Publication Date

April 2019

Advisor(s)

Joseph Weiss

Major

Anthropology, German Studies

Language

English (United States)

Abstract

This thesis is an ethnography of the Humboldt-Forum, a new museum scheduled to open in Berlin in the summer of 2019. I examine the museum’s interactions with various controversial histories, particularly the history of German colonialism, which is embedded materially in the ethnological collections that will be on display in the museum. The material history of the collections interacts in ambivalent ways with the history of the museum’s architecture, which is a controversial partial reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, the former seat of the Prussian Monarchy. Using data collected from interviews with museum professionals, news articles about the museum, and extensive secondary research, I examine the institutional discourse of the Humboldt-Forum—how its proponents rhetorically make sense out of the museum’s contradictory orientations toward history. I argue that the discourse of the Humboldt-Forum’s proponents is expansive, or additive, in relation to history; the museum’s response to the problems of history is to continually add on more ideas and perspectives rather than interrogate the core of these problems. This discourse is useful, I assert, for German liberals in a time of increasing immigration and increasing right-wing backlash against immigrants. However, ultimately it does a disservice to the victims of Germany’s historical wrongdoings, allowing the museum to avoid confrontation with the ongoing material imbalances of colonialism that are embedded in its collections and discouraging the repatriation of objects that were stolen during the colonial era.

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