Exhibiting the other: the museography of non-Western objects at the turn of the 20th centurye century

Exhibiting the other: the museography of non-Western objects at the turn of the 20th century<sup>e</sup> century

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Home ›Studies› Exhibiting the other: the museography of non-Western objects at the turn of the 20th centurye century

Bust of Duke Jean-Albert de Mecklenburg in the colonial gallery.

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Gisela Oestreich

Publication date: February 2009

Historical context

The colonial museographic discourse

With the exploration and colonization of non-Western countries, exhibits of exotic artefacts have developed, collected by travelers, missionaries, scientists and soldiers who roam the globe. In addition to the ethnographic museums, created during the second half of the XIXe century, universal and colonial exhibitions are the privileged places to show non-Western productions. Imprinted with evolutionism, these museographies bear witness to the prejudices with which Europeans apprehended these artefacts.

Twenty-five years after the proclamation of the German Empire, the Berlin Industrial Exhibition of 1896 was designed to show the country's wealth and its industrial and economic progress so as to strengthen the unification of Germany and the place Berlin politics. The existence of a colonial gallery within this exhibition then reveals the new place that the German Empire, until then on the margins of colonization, fixed for colonial expansion, both to serve its development enterprise and to assert and consolidate its status abroad; Duke Jean-Albert of Mecklenburg is one of the personalities working to support this new foreign policy.

Image Analysis

An object staging

This photograph shows part of the colonial gallery of the Berlin Industrial Exhibition in 1896. In a recess delimited by drapery, many objects from non-Western countries are displayed. Weapons, shields, musical instruments and hunting trophies (horns and animal heads) are hung on the walls or placed on the ground according to a desirable arrangement: the objects are arranged symmetrically; the guns placed in bundles make up small pyramids; the native weapons are gathered in such a way as to reproduce the appearance of military trophies - these decorative motifs made up of weapons, flags and other war-related objects grouped around an armor, a helmet or even a coat of arms . In the center is a classical bust of Jean-Albert de Mecklenburg, equally cleverly presented: arranged on a pedestal under the arch formed by two elephant tusks and surrounded by plants and rocks, it is highlighted like a tutelary figure of the objects placed behind him. The entire decor is symmetrically organized around this bust, and the artefacts seem to be staged (as the hangings arranged like theater curtains recall) to form a background for it. Through this museography, it is therefore a question of glorifying the Duke, who used his influence and was actively involved in promoting the colonial idea in Germany and in enlarging and consolidating the German Empire abroad. The objects are arranged in such a way as to express the gratitude that the German colonies owe him. However, this museum arrangement also reveals other aspects of colonialist ideology: the sense of supremacy which animated Westerners and the evolutionary thought which directed them in the conquest and annexation of non-Western countries.


Western domination

The presentation, by ostensibly referring to the iconography of trophies, both in the organization of weapons and in the hanging of animal remains, first of all shows the military power of Westerners: the objects are displayed like booty. commemorating a victory. They thus implicitly testify to the inferiority of the conquered countries. The very way in which the objects are arranged symmetrically to form decorative patterns is also a symbolic assertion of domination. The objects are subject to a Western order, their placement obeys the European aesthetic canons. Finally, the mixture of artifacts made by the natives, plants and animal remains associates non-Western peoples with nature, that is to say with a primitive state of existence, to which the "rudimentary" character of their weapons compared to rifles presented in the same space.

In this way, if the objects are not classified by type and arranged hierarchically according to their degree of technical complexity, as was the case in most ethnographic museums, this part of the colonial gallery clearly manifests the evolutionary conceptions which predominated in the past. 'time. The World's and Colonial Expos served to justify the enterprise of Western domination by showing not only the wealth accumulated through the exploitation of the colonies, but also the supposed inferiority and savagery of these populations. The West was thus investing in a civilizing mission: it was a question of bringing civilization to the "savages". The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is today one of the few museums to have preserved this kind of museography intact to reflect a type of display of non-Western objects.

  • Germany
  • exoticism
  • colonial history
  • Museum


Marianne DEGLI, Marie MAUZE, Primary Arts: the time of recognition, Paris, Gallimard, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2000.Sally PRICE, Arts primitifs, regards civilized, Paris, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1998. “Museums from here and elsewhere ”, Gradhiva, n ° 24, 1998.

To cite this article

Claire LE THOMAS, "Exhibiting the other: the museography of non-Western objects at the turn of the 20th centurye century "

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