Boundaries, Connectivities and Things

by Henrietta Lidchi on 16 December 2017

Mobility, discovery, confusion, direction and the multiple paths leading to an eventual destination are the hoped-for processes of academic research on how museum knowledge and academic anthropology can be made to critically connect and interrelate, in a manner that benefits the public display of collections and generates research ideas provocative enough to guide us through these early decades of the twenty first century. Berlin seems exactly the right place to pursue and dwell on questions of anthropology’s disciplinary inheritances and current concerns. 


I arrived at the Centre for Anthropological Research and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt University in mid-October.  The atmosphere was welcoming and dynamic like the city itself. Comfortably settled in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the pleasures of residing temporarily in Berlin is an early long walk through the city to get from my lodging to the Humboldt University.  There were many paths to be taken, many roads to explore, and often an error of direction as a consequence of multiple diversions (not all small). Closed doors with intriguing windows in the morning and illuminated interiors in the evening sometimes generated sufficient seduction for a planned visit, consequently weekends were constituted of more walking and exploring, deliberately eschewing maps (analogue and google). Walking as form of sensory ethnography has been written of as a valid methodological practice by Tim Ingold. In Berlin the possibilities innate to well-travelled streets are exhaustive, but ultimately this is not really my assertion, I am using it more metaphorically. Mobility, discovery, confusion, direction and the multiple paths leading to an eventual destination are the hoped for processes of academic research with the wish that small obstacles will eventually prove to be signs to pause in the moment before an insight reveals itself.

CARMAH, whose task is that of thinking through futures in Berlin through the broad field of ethnography, has four research themes. The one that proves most accommodating to me is ‘Transforming the Ethnographic’, considering the internal workings of ‘ethnographic’ museums, their critical discourses, and the manner in which knowledge is developed within museums (and outside them) to critically engage the role of cultural production in reconstituting positive futures for citizens in Berlin and beyond. I was invited to lead a workshop on exhibiting with members of CARMAH and we reflected the possibilities for displaying CARMAH’s work in the future. Looking at the networks of people, cultural projects, artists, ethnographers and academics involved throughout the city, the emergent research felt at one and the same time both deeply situated and diversely interconnected. CARMAH with its convivial confederation of talent and scholars solidly underpinned by a spirit of critical enquiry can be the hub to consider issues of difficult heritage, art, culture, practice and citizenship through multiple forms of museum engagement: curatorial, artistic, outreach, visitor-led, and their products: exhibitions and research. A key mechanism to promote vigorous engagement is a lively research culture and this, in CARMAH and in the wider Institute for European Ethnology (IfEE), is encouraged through the colloquium series. During my time here key thinkers Arjun Appadurai and Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett addressed students, staff and researchers. Both subsequently, and generously, lent their considerable intellectual power and teaching experience to focused research meetings. This atmosphere of discussion and intellectual mentorship occurred in a city that is in the process of re-forming, so the question of boundaries and connectivities are key, not only in terms of intellectual process but in terms of the way the city works, through social relationships, through intellectual projects and through the larger and smaller movements of persons. The wider cultural city retains an energy that is palpable and repeated walking makes you notice differences. Some of which are important and others more inconsequential, like the gradual transformation during my four weeks of a Kulturhalle on Kollwitzstrasse: graffiti-strewn one week, host for a temporary stand for tesla sedans the next, and empty once more by my departure waiting for its next purpose.

An important twenty first century museological concern is how we address and reform our archival inheritances to create positive futures and imagine new questions and purposes. The marks of history are etched on Berlin as a city, which continues to address them in plural and emerging ways. As the largest anticipated project, the Humboldt Forum (due to open in 2019) is a project poised to address the connectedness of collections – ethnographic, art, natural history – and their modes of formation and articulation as well as their possible role as world archives for the future. The unfolding of this project is relevant to us all given its scope and the size of the collections, and its potential influence more widely. In Berlin it is a topic of avid interest and this is infectious. It was particularly evidenced in the attendance at the Kino International on Karl Marx Allee for the launch of the first temporary exhibition in the Humboldt Box on the evening of the 2 November. To the extent that academic debate can be embedded, the context of Berlin is determining, the idea of construction and reconstruction, of troublesome heritage, of questions of tolerance, of reformed and interconnected futures feel keenly relevant. During my time so did, more viscerally, the question of walls: being that I was in a city where popular action took one down when the overriding rhetoric of the weeks of my stay were those of a then postulant in the US Presidential election, now the President-elect, of putting one up. These were, in the words of Raymond Williams, the structures of feeling.

A question I brought with me from Edinburgh and I discussed over the four weeks was how museum knowledge and academic anthropology can be made to critically connect and interrelate, in a manner that benefits the public display of collections and generates research ideas provocative enough to guide us through these early decades of the twenty first century. Key to this is how anthropologists (inside and outside museums) can build shared agendas and how this will influence our common intellectual work. This raises other reflexive questions: whether the historiographies of museums have intellectual traction beyond biography or 1990s histories of international exhibitions; whether the post-structural and post-colonial theoretical inheritance is sufficiently fresh to allow us new imaginaries – different ways of narrating and creating exhibitions – that speak to questions of global citizenship; whether we properly understand what we mean when we say ‘contemporary’ and how can it figure in our research agendas, representational and collecting practices. CARMAH affords the time and stimulation to mine these questions and critically engage with museum inheritances, be these material or scholarly: to see new grounds and new means of expression. Berlin with its construction ever present in physical and cultural terms and its manifold exhibitions creates a dispersed site where the problems are differently expressed.  A visit to Kolonialismus and then to  Dada Africa mapped some of the fertile terrain and points us to gaps in between. Both as exhibitions rely on a level of formalism that ultimately creates an emotional disconnection. Both were provocative, with wonderful archives and collections, but possibly addressed inheritances too firmly rooted within their disciplinary locations and requirements (critical history and art history respectively) and the contemporary was located in uncertain ways. There is much more to be said on both and their in-betweens and this is why Berlin seems exactly the right place to pursue and dwell on questions of anthropology’s disciplinary inheritances and current concerns. CARMAH, of course, operates on a larger museological canvas. In the course of my time in the IfEE we discussed reflexive Europeanization: how we formulate and reformulate ideas of Europe and how in the words of Arjun Appadurai we can start to establish a more critical reflexive stance if we invoke the identity of a place in singular fashion. How does the very word Europe establish a field that seems incontrovertible when we know it to represent difficult and uneven histories? How can we establish the connectivity between things when we are in the business of comparison? How do we use language to clarify rather than obscure? With Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s assistance we explored intellectual, rhetorical and display strategies, namely the ways in which world histories – such as that of Polish Jewry – can be told in an integral, relationship-based, open-ended and multi-voiced way. Equally we have looked at museums as institutions: the ghostly presence of history and hardened patrilineal structures.

As an anthropologist and curator who has pursued a career defined by museum work, I am an unabashed lover of things, and so the Museum der Dinge was always going to be a destination. Their new temporary exhibition is Object Lessons. If Mary Douglas has in the past encouraged us to explore the world of goods semiotically, this is the world of materials and the history of knowledge practices that promoted their recognition. It is an exhibition of wondrous materialities and pedagogical orderings, some of which is visible in the carefully constructed carrying cases distributed to schools in the nineteenth century as portable archival resources. Made in London, they were destined to encourage the appreciation of materials and haptic forms of learning. Predictably these former pedagogical instruments made-for-touching are now rare museum objects. Consequently they are largely cased, which means that ultimately the material fascination now operates as visual seduction (leading to the type of frustration you can cope with as an adult, but maybe not as a child, the original audience). While the museum celebrates the retrospective mystery and construction of such tools and notes their mid-twentieth century disposal (many museums threw them out as perceptions of value changed), it is not overawed by the past and presents the relevance of materials to design and materials science. The larger point is a tacit reflection of the irony of the ‘material turn’ in anthropology. Namely that the material turn, which is the pivot on which museum anthropology wishes to convert academic anthropology to its cause, has somehow not yielded sufficient knowledge, skill or interest in actual materials within the discipline.  This is the basis of the exhibition and a fair and important reflection. Museum der Dinge, which chronicles the ideas and products of the Deutsche Werkbund in a structured permanent display (and some visible storage) describes itself as a place which looks critically at making and commodification to renew our relationship with the material world. It uses the objects in the temporary exhibition to highlight wider questions of changing pedagogical practice, ideology, gender and new material science. Our relationships with things are individually and culturally constructed. For me with all the stimulation of critical enquiry the things on display in Object Lessons provided a very special kind of pleasure (likely even more special had I been able to touch them) due to their individual curiosity and manifold nature.  The most enchanting were the tree books made in monasteries supplied to the elites and distributed in Northern Europe. These enchanting constructions, about trees made of trees, are little treasure houses, palimpsests of intent and human subjectivity made with great care and purpose, rooted in one type of knowledge and period but nevertheless telegraphing to another.

As Nicholas Thomas has noted museums can be key sites for methodological innovation, and removing oneself from the often pressured arena of practice to engage with larger questions while observing one’s own practice and concerns allows a critical re-evaluation of the nature of this potential. To see how oneself anew as an agent in strategies of reflecting, researching and representing raises all the urgent questions about boundaries, connectivities and things that unite both academic and museum anthropologists.



Henriette Lidchi is Chief Curator at the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. At the time of her visit at CARMAH she was Keeper for the Department of World Cultures at the National Museums Scotland.