Intro to the virtual exhibition Colonialism and Puppetry – Untangling the Strings.

As part of the project ‘Transition/Tage. Kolonialismus begreifen, Kolonialismus überwinden?’ (Transition/Days. Understanding Colonialism. Overcoming Colonialism) we took the first post-colonial (thinking) steps in a common ‘Traumpfad’ (dream path) together with Dr. Katharina Kost-Tolmein and Carsten Jenß (Theater Lübeck), Dr. Lars Frühsorge and Michael Schütte (Völkerkundesammlung Lübeck).


Find out what it means to remove things from their original contexts.


What does the labeling of things say about our relationship with them? Who talks about them? In the this audiovisual room we try to decipher the voices.


Explore the path of an artefact in our museum.

The current situation in the USA proves that this dream of ‘decolonisation’ is highly explosive.

Although the political battles against racism and apartheid seemed to be fought in the 1960s, it is now clear that colonialism and racist thought patterns have only disappeared on the surface; they are still deeply rooted in the societies. If we ever want to get rid of these spectres, it means that every individual, every institution must honestly question itself: to what extent do we hand down and cement colonial patterns of thought with our usual patterns of action, procedures and convictions? How deep do we dare to dig for them? Do we have the courage, even if these questions touch on the foundations of our institutions?

Inspired by the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas mentioned above, the idea of a virtual exhibition project was born. The project “Colonialism and puppet theatre: untangling the threads” attempts to make post-colonial connections visible and will initially develop along two thematic lines. In the first part of the virtual exhibition we will reflect on our own institutional history and museum practice. In the second part we will undertake a transcultural repositioning of individual ‘theatre puppets’ – and thus try to change perspectives.

Differences or similarities?

The Museum of Theatre Puppets Lübeck brings together around 20,000 heterogeneous artefacts from Europe, Asia and Africa under the unifying term ‘puppet theatre’. They come from the most diverse contexts, i.e. they differ in their construction and use, in the places they come from and in the time from which they originate. The simplest definition of puppet theatre, as we formulate it based on our Western European understanding, is: ‘Spatially and temporally limited, performers animate inanimate objects in front of an audience’. But is this definition really applicable to our entire collection? In this sense, most of our European artefacts are in fact historical theatre puppets; in the case of non-European puppets, we must assume that in this way we only grasp a part of what the puppets themselves meant in the performances of their cultural communities of origin and what meaning they produced at the moment of the fleeting performance.

Theatre puppets without theatre

This distinction is initially obvious. In fact, however, despite all the differences, the common feature of all the puppets is that they must always be seen as set pieces of immaterial culture. The art of puppet theatre is a performative one – it happens in time, in the moment. The above definition sounds dry, it tries to describe puppet theatre objectively as a rational process, as we expect it from a scientific definition. Nevertheless, performers and audiences all over the world will always insist that something happens in the moment of performance that lies outside of such a dry description of the process. Scientifically we try to grasp this something with terms like ‘theatricality’ or ‘performativity’. The audience and the performers, however, are much more likely to speak of the ‘tension’, the ‘feeling of being spellbound’, the ‘enchantment’, the ‘magic moment’ even.

So if a theatre figure falls out of the moment of performance – because the play is finished, because it is broken or lost, or has been sold – it leaves the realm of the performative and becomes helpless, like a fish on land. It loses all those meanings that were produced at the moment of the performance. We can imagine the loss of meaning like concentric circles around our object: first it is separated from the performers, then from the performance situation, then from the place of performance, from the cultural circle of those who understand the respective puppet theatre tradition, from the wider region, from the country, from the continent. And with each circle a further layer of meaning is lost. If a puppet leaves its cultural contexts, it loses its own meanings anchored in the respective societies of origin.

The contextual loss of our collection objects varies greatly: for some we do not know where they come from, how they were played, what was played with them. With others we know the place and time of creation, the pieces, the performers. But all our objects have suffered one loss: that of the performative. They are no longer played.

The thing in the showcase

The certain something of the theatrical moment cannot be detected by breaking down puppet theatre into its individual parts, in playing technique, puppets, stage sets, play texts. It lies in between and remains fleeting, bound to the moment of performance – therefore immaterial. All attempts to research and write about it must necessarily remain approximations.

Much of culture is immaterial. The museum as an institution has always had to try to bridge this gap by focusing on objects, even more so by necessarily making everything into objects. We find a good symbol of this process of objectification in the showcase. It is (still) at the core of our idea of the museum: ‘Museum = (dead) objects in showcases’. This includes the object sign. It testifies to the idea of unambiguous identification and classification in the sense of (natural) scientific classifications. The unambiguous classification of the object is noted on it. 

Although the showcase allows objects worthy of protection to be displayed, it stands for the order and designation of the objects. At the same time, however, it itself objectifies everything that is presented in it: it is reduced to the material state in which it is found, often isolated and in any case motionless, detached from its original contexts.

Yet hardly any thing in the world exhausts itself in its materiality alone! Many like to fascinate about their materiality despite everything. But it is precisely in the case of theatre puppets, these parts of a larger, performative whole, that the loss that occurs when they are transferred to museums and showcases is immense. They are – even less so than objects of visual art – not made for silent or devotional contemplation, but they develop their meaning in movement, in animation, often accompanied by text and music.

What does colonialism mean here?

Against this general background, the question arises as to what happens when puppets of non-European provenance, for whom there is often little knowledge of use and meaning in their original context and who cannot always be categorised in the Western scheme of the subject-object dichotomy, are now transferred to a museum in Europe? First of all, it must be remembered that colonial rule and Christian mission contributed significantly to the fact that identity-giving practices, in which puppets, for example, also played a role, were suppressed, even destroyed. At the same time, much of what belonged to these practices was stolen and displayed in European museums. Objects from colonial contexts thus testify to expropriation on a double level, which in turn makes their loss of meaning even more serious. But that is not all. 

What exactly does colonialism mean in puppet theatre?

The principle of colonialism, according to the guidelines of the German Museums Association (Deutscher Museumsbund, DMB), is not to be equated with the formal and real ruling practice of colonialism. So even if there are no puppets from, for example, the German colonial territories in the 19th century in our collection, it does not mean that provenance research and the reappraisal of colonial ideologies did not play a role in our work, on the contrary. In the DMB’s guidelines, the term ‘colonial’ is not only understood to refer to the real practice of rule, but also to the “ideologies, discourses (also racial discourses), knowledge systems, aesthetics and perspectives” [transl. A.G.] (DMB 2019: 21) surrounding it.

What does this mean for an exhibition?

This is where our common museum practice comes into play, because the knowledge order embodied by showcases and object signs is not neutral. It is shaped by our Western European ideas about how knowledge should be organised and what is worth communicating as knowledge. To shake this idea means for the museum institution to give up the claim of automatically knowing best about its own collection – a tremendously big step! And yet important. However, the dissolution of the showcase alone does not help. For even in the very modern museums with so-called ‘staged rooms’, an authenticity is often enough exoticised, presenting the puppets as the ‘fascinating other’. Colonial thought patterns are very deep-seated.

Racist discourses have particularly often imbedded themselves in our puppets. These are often European theatre puppets, whose staff regularly included ‘exotic strangers’ alongside fairy tale characters and ghosts. Dealing with this racism deeply inscribed in the puppets and at the same time appropriately addressing the loss of context of all performance puppets is the great challenge of our museum. In any case, the solution will mean opening up the institution and allowing views other than the traditional ones.



In this new chapter we will continue to explore the path of an artefact in our museum. By coming into the collection, it has been separated from its performative context and from its society of origin; it may even stand alone as a testimony to a cultural practice...

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Fragmente von Performativität © Anna Pfau, TFM 2020 "The museums regard the objects as their treasure. I always hear that it is a collection and 'it was collected'. But these things are not just lying around on the street and can be picked up like a handkerchief and...

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Colonialism and Puppet Theatre - Untangling the Strings

A virtual exhibition of the Theaterfigurenmuseum Lübeck

Idea and concept: Antonia Napp, Sonja Riehn

inspired by the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas within the framework of the project "Transition/Days. Understanding colonialism, overcoming colonialism?" of the Lübeck Theatre.

Texts: Antonia Napp, Sonja Riehn

Graphic: Anna Pfau

Implementation and social media: Charlotta Paetow

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