German Museums after Hanau

About 18 months ago, I wondered whether #MeTwo was going to be German museums’ Ferguson moment. It wasn’t. There was no initiative similar to #museumsrespondtoferguson, no MASS action project, no discussions at any of the museum conferences I have attended since.


Just over a week ago, nine Germans with what we in the German language insist on calling ‘migrant backgrounds’ were murdered in the city of Hanau.


Will this be German museums’ Ferguson moment? I hope so, but I am sceptical.


Ferguson was the recognition that a focus on collections is not enough. That museums must engage with the social, political, economic and cultural inequalities and expressions of racism within their societies. That they must face their own institutional biases and racism, be it in the narratives of their exhibitions or their recruitment practices.


The emphasis in the German museum sector is still very much on collections, as I have noted in my last post. This would be somewhat acceptable if at the very least and simultaneously a solidly inclusive collections strategy were demanded, i.e. a strategy to collect objects that represent all communities within the locality a museum serves. This, however, is not the case.


In fact, there is little critical discussion about museum narratives and the collections these nourish (and vice versa). The most discussion in this area is fairly narrowly centred on provenance issues, which in Germany almost exclusively focus on cases from Nazi Germany, as well as on decolonization, although the latter is mostly limited to a relatively small number of (large) museums.


Moreover, the personal subject specialisms and associated profiles of museum directors and curators generally receive more attention, and are more highly valued, than their ability to facilitate community engagement and participation. Consequently, a lack of (experience in) visitor research, evaluation, audience development and diversity is not considered a serious issue at many museums.


Finally, because of the above, there is currently very little pressure for museum professionals to consider their own personal positioning in the social, political and cultural contexts of their institutions. In other words, there is little incentive to question their own privileges and biases. It enables museum managers to dismiss, for example, questions about the discursive manipulations behind the construct of “German-Turks” (as opposed to “Turkish-Germans”, as is customary for example in the UK and the US) by suggesting directly, ‘Die wollen das so’ (‘That’s how they want it’).


Someone with this attitude and this apparent lack of willingness to take a moment to consider is unlikely to act differently now in their museum practice after Hanau.


And yet, it is precisely this kind of change, this acknowledgment of not-so-subtle mechanisms of othering and exclusion that museums should spearhead. Where, if not in museums, can our society expect to have these narratives revealed and challenged? They are part of our history and our present, and we must not let them be part of our future. That must be the job of museums, especially in Germany.


My scepticism about Hanau becoming German museums’ Ferguson may be proven wrong. I hope so. There is a young generation of museum professionals slowly coming into positions of power who have a different outlook. Participation, inclusion, sharing power – these are mainstays of museum practice for them.


Also, it seems that the new Germans have finally had enough. I have the impression that the way they talk to the (old) German majority has changed, away from the sense of being victims toward the demand to be acknowledged as what they are: Germans. Between these converging forces, maybe German museums will change after Hanau.


I really do hope so.


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