#MeTwo: The “Ferguson” moment for German Museums?

#MeTwo was launched on 24th July in Germany, two days after Mesut Özil had announced his retirement from the German National Football Team due to racism. I am wondering if this could be the Ferguson moment for German museums.

Why Ferguson? Because Ferguson kicked something loose. On one hand, it shone a light on continued institutional racism in the United States. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know there was racism in the US, of course. And yet with Ferguson there seemed a palpable change, with people refusing to remain silent. Not only that – there was a demand, and this demand was directed at White Americans to take responsibility and take action. And then, of course, there was the movement that it brought to the museum sector: the very thoughtful Joint Statement of Museum Bloggers, the #museumsrespondtoferguson Twitter chats, the MASS action project.

I think – I hope – that #MeTwo can have the same calvanizing effect for German museums. At the moment, I believe German museums, or more accurately the professionals that work there, are almost philosophically encumbered when it comes to acknowledging and thus dealing with racism. There is a strong self-image of enlightened liberalism based on thorough education, combined with a memory culture centred on the country’s Nazi past. Aleida Assmann wrote that this focus on the Nazis provides a type of “safety distance” which suggests that “we” are different and safe from similar behaviours. This conviction is so all-encompassing, that Fatima El-Tayeb in her book Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Post-Migrantischen Gesellschaft observes that whenever anything happens which might dent the liberal-enlightened view of German society – like racism, for example – this is laid squarely at the door of a supposed „faulty” German: from the former GDR, or Russia, or the less-educated, or, yes, the second-generation immigrant-Germans. In other words, it is constructed as not actually a German problem at all [1].

This touches on a second issue. Aleida Assman asserts that (German) historians reject the idea of a “German collective identity”, which in many ways they hold responsible for the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. And it is certainly true that in the cultural sector, any discussion of a German identity is viewed with suspicion, and therefore generally avoided [2]. However, this very rejection of identity in relation to the dominant memory culture is, in fact, itself fundamentally about identity. This is not made visible though. Like any discourse, it has practical effects on behaviours, attitudes and people, yet these are allowed to continue to work hidden in the background without neither proper examination nor challenge.

This is where we’re beginning to come back to Mesut Özil and #MeTwo. Özil observed that whenever he is successful, he is German; when he is not, he is an immigrant. He questioned why in German discourse he cannot be both – German and Turkish; why his identification with his Turkish heritage should make his commitment to “German” values questionable and require him to continually reaffirm them. Basically, he is not only calling out a racist bias in German culture, he is raising a challenge to how we define – and live – Germanness.

These questions should be visible and debated in museums. And I am certain that this will require far more from us than just giving assurances of our (liberal, enlightened, educated) support to Germans with a migrant background, and staging exhibitions about Turkish guest workers in the 1960s. It requires rattling our own self-image and having a critical look at how our thinking, quite likely unintentionally, contributes to structural racism in Germany – or at the very least, does nothing to end it.

I take heart from the fact that a large number of publications, and in fact many mainstream politicians, too, are paying attention to #MeTwo and apparently listening. What comes of it is not yet clear, particularly in the museum sector. It is a chance, however, and one that I hope we’ll take.

Notes

[1] This, it must be emphasised, of course excludes and judges not only the people in question, but everyone else who belongs to that group.

[2] Politicians have less of an issue, as the recurring, and somewhat infamous discussion of a German Leitkultur, or guiding culture shows. What is lamentable is that this suggestion of a “German” culture and identity in many ways is just the kind of narrow and exclusive notion of identity that many in the cultural sector have in mind when they, in consequence, reject identity altogether as divisive and dangerous.

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