Margareta von Oswald | Associated Researcher
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, EHESS
I am an anthropologist, postdoctoral researcher and currently Mindscapes’ Curatorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Mindscapes aims to support a transformation in how we understand, address and talk about mental health. It is initiated and funded by the London-based Wellcome Trust, and realised by its International Cultural Programmes Team. The project’s point of departure in Berlin is the Gropius Bau’s artist-in-residency Kader Attia’s engagement with repair, which will culminate in an exhibition and public programming in the fall 2022.
My research is concerned with how people engage with difficult pasts, particularly colonial, in the present. From 2016-2021, I was a project researcher and doctoral candidate at CARMAH’s Making Differences. Transforming Museums and Heritage in the 21st Century.. Within the research group Transforming the Ethnographic“(with Jonas Tinius and Larissa Förster), we engaged with how the legacies of anthropological knowledge production and collecting are negotiated today, taking into account developments and perspecetives from the political, activist, research, artistic and curatorial spheres. One important outcome of the research group is the edited volume Across Anthropology. Troubling Museums, Colonial Legacies, and the Curatorial (ed. with Jonas Tinius).
My PhD addressed the possibilities and limits of ‘working through’ the ongoing articulations and effects of colonialism from within Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, and more particularly, its Africa department. Based on a two-year-ethnography of the museum’s different work practices (2013-2015), oral history interviews with current and former employees as well as archival work, the PhD examined the Museum’s embeddedness in colonial regimes of conceiving and doing the world. Whereas recent literature on museums tends to conceptualise them with metaphors related to change, to hybridity, and transformation, the PhD focused on how and why ‘the stubborn facts remain’. Crystallised in the notion of working through, reckoning with enduring colonial presences articulates as inconclusive and unsettling work in the Museum: it includes processes of recognition and acceptance of the colonial past and its duress, as well as multiple forms of difficulties, denials, resistances, and refusals to do so. The PhD thus addresses the relationship, frictions and tensions between agency and structure; between ‘good’ intentions and their unintended consequences.
Title of thesis
Working through colonial collections. An ethnography of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin
Summary of thesis
What are the possibilities and limits of engaging with the ongoing articulations of colonialism in ethnological museums? This book addresses this question from within Berlin’s Ethnological Museum; more particularly, its Africa department. It captures the Museum in a moment of substantial transformation, as it prepared the move of its exhibition to the Humboldt Forum, a newly built and contested cultural centre on Berlin’s museum island. Debates around this move and the eethnolgoical collections have served as central prisms to negotiate Germany’s stance towards its colonial history. The book discusses almost ten years of debate during which German colonialism has been negotiated, and further recognised, via conflicts over its colonial museum collections (2012-2021).
Crystallised in the notion of ‘working through’, the reckoning with enduring colonial presences articulates as inconclusive and unsettling work in the Museum. It includes processes of recognition and acceptance of the colonial past and its duress, as well as multiple forms of difficulties and resistances to do so. ‘Working through colonial collections’ then points to central questions which concern our contemporary societies more generally: the reverberance, echoes, and aftermaths of colonialism in our everyday in its epistemologies, representations, materialities, or even more concretely,the words, relations, and affects we deal with.
This analysis is based on a two-year-ethnography of the museum’s different work practices, oral history interviews with current and former employees as well as archival work. Beyond recent debates on restitution and provenance, this ethnography engages with the diverse areas of expertise in the Ethnological Museum – the conserving, storing, ordering, curating, and researching of collections. The book examines the Museum’s embeddedness in colonial regimes of conceiving and doing the world: It shows how these regimes unfold in the Museum’s everyday – and thereby hopes to serve as a grid of analysis not only for other ethnological museums, but also Western museums more generally.
Institution of thesis
EHESS, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Béatrice Fraenkel, Sharon Macdonald
Working Through Colonial Collections. An Ethnography of the Ethnological Museum in BerlinDecember 15, 2022
Margareta von Oswald
Edition: Leuven University Press
Reckoning with colonial legacies in Western museum collections
What are the possibilities and limits of engaging with colonialism in ethnological museums? This book addresses this question from within the Africa department of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. It captures the Museum at a moment of substantial transformation, as it prepared the move of its exhibition to the Humboldt Forum, a newly built and contested cultural centre on Berlin’s Museum Island. The book discusses almost a decade of debate in which German colonialism was negotiated, and further recognised, through conflicts over colonial museum collections.
Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork examining the Museum’s various work practices, this book highlights the Museum’s embeddedness in colonial logics and shows how these unfold in the Museum’s everyday activity. It addresses the diverse areas of expertise in the Ethnological Museum – the preservation, storage, curation, and research of collections – and also draws on archival research and oral history interviews with current and former employees. Working through Colonial Collections unravels the ongoing and laborious processes of reckoning with colonialism in the Ethnological Museum’s present – processes from which other ethnological museums, as well as Western museums more generally, can learn.
With a preface by Sharon Macdonald.
Margareta von Oswald, Jonas Tinius (eds.)
Across Anthropology. Troubling colonial legacies, museums, and the curatorial.
Open-access and certified peer-reviewed edited volume, Leuven University Press, 2020. With an introduction and contributions by the editors and by A. Appadurai, R. Sansi, C. Deliss, amongst others.
Engaging Anthropological Legacies
Henrietta Lidchi, Sharon Macdonald, Margareta von Oswald (eds.)
Special issue of Museum Worlds: Engaging Anthropological Legacies, based on EASA Panel ‘Re-visioning material anthropological legacies for cosmo-optimal futures’, Volume 6, 2018, with an introduction and contributions by the editors.
Chapter and articles
‘Introduction: Across Anthropology’,co-authored with Jonas Tinius, in Across Anthropology (see above), 2020, pp. 17-44.
‘Troubling Colonial Epistemologies in Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum : Provenance Research and the Humboldt Forum’
Chapter in Across Anthropology (see above), 2020, pp. 106-129
‘No museum is an island’: speaking out from ethnographic research, co-authored with Sharon Macdonald, Christine Gerbich, Museum&Society special issue on museum methods, Vol 16, No 2, 2018, pp. 138-156.
The ‘Restitution Report’ First Reactions in Academia, Museums, and Politics, peer-reviewed blog entry, 2018, Wie weiter mit Humboldts Erbe? Ethnographische Sammlungen neu denken.
Engaging Anthropological Legacies toward Cosmo-optimistic Futures?, co-authored with Henrietta Lidchi and Sharon Macdonald, Museum Worlds: Advances in Research, Vol 6, 2018, pp. 95–107.
Decolonizing Research, cosmo-optimistic collaboration? Making ‘Object Biographies’, co-authored with Verena Rodatus, special issue of Museum Worlds: Engaging Anthropological Legacies, Vol. 6, 2018, pp. 221-223.
La Triennale : Entre négociations et volontarisme, Cahiers d’Études Africaines, special edition on contemporary art with editorial supervision by Cédric Vincent, N°223, 2016, pp. 679-698.