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Ethnographic Museum

Overlooked by Europe

For decades, the Ethnographic Museum at UZH saw its mission in depicting the world around us. Now, the museum has started taking a critical look at the provenance of its collections in an attempt to reframe the history of its colonial-era exhibits.
Andres Eberhard; English translation by Philip Isler
Taking a critical look at the provenance of exhibits: curator Alexis Malefakis and museum director Mareile Flitsch examining a ceremonial torch from Rwanda.

The words “From the looting of Peking” can be found alongside several objects currently on show in the Ethnographic Museum at UZH. Ornate wooden panels, elegant silk robes, bronzes, scroll paintings – many of the objects are likely to have been plundered from the Chinese capital, including its imperial palace, around the year 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion that sought to curb the West’s growing influence and stop the spread of Christianity was violently struck down by Western troops. The soldiers invaded Beijing and proceeded to loot or destroy countless works of art and items of everyday use. Some of these objects also ended up in Zurich.

Find a way to deal

So, what now? This is the question that Mareile Flitsch, the exhibition’s curator and director of UZH’s Ethnographic Museum, is pondering. “Simply returning all of the items would be making things too easy for ourselves,” says the professor of social and cultural anthropology. For one thing, it’s difficult to distinguish between items that were purchased and those that were plundered. A few years after the sacking of Beijing, the last emperor of China abdicated, and countless objects that used to adorn the imperial court were sold off, either as antiques or as junk. But it is also not known who created or owned the objects, and whether the descendants of the previous owners want them back at all. To investigate the history of the objects held in Zurich, Mareile Flitsch has teamed up with Chinese guest curator Yu Filipiak. “We have to recognize that some of the objects in our collection are likely to have been looted. And we need to figure out what to do with them.”

Large part looted

The issue of provenance – the history of an object’s ownership – is currently high on the agenda of many museums. And the topic is also hotly debated in the public. In February, a study conducted by Swiss museums (including UZH’s Ethnographic Museum) and partners from Nigeria came to the conclusion that most of the artifacts from the former kingdom of Benin held by Swiss museums had, in fact, been looted. “Based on the messages coming from Nigeria, I think it’s likely that there will be calls to repatriate the looted objects,” says Alexis Malefakis, curator and Africa specialist at the Ethnographic Museum. However, it’s not always the case that the original creators or their descendants want the items back, he adds.

How “the Chinese” lived

The so-called workspace exhibitions currently on at the Ethnographic Museum not only deal with the objects themselves but also their history. In terms of the museum’s role, this represents something of a paradigm shift. For decades, the dubious origins of objects were glossed over. And where this wasn’t the case, as with the objects from the Chinese imperial palace, the “looted” label served an entirely different purpose. “It was seen more as a mark of authenticity than a flaw,” says Flitsch.

Ask questions

In the past, the Looted Goods? exhibition currently on display at the Ethnographic Museum would very likely have been advertised as a kind of “Völkerschau”, or ethnographic show. In the early 20th century, exotic objects from the Far East were all the rage, according to Flitsch: “People in the West wanted to see how ‘the Chinese’ lived.” For their part, museums saw their mission in showing visitors the “world”, which, from today’s point of view, was shaped by colonial stereotypes and riddled with racism and discrimination. The issue of ethnographic shows is also addressed in the exhibition Mask Dances? (from mid-July), curated by Martina Wernsdörfer, based on various expositions that presented Sri Lankan culture to the Zurich public. The exhibitions in the Ethnographic Museum’s workspace series emphasize the lack of certainty and focus on the incomplete. This is also reflected in the names of the exhibitions, all phrased as questions, as well as the five keywords based on which the collections and their histories are explored. Rather than offering ready-made answers, the exhibitions ask questions – aimed at visitors, creators and society at large.

Focus on the other side

By doing so, the museum is undergoing a significant shift, one which the field of social and cultural anthropology (formerly called ethnography, or “Völkerkunde” in German, hence the name of the museum) has already completed. The museum’s task is no longer to explore the world through the skewed lens of colonialism, but to “understand societies from the inside and be able to comprehend their actions,” says Mareile Flitsch. “We don’t want to keep adding chapters to colonial history, but focus on the other side and show what was overlooked by Europe.”

So what does this mean when it comes to handling objects with unclear or even dubious provenance? “Our emphasis is on engaging in a dialogue with the communities of origin,” says Alexis Malefakis. “An alternative to simply returning the items is to enter into a conversation that is based on trust”. For his Honeymoon? workspace exhibition, the curator visited the villages in Rwanda that he and archaeologist Andre Ntagwabira from the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy had identified as the communities of origin of certain objects. “Opinions about what should happen to the objects differed greatly. Some people wanted them back. Others thought it was good that we were taking care of them,” says Malefakis.

We don’t want to keep adding chapters to colonial history, but focus on the other side and show what was overlooked by Europe.

Mareile Flitsch
Director of the Ethnographic Museum

Of course, not all of objects in the collections of Swiss museums were looted. “Most of the objects are items of everyday use that were given to people from the West as gifts or purchased on markets,” says Mareile Flitsch. Somehow, these objects ended up in the collection at the Ethnographic Museum, and how this happened needs to be examined critically, she adds.  She uses the term “object diaspora” when talking about these objects, since like diasporas of people, they create a link between their place of origin and Switzerland.

Collector on honeymoon

For better or worse, these objects are currently in the possession of Swiss museums, adds Malefakis. “I personally had nothing to do with the looting. But I do think I now have a responsibility to put the looted objects to good use.” In this specific case, this took the form of an exhibition about the backgrounds of the collection of colonial-era German soldier Hans Paasche, which is held by the Ethnographic Museum. While the life of Paasche, who also wrote extensively about his travels, is well documented, very little is known about the origins of the objects, or the people they used to belong to. The notes accompanying Paasche’s 1922 collection very often amount to no more than simple descriptions, such as “basket from Rwanda”.

However, we know that Paasche and his wife traveled to east-central Africa for their honeymoon, accompanied by some 60 porters. During his visit to Rwanda, Malefakis learned that some of the objects in the Zurich museum’s collection were traditional Rwandan wedding gifts, including ornately woven baskets. The curator was also able to dig up details about objects whose provenance had previously been a mystery. For example, a rod-shaped object in the collection had been labeled as a “Bundle of bast. Usage unknown”. But members of the local community were able to explain that it was actually a resinous torch that was lit to spiritually cleanse a room.

II personally had nothing to do with the looting, but I do think I have a responsibility to put the objects good use.

Alexis Malefakis
Curator at the Ethnographic Museum

“But the main aim of such visits isn’t to complete our record cards,” stresses Malefakis. Instead, it is about finding out what the communities of origin expect of us and what the objects still mean to them today. What happens to the objects currently displayed in the museum’s workspace exhibitions is yet to be decided. According to Malefakis, the museum has only just started this process.

Objects as ancestors

The issue of ownership isn’t the only relevant topic for the communities of origin. For these communities, the issue also concerns their cultural heritage, which in turn forms part of their identity. “Some people believe certain objects are their ancestors,” says curator Maike Powroznik. She mentions the Saamaka Maroon people, descendants of slaves who fled from the Dutch colonial plantations in modern-day Suriname at the end of the 17th century. A few years ago, the Ethnographic Museum held an exhibition showcasing an extensive collection from this period. Maike Powroznik worked very closely with the Saamaka. “They rediscovered themselves through the project. Instead of repeating the victimhood narrative of the poor former slaves, they were able to tell their own history, the story of their emancipation,” says Powroznik.

For her current exhibition in the workspace series, the curator also visited people for whom the objects held by the Ethnographic Museum have deeper meaning. The museum has a collection of objects and photographs from the Noanamá community, a relatively small indigenous group in Colombia. Titled Business Idea?, Powroznik’s exhibition shows how the collector, a Polish anthropologist, acquired well over 2,000 objects and subsequently sold them to various museums across Europe and North America. How exactly these items were obtained by the collector is still unclear. Powroznik traveled to Colombia to meet with four Noanamà women, including a teacher who is planning to write a textbook about their knowledge about objects and to offer workshops aimed at Noanamà schoolchildren. “The project let them access the full dimension of their history,” says Powroznik.

Pink question marks

Museum director Mareile Flitsch thinks the future mission of the museum will be to “critically reappraise its own collections and their histories”. Crucially, this needs to be done by engaging in a dialogue with experts in the communities of origin. “Questions about ownership need to be answered for each individual object. The most important thing is that people gain access to their cultural goods.” An example where this has happened is the collection of Lorenz Löffler, which includes audio material that was shared with indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh and helped them find their identity.

The Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich has a rich history that spans five decades. The questions that the museum has now started to explore concern its very nature. What is the Ethnographic Museum today? What is its mission? These questions are so fundamental that the museum is even considering changing its name. For now, a pink question mark has been added to the museum’s entrance sign, which now reads “Völkerkunde?museum”, and they also appear elsewhere, on the website and various printed materials. “Changing the name of the museum mustn’t be an exercise in whitewashing, but needs to follow on from a critical reappraisal of its history,” says Mareile Flitsch.

This article appeared in the UZH Magazin 2/23.

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