Scientific Serendipity and the Museum Without Objects

The 3rd Weber World Café in Berlin Dahlem

“Every question is allowed.” – This was the guiding principle. In the foyer of the Ethnologic Museum in Berlin Dahlem, about 95 people had come together for a special format of exchange. But rather than a symposium, it was more a kind of scientific speed dating, as there was no audience. All participants were about to take part in a discussion about “Museum, Power and Identity”, the title of the 3rd Weber World Café (WWC), held by the Max Weber foundation, the Forum Transregionale Studien in cooperation with ArtHistories and the Staatliche Museen Berlin.

In the opening of the event, the hosts used the metaphor of speed-dating to illustrate their motifs: While speed dating in general is about friendship and love between humans, this particular dating experience was about the relation between humans and objects and the museum. “Museums tell stories about these relations”, Viola König, director of the Ethnologic Museum, pointed out in her opening statement. Apart from the intention to reflect together on these relationships and establish new contacts, the Weber World Café intended to bring questions to the tables: What is the role of museums and aesthetic practices in society today? How can we display the scientific knowledge about objects on display? Why are we collecting?


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The “parcours du discours” begins

With the first “gong”, small groups of six to eight people around nine tables, each led by a pair of invited hosts started with nine different discussions. They would be shaped by particular topics and by the composition of the individual participants, their positions and contributions. On top of the element of chance, there was also an element of planned chaos. After nearly half an hour, there would be a switch: New tables, new constellations and new turns for the tables’ debates. In the end, all guests would have experienced an individual parcours through the event. It was the organizers’ aim to create an open atmosphere for fruitful discussions about different perspectives on a huge format: The museum of ethnology and art between representation, restitution and crisis in times of globalization. And for me, these discussions went very well.

At my first table Avinoam Shalem opened the discussion on “Object Biographies and Theory of Things” with the simplest question: What is an object? This was an immediate kick-off for our conversation, starting with the elementary relation between objects and their surrounding world. What do we know about a particular object and why is it worth collecting and exhibiting? What stories can we tell about an object? And how can we mediate between our scientific knowledge about it and the visitor of a museum? At this point, Shalem held a coffee cup in his hands, treating it like a potential museum object, which illustrated the relativity of the value of things in or for certain societies. In the end, it became clear that an object is first of all a reflection of a person or society surrounding it. “Each object is a database”, Shalem concluded. The answers depend on the questions asked.

The different layers of history

Verena Rodatus, table hostess and curator of the Humboldt Lab, pointed out that we have to retrace the different layers of the objects’ history in a museum. “By putting an object into context, we can visualize our knowledge about it on display.” Objects are always part of a culture, their value and status as art or not-art depends on the particular cultural context. It is the task for the museum, to reflect their role as a value-making cultural institution within a particular society. – It was right in the middle of a vital babble of voices when the “gong” told us to change tables. – “The Practice of Curating” picked up the conversation well when Menno Fitski, curator of Asian Art at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, stressed an essential aspect of curating: to make clear what our choices are, when considering museum objects. “We have to make our work transparent to the visitor” he said. And yet, co-hostess Beatrice von Bismarck argued, the curator’s choices and work are always present.

Curatorial choice vs. democratic participation?

Here, the dilemma between curatorial choice and the visitors demand for democratic participation were addressed. On the one hand, curators and scientists have to take responsibility for the mediation of knowledge and for triggering public discussions about a reflected handling of our cultural heritage. This can take place in the form of exhibitions, as Fitski explained: “An exhibition is always a choice, many choices. It is a message.” On the other hand, there is a tendency to encourage the visitor to make his own experience and form his very own opinion. For this purpose, the Rijksmuseum had put its entire collection online as a digital collection with high-resolution images, leaving it up to the visitor, what to do with it. In both the material and digital collection, grassroots democracy promises new encounters. “Every answer is possible, you can do what you want. Every visitor can do what he wants,” Fitski concluded our discussion.

The self-curating user

But how can a digitalized world-class collection, viewed on a common computer screen imitate the thrill of an unexpected experience or the kick of learning something new. Can a person/user/visitor surprise himself? Are choosing, contextualizing and presenting still the core purposes of curating? For me, there is a clear yes for the curators, but there are technical tools that will bring this kick of the new to the “self-curating user” at home. As one participant at the table indicated, serendipity is a technique to integrate elements of surprise in a digital collection and to give the user the possibility to make chance encounters – and to make choices. She mentioned the brilliantly presented digital collection of the Städel Museum Frankfurt as an example.

No objects, no problems?

“I’m glad that I work in a museum without objects”, Monika Pessler from the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna admitted after more than one and a half hours of intense exchange between the participants and her co-hostess Mirjam Brusius at their table “The Archive and the Unconscious”. Pessler runs a museum of a complex history, which took the risk to confront its visitors with many empty spaces that function as a storage of memories. This approach worked well with Brusius’ way of thinking: “Why did – and still do – societies collect objects obsessively? It’s so natural to accumulate, but at a certain point it’s also called hoarding and hoarding is problematic.” This way, objects can also be a burden. And even the Freud Museum cannot get rid of this entirely, because it still has at least one object, which is the building itself, Freuds’ Viennese home and its complex history. By not showing objects, it gives space for interpretation and remembrance. Brusius reminded us that even when confronted with a museum crammed with objects, we can still ask: “What does a museum not tell us and what is still lying untapped in archives?”

The only way to resolve this contradiction between value and burden of objects and collections within the museum is to be very aware of the institution’s responsibility towards its visitors and towards society. This reaches beyond the museum’s immediate surroundings, its contact zone in the exhibition room or as a forum in a city; it reaches globally. It means being aware of the fact that there is no objectivity in museums, just the subjective choice made by directors and curators entrusted with this task. It means a constant reflection on the museum’s role and the risk to become a “label for western and Eurocentric culture” (Nabila Oulebsir) in a time where “our so called „others“ begin with the presentation of their „others“, i.e. China presenting Africa”, as Klaas Ruitenbeck, director of the Museum fpr Asian Art Berlin, put in mind.

Humboldt casting its shadows before

The fact that the Humboldt Forum had the official topping-out ceremony in Berlin Mitte the day after did not go unnoticed. Most of the guests with different academic and practical backgrounds from a wide scientific and geographic range from art history to ethnology may now and then have connected the discussions to this project. Especially in this context, it was a great opportunity to get an insight in one of the most important and urgent discussions about the role and future of the museum in Germany and elsewhere. As one of the table hosts stated: “A museum is a box, a way of thinking.” It is really hard to change the museum with its history, levels of significance, collections and objects. With the different approaches on museum in mind, it is maybe easier to change how we think about it. For me, this worked well, thanks to the right questions asked by the hosts and participants of this stimulating event.

 I want to thank the Max Weber Stiftung, Forum Transregionale Studien, ArtHistories and Staatliche Museen Berlin for giving me the possibility to take part in the 3rd Weber World Café as a Science Reporter. Also many thanks to Viola König and her team at the Museen Dahlem for the open discussion climate on their premises and for answering our questions.

Kristina Engels is a PhD Candidate in Art History at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. She’s a member of floorplan research.


Cite this blog post
Kristina Engels (2015, June 17). Scientific Serendipity and the Museum Without Objects. floorplan research. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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