HAMBURG, Germany — When Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries established their grandest museums, each building meant to unite the world’s cultural heritage under a single roof, they had no doubt as to who should explain it all: themselves. They took a Eurocentric view, categorizing the spoils of colonial enterprise by nation and region, splitting art from craft, and nature from culture.
How much has really changed in this so-called postcolonial era? Apologies are made for the pillaging; diverse populations are invited to “respond.” But the museums’ old assumptions, their methods of classification and display, remain largely untroubled.
How might you reorganize a universal museum for the 21st century, an age of migration and of perpetual exchange? One of the boldest answers yet is to be found in “Mobile Worlds,” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, an applied arts museum in the northern German city of Hamburg that has a similar standing to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
“Mobile Worlds,” organized by the puckish German curator Roger M. Buergel, is a show of rare ambition and sweep, not afraid of a few good jokes, and a little bit demented. It packs a single gallery with objects valuable and dirt-cheap, unique and mass-produced, as well as contemporary art by figures both familiar and unknown. To make sense of it, you not only have to look closely (there are almost no texts to help figure things out), but also to rethink how an object’s significance and beauty are assessed.
Upstairs at the Hamburg museum, the old 19th-century taxonomy still holds, with exquisite artifacts arranged by type and origin. But downstairs, in “Mobile Worlds,” a whole new order is proposed, one that does not care about an artwork’s uniqueness, a dress’s elegance, or an artifact’s fine condition. What matters here is movement — how objects and forms circulate through time and across the globe.
Here’s an example: Two pieces of blue-and-white pottery are on display — a vase ringed with Persian script and a porcelain dish decorated with Chinese characters. They both date from around the late 16th century. But it turns out that the “Persian” one was made in China, while the “Chinese” one comes from Iran, and on both of them the characters are nonsense. Their meaning lies not in the gobbledygook written on their surfaces, but on the trade routes they map and the relationships they signify.
“Mobile Worlds” is filled with objects like these — some lovely, some disturbing — displayed together. All of them replace the fiction of cultural authenticity — and, by implication, the oversimplified idea of “cultural appropriation” — with a far broader constellation of terms: translation, simulation, exchange, conquest, recombination, hybridity.
Museums, especially ones born in the 19th century like the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe and the Victoria & Albert, do more than just store objects from the past. They classify them and, implicitly, rank them, too often with European works at the top. The vast majority of objects made and sold and cherished in this world, however, defy the taxonomies of the museum. They migrate. They get copied, modified, remixed. They flirt with each other, and intermarry. These museum misfits, not clearly representative of “a culture” or “a people,” are the objects that make up “Mobile Worlds”: Meissen porcelain with Indian motifs, kimonos with Nazi insignia, Congolese ivory statuettes of figures in Western dress.
Among the most fascinating objects in “Mobile Worlds” is one of the newest, and least precious: a box of what look like Ladurée macarons, made of joss paper and meant to be burned as offerings for the dead. These “French” luxuries, made with sugar from the Caribbean and almonds from the Middle East, have been transmuted into paper imitations — and now appear to German museumgoers as something “Chinese.”
There is a hazard, here. Mr. Buergel in places seems so eager to jettison the logic of the imperial museum that he risks recreating an earlier model of artistic display: the cabinet of curiosities, in which 17th-century princes and potentates showed off small, surprising objects from a range of arts and sciences. Most of the objects in “Mobile Worlds” appear in old-style display cases rescued from the museum’s storage, and the juxtapositions can get too precious for their own good. To put Kurdish handicrafts with the latest fashions from Comme des Garçons may be a step too far.
But by and large, “Mobile Worlds” delivers on its contention that European museums need to do much more than just restitute plundered objects in their collections, important as that is. A 21st-century universal museum has to unsettle the very labels that the age of imperialism bequeathed to us: nations and races, East and West, art and craft. It’s not enough just to call for “decolonization,” a recent watchword in European museum studies; the whole fiction of cultural purity has to go, too. Any serious museum can only be a museum of our entangled past and present. The game is to not to tear down the walls, but to narrate those entanglements so that a new, global audience recognizes itself within them.
Mr. Buergel remains best known for serving as artistic director of Documenta 12, one of the most divisive editions of Germany’s once-every-five-years fiesta of contemporary art. Since that 2007 show, Mr. Buergel has been running the small, curious Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich — an institution devoted to the history of coffee, whose mission he has expanded to examine global trade and transport.
“Mobile Worlds” feels like a culmination of Mr. Buergel’s work at the Johann Jacobs, though it also dives into and luxuriates in the collection of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, rootling through its storehouses and unearthing its forgotten bequests. Instead of using objects to encapsulate a time and place, “Mobile Worlds” wants you to understand the collection through raw materials and visual motifs that circulate more widely than we usually admit.
I would love if more curators of contemporary art followed Mr. Buergel’s example, and tried to apply new thinking to old collections and institutions, rather than chasing the next plane to the next biennial. But such thinking is hard, and some people are even losing hope. In March, just before her dismissal from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the curator Helen Molesworth wrote in Artforum that “more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.” I was struck when I read that — horror-struck, actually. Museums are storehouses of imperial plunder (especially in Europe), and the systems of knowledge that structure them have direct lineage to colonialism. But to give up on museums entirely because of that polluted heritage is to accept those classifications and values as unshakable.
They are not. That Ms. Molesworth, one of the most intelligent curators of her generation, would admit to finding herself in such hopeless straits shows just how urgent Mr. Buergel’s hypothesis for a more conscionable museum has become. The past is hideously violent, and these institutions won’t be regenerated overnight. But history, “Mobile Worlds” reminds us, never stops moving forward — and museums won’t be reformed at all if we don’t put in the work.
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