An ethnographic study of the collaboration between Indigenous community representatives and conservators at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK)
Museological approaches informed by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies have been widely recognized in contemporary museology. Collaborations with source communities on exhibitions, provenance research, and restitutions have been introduced to museum practices. However, conservation – the care and treatment of materiel things – is often neglected in debates on decolonizing German museums. Conservation departments in former settler states, like the NMAI in Washington, D.C., have decades-long experiences with collaborative engagements with representatives of Indigenous communities, but there is also a paucity of research on the development of specific methodologies.
Based on my prior experiences and observations as a professional conservator, this PhD project will entail a comparative ethnographic study of collaborative conservation practice at the NMAI and the MARKK in Hamburg. How can established practices at the NMAI inform developments at the MARKK, a museum newly engaging with collaboration? By zooming in on the transcultural spaces in which negotiations between conservators and Indigenous knowledge holders take place, the tensions between and bridging of different epistemological / ontological perspectives on preserving material culture is being studied. Based on the ethnographic insights, the collaborative conservation practices at the NMAI will be compiled and further developed into a methodological toolkit. The PhD thesis will thus address conservation’s contributions to the opening up of museum practices to Indigenous approaches, and to the decolonization of museology in Germany and beyond.