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Europe and the Postcolonial: Visiting the Treptow Museum

The exhibition ZurückGESCHAUT at the Treptow Museum in Berlin distinguishes itself, to my mind, not so much for what it presents as for how it does this. That isn’t to say that the content of the exhibition isn’t important; it absolutely is. It opened in October 2017 and was the first permanent exhibition to confront Germany’s histories of colonialism, racism and resistance. What is perhaps even more significant – because somehow rarer – is that a sensitivity for the reverberations of these colonial histories has actually filtered into howthe exhibition is presented. This is to no little extent likely due to the fact that it was fundamentally co-constituted by ISD (Initiative of Black Germans) and Berlin Postkolonial. In contrast to other exhibitions that take it upon themselves to try to grapple with difficult and often insufficiently addressed issues of Europe’s colonial pasts, this exhibition frames the work it does not within eurocentric parameters of knowledge production, nor with a view to objectifying stolen objects and Black and Brown bodies for consumption by the white gaze.

It rains every time I visit this exhibition. The museum lies well outside the city centre and the journey-time is no joke, even by big city standards. Its location can fairly be described as the arse-end of the world. The first time I went, I was uncertain of having arrived until I was well into the exhibition. It’s a multiple-storied house, and the museum’s exhibition space itself seems only to take up one floor of it, and on that floor three full rooms and one and a half hallways. It’s disarming in how unassuming it is. To enhance this impression, entrance is free.

The topic of the exhibition is the first German colonial exhibition of 1896, which took place under the auspices of the Berlin trade show of the same year, organised for predominantly commercial purposes, and with a view to establishing Germany as an international contender in the same ranks as other hosts of World Expositions at the time. The colonial exhibition was part of this larger trade show, which sprawled across Treptower Park. Much of its grounds are now the site of the Soviet memorial. The colonial component of the exhibition was to the South of this area, divided into two sections: one around the Karpfenteich and another across from what is today Bulgarische Straße. After my first visit to the museum, I went on an excursion to locate where the exhibition must have taken place, but it was all guess-work and speculation. There appear to be no discernible traces whatsoever, neither in the lush park nor at the picturesque lake where brave souls swim in early spring and people picnic with their children in summer. 124 years ago, these outdoor plans for the weekend might have been substituted by visiting a replica of a ‘colonial village’ in the same spot.

Though some of the sources the museum has to draw on in order to tell the story of the exhibition are embedded in colonial-racist structures, great care has been taken to frame and contextualise these in a manner that is respectful and locates agency and resistance within human subjects who refuse to be relegated to the role of exhibited objects. A room of images of the men, women and children who were brought from Germany’s various colonies to people the ‘exotic’ villages on display goes to great lengths to tell the agent-driven narratives of human beings who came to Germany with their own agendas and plans. These images had to be drawn from a hefty volume called Deutschland und seine Kolonien im Jahre 1896 (“Germany and its colonies in the year 1896”), which served as the exhibition catalogue at the time and as such as a documentation and accounting of its exhibited ‘objects’. But their arrangement here works against the grain to re-inscribe resistance into the stories of these human beings.

The capacity for asserting agency and enacting resistance is revealed clearly in the example of one such traveller: Kwelle Ndumbe, a leader of a group from Douala at the exhibition. He was able to subvert the colonial power dynamics written into being ‘exhibited’, for instance, in his refusal to be photographed in the ‘traditional’ garb the organisers wanted him to wear, and in his purchasing at a Berlin opera house a pair of opera glasses with which to gaze back upon those who would gaze upon him – hence the title of the Treptow museum’s exhibition: Zurückgeschaut, or “Looking Back”. White obtuseness being what it is, it seems most commentators at the time did not grasp the satire being practiced upon them.

The Treptow Museum’s exhibition opened in 2017 to wide critical approval. The impression it makes in contrast to some of the more visible museum spaces that take up more space, and significantly more central space, in Berlin, is modest to say the least. But its existence is testament to the fact that it is possible to confront Germany’s colonial pasts and entanglements with a measure of critical sensitivity.

As of the beginning of 2020, a five-year project “Initiative für postkoloniales Erinnern in der Stadt” (“Initiative for postcolonial remembering in the city”) has been launched for the city of Berlin. It is co-ordinated by ISD, Each One Teach One, Berlin Postkolonial and Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin; and supported by the Berlin Senate and the Kulturstiftung des Bundes. This will entail a variety of projects and events worth watching out for – amongst them is also a plan to develop further the Treptow museum’s exhibition. Visit it now or visit it later – but do make the journey.