Sn’t it always dawned on you that the Saxons are a special people? Evidence has recently been found in the Grassi Museum of Ethnology in Leipzig. Jens-Thomas Nagel is standing behind the beer counter in his freshly museum-style pub “Weißes Roß”. The traditional Leipzig pub had to close in 2019 after 143 years of operation and has now been moved to the museum – together with the furniture and the host, who explains his gramophone with shellac records and the principle of the pub in and of itself at selected events.
The last operator converses the finest, delicate Saxon and finds it strange that his pub culture is now considered just as exotic as sound art from the Nicobars or indigenous people from the Amazon. Basically, the approach that German ethnology also takes care of local things that have become museums fits quite well with Saxony, where members of the state government write books with identity-political titles like “Integrate us first!”
From Claude Lévi-Strauss to Heike Behrend, the trick of all ethnologists to see oneself as exotic is tried and tested internationally. “One can best reflect on others when one also reflects on oneself,” says Leipzig museum director Léontine Meijer-van Mensch. The Dutchwoman has been the director of the Saxon ethnological museums in Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut since 2021.
Like all ethnological collections in Germany, the three houses that belong to the association of the Dresden State Art Collections (SKD) under the direction of Marion Ackermann are currently having to reinvent themselves. The shocks caused by post-colonial discourses in the country are too lasting, and the self-image of venerable museums whose ethnological holdings are fed by times when the world was still a self-service shop for Europe is being called into question too severely.
How do you deal with it today, what belongs to be restituted? At the center of this debate, which has occupied Germany and Europe for a number of years, are bronze figures from Benin, which after 1897 ended up in the art trade after a British looting of the royal palace in Benin and subsequently found their way into various European ethnological museums other in corresponding houses in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. Shortly before Christmas, the first Benin bronzes were able to travel home from Germany to Nigeria.
Three exhibits initially returned to Benin City from Saxony, which has the second largest collection in Germany with 263 bronzes. Other pieces remain as loans and permanent loans in the local museums for the time being. The Saxon collections had already decided in 2021 to leave their showcases empty with Benin-looted art as long as the retransfers have not been clarified. There are currently seven bronzes again on display in Leipzig, as part of the major project with the somewhat awkward title “Reinventing Grassi.SKD”. The idea behind this is to present exhibitions in cooperation with the cultural groups whose cult objects and exhibits are actually at stake. So Enotie Paul Ogbedor was invited to Leipzig as a curator. The Nigerian artist and curator, who is involved in the conception of the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City and will open a solo exhibition in the British Museum next year, has created a successful dialogue space in the Grassi Museum.
In colorful paintings he was inspired by the magnificent historical bronzes. In its synopsis one learns something about the role of women in Benin, but also about Christian overrides. In contemporary Nigeria, Ogbedor explains, there is a tendency to discredit Benin bronzes as mere fetish objects or even idols. It becomes clear that every cultural asset is always marked by the place and the society that looks at it.
For Leontine Meijer-van Mensch, awareness of this is part of the reinvention of ethnology, which in Saxony is still called what it should no longer be called in some places. Meijer-van Mensch represents the idea of the modern network museum, which is lived much more naturally in the Netherlands, and which no longer only teaches statically and from above, but also wants to react to social concerns. If you walk through the museum with her, you will hear the common buzzwords that are used everywhere, such as “participation” and “cooperation”. On the other hand, sentences like “A little more error culture would do Germany good”. Museums not only have to open their collections, but also their self-image, says Meijer-van Mensch.
The modern network museum
Of course, in the sense of unquestioned and static, there is less and less in a plural, diverse society. Traditional places like the pub are disappearing from the cityscape because rents are rising and people come in less often and less naturally. Talking, playing and arguing is no longer so much at the bar, but on television or on social media. Apparently no one needs a pub anymore these days, even to get drunk (like the people of Leipzig did in 1989 in the “Weißes Roß” before they went to the Monday demonstrations that heralded the turnaround).
“Third places” as opportunities for encounters and exchanges, as pubs used to offer prototypically, have become rare. People do not only define themselves by first places (to live) and second places (to work). They also wanted and needed to be sociable, explains Meijer-van Mensch. Libraries are already quite good as “third places” in Germany, museums not so much. The 50-year-old, who was previously program director at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, radiates the esprit that is just as good for every city society as it is for global society. In this sense, ethnology, which deals with the diversity of human ways of life, hopefully still has its prime ahead of it.