Occupy Collections!*
Clémentine Deliss in conversation with Frédéric Keck on access, circulation, and interdisciplinary experimentation, or the urgency of remediating ethnographic collections (before it is really too late).

Left: Otobong Nkanga, Object Atlas: War and Love Booty (2011–12), Poster, 85 x 59 cm. Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main; right: Object Atlas: The Currency Affair (2011–12), poster, 85 x 59 cm. Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt/Main

Is it possible to transform the role of a museum and provide it with an educational remit distinct from that of the university? Can we change the consumerist imperative of the museum and re-implement its architectonic, conceptual, and economic properties? What makes the situation within the European ethnographic museum so particular and urgent today? Whatever happened to the notion of a research collection? What are the ­hindrances that currently stymie the potential for a new collection-centered inquiry to take place (the toxicity of objects, seriously)? How can one prioritize experimental, interdisciplinary work on these artifacts, and what methodology might one employ to do so? What does it mean to do fieldwork in the museum? Could there be a new choreography of the inanimate, effectively bringing these collections back into life? How does one contend with the changing roles and requirements placed on custodial and curatorial competence? Why does conservation continue to outweigh remediation? Should it? Whose world(s) decide(s)?

These were some of the questions on my mind when, in the summer of 2015, I invited anthropologist Frédéric Keck to record a conversation with me based on our parallel engagement with laboratories and ethnographic museums.1 We met in Paris at the renowned Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, an unassuming office block at the back of the Jussieu Campus still resonant with the ghost of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who founded the institute in 1960. At that time, structuralism had succeeded in demonstrating the bankruptcy of museum ethnography and declared no further methodological use for material artifacts.2 As a result, structural anthropologists resorted to activities extraneous to the museum’s stores, provoking new interdisciplinary alliances within the fields of literary criticism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and the cognitive sciences. Indeed, the small, boxy office in which Keck and I met that afternoon, with its dark-­­brown interior, resembled nothing like a workshop for the analysis of ethnographic artifacts. Oddly devoid of trinkets, it felt, instead, like a capsule, cell, or recording studio for immaterial encryption.

Rather like Michel Leiris, the French surrealist writer and ethnographer who famously divided his day in two, traveling between anthropological exercises at the Musée de l’Homme and literary journeys at his home on the Rive Gauche, Keck occupies a twofold position. While he leads new investigations into the viral propagation of animal-engendered pandemics in humans (zoonosis) with anthropologists and bio­logists at Le Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, he also directs the Department of Research and Education at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. This museum, with its nearly 400,000 artifacts—of which only a fragment are displayed in the glass-fronted rainbow jungle designed by Jean Nouvel in 2006—is funded in equal parts by the ministries of Culture and Education.3 Quai Branly is not only dedicated to “illustrating, exploring, and dialoguing between civilizations” but also to developing collaborative, interdisciplinary inquiries into themes that, where possible, bear a direct relationship to its collections.4 An example would be the diagnosis of environmental issues currently affecting land in Ethiopia, based on a detailed analysis of photographs taken during the colonial period and held in the museum’s archives. Keck is responsible for overseeing numerous doctoral and postdoctoral theses, and while his department is more reduced in size and funding capacity than its title might suggest, it represents an unusually dynamic initiative within what can otherwise be regarded as a largely consumer-led, populist museum experience.

It is this somewhat schizophrenic condition that begs the following question: In what way does advanced research into animal-engendered pandemics connect to a reappraisal of ethnographic collections? As Keck explains in our conversation, the potential for research in the museum transcends the centrality of the exhibition and enhances the public understanding of science and contemporary anthropology. The museum is reconfigured as a visually dynamic site of investigation that offers visitors combinatory information in the making. Rather than merely restate that a particular Songye sculpture from the Congo, dated between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, is believed to protect, heal, and bring fertility to a community over several generations, the option exists to extend this definition into contemporary science by subjecting the artifact to an MRI scan. The result not only reveals an unknown intestinal tract inside the object, but also produces a current visualization of the body, accessible to visitors who are probably more conversant with this form of physiological representation than with the discourse of museum ethnography.5

Both Keck and I recognize the potential in reconceptualizing how one works with collections of artifacts amassed during the colonial period. Indeed, all too often discussions around the future of ethnographic museums in the twenty-first century are deadlocked on questions of display and presentation, bringing the argument back to consumerism and public exhibitions. It’s as if the backstage of the museum was stagnant, unreachable, and out of bounds to anyone other than the keepers. If we want to discuss the post-ethnographic museum, however, the necessity for new experimental research into these collections is paramount. So where should this inquiry take place? And how is it possible to resituate these holdings that are historically intertwined with European colonialism? Debates about their restitution are both necessary and virulent. They include dimensions of so-called relic diplomacy, whereby the return of certain objects responds to a symbolic gesture on the part of the colonial proprietor, sometimes fueling formulations of ethnic allegiance hitherto unexpressed. The restitution of ethnographic artifacts can also be inserted into the context of the flourishing global industry of museum construction. Why should these collections not benefit equally from the appropriate museological container, with all the trappings that come with it, and only be located in their original site of production? How can future generations benefit from a direct physical proximity to their rich material heritage, rather than being fobbed off with digital simulacra, which only intensifies the absence of their own cultural histories?

However, there is the danger that these legitimate demands for restitution begin to represent the most audible voice in a multifold process of commoditization, which itself risks flattening the complexities inherent in these objects’ agency. As a result, one ends up talking more about these collections in terms of their repatriation, losing urgent time within which to remediate them in their current (and hopefully temporary) context of incarcer­ation in European ethnographic museums. In parallel, when these objects get out of the museum and circulate at auction, questions can be rightly raised surrounding their financial evaluation. Who sets the price? Perhaps it is less about whether representatives from the culture of origin can afford to buy these works back from the “tribal art” market, than the possibility that they might insist on their spectral pricelessness and therefore their inability to be identified and engineered within the economics of today’s market forces.

The post-ethnographic museum has to open its doors to a scholarship that is borne of such concerns. This scholarship would be, by necessity, at once diasporic and culturally heterodox, interdisciplinary in structure, and inclusive of new hybrid disciplines including curatorial and critical studies, postcolonial studies, visual and cultural studies, black studies, and trans studies—the list is unending. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that access to the stores of artifacts is far from encouraged. Each movement—of opening and closing, of handling and manipulating—carries the risk of advancing deterioration, thereby shortening the “life span” of the object. Toxicity is the latest argument to emerge, implying that not only does touch endanger the artifacts, but that their repeated disinfestation with arsenic and similar poisons has rendered them highly toxic to human contact. Exhibitions exist to elude public access to the mass of objects contained and regulated in storage units, which are becoming progressively detached from the museum building and relocated in suburban neighborhoods. If these newly constructed stores were designed as the architec­­tonic foundations for museum-universities, with open shelving and work­spaces, their decentralized position would offer a significant move toward an inclusive museological space for further research.6 Furthermore, these reservoirs of hundreds of thousands of artifacts that constitute the world’s art and cultural histories would become the basis for an institutional transformation of the museum, providing it with a specific educational remit based on its collections and distinct from the university. Like mass graves of dormant code, retention strategies from conservation to quarantine determine the museum as a new space of risk and the ethnographic collection as a holding for evicted meanings.

In rare cases, such as with the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, which is located on the campus of the University of British Columbia, special viewing rooms have been set up to allow members of First Nations communities to spend time with their heirlooms, to record storylines relating to certain objects, or to use artifacts as part of a legal negotiation of land rights and property. This works well in a location such as Canada, where museums house and care for objects directly connected to people from the region. It’s an entirely different case in Europe, and particularly in Germany, which boasts more than thirty ethnographic museums and departments with over five million objects collected from outside the European continent.7 Not only is there a geopolitical disjunct here, but past acquisitions made by these museums omitted to record the name of the person who created the object: the artist, craftsperson, designer, or engineer. As a result, these colonial collections are characterized by sweeping anonymity. It’s as if the purchase on life’s unknowns is guaranteed by the very absence of named authorship. Objects in ethnographic collections become severed artifacts—epistemic amputees—whose referentiality, obfuscated at the moment of collection, is gradually erased by the passage of time. If remediation is not an option, then what is it that one seeks to conserve here: the collection, the institution including its personnel structures, the discipline of museum anthropology, or the logos of ethnos? According to Senegalese artist El Hadji Sy, what is needed today is a “semantic rearmament” of these cultural objects that have been reduced by most ethnographic museums to an ideology of anticipatory supply. Sy speaks of “pruning the tree of earlier definitions” in order to enable a new sap to flow, a regrowth of these works and their significance, one that is open-ended, open-source, and ready to engage with geopolitical and disciplinary challenges.8 Embargoed within museum anthropology’s conservative production of knowledge, with its subtending discourse of race and regionalism, the millions of artifacts defy ideologies of museological isolationism.

What aligns the work produced by Frédéric Keck and myself is an ongoing discussion about the potential for a laboratory or workshop within the museum. As a physical and epistemological venue of collaborative intensity, it confronts the stubbornness of material objects and organizes these within new, dialogical assemblages that have the capacity to produce alternative narratives. Here, the museum becomes the region and the collection the practice. This domestic rather than corporate scale is neither armchair anthropology, nor participant observation in the wild, but fieldwork in the museum. It requires implementing the institution’s immense and unadulterated resources to fuel a new, promiscuous inquiry that is cyclical and recursive. Working in this way leads to initial tests, ongoing adjustments, and the emergence of conceptual prototype works, which act as narratolo­gical vehicles through which to understand the collection and draw it back into the contemporary. Here, the museum would generate a context that is partial and unfolding, built on adjacencies rather than ethnicities. It would reflect “neither the overdrive of the universal intellectual nor the authoritative precision of the specific. Rather, a space of problems. Of questions. Of being behind or ahead. Belated or anticipatory. Out of synch. Too fast or too slow. Reluctant. Audacious. Annoying.”9

—Clémentine Deliss

* Lie flat on the floor of a storage unit in a museum, ideally as a group, but a single person will have the requisite effect too. Stay there for as long as you can. Only then will the police and the press—hopefully—comprehend the physic and epistemological closure surrounding these collections.


Clémentine Deliss As the director of the De­­part­­ment of Research and Education at the Musée du quai Branly, how would you define the research at the museum compared with that which you carry out at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale at the Collège de France?

Frédéric Keck The museum can give my academic research an outlet in the form of an exhibition. I think about working with the museum’s collections to shed light on the anthropology of zoonosis, which is to say, the role played by the relationships between animals and humans in the emergence of new diseases. Since arriving at quai Branly, I have been struck by the analogies between the work of biologists into ecosystems and what curators do when they select objects.

CD How do you launch a zoonosis research project within the specific context of a museum with its historical collections?

FK Until now, my research did not start off with objects but with the problem of public health: How to integrate non-Western representations of animal diseases in what is now called a global health system? The biologists I work with think that anthropologists will provide them with a chart of cultural representations of animal diseases from which they will be able to adapt their own health and intervention policies. Whereas I would instead like to lead biologists to reflect upon what it means to integrate these non-Western representations, not by getting a chart drawn up by an anthropologist, but by letting the objects speak for themselves. If we see that the objects express these different relationships with disease and with animals, at that particular moment we can disrupt the Western system and question what it means for biologists to go in search of microbes on animals in so-called wild spaces. The exhibition is a medium for non-Western representations of animal diseases that does not instrumentalize them, and which does not try to modify them because they would be obstacles to public health, but which grasps them as an opportunity to think reflexively about our own practices.

CD For me, inquiry carried out in a museum cannot always be exhibited. I’m less interested in research propositions that end up being abridged and popularized by exhibition procedures. Instead, I think that the exhibition is in and of itself a research tool and not only a means of dissemination. At the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, where I was the director between 2010 and 2015, the artists I invited selected various objects as a departure point. After a lengthy dialogical investigation, they began to construct perspectives inevitably different from those that museological ethnology would propose. Slowly, in a very recursive way, the project for an exhibition emerged based on the work carried out in the laboratory.

FK The exhibition is one possible route to take. Another way is to consider the museum as a terrain, which is to observe what happens in the museum like I’ve observed what happens in laboratories. But this second way is not validated by the museum as a form of research, because it is confused with museum studies that have developed in the English-speaking world as a kind of critical discourse about the history of museums. What we propose at the Musée du quai Branly is to instead bring researchers as close as possible to the collections, to reflect upon what their materiality involves. It is a question of guiding the museum to be reflexive about what it does, but that is, perhaps, not what it wishes to do.

CD Therein lies the main question for me—and I ask it with regard to the situation today in Germany: How is it possible to have over five million objects in the German reserve collections that are not recognized as being triggers for new analyses? At the Conseil d’orientation scientifique of the Musée du quai Branly, you recently spoke about forming “forerunner researchers,” which is to say you spoke about sending postdoctoral scholars into the field, where they would carry out research on whatever theme and who would, at the same time, see if objects still existed that could be bought for the museum. Did I understand you correctly?

FK Yes.

CD So collecting is pursued despite the fact that there are virulent debates about restitution?

FK Yes, but what if the objects are bought?

CD We always think that we are not wrong, that we are buying and not stealing. There is now a very strong debate that criticizes Western museums for continuing to acquire objects and archives of photographs. Perhaps this should stop; perhaps we should say no to this kind of purchasing?

FK The collecting of objects today is rare because there is no longer space to be found in the reserves to stock them. We prefer buying objects already highly rated in the art market because they will increase the value of the collections. We’ve rather abandoned the idea of saving the artifacts of endangered societies. The work carried out by the postdoctoral researchers at the Musée du quai Branly is indeed to go and do the spadework in areas where there are art objects.

CD At quai Branly, do you buy objects that shed light on the origins of other objects?

Songye statue, Congo (late 1600s or early 1800s), Mitragyna stipulosa wood, copper alloy, 82 x 25 x 32 cm, photographs and MRI-scan. Musée du quai Branly, Paris

FK We complement the current collections and we buy other objects that have passed through the hands of prestigious collectors, who enhance an object’s pedigree.

CD However, if a guest researcher, let’s say an artist, chooses to work with an object in the museum, not only is this a form of fieldwork, but their work and artistic research adds a pedigree as well.

FK That is impossible at the Musée du quai Branly because artistic inquiry is valued as an aesthetic gesture. And research then follows to decode the meaning of this gesture.

CD The investigation of objects by Sene­galese artist El Hadji Sy at the Welt­kulturen Museum in 2015, for example, was a complex way of accessing conceptual and formal ideas that the original artist, rendered anonymous through the colonial museological discourse, had proposed when he or she had produced an object, be it a stool, chair, or other work. El Hadji Sy’s intervention in the present constituted artistic research and a methodology of decoding. When you question the work of an anthropologist, you can rapidly decode their position. An artist can also pinpoint the codes in other artists’ work, even if artists don’t all have the same departure points. And, consequently, anthropologists and curators at the museum don’t all have the same decoding tools as artists.

FK Meanwhile, some anthropologists have given up reconstructing the societies behind these objects and try instead to analyze the creative process through the way in which the object acts on the person looking at it, its “agency,” in the Alfred Gell sense.

CD Yes, but a majority still try to present the material culture of “ethnic groups.” I think it has been a long time since museum anthropologists have created exhibitions that are genuine mediums for research. There was a moment when this happened, not only in ethnology but also in iconography. Think of Aby Warburg, who created assemblages of reproductions of heterogeneous works and who dealt with very fertile contiguities. This should be done now with ethnographic objects: do not regionalize them, do not link them with a theme that has been preconceived, but use them to make an object atlas.

FK Access to a database is a necessary for research, but it doesn’t obviate contact with the object itself. Is this why you established a new laboratory, a physical space, in Frankfurt, to be able to increase contact with the objects?

CD Setting up a new laboratory at the Weltkulturen Museum in 2010 was a crucial first move to redefine the museum. It was about creating various assemblages of heterogeneous objects, which is not possible in the stores. I believe that there is a physical need to observe them, and this has to take place before the exhibition, in the phase of experimentation. During this period, we can decide to reject an object, introduce another, add a photograph or an archive document. It is a question of developing components of a new concept through a heightened observation of the artifact which, in its stubborn materiality, demands to be taken charge of once again and to be reconsidered, thought about anew. This kind of research is important because it allows the perspectives and metaphors that describe the objects to be broadened. I find it very difficult to accept that only ethnologists have the legitimacy to define the meaning of “ethnographic” objects. For me, these objects represent all the world’s art histories: intertwined, contradictory, and unresolved.

FK At the Musée du quai Branly, the priority attributed to ethnographic objects is not based on their materiality but on their value in the art market. It is not an accumulation like at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where all objects serving the same purpose are put together. What is very strange at the Musée du quai Branly is that the collections in the reserves are classified according to the event for which everyone is getting ready, namely, the River Seine flooding. This is where I see an analogy with the stockpiling of medication in preparation for a pandemic. The value of the objects is reclassified in relation to their exposure to risk.

CD Yes, if we think of storage spaces, reserves, and warehouses, there is clearly a stockpiling dimension. The objects aren’t allowed out, aren’t allowed to circulate. Don’t you think that biosecurity within the ethnographic museum context could be linked to the DNA still contained in these objects? Is it possible to deduce viral DNA from an ethnographic object? If you say that the plague was transported by shoes wrapped in carpets, this could indicate that all these objects are carriers?

FK I work with a professor of microbiology who researches objects in medical and ethnographic museums to find what is called the “microbiome.” For example, sperm excreta in penis sheaths, or intestinal flora in mummies. This could be a reason to hold onto these objects: they contain knowledge for which we don’t yet possess the techniques to make visible.

CD You could also say that we haven’t yet managed to permanently disinfect them. All this toxicity!

FK It is a positive infection, because it carries the traces of the human beings who used the objects. Biosecurity doesn’t destroy DNA, it keeps traces of living beings.

CD Could these traces trigger another bi­ological virus?

FK There are viruses kept frozen and they could be brought to life. But viruses in ethnographic objects …

CD What do you think about the recent MRI medical analysis carried out on ethnographic sculptures? I was a little bit ambivalent when seeing the exhibition Anatomy of Masterpieces in 2015 at the Musée du quai Branly.

Boliw, Bamako, Mali, 2010

FK It is the kind of research at the museum that I find fascinating and positive. It comes from the Department of Resto­r­ation. It allows us to rediscover the wonder felt by collectors in front of these objects. We sense that there are powers, but we don’t know how to access them. I don’t think we violate a secret. Does it make you feel uncomfortable because you think we don’t respect the societies who produced these objects?

CD First of all, I don’t know who “the societies” who produced these objects would be exactly. I have problems with the notion of source community. Today, ethnographic museums often prefer to invite an artist from the source community. Apart from a certain opening up that this approach indicates, it hides a presupposition that that said person would be in an authentic state and hence closer to the artifact in question. I have many problems with this concept. It is a way of reworking the notion of ethnicity, of camouflaging it for the benefit of ethnological discourse. On the contrary, access to these objects should not be reduced to static notions of cultural or ontological agency.

FK What interests me with medical imaging is that these images speak to everyone. DNA is not only the point of view of a few scientists. It is a new universal language.

CD I think that the body is far more complex. The relationship between the body and the mind cannot be reduced to DNA.

FK Yes, but research into DNA itself always progresses by studying the parts of DNA not yet studied until then. The DNA of the microbes contained in the human body is what remains. The microbe has disappeared, but the DNA can be found. It is what the human body harbors from the exterior world.

CD Yes, I agree. But with Boliw from Mali it is even more extreme. All the condensed symbolism issuing from these objects is a closed language. Each Boli is covered with layers of dried blood that protect it, precisely, from simple explanation. Giving meaning to this object in 2016 is a process that should come from a dialogue between several different disciplines as well as cultural backgrounds: legal, biological, philosophical, cosmo­logical, and aesthetic.

FK By working with anthropologist Paul Rabinow, I’ve understood that DNA is not at all reductive. It is a common language from which we will be able to reconstruct claims on the living. This is what the idea of biosociality means. I would really be interested in knowing how people from the Songye society perceive these scan images. Because these scan images exist everywhere.

CD But when you say “people from the Songye society,” who are you talking about?

FK People who still exist.

CD Are you talking about, for example, a Congolese person who is studying at university?

FK Yes, among others.

CD But who probably wouldn’t have anything more to say than anyone else?

FK Yes, but perhaps in his childhood he would have seen these Songye sculptures, whereas we don’t see any.

CD On the contrary, perhaps we see a whole lot more than he does. Because these objects are in our museums!

FK Yes, but medical imaging is available to everyone. What makes showing a Songye statue less shocking than showing an image of the statue?

Feather Blanket, Miwok, Wappo, Patwin, Nisenan, or Konkow, California, U.S. (early 1800s), feathers of wild brants, wild ducks, hemp laces, pearls, 115 x 143 cm. Collected by Admiral Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel around 1833. Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt/Main

CD Doesn’t an ethical question come into play? If we reversed the situation by taking relics of saints to scan them, it could lead to highly critical reactions. You can push the situation even further: A team comes to Europe, gathers together all the Madonnas from Baroque churches, puts them in a secure basement, doesn’t let them circulate, and produces analyses related to ethnological questions of the unknown peoples who produced these works.

FK But if this society had found a technology so that the Madonna could remain where it was, but were able to make a copy of it to show aspects of it we could not see with the naked eye, would that work? I’m interested in that, in having simulacra.

CD What question is asked by observing the intestinal tract of a Songye sculpture? Doesn’t this bring us back to the kind of physical anthropology that existed a hundred years ago or more?

FK I prefer using a medical technique to reflect upon the interiority of an object rather than to have a discourse about mystery and beauty. Because at least the former makes us think about what the medical image is in our society. I find that the medical image is a better way to effectively reconstruct the multiplicity of uses of this statue in a society that has no doubt disappeared. All the medical­ization of life is accompanied by images whose status we don’t think about enough.

CD Artist Willem de Rooij worked at the Welt­kulturen Museum in 2015. He focused on one of the fourteen Cali­for­nian blankets made of goose and duck feathers from the early nineteenth century that still exist today. The blanket from the Frankfurt collection, which was collected by Admiral Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel in 1833, is very minimal, made up of stripes of different grays and browns. De Rooij presented this blanket together with two replicas in Algerian camel hair, which he had woven in Berlin. He used exactly the same system of stripes as the original feather one. Looking at them, I immediately thought of your zoonoses: for example, the avian flu and MERS viruses spread by birds and camels, respectively. Suddenly, a whole other meaning began to circulate around these three exhibited objects. This interpretation gave a very contemporary slant to the objects of the ethnographic collection.

FK This is what is fascinating about these objects: The power that they exude comes from the body they derive from. A microbe explains causality from a distance. We can imagine its mode of transmission. If we speak about the materiality of the object and of its contamination potential, we have a way of understanding how it acts on us. In fact, the question lies in to what degree biosecurity is metaphorical or real. I think that it is very real in infrastructures. Thinking about the infrastructures of biosecurity leads us to ask the question: How do these objects act on us, and why are they dangerous?

CD And, by extension, we find ourselves surrounded by millions of objects that must not circulate, or only circulate in conditions in which they represent a certain kind of exoticism.

FK For example, we are told that we must not touch objects with feathers. But is this because touching them damages the feathers or because the feathers might infect us?

CD Probably the first reason!

FK Yes, custodians will say that, except the whole biosecurity system is so as to avoid contact.

CD I was invited in 2015 to be part of a cultural delegation of the German Minis­ter for Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. We went to Santa Marta in Colombia and from there to see the Kogi people in Sierra Nevada. As a preface to this journey, members of the Kogi community came to the Ethnological Mu­seum in Dahlem, Berlin and wanted to “recharge” two Kogi masks. In the end, they were not allowed to do this. The problem wasn’t only that they would handle the objects. They were told that the object was toxic and therefore a health risk.

Willem de Rooij, Double II (2014–15), camel hair, lamb’s wool, linen, 114 x 145 cm

FK Because it had been chemically treated.

CD Yes. In a more recent case, I approached the Ethnological Museum hoping to borrow a small rattan basketlike object from Angola for the purposes of a lecture I was giving at the nearby Wissenschafts­kolleg [Institute of Advanced Study]. The conservator in charge refused on the grounds that it would require too much administration and time to disinfest— “entwesen”—the requested object. Disin­festation is a technical procedure that endows objects with certain ontologies, or wesen. Even if we “moderns” don’t know what the spiritual beings are that are associated with these objects, we can nonetheless attribute invisible exis­tences to them—insects, dust, microbes, bugs—and in good Bataillesque tradition create relations of fabulation between them and us.

FK The Smithsonian employs the same arguments. Native Americans come to see objects and must wear gloves because the objects are toxic. They are toxic because they have been covered with products to preserve them! They are preserved in time, but are prevented from being recharged through contact with people. For these groups, the object perishes if it is not regularly touched. We invent a way of conserving it that, on the contrary, cuts it off from any contact.

CD Even the contact of new theoretical and interdisciplinary research! This brings us back to the question of origins, or what you call the pedigree. If German artist Thomas Bayrle or Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga takes an object out of the reserve, a forgotten object, hence endowed with a non-power, and puts it in the museum laboratory in order to rethink it, he or she changes its status. The fact that the artist has added a meaning and a contemporary presence to its biography increases the pedigree of this object. Hence, it is not only collectors but the knowledge that is produced around it that has an effect on the object’s provenance. If you take charge of a particular object and make an analysis of its DNA, this will be Frédéric Keck, French anthropologist, who has—

FK It won’t be me, but rather a biologist ...

CD Even better—it is an interdisciplinary team. That adds new values to the objects that would otherwise be deprived of power, remaining out of circulation.
FK Although these objects cannot be recharged magically, they can be re-charged by knowledge.

CD In many ways, it’s the same thing.

FK Unlike art objects, with ethnographic objects, we don’t know their origin and we don’t know how long they will last, because, in any case, their life has been prolonged artificially. They are objects conceived to exist for a relatively short period.

CD Not all of them … Because we find all sorts in “ethnological” collections. There aren’t only ritual objects. There is everything needed to live. In fact, this is what is extraordinary. If you wanted to now do an analysis of a product like Tetra Pak, which is a design phenomenon of the twentieth century, you would most likely find several master’s theses already written about it. But if you want to research the fish traps of Papua New Guinea, or an ingenious Sulawesi plate made from a single folded leaf, you find next to nothing. You would find the text by an ethnologist who has written about the Sulawesi as a people, how they live, how they sleep, how they build their houses, etc., but you would not find new analyses which highlight this object in the context of 2016. In contrast to Western art and design history, these so-called ethnological collections represent incomplete meaning! Their referentiality is far from exhausted. These are open-ended, unfinished collections yet to be defined. But the situation is urgent: If we don’t do something with these objects that represent the art and design histories of worlds, we’ll lose them forever in these ethnographic reserve-prisons. You say that there is a “tribal art” market, but in contrast to the situation twenty years ago, nothing is circulating today. Museums no longer sell or exchange anything.

FK Yes they do, they exchange objects for exhibitions.

CD But they don’t exchange items like they did in the 1950s or ’60s. Back then, if you went out to the Congo to collect, you would have brought items back for your colleagues in other German museums. And in exchange, they would have given you an artifact from another region of the world. That way museums would have both increased their encyclopedic collections. This is forbidden nowadays.

FK Is it forbidden for ethical reasons?

CD No, rather for administrative, legal, and therefore institutional and political reasons.

FK Heritage is what increases the value of these objects. Hence, when they circulate, they do so in very controlled conditions, both to avoid them being stolen and being damaged.

CD If we think that ethnographic museums filled up their reserves until the 1960s, today they tighten the reins and stockpile. This explains why there is such investment in contemporary art. It is the only place where acquisition risks can occur. Where else do you want to make a purchase on life’s unknowns? We search for the indeterminate dimension of the artwork and the artist. We bet on the fact that we are unsure whether both will survive aesthetic, critical, and commercial developments.

FK So curatorial discourse opposes custodial discourse?

CD Previously, ethnographic museums were in the habit of letting their custodians create the museum’s exhibitions, even by hand. You can no longer work in this amateur way. Exhibition norms and methods of organization exist; spectators’ expectations have to be considered. So custodian-­ethnologists resort to architects to stage their ideas. Often, the architects come from the department store scenography industry. And you find a consumer-­class problem that infiltrates the process: presuppositions that the objects that come from peoples far away in space and time are to be exhibited in a manner appropriate for less educated people. It is a double reflection that lowers the expectations of an exhibition. They add sand, paint the walls ochre, place reductionist texts on the walls, pandering to expected ethnic identifications.

FK It interferes with the gaze.

CD Apparently for the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, ethnologists from the Africa department have already selected the so-called masterpieces that will be exhibited there in four to five years time, when the new museum opens. From now on, all meaning will be produced through these department store architects! For me, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the notion of the exhibition as a medium for research. I would say that with these “ethnographic” museums there are three options: you bury the collections through systems of isolation and heightened security, you give them back as restitution, or you remediate them. Remediation can only be done if it takes into account a notion of contemporaneity and teamwork. We cannot take such complex objects and look at them through the bias of a single discipline, ethnology. Experimental interdisciplinary and intercultural work is essential.

FK Remediation presumes showing the problem of which the object is the sign. The difference between remediation and mediation is that with remediation a problematic issue is necessary.

CD Remediation questions a deficient situation. For remediation to have its double meaning, a shift of medium is necessary, which creates a new interpretation of a problematic issue that, in turn, engineers a cure or healing process. Ethnographic museums are sick institutions and you cannot cure them through an endogamic analysis. An influx of external knowledge is required.

FK Of fresh air! This is why I try to link this notion of remediation to the materiality of objects. Ethnographic museums are sick not only in the sense of a malaise of civilization. But in the sense that they effectively contain dangerous organic materialities, for themselves and for us.

CD So viral transmission from the ethnographic object is possible?

FK It is possible.


Translated from the French by Sandra Reid


Kogi mask, Noavaca, Columbia (1470), wood, plant fiber, 16.5 x 16 x 10 cm. Ethnologisches Museum—Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

1 It was anthropologist Paul Rabinow who introduced me to Frédéric Keck a few years back. Rabinow’s writings and friendship have been seminal to both of us at different moments in our careers, and they continue to be so today. Keck studied under Rabinow at the University of Berkeley, where he pursued a Foucauldian inquiry into bioethics and biosecurity. In my case, Rabinow’s concept of “remediation” provided me with a conceptual framework with which to rethink the collections of the Weltkulturen Museum, in Frankfurt, when I arrived there in 2010. Going back, by the end of the 1980s, I had pretty much abandoned anthropology and was disillusioned by the stasis found within museum ethnography. I fled to where I had come from, contemporary art, and I didn’t return to anthropology until 2009. At that point, Rabinow’s recent work on the “anthropology of the contemporary” restored my faith in the discipline and provided clues for a framework for “concept work” within the museum.

2 In his seminal lecture given at UNESCO in 1954, Claude Lévi-Strauss declared that “[w]hile it is becoming increasingly difficult to collect bows and arrows, drums and necklaces, baskets and statues of divinities, it is becoming easier to make a systematic study of languages, beliefs, attitudes, and personalities.” See Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Place of Anthropology in the Social Sciences and Problems Raised in Teaching It,” in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobsen and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), p. 377.

3 The Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication and the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, de l'Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche. Both ministries support the museum with equal shares of funding amounting in total to forty million euros per year.

4 “Introduction générale,” in La Recherche au Musée du quai Branly 2012–2013: Arts et civilisations d’Afrique, d’Asie, d’Océanie et des Amériques (Paris: Musée du quai Branly, 2014), p. 6.

5 The results of the MRI analysis and the Songye sculpture were exhibited in L’anatomie des chefs d’œuvres (The Anatomy of Masterpieces), Musée du quai Branly, March–May 2015.

6 The Humboldt Forum requires all the objects from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in Dahlem to be relocated to a storage space outside of the city. Until the Humboldt Forum is built and opened (so not before 2020), there is a complete stop on all loans.

7 Bonner Altamerika-Sammlung (BASA) an der Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn; Brasilienmuseum im Franziskanerkloster Bardel, Westfalen; Deutsches Institut für tropische und subtropische Landwirtschaft: Völkerkundliches Museum Witzenhausen; Deutsches Ledermuseum, Offenbach; Ethnologische Sammlung der Universität Göttingen; Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin-Dahlem; Forum der Völker, Völkerkundemuseum der Franziskaner, Werl im Kreis Soest; Haus Völker und Kulturen der Steyler Missionare, Sankt Augustin; Indianermuseum Bretten, westliches Kraichgau; Linden-Museum: Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart; Museum der Phantasie: Buchheim-Museum, Bernried am Starnberger See; Weltkulturen Museum: Museum der Weltkulturen, Frankfurt am Main; Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Berlin-Dahlem; Museum für Natur- und Völkerkunde von Julius Riemer, Wittenberg; Museum für Völkerkunde der Universität Kiel; Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden; Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg; Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, im Grassimuseum; Museum für Völkerkunde im Residenzschloss Oettingen in Bayern, Zweigstelle des Museums Fünf Kontinente München; Museum im Ritterhaus, Offenburg; Museum Natur und Mensch Freiburg: Naturmuseum Freiburg im Breisgau, ehemals Adelhausermuseum; Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – Kulturen der Welt, Köln; Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim; Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim; Museum Fünf Kontinente, München; Städtisches Museum, Braunschweig, Abteilung für Völkerkunde; Südseemuseum, Obergünzburg; Übersee-Museum, Bremen; Völkerkundemuseum auf der Hardt, Wuppertal, ehemals Völkerkundemuseum der Archiv- und Museumsstiftung; Völkerkundemuseum Heidelberg; Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut, Herrnhut in der Oberlausitz; Völkerkundesammlung der Hansestadt Lübeck; Völkerkunde-Abteilung der Naturhistorischen Sammlung des Museums Wiesbaden; Völkerkunde-Abteilung des Naturhistorischen Museum Nürnberg, Abteilung Naturhistorisches Museum; Völkerkunde-Abteilung des Niedersächsischen Landesmuseums Hannover; Völkerkundliche Abteilung des Museums der Universität Tübingen MUT (Sammlungen im Schloss Hohentübingen); Völkerkundliche Sammlung der Philipps-Universität Marburg; Völkerkundliche Sammlung im Hellweg-Museum, Unna. 

8 El Hadji Sy in conversation with Julia Grosse in El Hadji Sy: Painting, Performance, Politics, ed. Clémentine Deliss and Yvette Mutumba (Zurich: diaphanes, 2015).

9 Paul Rabinow, Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 40.