The exhibition “Mobile Worlds” draws inspiration from the collection housed at the Museums für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. The MKG collection is in turn inspired by the great world exhibitions held in London, Paris and Vienna in the 19th-century. Now the world of the 19th century is passé, and with it the central position that the West has long claimed for itself. Even though our world knows many centers today, many Western museums still present themselves as though the traditional, museological division into geographies, nations, epochs, art and non-art were universally valid. (We know this has more to do with embarrassment than evil intent). Yet these simple classifications reflect nothing of the far-reaching interconnections and historical origins of our global present and prevents them from being shown, let alone comprehended.
“Mobile Worlds” is dedicated to objects that escape the established museum order—things that cannot be called either “modern” or “antique,” that are neither clearly “Chinese” nor “Persian.”
Our exhibits come from a transcultural, intermediate realm that emerged from the exchange relationships between North and South, East and West. This intermediate realm knows no cultural identity. Indeterminacy rules here—an uncertainty that gives the objects room to take on an eventful life of their own. (This is not to say that the things have no meaning at all—only that their meanings are fluid).
“Mobile Worlds” elevates this indeterminacy to method: Our exhibition is not based on a central thesis, on a subject or coherent narrative. Instead it follows the formal affinities and historical relationships between things in a partly research-minded, partly speculative, partly extravagant, partly precise way.
Important insights for this come from artists and other experts of our transcultural everyday life who succeed in linking disparate realities and bridging depths of meaning.
“Mobile Worlds” is for a museum that does justice to the social, cultural and political complexity of our global present. This means revealing connections that lie both within and beyond practiced patterns of thinking and perception.
Dissolving established concepts means facing the challenge of arranging things in a new way—after all, our museum cannot go without order altogether. The departments in “Mobile Worlds” stem from a working process. They reflect the peculiarities of the collection, but they also correspond to the aesthetic preferences, political sensitivities and particular interests of the actors involved. In short, these new departments mark the points where the travel routes of things, people, practices, and ideas intersect.
Ivory, obtained from the tusk of the dead elephant, has been a highly sought-after material since time immemorial. It has been used in many cultures to create religious objects, jewelry, but also secular carvings. Ivory was reasonably rare and therefore valuable until European colonial powers appeared on the African continent, when the use of firearms in elephant hunting, modern transport logistics and capitalist calculus changed the material’s status. It was subsequently introduced to Europe en masse (about 800 tons per year in the late 19th century), where it was used to produce billiard balls, piano keys and the like.
Japan saw the dawn of a new era when US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry steered his warships into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay). On a mission from the US government, he demanded that Japan give up its self-imposed isolation and open to trade with the West.
Japan could not compete with Western technology in the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, the country’s elite were aware of the brutality the Western powers inflicted on the Chinese empire. And so reformers around Emperor Meiji opted for a radical, forward-looking modernization that would change all aspects of Japanese life: from the form of government itself to the administrative apparatus, the military, education, and even a dress code.
It is difficult to gauge the collective effort this required within Japan. At the same time, Japan imitated Western imperialist policy and began to incorporate parts of East Asia. The victory in the war against Russia, a conflict that took place around Manchuria and Korea in 1904/05, underscored Japanese ambitions to act on equal footing with the Western powers from now on.
For centuries Europeans pondered, tried out and struggled to come to grips with the mystery of a fascinating material—until an alchemist at the Saxon court at the beginning of the 18th century succeeded in inventing it: European porcelain, finally!
Silk and tea were also in high demand in Europe. The latter inspired the British to embark on an act of biopiracy when botanist Robert Fortune, disguised as Chinese, gathered tea plants and shipped them to India in sealed glass containers to grow them on the slopes of the Himalayas (Darjeeling).
This greed for Chinese products led to enormous trade deficits on the part of the West. This was compounded by the fact that the Chinese showed little interest in European goods— except for automated machines and watches. History has shown that gigantic trade deficits are settled with wars. Such was the case with the so-called “Opium Wars” in the middle of the 19th century.
China has been ruled by a single party since 1949, after the collapse of the Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, a brief republican phase, the Japanese occupation and a civil war. The economic reforms or “Four Modernizations” initiated in the late 1970s moved the “Middle Kingdom” more and more towards the center of world affairs.
Rapunzel, a familiar figure from Brothers Grimm fairy tales, has many role models. Among them is an old character from Persian legend: Rūdāba, princess of Kabul. Her long braid enabled her (secret) lover Zāl to ascend to her chamber.
Despite its intimate nature, hair is neither a private affair nor a mere ornament. It is associated with social added value. In almost every culture, there are implicit or explicit rules that dictate whether and what hair you can show, which hairstyles are legitimate for whom, and what hair is commonly recognized as beautiful.
Thus, hair can be used politically. It can express resistance to the prevailing order (such as the “Afro” hairstyle that was popular during the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s).
Transatlantic triangular trade brought millions of slaves from the West African coast to Bahia in northern Brazil. They toiled on enormous sugar and coffee plantations, built Baroque churches for the Portuguese colonial rulers and coined new forms of culture such as Capoeira, a martial art technique disguised as dance.
Some Bahia plantation owners were Germans and Swiss immigrants, such as Hamburg-born consul Peter (Pedro) Peycke. His descendants have the last name “Krull” and live in the town of Helvécia, which is part of a former coffee plantation.
Slaves who managed to return to West Africa used the artisanal know-how they had acquired in Brazil. Consequently, many mosques on the West African coast include features specific to the Portuguese Baroque style.
Sailing ships, steamboats, container ships—shipping routes are the backbone of global trade (not that you would have to tell anyone in Hamburg that). And yet transport ships still carry many interesting things besides ordinary merchandise: fat tarantulas in banana boxes, plundered bronze masks from the Benin Empire, opium pipes from the collapsed Qing Dynasty, worn-out car tires and electro-technology from German lands, but also… people. Their lives on deck keep their own rhythm marked by departure and return. This was reported by artist Adnan Softić, who lived on the “Bibby Challenge,” a kind of floating refugee home on the Elbe River.
Once again we see a pattern that is something of a mystery. What is the design supposed to represent? A curved leaf? A flame? A bent cypress? Boteh traces its historical roots back to ancient Asia Minor. The earliest examples were found on silk scraps discovered along the Nile in Upper Egypt. The pattern was as widespread in modern-day Afghanistan as it was in the former North Indian kingdom of Kashmir. Yet most people nowadays know it as paisley, the name of a Scottish town. How can that be?
After the British had chased the Mughal rulers to the Indian subcontinent, their paramilitary trading companies brought cloth and scarves with boteh motifs to London. These textiles were intended for rulers and infinitely precious. So they were copied by Scottish weavers and mass produced using mechanical jacquard looms.
Early European weavers created just two colors (indigo and madder) and later, thanks to technical tricks, at least up to five, but the punch card technology invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard permitted up to fifteen colors. (This is no reason to brag; the original cashmere scarves easily contained at least four times as many).
The ethnological collection was born in the heyday of imperialism and colonialism. Commercial travelers, soldiers, researchers and private collectors happily journeyed to “faraway lands” and took with them anything that was not nailed down—including everyday objects, religious objects or even human remains. The circumstances under which these things came into their possession has been rarely documented. It is clear that many objects were taken illegally and absorbed into ethnological collections—including the bronzes that a British “punitive expedition” robbed from the royal palace in Benin City (Nigeria) in 1897 and brought to the European market. Justus Brinckmann, the founding director of the MKG Hamburg, purchased the first bronze head for his museum collection that same year. Unlike many of his colleagues who sought to prove the genuine “primitiveness” of African artifacts, Brinckmann was deeply impressed by the high artistic quality of the Benin bronzes.
And yet it wasn’t just “foreign” cultures that Brinckmann was interested in: In light of the massive waves of urbanization and modernization at the turn of the century, he became passionate about documenting the traditional culture of the Hamburg countryside, which was threatened with extinction. He had a particular interest in the Vierlande area. Working with considerable dedication, he not only accumulated a stately collection of Vierlande cabinets, chests and costumes, but also commissioned in-house draftsman Hermann Haase, an extremely conscientious watercolorist, to capture the material culture of the Vierlande area in images.
Opened Tuesday to Sunday 10 am – 6 pm, Thursday to 9 pm..
12 euros, concessionary entrance fee: 8 euros, thursdays after 5 pm: 8 euros
Free admission for children and young adults up to 18 years old
For events on the exhibition Mobile Worlds see our calendar.
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Dr. Sophia Prinz
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Dr. Sophia Prinz
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