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Redressing the Sense of Loss: An Ethnological Museum in Transition

Working in an ethnological museum, I often get questions that are – in my view - related to a fear of loss. For example, people frequently ask me if restitutions will eventually lead to empty museums. I always counter with the argument that even when we massively start restituting objects, our museum would still hold more objects than it can display. In the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, more or less 90-95% of the collections are not displayed in our exhibitions.

Restitution is an important part of a strategy to decolonize museums. The exact number of acquisitions of our museum that date back to the (German) colonial period has not yet been determined. We do know that during that period the collection grew five times in size and that the extensive collecting activities of the time made the museum in Leipzig hold the second largest ethnological collection in Germany, after Berlin. The size of museums’ collections was until recently something to boast about, but in the context of the public debate on looted objects and the imperative to decolonize museums it has become the awkward indicator of accumulation. This is how I feel about it.

In museums around the world, we witness mayor paradigmatic changes in the perception of the role these institutions ought to play. The focus has changed from the institution and its collections to its audiences and communities. The ethnological museums in Europe are probably among the institutions experiencing these changes most deeply. How can this new paradigm be communicated? How to find a proper language, especially in our exhibitions? How can we expose to view colonial power relations and reflect upon them? How can we deal with disputed contexts of acquisition of the collections? And, how are we to deal with the fear of loss that is connected to these changes?

In Leipzig, we are currently re-inventing ourselves. The main goal is to transform the museum into a network museum until 2023. We will encourage various actors and initiatives from the communities of origin of the museum’s objects and our local audiences to become part of the museum. In the framework of sustainable projects, they should take an active role in shaping the content. It is important to us that our re-invention is made transparent by communicating these processes with our local stakeholders. Painful, complicated and to some audiences abstract themes like colonialism, looting, repatriation, and restitution are - I hope - communicated in such a way that they are not only more immediately graspable by a larger audience, but that the fear of  loss is redressed.

One example of this is the way we attend to repatriations. We, as State Ethnographical Collections in Saxony, have gained important experiences in this field. Since 2017, we actively engage with the repatriation of human remains. In my opinion, we have gained a great deal from these repatriations as institution. We document repatriation processes and collect stories, but more importantly, we get to strengthen our relationships with the communities of origin and contribute to something that we call new relational ethics. With the restitution of objects, I believe, it will be similar. When it comes to repatriation and restitution, it is not at all about losing –  it is all about gaining. It is about making our institution relevant and contributing to repairing which was wronged it the past. What can be more rewarding?