Amazonian Feather works
in museum collections

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Ethnological Collections in Europe


check also ICOM-Satzung:
Code of ethics for museums,
Code de déontologie pour les musées,
Ethische Richtlinien für Museen


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For joint projects between Indigenous people, Museums, Universities and collectors financed by the European Union

In other words:

The ethnological Collections in Europe represent a common world cultural heritage. The collective histories of these pieces connect the most diverse cultures, people and tribes of the world.

The task of the museums is not only the appropriate receipt of the collections and conceptualization of exhibitions. They are also responsible to establish public "viewable store rooms“ and to open the the storage rooms on the Internet.

Today’s living descendants of original artisans want to know where they can find their cultural heritage. We should be able to tell them when we meet them.

This Internet site represents the fact that a co-operation is possible on Europe-wide level*. I am thankful to all of the museums that have taken part so far and to all of the employees at these museums for their assistance in this project. I hope that It was useful for all involved and that it will continue to be useful for them in the future.

* Since 2002 I have photographed feather works in nearly forty European ethnological museums (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland).

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Responsible Body of the Museums

Each ethnological museum has its own development history, in house traditions and supporters. In Germany these supporters are usually cities or states. These financial and organizational supporters often do not understand the purpose of an ethnological museum . One would not have to explain the significance of a Picasso, van Gogh or Monet to anybody. However, the importance of Ethnological artifacts is often underestimated and misunderstood. Due to this lack of understanding the political desire is often absent. Thus, the personnel, as well as the financial support at most of these museums is lacking.

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Establishing Collections

Very few museums today want to create new collections or systematically build upon existing ones. At best, they acquire expensive unique pieces from the art trade via private donations. There are at least two reasons for this: - the supporters of the museums do not provide adequate planning and they do not provide adequate purchase budgets – Unfortunately, they wrongly believe that there is nothing left to collect in the countries that are of ethnological interest.

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Perserving the Collections

The appropriate receipt of the pieces is guaranteed in nearly all museum storage rooms. I only found three museums (in Switzerland!) that did not comply with today’s generally accepted standards. I (still) do not know the situation in the small and middle sized museums of Italy.

The German museums that have large collections are understaffed thus people responsible for the collections are often overwhelmed. Restoration of pieces takes place - if at all - only for exhibitions. In addition, to the receipt of the pieces a restoration of the war damage and the inappropriate storage belongs until the 1980s.

In small and mid sized museums there are no restoration specialists or regular (more then once a year) piece inspections for insect damage and general integrity of condition.

In Scandinavian countries there has been a trend to cut back on scientific and curator staff over the last decade. Technically, their collections are of high quality. Unfortunately, they are ultimately stored for eternity and have become "dead capital". Without the invaluable work of scientists and curators there are no attractive exhibitions thus less income.

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The Planning and Establishment of the Viewable Store Rooms

So far, I have only seen accessible viewable storage rooms in the Übersee-Museum Bremen and a recent addition- in the Rietbergmuseum Zürich. One can walk around and view the music instrument collection of the Paris Musee du quai Branly. However, it is poorly lit and it is not accessible to everyone. I have not learned of any other museums that are planning on creating a viewable storage room.

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Digitalizing the Collections

An enormous amount of artifacts and art work from non-European cultures is kept In the storage rooms of most museums. For decades, these collections in storage have not been accessible to the average visitor. Both Permanent and temporary exhibits display a very small percentage of a museums overall collection.

In some museums pieces are photographed individually and the collection documents (general catalog, collection documents, record sheets) are digitized In order to make virtual viewing possible. This is a basic step that allows museum coworkers, specialized collectors or scientists to gradually work on individual collections.

Over the last ten years, most museums have devised their own, individual technical-organization solutions and there is little to no coordinated efforts between these museums to create a standardized organization method. There is an alternative that Holland has utilized for over ten years (check

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Using digital collection archives together- three decisions

If each museum digitalized their individual collections the internet would be a perfect medium. It would allow for museums to work together and it would also be useful for interested members of the public. Three basic decisions are necessary:
- An organizational one; A standardized formula that specifies an organizational procedure and method for sorting.
- A technical one; Which software is appropriate?
- A political one; Each individual museum must resolve to allow the free viewing of their archive collections on the internet.

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Joint projects between Europe and the Indigenous communities

The preservation of collections, the scientific work, digitalizing collections and advocating for the common use of these digital archives is for the good of people and cultures all over the world.

Ethnological museums do not retain the historical property of their own countries. Instead, they preserve and care for the artifacts and histories of other cultures. These pieces are in the possession of the respective museum so in a sense they become a common, shared property, which we should all preserve and honor. This creates a world cultural heritage of a special kind, since it links and connects the most diverse cultures with one another by collection history.

It is a moving experience when today’s living descendants (of the manufacturers) have the opportunity to see relics from their own cultures.

Without Europe a lot of these artifacts would not exist any longer and it would not be possible for such experiences to take place.

If we want to let these articles ‚speak’ then we must work with today’s living descendants of the cultures. It is crucial that we finance research in those counties and establish common meetings and exhibitions. Non-European "art" is more than European art because it requires an understanding of the myths and the religion that the articles embody: "seeing the myths".

For these joint projects we need educated scientists who are prepared for work in museums. In German speaking nations scientists with professorship positions are not financially promoted, instead they are abolished.

I would like to thank:

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