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Shaking Up the Ethnographic Museum

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Kubai plaster-cast figure presumably representing a friend of the founding director of the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, date unknown, in the museum’s holdings; chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 19.68 x 23.62 inches; photo: Armin Linke (image courtesy of the photographer)

At this convulsive moment of great awakening over institutionalized racism, what about those institutions that are, quite literally, outgrowths of racist assumptions, attitudes, and practices?

Ethnographic museums, for example.

Ready. Aim. Dismantle.

Such is the provocative proposition put forth by the Berlin-based art historian and curator Clémentine Deliss in her new book, The Metabolic Museum (Hatje Cantz), a compact volume that packs a potentially explosive message, not only for the specialized museums that are its focus, but also, in resonant ways, for other kinds of museums, too.

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The Metabolic Museum by Clémentine Deliss (Hatje Cantz, 2020)

Born in 1960 to an Austrian-immigrant father and a French-immigrant mother, Deliss grew up in London, where her parents operated shops in side-by-side townhouses in Knightsbridge. They sold their DELISS brand clothing, shoes, and accessories, whose designs they created themselves, overseeing a staff of pattern cutters, seamstresses, and artisans.

“The DELISS houses on Beauchamp Place were active laboratories for design and production,” Clémentine recalls in her new book. Since her childhood, she has been fascinated with workshops and labs, places in which ideas are thrashed around, and experimentation is the order of the day.

Deliss studied art and anthropology in Vienna, Paris, and London, and earned a doctorate from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Speaking by telephone from Berlin, she recalled that, at art school in Vienna in the 1970s, she “caught the very end of Viennese Actionism.”

The prototypical performance-art antics of a handful of Austrian avant-garde artists, Actionist events involved naked bodies, public urination, and an emphasis on destructive behavior, among other transgressive — and sometimes law-breaking — elements. “I was curious about the visceral nature of Actionism and the radical imaginary produced through Concept Art,” Deliss said, adding, “That’s what brought me to anthropology.”

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Clémentine Deliss, right, with a conservator, in the Laboratory of the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, Germany, in 2011, when she was that museum’s director, preparing material for use by the contemporary artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz; photographer unknown (photo courtesy of Clémentine Deliss)

Employing a key anthropological term, Deliss explained that, in the 1980s, she did “field work” for her doctoral degree at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris, whose holdings were later combined with those of that city’s Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (National Museum of the Arts of Africa and Oceania) to create the new Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, which opened in 2006. In Paris, Deliss got to know two American scholars who were working there at the time, the anthropologist Paul Rabinow and James Clifford, who wrote about history, literature, and anthropology.

Deliss’s dissertation examined the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, a French-government-sponsored ethnographic expedition that began in May 1931 and concluded in 1933. Its participants — Marcel Griaule, Michel Leiris, André Schaeffner, Deborah Lifchitz, and others — hauled thousands of sacred and other, often stolen objects back to Europe from colonial-era Africa. (Deliss calls such ruthless ethnographic prospecting “serial kleptomania.”)

Deliss also looked at the formation of the Musée de l’Homme itself. She told me, “I had been searching for connections between the methodologies of artists and anthropologists when I discovered Documents” — a magazine produced by the Surrealists from 1929 to 1930 — “in the library of the Musée de l’Homme.”

She continued, “My thesis looked at the erotics of anticipation evoked by Documents and then the aftermath, the disappointment that Leiris experienced on his travels across Africa and the ethics of looting that went on [by European ethnographers] and which he discusses in his book L’Afrique Fantôme [Phantom Africa, 1934].” (That book summarized the Mission Dakar-Djibouti’s dubious achievements.)

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A photo on the Copyright and Permissions page of the British Museum, which shows the now-outmoded, 19th-century style of presenting ethnographic artifacts (screenshot from britishmuseum.org)

This personal background is vital to an understanding of the critique of ethnography museums and the proposals for reforming them that Deliss offers in The Metabolic Museum. She was feeling qualms about them — “The very notion of ‘ethnos’ is inherently racist,” she noted — even as she sought an opportunity to work at one.

Deliss, who had just recently taught at the Städelschule Frankfurt, a well-known art school, learned about an opening for the directorship of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. At that time, the WM was a stuffy, municipal ethnographic museum housed in three old villas in the city regarded as Germany’s dynamic financial center. Despite knowing what she would be getting into — the place had long been ignored, and its collections were gathering dust; its previous head had left in a cloud of disgruntlement and disappointment; and its new leader would be expected to push forward a done-deal plan to erect a new annex building — Deliss applied to become the WM’s new director.

Deliss knew, of course, as she prepared for her job interview, that ethnography refers to various research methods that are used by anthropologists, who, in their work, look broadly at the history, cultures, and social relations of human beings. More specifically, ethnographers conducting field work typically immerse themselves among certain target populations to observe their customs, beliefs, modes of communication, and social systems, collecting observations, data, and, often, as during the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, objects that particular groups of people have produced.

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Assorted fish traps on tables designed and produced by Mathis Esterhazy for the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, installed in its Laboratory, 2011; digital image, dimensions variable; photo: Ewa Esterhazy (courtesy of Mathis Esterhazy and the photographer)

During her interview, Deliss frankly informed officials from the city of Frankfurt’s conservative cultural-affairs department, which funds and oversees the Weltkulturen Museum, that she wanted to shake up the place with innovative programming and no-holds-barred, dig-into-the-collections research residencies for artists, writers, scientists, and other invitees. Her goal: to allow such visitors to do field work within the museum itself. Nevertheless, Deliss got the job. She served as the WM’s director from 2010 to 2015.

The Metabolic Museum recounts how, perhaps inevitably, her reformist ideas met with resistance from the museum’s tenured, job-secure “custodians” of its collections, which were organized according to geographic regions of the world.

At the same time that she was removing outdated light fixtures and fussy wall paneling, Deliss was also reaching out to such creative types as the Senegalese painter El Hadji Sy, the German Pop Art pioneer Thomas Bayrle, the German writer and ethnologist Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, the Nigerian-born artist Otobong Nkanga, the filmmaker Werner Herzog, and the musician D.J. Spooky — and managed to attract many of them to the museum for research residencies.

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View of the Laboratory in the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, with custom-designed furnishings by Mathis Esterhazy (2011); digital image, dimensions variable; photo: Ewa Esterhazy (courtesy of Mathis Esterhazy and the photographer)

Releasing objects from years-long confinement in forgotten drawers and cupboards — African textiles, fish traps, odd-shaped spears with flint tips — she commissioned the Vienna-based designer Mathis Esterhazy to create original furnishings for an all-new, welcoming “Labor” (short for “laboratory” in German), in which visiting artist-researchers could spend time examining and thinking about their discoveries among the museum’s vast holdings.

From such active engagement with artifacts emerges Deliss’s notion of a “metabolic” museum. She encouraged the artist-researchers to gather disparate objects and think about producing exhibitions, lectures, films, musical compositions, or other original programs based on their contemplations of what they found.

In her book, Deliss notes that, if an artifact in the collection could be appreciated for its “performative” value, it could “actually generate new, unexpected interpretations that are mutable, possibly incommensurable with one another, but by no means set in stone.” This means not being constrained by traditionally chronological or geographic classifications. She writes, “We need to move from a vision of the world of separateness and hierarchy to one of multiplicity, creativity, and worth beyond the exotic.”

However, fetishizing the exotic has been the stock in trade of ethnographic museums ever since they began emerging in Europe centuries ago from cabinets of curiosities and industrial fairs, often showcasing booty brought back from colonial lands. The kind of hands-on interaction Deliss favors, she writes, “breathes presence back into the artifacts, restores consciousness to their unfinished status, and helps to heal the disposition of the institution.” When long-forgotten objects “become agents,” she notes, what she calls “remediation” of such artifacts can begin.

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Otobong Nkanga, “War and Love Booty: Shango the Lightning” (2011), showing the artist holding an object related to the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning, from the holdings of the Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt; Lambda photographic print, 17.72 x 23.62 inches (photo courtesy of the artist)

If “remediation” is one of Deliss’s main concerns regarding the vast quantities of objects the world’s ethnographic institutions have amassed, so, too, is restitution, a hot topic in the museum world today. Her own position is clear and firm. “There is no convincing argument for the retention of so many hundreds of thousands of artifacts, often collected in duplicate numbers, in ethnographic museums,” she writes, advocating the return to source countries of at least portions of many a museum’s holdings.

Various factors led to Deliss’s departure from the Weltkulturen Museum, but her tenure there allowed her to develop her ideas about invitingly interactive, laboratory-style museums. Today, as an associate curator of the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin, she is developing a new version of her “metabolic museum.”

Referring to the “invaluable historical holdings” of “the majority of European ethnographic museums” — whose long-deceased makers (and their legal heirs) remain unknown and will never enjoy the benefits of recognized authorship and intellectual-property rights — Deliss writes:

Today, [these objects] capture our attention once more, but for other reasons: through legitimate and politically charged demands for restitution to their countries and cultures of origin. What does it mean to experiment with collections that have been embargoed within institutional frameworks directly founded on historical and legislative relations to colonialism? Is critical and creative remediation even possible? Can one heal the past with contemporary interpretations of these artifacts […] ?

Consider the museum world roused.

The Metabolic Museum (2020) by Clémentine Deliss, is published by Hatje Cantz. The ebook version is currently available directly from the publisher, while physical copies will be released later this year. 


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