By Lotte Arndt for the publication Everything Passes Except the Past, Sternberg Press
“The legacies of European colonialism are immeasurably deep, far-reaching and ever-mutating, and so decolonial work and resistance must take on different forms, methods and evolve accordingly.” (Sumaya Kassim, 2017)
“Diorama’s are meaning machines […] time slices into the social organisms that made them.” (Donna Haraway, 1984, p. 52)
In the first months of 2020 discussing an artistic work dealing with histories of toxicity in a museum is necessarily loaded with the turmoiled social context. While I write this text, the European border in Greece is shut down, the border police shoots on the precarious boats filled with people trying to join Europe, and marauding fascist groups physically attack persons in search for shelter. While no mayor Union-wide protest rises, the journals and public debate is increasingly occupied with hygienic policies, announcing as a far away horizon the arrival of the worldwide corona crisis. In France, the confinement policy interrupts harshly the huge demonstrations that had been organized for several months in opposition to a planned law pushing back the age of retirement and further dismantling social rights, confronting strong physical and legal repression by the government. Few miles away, on the city highways thousands of undocumented people live in tents, struggle for their everyday survival and their legal status.
Often disconnected from these major social struggles, small crowds of professionals and students discuss in academic spaces the restitution report, commissioned by the French government to Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr in December 2019. Overall, the position of most museums with colonial collections in France remains defensive of the status quo, i.e. the unilateral control over the collections, rendered “inalienable and inprescriptible” by the French patrimony law, as vice director Emmanuel Kasaréhou recalls in the Musée du Quai Branly’s exhibition on the last twenty years of acquisitions: An exhibition dedicated to display the wealth of the collection, to promote the voice of the museum on a multiplicity of screens, to demonstrate the care of the staff, and to assure the absence of any contentious topics. While the cultural pages of the newspapers regularly report the positions of museum directors hostile to any major shifts in the authority over the collections, the museum field is only scarcely addressed by activists. The sanitary policies inside the museum, as much as they aspire to shield the institutions from any outside element, echo strangely the toxic times.
When in December 2019, the program “Everything passes except the past” assembles a group of international artists and scholars at Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, Karfa Sira Diallo, anti-racist activist and organizer of a richly documented city-tour on the traces of colonial history, is not allowed to enter the building. The only actually planned restitution (26 objects from the Musée du Quai Branly to repatriate to the Republic Bénin) has been defined on an exclusively diplomatic level, without mayor societal implication. A bit more than one year after the report, the debate on restitution in France is far from shifting power structures, democratizing museums by opening up participative proceedings, and connecting historical wrongs to present day claims for equality.
I leave Paris in the end of January 2020 for a research stay in Berlin. Right after my arrival, the liberal politician Thomas Kemmerich legitimizes the far right party AfD by integrating it into the ruling coalition in Erfurt – and resigns a day later after massif protests. Less than a month later, a far-right terrorist in Hanau murders 9 persons. The artist Assaf Gruber who lives in Berlin and has authored the film The Conspicious Parts for the Naturkundemuseum in 2018 that I will discuss further in this text, leaves for Israel, to put his vote in the balance against the ever growing strengths of the far right. Simultaneously, occupying symbolically the city center of Berlin, the Humboldtforum is about to open after ten years of contested construction in the newly build replica of the Prussian castle on Berlin’s museum island. It now comprises a position for postcolonial questions and recently exhibited the first (afro-German) artist, Philip Kojo Metz. At the foreign ministry, a department is dedicated to restitution issues. The Goethe Institute announces to focus on postcoloniality and sustainability. And when the local minister for Science, research and art Theresia Bauer opens a conference on the future of the former ethnographic museums in Stuttgart, the words “colonialism”, “restitution”, “provenance research”, “partnership” and “source societies” structure her discourse. But we have to wait until the writer Sumaya Kassim takes the mic in the afternoon to link colonial collections to present day racism, to address tokenism and patronizing in museums, and to hold a minute of silence for the victims of the Hanau killings.
For the past decade, museums with colonial collections were overall defending their authority, and while questions of representation and the self-reflexive turn in anthropology materialized shyly in the exhibitions, only few institutions worked actively on the “post-ethnographic” museum. The Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt under the direction of Clémentine Deliss, and the Musée de Neuchatel in Switzerland are among the rare early counter-examples. Today, the situation differs widely from one country to another, from one museum to another. While a defensive position and top down approaches remains dominant in France, provenance research and restitution have become a state affair in Germany, and actual changes occur. But what happens if “decolonization” becomes an institutional program and critical voices are integrated in official structures? There are serious reasons to doubt if big state museums “can and should promote ‘decolonial’ thinking, or whether, in fact, they are so embedded in the history and power structures that decoloniality challenges, that they will only end up co-opting decoloniality.”
It is in this rapidly changing context that I approach Assaf Gruber’s film The Conspicious Parts, exhibited in 2018 in the frame of “Kunst/Natur. Artistic Interventions” at the Museum for Natural History in Berlin. The film interrogates techniques of conservation in its attempt to retard transformation and decay, and to strive for permanent control. A diorama and a natural specimens collection set the first scenes of the film, in which the materiality of the exhibits and the fix visual arrangements in the museum define the frames for the close to mute characters to interact. The middle part introduces historical footage of the collection practice that connects the exhibits to their former existence in evolving environments. In the final part, nearly static arrangements of human bodies in a sauna are combined with fictional dialogues that carry the narration. Conservatory and perturbing elements are structuring the film, accompanied by a close to meditative music. Though never in the foreground, they make appear the museum as a site where world political tectonic movements resonate: a location to promote the beauty of German alpine landscapes in the context of early Twentieth century nationalist warfare, a site for the demonstration of the scientific strength of the Democratic Republic of Germany in the 1960th, and a scenery where more than a century of taxonomic classification and conservation become a disquiet stage for present day enquiries.
In the film, two fictional characters, a novelist and a taxidermist meet at the natural history museum. The writer Catherine is researching for a novel on underwater worlds, and the taxidermist Daphne investigates the history of the founding director of the institution. They navigate what structuralist anthropologist Claude Levy-Strauss could have described as the wet and the dry: While the former watches out for evidence of sensual encounters in the so-called wet collection and is interested in the history of a coral reef from Cuba, the latter manipulates dehydrated objects and displays, stuffed animals and dioramas. In spite of the seemingly opposed material status of the realms that the two main characters engage with, both operate with states of contention and their fissuring, notably through the slumbering histories tied to the collections that arise throughout the film. Materially, the film is structured by the binary of the wet and the dry, while the narration evolves from a strong documentary presence of the materiality of the dioramas to an increasingly fictional and language based part. The gaze shifts in this movement: From spectators of the objectified life’s at the museum, the two main characters become themselves objects of the scrutinizing eye of the camera.
Taxidermist Daphne’s work consists in preparing dead animal bodies for their display. She is shown in the workshop while preparing an animal skull. The film introduces her entering the diorama of the Alps, cut from the publicly accessible part of the museum through a transparent but impermeable glass-front, and able to communicate with the outside world only through sign language. She wears protective clothes, gloves and breathes oxygen from a bottle through a tube. The diorama is a closed-up world, a “peephole to the jungle” as its historical conceiver Paul Akaley phrased it, allowing a metropolitan audience to access effortless faraway landscapes. Here it bans in allochronic eternity the emblematic landscapes of the Alps, frequently associated with proud national self-representation in German history. On first sight, nothing seems to trouble the display of the diorama that had been built during World World I – a simultaneity that suggests that the museum employs its efforts to keep a space of ahistorical quietude in which the ethnographic denial of temporal coevalness that anthropologist Johannes Fabian describes (XXX) obstructs a view on the decomposed states of early twentieth century Europe itself. But as the film unravels successively not only the taxidermist cannot breathe longtime in the closed-up alpine space without suffering from intoxication by the residues of biocides applied for the conservation of the exhibits. At a more advanced moment the taxidermist reports that Willy Kükenthal, the director of the museum for the four years preceding his death in 1922, had asked in his last will to hold his burial ceremony in front of the diorama. Rumors run that his ashes are kept underneath the life-size-installation. Beyond its peaceful visual appearance – that the film interrogates critically as treacherous through close-ups on the decomposing paint and the glass eyes of the animals - the alp-diorama turns out to be potentially a graveyard not only for the stuffed chamois: Kükenthal may still be around, as one of the characters suggests. The wish of permanence that animates the diorama, and stands at the core of positivist natural sciences, remains inscribed in the present. It involves the material stability of the exhibits, and the observing gaze of the spectator that “looks through” the window on the arranged sceneries, while remaining outside. As Donna Haraway analyzes, the diorama offers the communion of past and present, with the wish to control the future, through “the sense of vision by the craft of taxidermy.”
Gruber’s film points the discontents of this conservation ideology. The focus lies on the tools that are necessary to produce and maintain the slick appearance of exoticised environments: the camera scrutinizes the hidden entrances of displays, the backstage spaces of the museum, the fire extinguisher behind a Balian Buddha figure, people dressing up with protective clothes... The staged beauty of the Alpine environment, alluding to fresh air and wide angled views over a harmonious landscape, happens to be built on a burial ground as its foundation and to employ toxic conservation methods for its maintenance. Indeed, specimen at natural history museums have been treated for decades with poisonous chemicals, from arsenic soaps and powders on skins and feathers, to DDT and lindane fumigation. Used as insecticides to protect the exhibits from decay, the poisons unfold their long-term effects, render the objects toxic, and require protective measures for any person in contact with them. The operations of conservation intervene at the workshop and outside the opening hours of the museum. They are part of the invisible technology needed to maintain the illusion of permanence. Mostly invisible but operating, toxicity as a result of conservation transforms the objectified bodies into hazardous matter. Throughout the scenes, Assaf Gruber’s film shows that the stuffed reconstitution of an environment were no change is meant to occur, and that seems to guarantee stability by maximizing the display’s life span, is closely associated to death, and haunted by untold taboos: early twentieth century sciences and their discontent, scientific missions as poaching of endangered species, family secrets and the overall presence of desiring bodies and sexuality.
Passing from the realm of dryness to liquidity, from the diorama to the “wet collection”, that comprises 276 000 glass cylinders with one million organic bodies in transparent liquid solutions, does not change the classificatory order and the relation to the objectified bodies. The conserved animals are just as dead as their stuffed counterparts. For conservation reasons, they are kept in a space with low temperature and no daylight. Their bodies have lost their colors in the alcoholic solutions, and seem to glow in the spectacular setting, simultaneously close and inaccessible. Hundreds of extinct species are among them, and their number is growing with the progression of extinction in the world. It adds to the ghostly character of the collection that it is the last place that testifies of their former existence. This impression is emphasized by the filmic use of the automatic door that gives access to the cool and dark eastern wing of the museum as opened by an invisible hand. The huge cabinet is only partly accessible for visitors - they remain physically separated from the shelves by a transparent glass-cube that runs through several floors. The small papers with the scientific appellations and further information are turned to the inside, organizing a twofold visual access, for scientist from within the shelves, and for a broader audience from outside.
Contrasting with the objectified collection, visitors introduce unpredictability, desire and relational agency: A boy and a man, supposedly his father, perform the first break with the domestication by classification. Instead of looking through the glass, they calmly start to lick it, visibly enjoying their action. While the ocular-centric display invites them to observe, to admire the collection for its esthetic qualities and spectacular presentation, and to speculate about its scientific value, they engage a physical and sensual relationship with the exhibits and become thus misbehaving bodies in the museum. Their status changes as the camera, while they are licking the glass, focuses on the character of the writer Catherine, standing inside the wet collection, and gazing back to the child and the man in great irritation. From observing subjects, they become observed phenomena, objects of curiosity and estrangement.
Little later, the film includes footage from a DEFA-film about a scientific expedition conducted by the German Democratic Republic to Cuba in 1967, with the mission to retrieve ten meters of a coral reef. As historian Manuela Bauche’s research on this expedition demonstrates in great detail, the documentary celebrates the scientific skills of the RDA crew, identified through the presence of the German flag, and staged in what appears as wild, untouched nature. In reality, the expedition was organized in close collaboration with a Cuban team, and on a touristically tapped shore. Assaf Gruber’s film superimposes excerpts from the documentary on images from the small sculpture imitating a tiny bit of the reef in the permanent exhibition of the museum. The choice focuses on scenes particularly emphasizing the masculinity of the divers and the adventurous character of the expedition: little dressed, well-toned men, walking down the beach or diving under-water to recuperate the reef, with the camera scrutinizing their bodies. Cuba is here a mere scenery for a script that valorizes the tonic physical and scientific performance of the Northern part of the Eastern bloc. A socialist brother state, it is nevertheless shown without any local agency. Research is instead depicted as a white male adventure trip in untouched nature, transporting several tons of corals for display at the Museum for Natural History, than part of East Berlin. The voice over of the documentary proudly explains that the corals take thousands of years to grow. Today they are included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and law prohibits their import. For the expedition team in 1967, they are extractable matter that enhances the importance of their expedition, the value of the museum’s collection, and thus the strength of the Eastern bloc. Interestingly, while the images show them partitioning the reef, and harpooning fish, the commentary underlines that the divers are “observers and collectors, not hunters”. Besides activating another structural binary, the images contrast sharply with the voice-over as all the displayed gestures are cynegetic. The actual intervention in the landscape and the conservatory measures that are core museum activities are shown as a continuity: freshly harpooned fish are embalmed, the cut-off parts of the reef wrapped up for transport, and the speakers voice announces that they will soon be at display at the museum, “where everybody can see them”. Just like the Parisian colonial exhibition of 1931, promising to “travel the world in one afternoon” and actually visited by several million people, the film presents the expedition as contribution to the democratization of scientific knowledge and sovereign control over nature as an accessible good. From wildlife the collected material is transformed into exhibits, objects of the curious gaze for European audiences. From its burgeoning interaction in the underwater environment, it is becoming a classified body, “a permanent fact”.
Gruber’s editing connects the masculine pride of this ideological narrative to the capitalist wellness industry in Berlin’s city center today. It transits from close to naked bodies on Caribbean beaches, over an exoticist painting in dim light on a wall to the interiors of a spa with Balian decoration, using Asian flair as a relaxing device. A Buddha figure sits at the entrance, the light is warm, and the heated environments allow circulatation between the inside and outside areas. Going from the sauna to the pools and back, undressed people, sometimes vaguely wrapped in a towel, calmly straw and chill, swim, relax, chat, and enjoy. Amidst them, the novelist and the taxidermist sit and sweat on the benches of a sauna, in intense exchange. Their liquefying porous bodies, their physical closeness, and the topic of their conversation contrasts with the clean and controlled environment of the museum, but also with the winner-attitude of the male crew shown in the expedition film. While their conversation turns around other bodies and their social interaction, they are themselves physically depicted not as disincarnated scientists but as physical, sensing beings. Simultaneously, the structural similarities between the sauna, as a set-up environment that includes a constant play with vision - hiding, covering-up, visibility and voyeurism - and the diorama are striking, and the film includes repeatedly shots that assemble bodies into immobile arrangements, exhibited to the viewers gaze. Rather than to resolve the visual regime of the museum, and its objectification of living beings, it prolongs it into the present wellness industry.
In this last part of the film, the main action takes part in the scripted dialogue between the two main characters, while the images set the decor. The exchange evolves around a scene that Daphne memorizes from a summer at the East German lakes in her adolescent years. She describes in detail the discomforting sensation of causing sexual excitement to a man sun-bathing close-by with his wife and children. The described scene introduces physical attraction in a supposedly asexual space, but more broadly bodies as agents of taboo breaking, untolerated behavior. Beside one further element on the discontents of the socialist Germany and its remnants, the story resonates also in regard to the natural history museum, and Freudian theories of cultural evolution as sexual sublimation. In Totem and Taboo, the psychoanalyst develops an evolutionist argumentation, separates humankind from animals, classifies hierarchically societies and establishes a racist equation of childhood and primitivity in analogy to individual evolution.
Gruber’s film has a strong interest in social taboos, precisely where they inform about the silenced parts of the great narratives. The emphatic use of desire and sexuality, and the strong presence of literary writing as a genre can be read as allusions to the history of ethnography. In early twentieth century writings by surrealists and ethnographers like Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris, the ambiguity of the imagined sensual and wild lives that would deliver modern Europe from its rationalist burden, and the consciousness of the exoticist projections inherent to these relational modes are already coexistent. As the title of the film The Conspicuous Parts suggests, the visible and prominently displayed narratives and exhibits are relating to a vast realm of the untold and unshown.
The Spa-scenes are not saving the present from a problematic past. They rather suggest the continuities, the uncanny entanglements, and lingering violence in the relaxed consumerist environment. Although the realm of the liquid promises transgression and discomposure of the fixed social roles, the scenes remain framed as a diorama, exposing the bodies to a scrutinizing gaze from outside. While structurally opposed, the wet and the dry proof to be complementary in the quest of conservation, the protection from menacing influences from outside. The film chooses to stay with the trouble and to favor ambiguity. It repeats the unease of the visitor’s position in the museum and prolongs it in the text-based parts of the film by continuously creating discomfort: The dialogues are schematic, and played awkwardly, causing irritation for the spectator, and constantly recalling that we are looking at a staged scene.
Repeatedly, the dialogue points to signs of disruption in the carefree attitudes: In analogy to the sauna situation, Daphne evokes Erich Seidl and Veronika Franz’ film Hundstage (Dog Days, Austria, 2001), that uses the Austrian summer heat as a metaphor for social and affective misery, sexual and moral harassment, and mutual exploitation in a heavily damaged society. In Grubers film, the character’s lives happen to be more entangled with the museums history as it first appears. It is an unhappy love affair with a Cuban diver that motivated the novelist Catherine to conduct further research on the coral reef and its missing parts that she observed when diving in the sea. As a white European female traveler to the Caribbean, searching for consolation after a breakup, she is visibly blind to the asymmetrical North-South situation that she contributes to perpetuate. She speaks about the nature’s beauty, and experiences the diving as a sensual adventure. Her touristic attitude prolongs the imperial eyes of European women traveling the Caribbean since the nineteenth century. And her representation of her affair with the diver as “love” ignores the economical dependency of a Caribbean socialist state after the breakdown of the Eastern bloc that leads thousands of inhabitants of the island to rely on the company of visiting foreigners.
Nevertheless, the suspicion of perturbations unwillingly pops up in Catherine’s writing proposals: While soft porn appears to her as the most selling strategy to speak about the corals and underwater worlds, her well selling children’s book features as main character a polyp, the central organ of the coral. In her narrative, the polyp outlives its dislocation from the water as a zombie, devouring the souls of those who have seduced it to leave its adapted environment. The objectification of the corals fails to silence the damage caused by the rationalist scientific endeavor and the present remains haunted by its discontent.
In parallel, Catherine compares Daphne to Antigone for striving to dig out the museums director’s ashes. In classical Greek mythology, Antigone is not only claiming a proper burial for her brother. She also resists king Creon’s claim for absolute power and opposes her affective arguments to the imposed raison d’état. Though the figure is only briefly evocated, it resonates strongly with the final turns of the film that states that there are good reasons to receive the grant narratives of scientific and national history reluctantly: As Daphne reports, the Museum for Natural History is preparing an anniversary exhibition, celebrating 50 years of the expedition to Cuba. She tells that the opening is planned to be celebrated with “seafood and oysters from the KaDeWe” – an emblematic luxury shopping center located in the former West of Berlin. By doing so, the problematic history of the socialist scientific expedition is tacitly incorporated into the triumphant Western narrative without any critical exam, sealing the historical benefit from it through capitalist consumption.
In regard of the densely entangled morass that the films weaves together, the final words “Maybe we are doing fine without a plot” point to a profound skepticism towards any kind of institutional master narrative. But maybe more important than the narrative level, the filmic construction of the continuity between the technologies of control and domestication in the natural history museum and exoticism in the present day Berlin wellness industry, suggest that the scientific paradigms inherited from the 19 century are far from dismantled. It is therefore of primary importance to contextualise the critique of the natural history and ethnographic museums in the imperial and colonial order that they contributed to build, and their afterlifes. As professor Louis Henri Seukwa puts it pertinently, the debate on museums and restitution is a metonymy of a much broader decolonial struggle, and cannot be disconnected from historical violence. It loses its emancipatory potential if it is not addressing existing power relations at every step of the process. The discussion needs to be anchored in today’s society, linked to present day racism, environmental injustice, asymmetrical power relations, and their contestation by social movements and concerned agents. Only then, the visual and material modes build to keep an illusionary Euro- and anthropocentric control over the representation of the world can effectively be unhinged.
1. In academic circles a group of scholars hosted by EHESS investigate how to Re-write the colonial past: contemporary challenges of museum collections; Bernard Muller’s seminary discusses Objects and things in social sciences: contemporary materialities, museums and heritage; Bénédicte Savoy’s conference Museotopia at Collège de France assembled an international audience, while the gathering The Return of Restitution: An Entry by the Agents organized by researchers Saskia Cousin and Alexandra Galitzine, and the long term work with Youth that Emmanuelle Cadet’s association Alter-Natives undertakes actively labor to connect the objects to audiences concerned by their presence.
2. Sumaya Kassim : The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized, https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised
3. Akeley to Osborn, 29 March 1911, in : John Michael Kennedy : Philanthropy and Science in New York City: The American Museum of Natural History,1868-1968,Yale University, Ph.D., 1968, p. 186 quoted in Haraway, p.
4. See also the vouminous catalogue Dioramas. XXX.
5. Ghostly Matter ?
6. Haraway, p. 20.
7. Nancy Odegaard, 2005.
8. Umgang mit schadstoffbelastetem Kulturgut…..
9. Manuela Bauche : XXXXTitle ?
10. H.F. Osborn, quoted in Haraway, p. 52.
11. See Johanna Abel: Transatlantisches KörperDenken. Reisende Autorinnen des 19. Jahrhunderts in der hispanophonen Karibik, XXXX
12. For female sex tourism to the Caribbean, taking Haiti as an example, see the feature film Heading South (directed by Laurent Cantet, 2005).