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Announcing Event “Dialogues and Discourses: Talking about Tough Topics in Museums”

Image: Gerd Altmann, at Pixabay

The group German and American museum specialists with whom I met for the “Museums 2019” seminar in Washington in November 2019 got together on 21/22 April for a virtual follow-up seminar. We continued our discussions on how museums can reinvent themselves as places for social discourse.

This idea will be further explored in a panel discussion on 17 May, (7 p.m. CET), titled “Dialogues and Discourses: Talking about Tough Topics in Museums“. This event is part of the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright program and was scheduled to prepare the “International Museum Day” (18 May). I will join other panel speakers in a mix of German and US museum specialists, representing four small and large institutions.

The event will be held in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution and the Leibniz Association.

Please register here by 14 May.

Repatriation, Museum Events, and Visitors: Seminar Report, Essay, and Websites

In November 2019, I participated in a four-day seminar titled “Transatlantic Seminar for Museum Curators and Educators: Museums as Spaces for Social Discourse and Learning.” The event was jointly organized by the German-American Fulbright Commission and the Leibniz Association, and hosted at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

During the seminar, we touched upon a number of issues relevant for museums today, such as diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI); visitor and non-visitor (!) studies, outreach and education, as well as repatriation and restitution. The group was very diverse in terms of their museum backgrounds – we had representatives from different museum departments, such as educators, curators, and program managers; and from various types of museums (large and small, private and public, natural history and history, technology, arts, local, and anthropology). As representatives from museums across Germany and the US, we always had the opportunity for transatlantic comparison and contextualization. We learned about other institutions as much as about ourselves in asking: what are the differences and parallels, the opportunities and challenges in museum and cultural politics in the US and Germany, in job descriptions and career development, in the organizational tables of our museums, as well as in our approaches to different topics?

At the end of these wonderfully enlightening and inspiring discussions, we formed groups to develop a number of analyses and best-practice interpretations. The result of this work was now published as a special issue of the Journal of Museum Education (46.1, 2021). I contributed to the group on repatriation.

In our article Repatriation, Public Programming, and the DEAI Toolkit,” we share case studies in previous repatriations and the corresponding public programs from four museums: the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the German Historical Museum in Berlin, and the State Ethnographic Collections Saxony (Leipzig, Dresden, and Herrnhut) / State Art Collections Dresden. Two major takeouts from our work on the article are:

a) the realization that museums should expand their public programs around repatriation in order to better explain the contexts to local museum communities, as well as to integrate source communities (communities of implication) into the process, and

b) the fact that there is, as of now, little systematic research on public programming around repatriation – we argue that increased efforts and more research on repatriation-related events and education will improve the inclusiveness and accessibility of a museum, and strengthen its networks with both its local communities as well as with the source communities of its collections.

Here are links to various social media posts about the special edition of Journal of Museum Education: https://www.facebook.com/fulbrightgermany/photos/a.2042382882646796/2887745944777148/

While our seminar group worked on the article, my colleagues at the Department of Provenance Research and Restitutions at the GRASSI museum branch of SES further improved our outreach on repatriations and restitution: They opened an exhibition intervention to detail our repatriation efforts and the corresponding projects with source communities. They also launched a website to document these projects and to explain steps and challenges in the restitution process. A number of projects from the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific are already featured here, and more will be added in the future.

The regional broadcasting station MDR interviewed our director, Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, in early March to discuss the new website, as well as previous and ongoing repatriation processes.

Panel Discussion about the Capitol Riots, Cults, and Masquerade

A few days ago, the German-American Institute Saxony (DAIS) held a live-streamed panel discussion on the Capitol riots. Together with moderator Sebastian M. Herrmann (American Studies Leipzig), the panelists, Melissa Gira Grant (The New Republic), Teresa Eder (Wilson Center) and I discussed the inconsistencies and an bizarre manifestations of the event, and contextualized it with the emergence of QAnon and the history of conspiracy theories in general. Considering bizarre costumes and the apparent “happening” character of the event, we asked in how far the protagonists take themselves seriously, and how the costumes play roles in group identity formation, as well as carry political messages. We also put the event in a transatlantic context and compared it with the rise of QAnon in Germany, especially their growing influence in German Covid-protests. In the context of cultural references, I pointed out that Indian imagery has long served to fuel anti-Americanism and xenophobia among the German extreme right and that co-victimization with Native Americans has become a staple feature among right-wing groups across Europe. This reference to “Indians” as the proverbial victims of “illegal immigration” occurs more and more in American anti-immigrant rhetoric as well, notably in the manifesto of the El Paso shooter (2019), and, in more abstract forms, in the bizarre costume of the “Q-Shaman.”

The discussion is available on the DAIS YouTube Channel.

“Posted!”: Panel Discussion on Posters, Cultural Anthropology, and Politics in Indian Country

In late October, 2020 we opened the exhibition “Posted: Reflection of Indigenous North America,” at galerie KUB in Leipzig. Two days later, the Covid fall lockdown struck and all museums in Saxony had to close. The situation will probably not improve before the exhibit ends on 28 February. In order to balance out the canceled opening, guided tours, and lectures, we held an online event on 12 February. The panel discussion was held in German and hosted by DAI Saxony on YouTube. Moderated by SES director Leontine Meijer-van Mensch, Catharina Wallwaey (one of the original Frankfurt student curators of the show), Markus Lindner, (instructor in North American cultural anthropology at Goethe Universität Frankfurt), Robin Leipold (acting director of the Karl May Museum Radebeul), and I worked through questions anchored around the topics of the exhibit.

I was intrigued to learn how the student project evolved, how topics were chosen and background research was conducted, especially since we hope to develop similar student projects in Leipzig. Such a project will have to struggle with cramming all the tasks of research and preparing the logistics of an exhibition into the frame of one or two semesters. Talking about the exhibition also allowed us to present the multimedia guide which SES colleagues developed. Our museum group has been working on a prototype for smart phones and tablets for some time, and the “Posted!” exhibition was the first opportunity for SES to implement this software. We believe it will be a great tool to accompany future exhibitions and projects, either to document the displays, to provide further information, or as a tool for co-curation with students and guest curators.

Commenting on German Indianthusiasm, as well as the challenges of financing and human resources at contemporary museums, we also discussed the role of North American anthropology and transdisciplinary Native American studies in Germany. Our diverse panel (student representative, experts from academia, and curators) offered a great opportunity to iterate concepts for new exhibitions and research projects.

Finally, from among the many topics presented in the poster exhibition, we picked “politics in Indian country” to analyze the implications of the 2020 US-Presidential election for Indigenous communities. We used the great detailed results map recently published by New York Times to show how many Native voters’ tendencies to vote Democrats outlines the borders of reservations on the map. Eventually, we spent some time to speculate what the new Biden administration, especially the nomination of Congresswoman Deb Haaland for the position of Secretary of the Interior, might mean for community interests such as resource development, environmental protection and climate change.

Spoken through the Buffalo (Bull-)Horn: Political Cosplay, Nationalism, and Cultural Appropriation


Our museum joined the discussion around the US presidential election, especially the violence in Washington on 6 January 2021, in a “rapid response” statement. The text was posted on our museum group’s blog. Below is the English translation:

News about the Capitol riots in Washington DC went viral around the globe. Among videos and images of thousands of Trump followers, conspiracy disciples, right-wing militias and Alt-Right activists, large numbers of people in flamboyant costumes dominated the media, most of all Jake Angeli, a.k.a. the “Q-Shaman,” armed with a horned fur headdress, US flag tied to a spear, and large tattoos on his naked torso. The world-wide media response quickly read him as a symbol for the diversity and contradictions among Trump’s followers – for many he represents a hodge-podge of Vanity Fair self-promoter, hypermasculine macho, and a crude motley of cultural and historical references.

Some observers read Angeli’s performance as political cosplay, intended to generate clicks to give the political message more visibility. It is unclear whether Angeli sought to further amplify his message through the metaphor of his bullhorn / megaphone (interestingly, cultural analyses of the role of social media compare blogs to bullhorns*). Other media outlets wondered if the costume was supposed to represent a Viking or an “Indian,” whether the costume elements were ethnohistorically correct, and in how far Angeli committed cultural appropriation in wearing the costume. He himself tends to refer to elements of Native American mythology and cultural practice – to the American bison (who could run you over and trample you to death if you step in its path), and to the coyote, whom Native cultures revere as clever.

Photo: Edward Curtis Library of Congress [#USZ62-47017])

In this interpretation, the pick-and-choose of cultural references becomes obvious: Indeed, some Native Plains cultures used bison horns on war bonnets up to the 20th century to acknowledge the deeds and spiritual powers of particularly accomplished warriors. Coyote the trickster plays an important role as a cultural (anti)hero in many tribal creation stories, as well as modern literature, causing mischief and throwing the world out of balance with wanton cunning and laziness.

However, more important than the question of cultural appropriation as such is how these references to Native peoples serve to spread political ideology. White Americans dressed as “Indians” are hardly a new phenomenon in political/cultural history – the colonists who stormed ships and dumped tea into Boston harbor in 1773 to protest British commerce regulations wore “Indian” garb. US cultural memory of the War of Independence fondly recalls that the rebel militias, without a chance against British regulars in pitched battles, learned to use the terrain and to “fight like Indians” in order to defeat the British. Yet, positive references to Native Americans among conservatives and the extreme right-wing are part of a trend that spread from Europe in more recent years.

The reference to Native Americans and illegal immigration is actually a traditional argument among Indigenous and liberal activists in the US to attack xenophobia: “Who is the illegal immigrant here, pilgrim?!” In Europe, especially in Germany, the notion of well-meaning “Indians” overrun by mobs of greedy foreigners has fueled anti-American argumentation since the late 19th century. It climaxed during National Socialism when the Nazis declared that, after the “Indians,” Germans were now the newest victims of American hypocrisy and brutality. Whenever US media protested against the Nazi persecution of Jews, Goebbels’ Propaganda machine retorted with references to “the fate of the Indian.” In 1941, the monthly magazine Koralle exemplified this notion by stating defiantly: “America, Keep Your own House in Order!” During the 19th century, German nationalism had developed a bizarre mélange of ideas about warriorhood and indigeneity that rolled Native Americans, ancient Germanic tribes, and Nordic Vikings into one. Some people claimed Germans and Indians were soulmates, if not blood relatives with a shared primeval proto-Aryan ancestor.

Performers at Richard Wagner’s first Ring Opera in 1876, starting the “Vikings had horned helmets” stereotype. Photo: Emil Doepler

Similar notions and skewed historical comparison abound among the extreme German right today. Massacres against Native villages on the frontier and the near total extinction of the bison are likened to the Allied bombing campaign against German cities during the war. In the last c. 15 years, reference to North American colonial history serves to address a presumed overwhelming of “indigenous” Germans by immigrants (Überfremdung): The slogan “Indians couldn’t stop immigration, and now they live on reservations” appears in right-wing and conservative election campaigns, on Internet memes, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. Like “Indians,” Germans supposedly are on the verge of becoming a minority in their own country. The idea is not restricted to Germany, however – you’ll find the slogan and images in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and in debates on Brexit in the UK.

It seems that the extreme right uses the argument of Indians v. Immigrants strategically. The Norwegian assassin Breivik states in his manifesto (2011) that one cannot drag undecided people off the fence and make them commit to the nationalist cause by idolizing Hitler. Hitler, he says, is ‘burnt’ because his notion of supremacy based on race is no longer acceptable for most people. Instead, nationalists should take on a victim’s perspective and identify with resistance movements of minorities, i.e., they should refer to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse as role models, rather than Hitler.

In this light, it is not surprising that some US gun-rights activists have begun to portray themselves as victims of oppressive gun legislation and claim that “Indians” lost their fight because they had no guns. The El Paso shooter commented in his manifesto (2019) that “Indians” couldn’t stop immigration and, therefore, Americans today had to learn from their plight and use violence against immigrants and refugees on the Mexican border (apparently, he wasn’t aware of the historical irony). So, Angeli’s bizarre attire continues a trend that has a longer tradition among nationalist groups but has taken hold in the US only recently. Despite all the ludicrous elements in his and others’ performances, then, this development is a sign of the increasing internationalization of right-wing extremism. It is a practice with a long history in Germany. The images of the storm on the Capitol are unsettling not least because the violence depicted there is also part of everyday life in contemporary Germany.


*J. W. Rettberg, Blogging, 2008. 64-66: F. Usbeck, Ceremonial Storytelling, 2019, 154-56)

Book on US-War Narratives, Trauma, and Indigenous Military Traditions Now on Open Access

My second monograph, titled Ceremonial Storytelling: Ritual and Narrative in Post-9/11 US Wars, has been out since early 2019. A few days ago, the term of copyright restrictions has run out and, under the “green rule” of open access publishing, the book can now be accessed online and free of charge.

The book can be downloaded here:

https://www.peterlang.com/view/title/65336?format=EPDF

Here is a quick abstract from the back cover:

“US society has controversially debated civil-military relationships and war trauma since the Vietnam War. Civic activists today promote Indigenous warrior traditions as role models for non-Native veteran reintegration and health care. They particularly stress the role of ritual and narrative for civil-military negotiations of war experience and for trauma therapy. Applying a cultural-comparative lens, this book reads non-Native soldiers’ and veterans’ life writing from post-9/11 wars as «ceremonial storytelling.» It analyzes activist academic texts, «milblogs» written in the war zone, as well as «homecoming scenarios.» Soldiers’ and veterans’ interactions with civilians constitute jointly constructed, narrative civic rituals that discuss the meaning of war experience and homecoming.”

The work largely follows a cultural-studies approach with forays into Indigenous studies, (new) media studies, and psychology, as well as tying in aspects of various fields of history. As such, it also reflects on the role of digital media for future historical research.

The book is organized into four major chapters: “Narrating War: Activist Discourse and Cultural Comparison” observes how segments of the US public, particularly veterans-affairs activists and mental health specialists, discuss veteran reintegration and war trauma from a community-oriented perspective, arguing that US society should learn from close-knit communities, to provide social support for veterans and trauma survivors. They often cite Native American military traditions, especially the fact that contemporary Indigenous veterans seem to have a better chance to cope with PTSD when undergoing traditional war-related ceremonies in their communities.

The following chapter, “Milblogs as Rituals: War, Citizenship, and the Sacred“, investigates how blogs written by non-Native soldiers from the combat zone can be understood as contemporary (secular) war rituals. It argues that the blogs’ audience actively participates to the blogs and, thus, that the sequencing of posts and comments denotes a civic ritual of discussing war experience in a public forum.

In the chapter “Beyond the Call of Duty: War Experience, Relationship-Building, and Community Service,” I argue that milbloggers understand their writing as an additional form of service to their communities (e.g., how-to advice for fellow and future soldiers, or a notion of “what it’s like out there” for civilians). The chapter discusses how such a sense of service can work as ‘help to help yourself’ and can therefore be seen as a form of working through, possibly even overcoming, traumatic experience.

The final chapter, “Singing their ‘Song’: Veterans, Civilians, and the Trials of Homecoming,” asks how veterans deal with war experience after their return. Only a few of the many soldiers who blogged from deployment continue to blog once back home. This chapter, therefore, looks into other forms of narrative self-expression, such as creative writing workshops, veteran lecture projects, documentaries, and theater. This chapter also goes beyond the many references to Native American war-related traditions that are currently used by activists and psychologists, and includes the popular references to classical Greek tragedy. Many of these ancient texts were written and performed by war veterans and detail the challenges of returning home from war. Reference to these classics has been a popular form of civic engagement and professional health care regarding veterans.

“Posted!” Exhibition Presents North American Indigenous Posters

A few days prior to the newest Covid “mini”-lockdown, we opened a new exhibition. The show “Posted! Reflections of Indigenous North America” is hosted by galerie KUB and jointly organized by Grassi Museum / State Ethnographic Collections Saxony and Karl-May-Museum Radebeul. The exhibit was designed by students of Ethnology and Curatorial Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt/Main. It presents posters from the US and Canada, either made by/for Indigenous communities, or directed at them, covering the period from the 1970s until today. The topics range from election posters, powwow and art show posters, to posters from information campaigns on public health, social issues, or the US census.

Here are links to the original exhibit at the Weltkulturenmuseum Frankfurt on Instagram and Facebook.

We are glad about this project for several reasons. We wanted to increase our collaboration with universities and give students better access to practical work at the museum. “Posted!” not only helps give the Frankfurt students’ work better visibility, it also helps us devise our own student projects. This leads to the next factor: As we are working to improve our museums’ networks with civil society and players in local culture, the arts, and civic engagement, working with galerie KUB helps prepare the ground for future projects with students and civil associations.

The current lockdown put events around the show on hold, but we have already started a school project with an English course at the nearby Kant Gymnasium high school that will interpret the posters and develop their own presentations on topics discussed in the show. Once the lockdown is lifted, we also hope to provide guided tours that had to be postponed for now. The tours will offer general information on Indigenous North America and on the exhibit, but there are also special themes, such as Indigenous politics and the 2020 presidential election in the US, or social issues, public health, and the Covid crisis.

The exhibition will be extended into January 2021. Exact dates will be provided soon at our Grassi museum program website and at the site of galerie KUB.

Talking about Repatriation and Restitution

Our Leipzig site, the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde, recently held a podium discussion in a new event series titled “Decolonize.” The evening’s theme was “Decolonize: Restitute and Repatriate”. Our curator for Australia and the Pacific and Chief of Provenance Research and Restitution, Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider, discussed the repatriations of human remains our institution, the State Ethnographic Collections Saxony (SES) organized since 2017. Our museums returned human remains to Hawai’i (2017) and to several Australian communities (2019). We currently are in negotiations about further repatriations to New Zealand, Namibia, and North America.

During the evening, Birgit Scheps-Bretschneider pointed out that repatriations require much, and often lengthy, preparations (negotiations with government institutions, provenance research, forensic studies, discussions with source communities). Ideally, the return is part of a collaboration between source communities and museums. In the case of our Australian repatriations, our colleagues have participated in language revitalization projects that evolved out of repatriation negotiations, and our institution will contribute to the construction of a final resting place and community memorial for the returned ancestors.

We also had the opportunity to discuss emerging projects, such as our involvement in the “Labrador Avertok Archaeology Project”: SES was approached by colleagues from Memorial University of Newfoundland who work with Inuit communities in Labrador, i.e., the autonomous region of Nunatsiavut. We hosted visitors last fall who documented objects from the region in our collection and took 3D scans of some objects. These scans will be fed into a database at Inuit community centers in Labrador. Young community members will build and maintain the database and teach community elders how to use the technology. In return, the elders will use the documented images from our collections to teach young people about old cultural techniques, such as stitching patterns, basketry, or ivory carving. Such efforts in “immaterial restitution” also contribute to decolonization work at museums.

The Covid crisis has put many scheduled projects on hold (visits by and at communities), but the work continues and we are preparing more visits and repatriations for a time when travel will be, once again, possible.

US Museum Tour 2019: Oklahoma

I have been touring a number of US museums in the last two weeks in order to prepare exhibits in Saxony, for networking, and for pleasure.

The first tour stop was Oklahoma. I returned to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at Oklahoma University  in Norman. From my earlier visit, I remembered their vast collection of art on the American West. This section, based on the Eugene B. Adkins collection, combines non-Native American, Native American, and European representations of the West to explain its role in American history as an idea, a symbol, a story, and a sacred place. The collection contains paintings, basketry, pottery, and jewelry. Among the featured artists are Americans and Europeans from the Taos artist tradition, as well as Native American artists such as Fritz Scholder and Harry Fonseca.

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I was also excited to learn about the tradition of brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from Oaxaca, Mexico, the so-called ‘alebrijes,’ especially since our museum in Leipzig currently works on a special exhibition about mythical and fantastic animals throughout the world:

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Particularly fascinating was the temporary exhibit “Misunderstood! Indigenous Art and Poetry as Political Resistance”. It featured political cartoons, poetry, drawings, and paintings. Topics ranged from the Red Power movement, representation and racist stereotypes, to contemporary politics.

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I also took the chance to visit the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City. The 45th was a National Guard unit in the Southwest, formed in the 1920s. During World War II, it consisted of c. one third Native American soldiers. They landed in Italy in 1943, and again in southern France in August 1944, before moving through southwest Germany and liberating Dachau concentration camp and Munich in April 1945. The division then served in the Korean War and the early phases of Vietnam.

Notably, the unit at first used shoulder patches showing a yellow swastika on red to represent a pan-tribal spiritual symbol, abandoning its use to dissociate from Nazi symbolism in 1939, in favor of the Thunderbird, another pan-tribal symbol.

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Two Native American soldiers, Ernest Childers (Muskogee/Creek) and Jack C. Montgomery (Cherokee), were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Italy campaign 1943. The 45th Infantry Division, or “Thunderbirds”, is a vivid example of the role of modern military service for self-determined and renewed military traditions and group identity among Native American communities.

 

“Warrior” vs “Soldier”: Talking Terminology at GAAS 2019 Conference

Screenshot_2019-06-17 Warrior PTSD - Google-Suche

A quick search on Google Books for “Warrior” and “PTSD”

This year’s annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies had popular culture as its central theme. At the opening, speakers pointed to the apparent disconnect between the strong tradition of popular-culture scholarship in German American studies and the fact that, until this year’s 66th meeting, popular culture had never been the central theme.

My colleagues Katharina Gerund and Mareike Spychala invited me to speak in the panel “Images of War: Popular Culture as Militainment.” The panel was a good opportunity to get together with colleagues in the field of military life writing and military culture research. In German American studies, quite a few thesis projects addressed topics such as post-9/11 war memoirs, fiction, milblogs, or focused on aspects such as gender in first-person war narratives. More projects are currently underway.

Inspired by discussions on the proliferation of loaded terms such as “warrior” at earlier GAAS meetings, I drew on research for my recently published book to take a closer look at terminology and concepts. I presented examples from military parlance and institutions (e.g. the Soldier’s Creed, Warrior Transition Units), self-help books, and civic activism, where the term “warrior” has been fashionable since the early 2000s.

Although usage of the term “warrior” for US military personnel seems ubiquitous, diverse protagonists argue against its use and insist on calling military personnel “soldiers.” I cited a few examples of criticism from folks who believe that an association with “warriors” and warrior culture diminishes the emphasis on professionalism in the US military. These arguments, however, often employ an ethnocentric, ahistoric, sometimes even racist understanding of “warriors” in that historical warriors are portrayed as undisciplined, bloodthirsty glory hounds. This notion goes hand in glove with the popular understanding and usage of “tribal,” i.e. the notion that a ‘tribal’ group derives its identity from hatred and the resulting violence against any and all outsiders. Historical examples for such negative portrayals of ‘warriors’ are often ancient Greeks, medieval knights, or Indigenous groups.

In contrast, a lot of the activist scholarship and non-fiction I analyzed for Ceremonial Storytelling frequently refers to Native American warrior traditions and, thus, employs a positivist representation of ‘warriors,’ mainly through the perspective of social relationships. I discussed examples such as Sebastian Junger’s Tribe and Edward Tick’s Warrior’s Return to argue that these social activists see psychological war injury and veterans’ reintegration problems as signs of a social crisis in US society, rather than as mere individual afflictions. They seek inspiration and role models from the social responsibilities between Indigenous warriors and their communities (and are sometimes dismissed as “primitivism fantas[ies]” for that reason). Applying a social perspective to the concept of the warrior, these activist scholars and writers hope to develop civic ceremonies, such as town hall meetings with veterans and civilians on Memorial Day, to mend civil-military relationships and to promote veteran reintegration. In their understanding, a warrior is not a bloodthirsty individualist, but someone who sacrifices personal interest for the benefit of the group, and they call upon US civil society to acknowledge its responsibility for soldiers in return.

My fellow panelists presented work on the “metonymic war veteran” in cultural expressions such as Black Panther (David F. Eisler), on the soldier group as a symbol for US society in combat films such as Air Force and Full Metal Jacket (Martin Holtz), on the depiction of child soldiers in graphic novels (Tatiana Prorokova), and on the representations of violence and diversity in the children’s TV show Liberty’s Kids on PBS (Carsten Junker).