Accepted Paper:

African material culture at the Austrian Museum für Völkerkunde: revealing multiple histories and representations of objects  
Barbara Plankensteiner (Yale University Art Gallery)

Paper short abstract:

The paper addresses recent strategies in exhibitions to reveal the complex connotations of ethnographic material. A focus is laid on the transformation of the objects into museum material and art works, and on how the displacement to Europe and the shift of meaning took place.

Paper long abstract:

At the Museum für Völkerkunde (museum of ethnology) in Vienna, there has been a tendency since the 1970ies to exhibit African objects mainly as artworks with little contextual information regarding their original function and use. Such presentations in the manner of art museums, focussing on the formal qualities of the historic objects avoided the need to deal with other implications. If collection history was ever touched upon in exhibition projects it was an uncritical overview of collection building, honouring the early collectors.

In the late 1990ies the need was felt to break with this tradition and address the complex connotations of the ethnographic material. Questions why these objects resided in Austria and how this happened should be told to the public in the first place. This determined a focus on the transformation of these objects into museum material and art works, and how this displacement and shift of meaning took place.

The exhibition exCHANGE. Art from Southern Africa around 1900 in 1998 was a first step in this direction. It gave an overview of the main areas of African material culture represented in the collection of the museum by focussing on the particular circumstances of their "acquisition". The title exCHANGE reflected the specific contact situation between the collectors and the people they met at the eve of colonialism and how it was determined by trade goods and trade interactions. The specific selection of early artworks showing traces of this contact deconstructed the widely spread notion of so-called "authentic" African art, not yet contaminated by European influence.

In an upcoming large exhibition on Benin royal art and culture planned to open in May 2007 the artworks will be presented in reflecting two conceptual frameworks, on the one hand their view as extraordinary masterworks on the other their original value in Benin as historical documents and ritual implements. The project aims to combine Euro-American scholarship with local interpretations and meaning. The tragic history of the seizure of the thousands of artworks, their transferral to Europe and the following distribution throughout the world will be openly addressed. The zeitgeist determining those actions, the scientific and medial reception in Europe, as well as local remembrances regarding the loss of the cultural heritage will place these important artworks in a broader context of history, a history not just of political but also of intellectual hegemony and conflict.

The new permanent showrooms planned to open in 2008/09 will present highlights of the Africa-collection along thematic lines. An introductory section will place them into a framework in which their collection history will be addressed along with their history of representation and interpretation, and their contemporary meaning for an African community residing in Austria.

Panel IW06
Museums, anthropology and the representation of the colonial past