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“The more experiments, the better!”

Team meeting
Team meeting: Frauke Stuhl, Andreas Geißler, Friedrich von Bose,
Gorch Pieken and Katja Widmann (from left to right)
Photo: Matthias Heyde

When the Humboldt Forum opens in the Berlin Palace, the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (HU) will also be represented there with an exhibition in its own space of around 750 square metres. In dialogue with students, researchers and visitors, the exhibition is intended to provide a contribution to key contemporary issues. Planning insights are offered by Dr Gorch Pieken, the chief curator.

Dr Pieken, what does the opening exhibition seek to address?

It will mainly cover the contemporary political and scientific challenges of the ‘Anthropocene’ and particularly the relationships between people, the environment and systems of order.

Which partners and disciplines from the university are you and your team working with?

HU’s space in the rebuilt Berlin Palace will provide a platform for the whole university. We are working with many disciplines and institutes as well as five clusters of excellence which were approved in 2018 and in which the HU is involved. Cooperation with other universities and scientific institutions is also important to us. It expands the range of topics and allows rare artefacts and documents to be borrowed, while the sharing of expenses offers greater leeway.

Close scientific collaboration with partners beyond Europe is also planned. How will they be involved?

Work at an international level takes place in all aspects of the exhibition. When visitors come to the exhibition, a world offering a change of perspective awaits them. Global phenomena are broken down to a regional level. ‘Contestations of the Liberal Script’ – a cluster of excellence we are collaborating with – is cooperating with scientific institutions around the world, for example, and is working on the basis of ‘double reflexivity’.

What does this mean?

This means, for instance, that the researchers themselves form part of the academy shaped by the West/Western Europe and that they are aware of this fact. Double reflexivity is relevant on at least two levels here: on the thematic level and the level of questions and methods, which is naturally inseparable from the former. This perspective helps both the cluster of excellence and ourselves to critically consider the manner in which knowledge is attained and also to always examine science in the context of global colonial power relationships that persist to this day.

What will the exhibition look like?

It will not be a large museum-like still life. Strict paths will be replaced by networks that enable visitors to establish connections. The design of the exhibition is intended to motivate the visitors and allow them to read tracks – the more experiments, the better. The design follows a choreography of movement and objects. The exhibits will be suspended from a rig and – wherever possible – may be touched by visitors, perceived by the senses and even moved.

Exhibits can be adjusted in height or rotated; each side will provide a different context. Every object will relate spatially and substantively to questions and topics of current research. They, in turn, will be shown on the huge kinetic projection spaces on a 35-metre-long wall. The kinetic elements will not only be able to respond to the movable objects, but also to passing visitors. Their posture and pace will thus become part of the scenography.

Who do you aim to reach with the exhibition?

We would like to reach everyone who enjoys engaging with current research projects of various disciplines and the importance of university collections. Our narrative should be challenging, but also fascinating and entertaining. Our visitors should not experience the same as Hermann Helmholtz during a museum visit in September 1873: “But by midday, I was almost unconscious with weariness; it is more arduous than crossing an alpine pass exposed to the elements.”

How will visitors be integrated in the exhibition?

On the one hand, in that we ask our visitors to continually create new connections as they explore the exhibits. On the other hand, the opening exhibition observes the principle that knowledge is not only something presented, but that new knowledge can arise in exchange with the visitors. This in turn may positively feed back into the university. In this sense, the exhibition will become a hub and crossing point.

The sound archive is also to become part of the exhibition.

In the opening exhibition, we will address and present the sound archive together with the Hahne-Niehoff Archive of the Institute for European Ethnology and the Janheinz Jahn Archive of the Institute for Asian and African Studies. The complementary and comparative reflection of the three archives makes historical and political contexts and content both visible and audible, which could only otherwise be explained in long disquisitions.

What is the thematic focus in the presentation of the sound archive?

We will focus intensively on two of the sound archive’s collections: firstly the voice recordings that were taken in German prisoners of war camps of the First and Second World War. These will also highlight the research methods and practices of the scientists at the time, which also made the sound archive a colonial archive. This part of the archive’s history, as well as the role of Wilhelm Doegen, the former chief archivist, has been examined in particular by Britta Lange. A younger contemporary of Doegen was Janheinz Jahn, who took on a diametrically opposed position on the language of ‘others’ as a translator and literary scholar, and intended to contribute to ‘intellectual decolonisation’. Jahn coined the term ‘neo-African literature’ and translated works from around 600 African and Afro-American authors (including only few female authors) into German. In this process, he was aware – as we are today – that decolonisation is not a process free from domination.

A second collection will allow us to explore sound archive materials which have garnered little attention for several decades: more than 700 dialect recordings of the German language.

How important is this archive today?

Germany’s first radio broadcast was transmitted in October 1923. High German also increasingly spread with the invention and proliferation of electronic mass media. In this respect, the archive is an important reference point for dialectology, since many of the voice recordings contained are older.

The Hahne-Niehoff Archive is a photo archive. Has it also been used for political purposes?

Yes, the central office of the Atlas of German Folklore moved into the Berlin Palace in 1928. The prehistorian Hans Hahne, director of the ‘Regional Office for Prehistory’ in Halle, also held a secondary position in the Atlas project. As the first dialects were being recorded for the sound archive in Berlin in the early 1920s, Hahne established a photo archive to document the ‘customs and traditions’ of the Germans according to aspects of national folklore. In a further field of national folklore research, Hahne had already held ethnic nationalist positions very early on. It was his view that rural community as such constituted the model and archetype of the ‘German race’. Particularly after 1933, the political context of the time is clearly recognisable in the photographs of shooting fairs, harvest festivals or weddings, for example.

How do voice and photo records come together?

The same political contexts can be found in the many dialect recordings of the 1930s, although they are not as manifest. In order to better understand the dialects in the historical context of national folklore, the Hahne-Niehoff Archive is therefore a complementary source that clearly shows the political and historical context.

The Humboldt Forum was once again the focus of criticism due to the undetermined provenances of exhibits; you referred to the sound archive as a colonial archive. How do you deal with this?

The Humboldt Forum will generally have to be judged on how it handles the issues of provenance research and (post)colonialism. The HU also possesses ‘sensitive’ artefacts. The team of curators aims to openly and actively engage with this current issue. The exhibition would also like to be a discussion forum in this respect: what does an ethical treatment of collections look like? Especially as at least some of the collections have a context of origin marked by violence. But some also possess great value for grappling with this same history and it is also in these collections – as consistently shown by enquiries to the sound archive in particular – that also relatives of the subsequent generations of those people who were unwillingly degraded as research objects at that time have a great (research) interest. The question is: what is the right approach here?

How do you begin to answer this question?

The exhibition seeks to explore the term ‘appropriation’ in its numerous levels of meaning. The handling of marine ecosystems, plant and animal communities should likewise occur with the question of provenance in mind: who does nature belong to? Who owns access to clean air, water and non-contaminated soil that are polluted by refuse exports from the so-called First World to the so-called Third World? How can we critically consider the history of measuring, charting and classification into the ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’ without unintentionally reaffirming these perspectives in the exhibition? The work of the project team has an enquiring, self-reflective character in this regard. This approach and the knowledge of ‘non-fulfilment’ will be reflected in the exhibition’s design.

The interview was conducted by Ljiljana Nikolic and Jens Wagner.