Countless things make their way across the globe – as merchandise, as virtual forms on computer screens or in luggage carried by tourists or immigrants. The course of this migration can alter not only what these things mean, but the forms they take as well. What does a Croatian national football team jersey signal when worn by a boy in Al-Raqqah? And what happens to a shipping container when it is inhabited by refugees? A modern society lives on the intersection of countless flows of goods and migrants, and inevitably develops a transcultural order of things. Forms of various origins connect, overlap or interfere with one another within this precarious mixture. Some things – the crucifix, the headscarf or some German car brands – serve to reinforce collective identities or (the flipside of the coin) provoke vehement defensive reactions. There are also forms with no fixed meaning that can be appropriated and recast in a variety of different ways, including melodies, cuisine, types of sports or fashion. Material culture also includes a large number of commodities whose transcultural origins are rarely considered, much less explicitly perceived – like porcelain, for example, carpets, lacquer ware, perfume or shampoo. These everyday goods slip into life-worlds, causing profound changes to it without anyone noticing. The transcultural order of things is not only a testament to diverse ways of perceiving, thinking and acting, but influences them as well.
“Mobile Worlds” – a cooperation between the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG), the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Goethe University in Frankfurt a.M. and the Erich Kästner School in Hamburg-Farmsen – delves into these interconnections in three different subprojects:
For the duration of the project (2015-18), the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg has donated a kind of extraterritorial space in which transcultural objects (Persian pottery that imitates Chinese porcelain, for example, or Hindu altars in Gelsenkirchen Baroque) are gathered and confronted with various audience groups (especially those with migrant experience). The objects will then be ordered into new museological categories (whether these “new” categories are more in line with current, everyday reality than the established categories – most of which originated in the 19th century with its emphasis on the nation-state – remains to be seen). The transcultural museum pursues both analytical and speculative ambitions and submits wholeheartedly to the principle of trial and error, rather thanthe usual artifacts-plus-labels and accompanying program. This ties the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) to current debates concerning both the musealization of migration and the symmetry of Western and non-Western forms, ideas and conceptual worlds (at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, for example).
If the museum is reinterpreted as a transcultural scene, then the question of mediation and art education becomes particularly important. These days, the claim to speak from the center has become an integral part of the “museum” institution and its self-understanding. The current manifestation happens not in a didactic tone but via the invitation to participate – an invitation preferably extended to so-called “educationally disadvantaged families.” The question for us is who exactly participates on whose terms: is it only the audience that can learn from the museum, or doesn’t the museum in fact have a lot to learn from this audience, especially in terms of cross-cultural experience? Bearing this in mind, the museum education program is based on a cooperation between schools, museum and university, and grounded in the active participation of young people at all levels: as experts of the transcultural everyday, groups of students from the Erich Kästner School in Hamburg-Farmsen not only question the timeliness of the museum exhibits, but also ethnographically explore and research the transcultural “order of things” in their own environments. The aim of this collaboration is to create a kind of counter-collection that comments on, supports or thwarts the museum’s historical exhibits.
This cooperation between museum and school also serves as the starting point for a university-embedded, practice theoretical analysis of “display” as a phenomenon. According to the project’s guiding thesis, the way the world appears to us is strongly influenced by the formal and aesthetic arrangement of the material world. We deal with exhibitions constantly – not only in the museum but in everyday life as well. These ordinary exhibitions could be anything from the porcelain figurine on the living room sideboard to the carpet on the wall or the magnets on the fridge. Transcultural societies are an intersection of faiths, discourses and social structures, but they are also places where different traditions of perception and aesthetic valuation models meet and connect. The definition of “display” is deliberately broad here, and basically refers to any constellation of spaces, things and bodies that puts something on show.
The empirical object of this ethnological project consists of migrant households, the people who live in them, and the “transcultural” thing-universes associated with them. The domestic order of things is not homogeneous, nor can it be seen only as representative of the meanings, values and norms held by residents of the household. Instead, these objects form part of a negotiation: their assessment is contentious, their use changes and the contexts associated with them are constantly being redefined. Thus, looking at objects in households can serve as a rich source of information, adding depth and complexity to the picture of migrant life-worlds in Germany. As previous research on material culture has focused mainly on prominent individual objects with no consideration of either the ordinariness of things or their constellative referential context, there are no suitable methods for this kind of research perspective. Another objective is to develop suitable methodological tools that not only take the complexity of household object-universes into account, but also document migrants’ living situations, everyday problems and expectations of the present and future in our society.
The multi-year research and exhibition project “Mobile Worlds” begins with a large conference and a small exhibition. The conference brings together voices from the university, the museum, art and institution-critical activism to take stock of the situation: what impact have the countless initiatives and projects on the epic topics “migration and museum,” “transculturality,” “mediation and cultural education” or “art and transdisciplinary research” had so far? Which elements of these debates and practices have proved effective and what connections can be drawn? The exhibition stems from a first review of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg holdings. The objects here speak at least two or three languages, for example a coat by Alexander McQueen, who fought the British Empire with Indian patterns. The exhibition also presents the first findings of the object researchers. These are schoolchildren at the Erich-Kästner-Schule in Hamburg-Farmsen, who complement canonical museum knowledge with their expertise.