hatten, selber zu bestimmen, wie ihre Kultur präsentiert wird. Meiner Meinung nach ist es unsere moralische Verpflichtung, indigenen Menschen die Werkzeuge, das Wissen und die Ausbildung zur Verfügung zu stellen, indigene Kultur in nicht-westlichen Institutionen selbst präsentieren zu können.“

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.

[1] In meiner Übersetzung habe ich den Term „indigen“ immer dort verwendet, wenn Joe Horse Capture von „native“, „native American“ oder „tribal“ spricht, da mir diese Termini keine adäquaten deutschen Äquivalente bekannt sind. Zugleich macht diese freie Übersetzung die Relevanz der Aussagen über den amerikanischen Kontext hinaus sichtbarer.

Author: Dr. Georg Noack