Taking care that the same pain is not inflicted again
A conversation between Nanette Snoep, Carla de Andrade Hurst and Aurora Rodonò, respectively Director and Diversity Managers at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, facilitated by Marian Nur Goni
This discussion took place on January 19, 2021. Since then, much has happened in the museum landscape and at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum itself (RJM), especially regarding the restitution debate and the transfer of property of the Benin bronzes held in German collections to Nigeria, which also involves the RJM1. Just to name but a few projects, the museum has recently inaugurated a space within its permanent exhibition entitled ‘I Miss You’ conceived as a space to mourn and to heal, and launched the project ‘Leaky Archives’ around its collection database, questioning its voids, its racial classifications, the specificity of ethnological knowledge that it encapsulates, and how it could embrace, rather than accumulate, other kinds of knowledge in order “to build an intersectional community”2. Both projects, their gestures and the vocabulary employed to express what they mean to do clearly state a stance which is by no means neutral, and significantly contribute to transforming how we think about a (ethnographic) museum and, most importantly, what it can do today.
While much is ongoing and is being experimented at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum since we talked, the points made and the questions asked during this conversation held online as the museum was closed because of Covid 19 remain more than relevant. They are mainly directed at addressing how to transform the “monoculture”, as Clémentine Deliss calls it3, and the “monologue”, as Nanette Snoep calls it4, of the ethnographic museum, reconnecting it to today’s urgent need for social justice, while also frontally addressing how to combat present-day racism, whose colonial roots also sustained the creation and the development of the museum and the other way round.
Nanette Snoep: ‘Resist! The Art of Resistance’ is an experimental exhibition, a platform about five hundred years of anti-colonial resistance in the Global South. ‘Resist!’ is a process, a growing story, a never-ending process. It is an exhibition about unheard narratives of colonial violence and systemic oppression, about various strategies of resistance as well as about resilience. ‘Resist!’ is therefore against the “single story” and tries to turn around the narrative and offer a platform for multiple stories and histories. It has resulted in a labyrinth of voices, contemporary artworks, historical objects from our collection, all fragments of resistance. ‘Resist!’ aims to reveal, reverse, rewrite and reinterpret the colonial narrative. Step by step. Beyond this, it also reveals somehow the resistance within the museum landscape. Because the way such museums have functioned until now is more like a monologue than a dialogue.
Since I became director of this museum in 2019, I have been trying to implement a decolonising programme. So, instead of making an exhibition about colonial history from a European perspective, I found it important to speak about resistance to colonialism in order to make what colonisation means and what colonial violence does to people more understandable for a broad audience. We may speak a lot about decolonisation, but we have not understood at all what colonialism really means. I think it is very important for European white visitors to be aware of the daily and ongoing violence of colonisation and to reveal that, from the very first day of colonisation, there has always been resistance. So, this platform is at the same time a way to empower discriminated people too.
We have many objects in our collection that also recount anti-colonial struggles. Many objects were looted by colonial armies when there was resistance. Take the Benin bronzes, for example. We only speak about the objects, but we seldom speak about the people who were killed by British soldiers and why, and how this resistance against Great Britain took place. That’s why ‘Resist!’ is also an opportunity to show the collection through a different lens.
For me, this exhibition is just the beginning of an ongoing process. It is a new methodology, a new tool, it is a “playground” and a “battleground” at the same time. It enables us to rethink history and place the Global South at the centre.
So, here, I am just the director, a facilitator, and my role will simply be to open wide the museum doors and in a sustainable manner. This is an attempt to rethink and to transform the museum from a hegemonic and white institution deeply rooted in the colonial past into a multifocal, democratic and decolonised platform. Unfortunately, the difficulty now is that decolonisation has become a kind of buzz word: We are all speaking about restitution, we are all transparent. We are all anti-racists. We are all for Black Lives Matter. We all “rethink”, we all “unlearn”, we all “decolonise”. I myself sometimes feel like an outsider as a director in this museum landscape. We all use the same words and terms, but we think very differently. So, let’s stay very humble. ‘Resist!’ is just trying to create a space for decolonial thought. This method needs to be understood as not being decolonisation itself but generating the potential for decolonisation.
For example, in the exhibition, we show the whole collection of Benin bronzes in an autonomous space curated by Peju Layiwola, a Nigerian art historian, artist and grand-daughter of King Akenzua II of the Benin kingdom. She tells the story and the decades of struggles for restitution and what the Benin Bronzes mean to Nigerians. We have ninety-six Benin bronzes in our collection; only three were shown in the permanent exhibition, all the others were in our storage until 2020. Now we are showing all of them for the first time and in the same manner as when they were stored. The intention of this autonomous space, which is called Benin 1897, is also to make African communities in Cologne aware of the presence of this cultural heritage in order to invite them to debate with us. As we are talking [January 2021], there haven’t been real demonstrations until now. At the moment, this is my problem as a white director. I want to wake people up because I do not have enough protests! [laughs]. At the same time, I am trying to raise local political awareness. I have a seven-year contract. My hope is that during my tenure at the museum, I will have enabled something, opened doors, and that someone who is directly concerned by questions of coloniality and racism takes my place. My aim is for us to have plenty of autonomous spaces and events in the museum curated by people from the Global South or by diasporic communities here in Germany, and for our role just to be to give money and equipment. That is my goal as director, but it is a very difficult one. That’s the idea behind the ‘It’s Yours’ rooms in ‘Resist!’, or the method of the carte blanche in the context of the ‘Megalopolis. Voices from Kinshasa’ exhibition that I organized in 2018 when I was director of the Grassi Museum in Leipzig.
But it is not only about programmes, it is also about structures which have to be changed. That is why I try to diversify and to internationalise the team and hire people of different backgrounds. Aurora and Carla are among those I have hired since 2019 and who are the so-called ‘Diversity Managers’ at the RJM. This is a programme which is funded by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes.
Aurora Rodonò: I think that one of our jobs could be to organise the struggle like street work, which is much more than academic or discursive work within a museum, or all that is connected to ‘diversity’ in terms of marketing, audience development. While listening to you, Nanette, I was thinking: “Who knows, maybe the communities are already organising themselves undercover. You don’t know” [laughs]. And maybe our job could be to help organise these struggles, to help to open the doors of museums in a different sense, in the sense of concrete activist and political work, but also in that sense of dismantling the tools, the structures, helping to promote other narratives.
This is how I understand my job as a diversity manager, much more than in that sense of ‘multiculturalism’ which says “We need different audiences today. We have a salsa party today. We’re inviting the Vietnamese community tomorrow”. No! It is really about changing the structures and dismantling the tools and the narratives. In this sense we can be helpful but, for sure, we cannot do this work alone. So, diversity in the sense of decolonising, of doing anti-racist work and fighting for social justice, is not a department. It is not a job in itself. It is a perspective which you only can implement if everybody is in. Nanette, you have brought in so many other people who also have this perspective. I think we can change something only if many people work on the struggle. It’s not like a tool, a ‘diversity tool’ to put in the museum that then works: it is a practice. It is a practice that comes through workshops, sensitisation workshops, changing the programme and asking this little question: “Who speaks?” So, what we are trying with the ‘Resist!’ exhibition is to turn the gaze upside down and to open a space for marginalised people—I don’t want to say ‘to give a space’—but really to open the doors so that other people can raise their voices and speak for themselves.
Actually, opening the doors, bringing in another spirit, talking about racism—which has not been like this forever, either in museums or in academia—is already something. As you said, this is the beginning. Many people don’t like to speak about racism, they consider diversity as something different, more in the marketing term, “I want all the audiences here”, so everybody is happy. So, it’s not only about inviting everybody to the party, but to plan the party together and create a space where people feel safe and welcomed. It’s about having real collaborations where people can really be engaged and work together on the contents.
Carla de Andrade Hurst: Yes, just being here. Marian, you asked us why we applied for this position and what prepared us to be here. Actually, I think it is already a little revolution in this museum to have us here. I am talking about the three of us, because they did not have anybody other than white Germans before as directors or on an academic level. If this is a fight against racism and for decolonisation, we have to do it from the top and from the bottom. That is why it is so good to have you here, Nanette, because we are talking about the gates of power and power play, and this lobby is really important, having power, having a say. But I really think of the bottom too: sometimes it is important just to be here. In this sense, I am ‘diverse’ and I also applied because I knew that [I am seen as such]; it is the same as with racism: we now know that races don’t actually exist, but we have racism, we have not overcome that yet. The same with diversity. I am German, I live and I pay my taxes here, but I am considered in this context as a ‘diverse’ person, because I represent this diversity – and I have to in a way – but, in the long term, I would like us to get to another level and become more aware, so that we don’t have to call it ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity management’ anymore, but we are just here.
This is already changing, power positions change. The RJM opened this position before Nanette arrived here as a director. The museum was very happy to have this little, colourful diversity flag in front of the museum. It is a Federal Arts Council programme: they introduced ‘diversity managers’, or ‘agents’ as they say, in thirty-nine institutions all over Germany, in libraries, theatres, music schools and museums. It is a society-wide topic. So, we are just one example. They say these places must be diversified, but the time has come for us to go deeper into these topics because we have discussed them for decades now. Not a lot has changed, like with restitution: there was a high-level discussion in the ‘70s throughout society, but officials rejected all the requests, and now we are starting all over again, with little change. It’s the same with racism and decolonisation. So, I am really thinking about how we can break this surface ‘transformism’; they have this little diversity flag but nothing changes.
I myself have to cope with this schizophrenic situation in the museum, and it is really hurtful. It is painful. Every day. Nanette recently said that “things have changed already.” If I am positive—and I am not positive every day [laughs]—I can see in society as a whole that we are perhaps now more at the point that we can confront this pain. Not only for us, as people of colour or as Black people, but society as a whole too. What is this pain? There are perhaps more people coming onto the scene who are really helping and giving tools on how we can talk with more depth, but we have to really address it now, we cannot just go over it again.
Aurora Rodonò: Everything has been said, everything has been written. We have the knowledge, how to do this; now we really need to act. Carla, you spoke about the hurt. For me, this means organising settings that have a lot to do with hospitality, to really be empathetic concerning this hurt and to try to understand what it maybe could mean to feel this hurt. I think this has different layers, it involves emotional and political work. If we do this work together, but the city of Cologne, for example, or other players around don’t go through this process, we won’t achieve anything. Let me give you a little example. We write press releases, and we use a certain terminology critical of discrimination. But it has happened that this vocabulary precisely has been taken out again because it is new or because people are apparently not receptive to it.
This means that unless everyone within the system commits, there will be no radical, structural change. As Carla says, it is from the bottom, it is a practice through relationships, through the programme. But that is also something you really have to talk about and work a lot on a political level.
Nanette Snoep: I just want to add something to what you said. Just being here in the museum as person of colour is something very crucial, particularly in German institutions, which are mostly white. Let’s take the example of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Last year, Emmanuel Kasarhérou was appointed its president. It is very symbolic to have a director of a French national museum coming whose father is from New Caledonia, who is a POC, leading one of the biggest institutions in Europe in the ethnographic museum field. Wayne Modest from Jamaica has become Director of Content of the four Dutch Museums of World Culture. This happened in a single year. Everyday we hear about new appointments of important Black curators and directors of cultural institutions in the United States. This is a real shift in the museum world.
I completely understand you, Carla, when you speak about restitution issues, anti-racist and ‘diversity’ actions in the Seventies. But this is a highly symbolic thing which is happening in the museum landscape. This was just unimaginable ten years ago. I think there is hope. I just wanted to say that, to give us a little bit of strength!
Aurora Rodonò: I think this is for sure one of the tools. It’s not the solution—it’s not only because the people are there that everything changes—but it makes a difference. I know this from the film industry in Britain, for example, where they have diversity standards. For sure, if the world was a safe place for everybody, we wouldn’t need to impose it, but it is not the case: the world is structured in a racist way, so we still need this. But if there are curators, directors, people who have an embodied knowledge coming from former colonised countries or because they have engaged with this heritage and have gained this knowledge, the programme will also change and this makes a huge difference.
Carla de Andrade Hurst: Indeed. The thing is that the three of us bring a lot of connections. We are not working anymore in the old-fashioned idea of ‘community work’ either, but we are connected to artists or activists of colour in the field who are already on their way. But we cannot do everything. We are in a city council institution, don’t forget that, so we bring people in and our community work is actually more of that kind. So, sensibilisation works alongside opening the door, as Nanette put it.
Aurora Rodonò: What is also true is that structures are made by people. It’s not the structure itself, it is always people who change the world. My background is from migration studies, from academic and activist practices, because I have always thought they need to go together. I applied for this position because I have this interest in thinking about the continuity of colonialism. It’s not that we have overcome colonialism; it is still persistent. We can see it in the migration regime, in everyday racism. So, in terms of decolonisation and diversification, the job is to try to undo this logic of colonialism, which constitutes racism right up until today. For me, it would be really interesting to work on a self-reflexive perspective of Europe. For example, there used to be a European collection in this museum, but in the Nazi period, this collection was taken to Berlin because “we are not the others”. So, we do not have to think about the history of Europe. I think one task for the ethnographic museum could really be to think about colonialism and imperialism in a self-reflexive critical sense: what was the history of those who inflicted this violence. We need to speak about it, and not only to speak about “the others”, not only to “open the doors” for the others, but also to look at ourselves as Europeans who produced violence; actually, people don’t like to speak about that much. One mantra is: “We don’t produce otherness. We went there because we are so curious. That’s our discipline. It’s called research, ethnographic research.”
Marian Nur Goni: In France too, from the late ‘30s, there were ethnographic museums and popular art museums as separate epistemological spaces. So perhaps part of the work is also to reconnect things that have, in the process, been hierarchically categorised and put in different boxes. But I wanted to go back to what you were saying, Carla, about the pain that this work produces. I was thinking about the International Inventories Programme project5, which was embedded in power relations, but we didn’t speak much about those working inwards, because I guess it risked creating conflicts that might have in turn jeopardise the collective effort.
Carla de Andrade Hurst: Talking about our backgrounds, thirty years ago, I started working at the Black Germans Initiative6. Honestly, this was also a disillusion for me, not because of the Initiative itself, but because we lost a lot of people in this community spread throughout Germany; a lot of people died by suicide. So many people died much too early because of illnesses, most probably because of traumatisation. This is one effect of racism—what it does to people— and sometimes it is too painful to talk about this, yet we have to talk about it because if we do not think about methods of awareness and healing, we will get lost in this thing. Then a museum will put a second diversity flag in front of their door, but we will be left behind again. We have experienced that too much. I am really serious because I don’t want to be left behind again. You know, people do their PhDs and whatnot on post-colonial studies, but we are left behind very often.
So, perhaps, I am only here to take care of that, because I am into my people, into healing, to take care that the same pain is not inflicted again. I do not know whether this is the best position in the museum to be, to take care of that, but I try. This is much too hurtful and sometimes we also have to protect ourselves. We work on these academic levels and such, and we can discuss it, but that is not all it is about. It is also about physical, mental and psychological healing.
I love the ‘Resist!’ exhibition. I stayed a long time in the last room where Ayrson Heráclito, the Brazilian artist, and his team cleaned two sites of slave trade history in the video installation ‘Sacudimentos/The Shakings’. In ‘O Sacudimento da Maison des Esclaves em Gorée’, an island in Senegal where future enslaved people stayed before going on the ships, and in ‘O Sacudimento da Casa da Torre’, a place in Bahia, Brazil, where the arriving enslaved people were administered, Heráclito and team cleaned the places with sacred herbs in a ritual. It was good for me, I stayed there for ages. I needed that dark room. And the cleaning, just this cleaning, this movement.
The ‘Resist!’ exhibition includes an ‘awareness mediation’ concept and we have some trainers for that. This concept consists of mediation as a curatorial project in its own right, awareness as a genuine component of the exhibition. It means brainstorming and conceptualising with local, national and international experts on awareness and participatory mediation formats. Hence, a call for and selection of live BiPoC speakers, allies, activists of diverse intersectional biographies with expertise in postcolonial theories, diversity sensitivity, critique of racism, art and mediation methods. This involves a training of the live speakers and the in-house mediation team of the museum service on awareness, methods of art mediation, and an introduction to colonialism and history of resistance. This has enabled racism- and discrimination-sensitive guided exhibition tours by live speakers and the mediation team.
We went through the exhibition together looking for trigger points. We were all in one of the ‘It’s Yours’ rooms, the one about Namibia, and all of us, White and Black, were so touched, and horrified. It is hard to see again and again dead black bodies, hanged black parties and beheaded black bodies. I do not want to see this anymore. I do not want to see it every day. I said recently that I’ll be so glad when this exhibition is over and we can talk about global love! [laughs] because sometimes it is too much for me. I am a friend of trigger warnings because I know there are other people like me. Would I talk about the things differently? I do not know. It is up to the artists, and that is fine. It is their right to do so, but for all of us standing in it, we were a bit devastated.
Nanette Snoep: We spoke about opening the doors. In this context, we invited two Namibian activists, Esther Utjiua Muinjangue and Ida Hoffmann from Namibia, to speak about their battle for recognition and reparation of the genocide of the Nama and Herero people. In this room, they show very violent pictures. In ‘Resist!’ we do not actually show really violent pictures in order to avoid retraumatising specific visitors, but in this autonomous room curated by Esther and Ida, they decided to show such pictures. Here really lies the difficulty, the core of the problem: how to speak about violence and trauma without retraumatising?
Carla de Andrade Hurst: When I spoke about those reactions, it was not a matter of them not showing those images, but we do have to be aware of this. With the trainers, we were talking about the preparation before and after the visit, to prepare people to go in, but also when they come out to somehow calm them down. Healing is a too big a word, but something along that line, because I want to know how people come out of this experience. I said before that we go into more depth now. We have to be aware of these reactions and dare to speak about it. And then, if possible, also offer methods and tools of comfort.
Marian Nur Goni: Perhaps one of the major complexities is how you on the one hand raise awareness among people who do not have this knowledge at all and who learn the thing more or less for the first time while, on the other hand, within the same space, take care of the people who have themselves a lived or an embodied experience of these traumatic experiences. How do you do that?
Aurora Rodonò: I was thinking of a sort of ambivalence. Why would people who have been, and still often are, oppressed and racialised go into a violent space? This is absurd. At the same time, I totally understand the point of saying: “If we leave it to the others, to the white Europeans, we are left behind and they have the power to speak about our history.” As a consequence, that would mean for me to say: “Okay, we all need to leave, Nanette, I, and others. But this somehow is a bit in opposition to a sort of relational ethics which says: “Let’s work together on this healing process”, which I believe in a lot. I think it is really ambivalent because people whose families have experienced colonialism and still face oppression have the knowledge, they do not need these pictures. So, I am asking myself: “Is the ethnographical museum really the right place for this healing? Why don’t we, as BIPOC communities and migrants, do it outside and empower ourselves?” But then others will make their careers writing about the post-colonial and you are not part of it. So, this is really schizophrenic, isn’t it?
Carla de Andrade Hurst: It is. But actually, I do not think it is our task to clear up all these paradoxes because it is too big, it involves the whole society. I mean, we can open doors, we can open spaces to start a dialogue, safe spaces for empowerment, but we cannot remove that schizophrenia. I am not asking myself to do so. But I am very aware that I live in this ambiguity or paradox. Sometimes it overwhelms me and sometimes I try to find ways to somehow come to terms with it.
Aurora Rodonò: I can totally feel you and I understand when you say that theory reproduces violence again, and it is very distant. This is my field. And I am trying in academia to read all these books, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, and many others. In the academia, they have just started to think outside the so-called canon. As somebody who as a migrant kid in Germany has experienced discrimination, I think of myself as an ally and a comrade. This is where I would like to start to work. So, even if we have very different experiences in terms of racism, I would love to work on what is common and what solidarity could mean, even if there are all these differences, because I very much believe in solidarity, otherwise we need to close!
Nanette Snoep: Actually, I think we are right at the core here, we just needed these two hours and now it becomes interesting! What can we do? How to deal with the pain and these colonial wounds and the responsibilities which go with them?
1 See, for instance: Julia Hitz, “Benin Bronzes: From German museums off to Nigeria”, DZ, December 16, 2022.
2 From their website. Accessed on January 9, 2023.
3 The Metabolic Museum (Berlin, Hatje Cantz, 2020). See the review of her book in this issue by Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry.
4 See Nanette Snoep, “De la conServation à la conVersation. Le pari de la carte blanche”, Multitudes, n. 78, 2020, pp. 198-202.
5 This is a project that I helped to design as part of the SHIFT collective, with colleagues from The Nest Collective and the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. The core of the project sought to set up a database of Kenyan objects held in museums outside Kenya. The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum was a close partner of the project. See Sam Hopkins’ and Simon Rittmeier’s contribution in this issue.
6 In German: Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (ISD). The Initiative started in 1986, see: https://isdonline.de/.
Carla de Andrade Hurst has been employed as a Diversity Manager in the 360° Programme of the Federal Cultural Foundation (KSB) at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne since 2019. She previously worked at medica mondiale e.V., for women’s rights worldwide in the field of trauma and as a field officer for West Africa. At the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne, she was a production manager. As a contemporary dancer and playwright, she toured with dance companies in Germany and Venezuela for several years. Carla de Andrade Hurst holds a Master of Arts in Theatre, Film and Television Studies / Portuguese Romance Studies / Pedagogy and is a trained stage dancer in ballet, modern and contemporary dance.
Aurora Rodonò, Diversity Manager (RJM Cologne) and freelance cultural and educational worker, and lecturer. Previously a research assistant at the Universities of Düsseldorf and Cologne; project manager at the Academy of the Arts of the World (Cologne); and research assistant in the research and exhibition project “Projekt Migration” (Cologne 2005). In May 2017, she was active in the “Unraveling the NSU-Complex” tribunal in Cologne, where struggles against racism from the guest worker period until the present were brought together. In her academic and curatorial practices, she combines art, science and activism. She is the author of various publications on Italian migration history and German and Italian migrant cinema.
Nanette Snoep studied cultural anthropology at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris and has been director of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum – Kulturen der Welt in Cologne since 2019. With ‘RESIST! The Art of Resistance’, about 500 five hundred years of anti-colonial resistance in the Global South, she signed her first large-scale experimental and collective exhibition in Cologne. Between 2015 and 2018, she headed three ethnographic museums in Saxony in Germany. Prior to her appointment in Germany, she headed the ‘Historical collection’ at the quai Branly Museum in Paris between 1998 and 2014, and taught African art history at the École du Louvre and at the Université Nanterre in Paris for ten years.