Abstract of the essay ”Decolonizing the Ethnographic Museum: Contemporary Art and the Weltmuseum Wien.“ in: Art Papers 42, No.1, Spring 2018.
Coinciding with the latest wave of globalization, the museum has again become a site of critique. This wave of criticism does not concern institutions of modern and contemporary art but instead a type of institution whose critical force in narrating Western modernity’s view on its exotic or “pre-modern” Other has somehow long gone uncontested. While the disciplines of anthropology and the once popular “ethnology” underwent a series of paradigm shifts and crises following World War II and the breakup of what remained of the European colonial empires in the second half of the 20th century, the continent’s ethnographic collections were reluctant to reflect these changes. Institutions such as the Weltmuseum Wien—the Vienna “World Museum,” until 2013 called the “Museum of Ethnology” (Museum für Völkerkunde)—claim no longer to adhere to the ordering principles that Western museums and collections have imposed on their objects presented since the 19th century.
In addition to renaming, these institutions are rebranding programmatically, shifting their focus away from archives and taxonomies and toward discourse, cross-disciplinary research, and participation—taking a cue, perhaps, from museums of modern and contemporary art, where institutional critique and relational aesthetics began to affect curatorial priorities in the 1990s. Institutions such as Vienna’s Weltmuseum are now building on this legacy. Yet the hermeneutic right—that is, the possibility and importance of interpretation as advocated by the Weltmuseum—is still in the hands of the institution’s Western curatorial, academic, and administrative staff. Interpretation has not been redelegated, and thus cannot represent any agents outside the museum’s walls—be they ancient or non-Western, or simply members of the lay audience—no matter how experimental or publicly engaged the artistic intervention. The vital political potential of the artifacts thus lies dormant, unexposed, as the objects await the next chapter in their exhibition. If the individual experience is to remain focal, whoever we put in charge of assembling these material narratives, and ultimately of making sense of them, will determine their transformational impact.
– You can read the full essay here or download as a PDF.