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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.
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.
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.
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.