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The History of East German Museums 1945-90, and Indian Hobbyists

11 Die Replik des 1886er Tipis in der Dauerausstellung

Photo: Frank Usbeck, 2011. Replica of a Lakota tipi from the Leipzig collection (the original was obtained in 1887).  This replica is one of several items produced by local hobbyists since the 1960s to support the museum’s education department.

In the context of my new job, I got involved in an international research project titled “Curating (Post)Socialist Environments” about museum work and (art) history in Eastern Europe, and how people in Eastern European countries built, organized, created, refined – i.e., curated – exhibitions but also urban landscapes and private homes.

The project gave me an opportunity to delve into the history of the Leipzig museum during the GDR, especially the museum’s relationship with diverse regional clubs of Indian hobbyists. I spent a few weeks at the museum library and archives to study old yearbooks, visitor’s books, documents, and exhibition scripts. In addition, I did a survey of references to Native Americans in East German TV shows from news to kids’ shows to ethnographic documentaries at Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German TV and Radio Archive) and looked at reports and documents on cultural and education policy at the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive).

All this generated more than enough material for several articles, and there are still documents to be perused. I finished the manuscript for an article that will be part of the research group’s forthcoming anthology titled Curating (Post)Socialist Environments.

Last week, I attended the conference “Museums in the GDR” in Rostock, organized by the Richard-Schöne-Gesellschaft für Museumsgeschichte and the “Kunsthalle Rostock.” The conference also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Kunsthalle in Rostock, one of the very few museums constructed in East Germany 1949-90.

The conference addresses “questions regarding the organizational, political, and aesthetic development of museums in the GDR, provide answers, and debate[d] blank spaces in previous research.”

“[The meeting] looks into personal, cultural, and intellectual continuities of (East) German museum policy since the Kaiser era to identify unique developments in GDR museum culture, and to discuss international relations, not only with the Eastern Bloc but also the competition with West Germany.” (from the conference press release)

My own contribution introduces some Indian hobby clubs, pointing to Indianthusiast continuities since the 19th century. I emphasized that the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde and local hobby clubs built their relationship for mutual benefit: On the one hand, hobbyists approached the museum to gain reliable resources about Native Americans. They learned about exhibition concepts and practices, and sometimes could use the museum as a platform to present their own activities and skills to the public.

On the other hand, the museum fulfilled its mandate to serve as a link between the state’s ideological directives on education and culture, scholarship, and the populace. Supporting the hobbyists’ amateur ethnography was a welcome opportunity for the museum to implement the state’s doctrine of popular education (especially the so-called “Bitterfelder Weg”) and to gain further insight into the museum’s own collection from the hobbyists’ growing practical experience with reconstructing material culture.

By employing the term “:experimental ethnography,” I argue that both the hobbyists (who had to justify their work with state officials to obtain permits for club activities) and the museum (which was supposed to support youth culture and non-professional interests) portrayed their mutual activities as serious work. Framing their activities as amateur research and exhibitions with a political motivation (anti-imperialist solidarity) apparently could demonstrate to the state that hobbyism went beyond mere horseplay, that hobbyists were not ‘just playing Indian.’

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“New” Position as a Curator at Ethnographic Museums in Saxony

I have been working at a new job for over a year now, so the job isn’t that “new” anymore, but I never got around to adjust my online profiles accordingly, so here goes:

I now serve as curator for the American collections at the State Ethnographic Collections Saxony (SES), a museum collaboration with sites in Leipzig, Dresden, and Herrnhut. The SES is part of the State Art Collections Dresden (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, SKD), a collaboration of fifteen state-run museums in Saxony holding more than a million objects.

After I did a post-graduate internship at the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig in 2011, I already knew the North American collection and many of the colleagues. I’ve spent much of last year working with the collections, and was involved with research and exhibition project at all sites.

My tasks as a curator, apart from research in collections and contributions to exhibition projects, include a lot of provenance research involving object and collector biographies and archival research. This is in part because collections from colonial contexts (e.g., human remains and sensitive objects) have received a lot of public attention in Germany in recent years. Museums put much effort and funding into investigating the history and the problematic aspects of their own collections. This is also tied in with the current large-scale task at SKD to put the entire collection into a searchable online database.

We plan to open new permanent exhibitions at Leipzig and Herrnhut in the early 2020s, so the next few years will bring intense institutional self-reflection and mapping out a course toward modern museums that reflect the state of scholarship, intercultural relations, and contemporary public debates of twenty-first century Germany and Europe.

“The Art of Misdirection”: Trauma and the Dissolution of Genres in Video Arts

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The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead

In early May, I was invited to participate in the symposium “The Art of Misdirection,” discussing the exhibition “Present Continuous” of Berlin-based Israeli video artist Omer Fast at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK. Many of the works exhibited here tackled issues relevant for my project on war experience, discussing the struggles of homecoming and reintegration, but also moral implications of warfare, and guilt.

As the Guardian‘s review of the exhibition states, Fast’s works warn us over and over “that the world is not to be trusted.” Films like his 5000 Feet is the Best (based on  Fast’s interview with a US Predator drone pilot) subvert genre conventions: they suggest ‘authenticity’ and ‘truth’ in their gestures toward the documentary mode but insert orator’s tangents and flashbacks, time loops, and obviously veer into fiction at times, making the observer wonder if the interviewees and/or the filmmaker are lying to us, and why. It didn’t help here that I recognized the actor representing the drone pilot, Denis O’Hare, from the TV series True Blood, where he played the vampire Russell Edgington, a particularly untrustworthy character.

In A Tank Translated, the crew of an Israeli tank share their experience about fighting in the conflict with Palestine. Lighting, the positioning of the interviewees, the sequence of questions and answers, all suggest an oral history documentary, until the English subtitles subtly begin to take on a life of their own: words disappear or change, often altering or even contradicting the meaning of what was just said.

I was fascinated and confused by this blurring of genres. My researcher self longed for the documentary mode, to be able to trust the films as sources (as far as oral history can be trusted as a historical source in the first place), and take home more information on how war experience can be narrated. Yet, I also enjoyed how the films played with the viewer, and how their rejection of genre conventions visualized not only possible renditions of traumatic war experience, but also hinted at a veteran’s struggle to talk to a stranger about his experience, the decision on whether or not to be truthful, and what repercussions one’s personal tale might haveon one’s reputation, one’s sense of self, or on the public imagination and memory of that particular conflict.

The Symposium’s contributions marked a truly trans-disciplinary approach to Fast’s work. While I contextualized it with my take of milblogs as a form of ceremonial storytelling, other scholars approached it via historical perspectives on visual artists as military spies, via trauma studies in literary theory, via critical observations on militarization in urban studies, or historians’ efforts to protect cultural heritage sites in conflict zones.