Who has the burden of sense making?

3 Digital Residencies @ueberseemuseum #NEOCollections.

The Übersee-Museum is on a journey of reinvention. As a place for multidisciplinary research in ethnology, natural history and trade history we are transitioning to a space for conversation and impact. As part of this effort, we launched digital residencies for artists linked with Pacific Islands and diaspora communities. Having spent 4 months working closely with this dynamic group, we have developed innovative methods to change perspectives on our collections.

The below text is an edited version of a public online event that I shared as a digital resident at the Übersee Museum on 27th April 2022. More information about the Digital Residencies can be found here – Can digital redefine our relationship with museum collections?

As a contemporary artist and museum professional, I was initially cynical about participating in this digital residency. My main concern was that I would, yet again, need to build relationships with community or risk existing relationships with Pacific people on behalf of the museum to gain some form of cultural capital, whilst managing the expectations of what Pacific community would get in return. I started working on the outside of museum collections as an artist. When I worked on the inside of a museum in Australia and engaged with Pacific community, I realised that I involuntarily brought the colonial baggage of the institution with me as an employee. Much of the relationship building I had to do in Pacific communities was building trust and rapport, because a large portion of Pacific and Indigenous peoples don’t trust institutions. Something that I often thought about as a museum employee was a sentence that Māori scholar Linda Tuiwhai-Smith wrote in her landmark book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples; that sentence is

Institutions never remember, communities never forget.”

Aggression & Empathy

I eventually came around to applying for the digital residency with the Übersee Museum and I am glad I did. Of the three concepts available, I chose “How would you explain Germany to the Pacific in an online exhibition?” I chose this concept because it was provocative in the articulation, and the thinking behind this concept needed to be challenged in its approach. At this stage, I wasn’t thinking of the what the content could be? of the prototype. I was thinking more about how can I make this relatable for everyone?, so that those who would engage with the prototype would benefit.  The concept that I worked on in collaboration with Etta Grotian, Lisa Korge, and Tobias Goebel, needed to be democratised in a Pacific way of Tok Stori or telling stories, conversations, a dialogue. When we Tok Stori, everyone has an even platform to share views and perspectives.

As the only Melanesian/ Papua New Guinean/ female artist, I found myself in a group of German Historians, employed in German Museums, whose expertise is in German History. I realised very quickly that my fellow collaborators were unable to articulate the history of their nation and were rather anxious about German identity in general. What I witnessed in myself through our online conversations, was a sense of empathy and compassion for my German colleagues. Upon reflection of my own culturally identity of being Papua New Guinean and the history of my homelands, I knew how confident and proud most Pacific Islander people are in our unique cultural and collective identity, across the entire Oceanic region, and that this was a strength. I was also mindful of the universal Pacific value of reciprocity, and that there needs to be give and take and this time Pacific people aren’t doing the giving, this burden of mental labor needs to be upon German folks.  

My confrontational or as Abhay Adhikari (‘Institutional Buffer’) says ‘aggressive’ approach was not met defensively by my German collaborators, something I was not familiar or conditioned to in the British settler colony of Australia. I learned from a previous experience in a German academic workshop that I could express my critical views and lived experiences of German colonialism in my homeland of New Guinea without denial, discreditation or discomfort by Germans. I learned that German people prefer you to be direct, over friendliness.  This German social and cultural trait of directness I saw as a positive in working together effectively and honestly. There was no emotional resonance or baggage that I sensed personally, I can’t speak for the others, so they may have a different opinion!

In sharing authority, I gauged that Etta, Lisa and Tobias, were genuinely open to learn from my insights and experiences, both personally and professionally through our conversations. When we came back from break out chat rooms on zoom meetings and reported back to the other residency groups, my German collaborators did not speak or take a leadership role of speaking on behalf of our group and held space for me to share what we had discussed as a collective. A small action, but a meaningful one, which is important to note especially given the colonial hierarchical dynamics of Germany and New Guinea historically.

Curiosity & Abundance

Throughout the early stages of the residency, I found myself reverting to what Abhay had primed all of us with in our first residency meeting, and that was to go back to a default setting of ‘abundance.’ An abundance of the skills and strengths we each have and bring to our working groups, whenever each of us started to feel conflicted or anxious about this unusual and innovative residency. After moving through the emotional stages of aggression and empathy, I found myself becoming curious about German history.

I sensed from shared conversations that it was difficult to summarise the history of Germany because as Etta described in one of our Tok Stori’s that “Germany has never been a central State, it’s always been a nation of States.” This was something that I could relate to being Papua New Guinean where there’s over a 1000 different cultural groups and 800+ languages. There were several instances like this that I found myself surprisingly able to relate to with a Papua New Guinean cultural lens. Another example was Tobias explaining the differences in German dialects and how that he didn’t even realise there were dialect differences until he relocated to another region of Germany to study and could not understand a single word that his university lecturer was saying, and she was speaking German. This shared experience sparked a fascinating conversation about German languages and dialects, that I was privy to through listening.

I’m aware that I’ve not mentioned anything about the prototype itself, and that’s largely because the process of what I’m sharing now is part of the results of working together. Awkward and uncomfortable conversations were an unavoidable part of the process. I found myself going beyond my own comfort zones on a few occasions and it was in the emotional places of discomfort that I found new understandings and ways of thinking and doing. During a difficult conversation with Etta, Lisa and Tobias, it was important to me that they each understood why the concept of “How would you explain Germany to the Pacific?” was patronising toward Pacific audiences and online users and that Pacific people, myself included might not be interested in engaging with this idea. I asked, “Why would Pacific people, especially from former German colonies want to know about Germany?” If the Übersee Museum wants to engage Pacific people through an online exhibition, then the perspective and lens needs to shift to Pacific ‘user needs’ of engagement and give Pacific people agency over what to choose in sharing and telling of German history.

The logic of the prototype was born through collective conversations and my personal experience of asking questions about Germany to my German colleagues and listening to their nuanced responses and the discussion that followed between them. The prototype intends to benefit not only Pacific people through their own cultural codes and entry points of understanding and engagement, but also for German citizens who benefit by listening to each other in collectively sharing their unique and shared German identity, while simultaneously dismantling the singular authoritative voice or narrative upheld by museums.

Pluralism creates connection, rather than constantly contested singular truths and histories. Collective experiences of identity also relieve’s the pressure of a telling a singular and factual narrative of ‘Germany’ to those who are curious to know more.