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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.
Please register here by 14 May.
Update, June 2021:
The event on 17 May attracted almost 300 participants. The panel discussion has been recorded and can be viewed here:
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.
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.