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 erased by colonisation and Christianisation.

As a member of a museum’s collection, the defined museum purposes of collecting, preserving, researching and showing or mediating become the new tasks of this artefact: it is at this artefact that the museum mission is fulfilled. This passage – this transition – has a great ambivalence. The museum is a place of collection and preservation; it is by definition a space free from certain general constraints: here the idea of efficiency does not apply, nor is it fundamentally thought in economic categories. It is one of the rare remaining free spaces in our world. But a museum not only stores objects, it is also the place where all the world’s knowledge about them is centrally concentrated and permanently secured. At the same time, the task of the museum also includes the presentation of the objects, making them accessible to the public. In a museum collection, an object can also experience the most unusual encounters that would never have been possible in the reality of its cultural context: in a depot, the Lautréamontian encounter of the sewing machine with the umbrella on the dissecting table becomes the norm.

Colonialism and Puppetry

ZEIGEN © Anna Pfau

Krysztof Pomian has described the transition of objects into a museum collection with the term semiophora:

Semiophores are characterised by the fact that they lose their original meaning (desemiotisation) and acquire a new one – in the museum context – (resemiotisation). On the one hand, this can be described as a (contextual) shift. On the other hand, a condensation can be observed, as it were, especially in rare and particularly little researched objects: they become the testimony of a ‘perished’ civilization, a rare cultural technique or the like, which still seems to manifest itself in them alone. In this way, they are attributed a significance that has nothing to do with themselves, but only with the process of their detachment from their original context and the resulting gaps in knowledge. Objects of everyday use that originally had a short lifespan, are given, as it were, eternal life within the framework of a museum collection.

In all these theoretical considerations, the institution of the museum is idealised, thereby obscuring the moment of violence that stands at the beginning of all collecting.

The prize for ‘eternal life’ in the museum is the loss, the gap that the object leaves behind at its place of origin. This moment of violence must be a central theme, especially in the case of collections originating from civilisations on the African continent. Authorising the institution of the museum to talk about its collection alone perpetuates the violence: it renders the societies of origin speechless.

In the context of the museum, with its unconditional demand for presentation and mediation, there is also little room for the question of whether there are objects that should not be shown. There are, for example, some cultural practices which may only be carried out by certain social groups (e.g. the sogo bò in Mali). Is it then appropriate to exhibit them in their entirety in the museum and explain how they function?

Within the museum context, frames are created for the presentation of the objects:

the first frame is the museum itself, with its name, its theme, its vision, its purpose. With us this is ‘puppetry’. And it is from this perspective that we also look at objects that cannot, or can only partly, be attributed to puppet theatre in the Western European sense. This can be very productive; our objects enter into an exchange through which new meanings are created.

“The desire to gain knowledge from dealing with things is a central idea of the museum as an institution that conveys knowledge about the world by collecting things and arranging and showing them in space. [transl. A.G.]” (Thiemeyer 2016: 18).

This is the special feature of every museum and a good that should not be underestimated, especially in times when our lives are being thoroughly digitalised.

At the same time, we as an institution must also be constantly aware of this framework as a setting.

Thus the presentation in the context of an exhibition is deliberately curated, it is an “arrangement of things in space according to an interpretation” [transl. A.G.] (Korff quotes Thiemeyer 2016: 19). As Thiemeyer explains in the following, it is about “a presentation of knowledge that not only depicts reality but also generates it, always follows certain intentions and is politically motivated” [trans. A.G.] (ibid). This makes it all the more important to become aware of the mechanisms of exclusion that are at the heart of the museum as an institution. Colonialist beliefs are inscribed in the meanings with which objects are charged in the museum, and we must assume this. Every collecting process is not only potentially violent, but also accompanied by a goal and purpose. It is a selection of objects that is subject to an evaluation: what is worth exhibiting in a museum? To be preserved and researched? Thus, this charging of meaning of the objects in the museum context is, theoretically speaking, a process opposed to the separation, i.e. the loss of the original context. However, like the ‘eternal life’ mentioned above, it has a price: the charging of meaning in the museum cannot be neutral nor can it be equated with the reconstruction of the original context. It is a disposition of things that are appropriated as ‘masterless’ and speechless, as it were.

There is the danger that the more an exhibition focuses on staging, the more it seeks to create atmosphere – possibly even ‘authentic’ – the more dominant the talking about the objects.

The control of what visitors should think and feel and ‘take’ with them is optimised. There is thus no room for individual reception or for the objects themselves to speak. Gaps, white space and a general openness have no place here.

Colonialism and Puppetry
ZEIGEN © Anna Pfau 

How have we shown our collection objects in the past?

The division of our museum presentation into geographical spaces is evidence of an upstream decision on depth of field: in the ‘European part’ we started with individual puppet-playing families (Schichtl, Winter), with special situations such as the fair, the various types of puppet (hand puppet, marionette, shadow puppet) and accompanying phenomena such as showmanship and singing moritates. Other theme rooms included Thailand, Myanmar, China and India. These showed different puppet theatre traditions and forms on the basis of the puppets alone without further deepening the context. Here, in the pure juxtaposition, surprising insights were indeed to be gained. By far the strongest generalisation was made in the rooms that were reserved for African puppets: here it was simply called ‘African tradition’.

“But what becomes clear is that the diversity of an entire continent is reduced to one culture – in the singular. This ambiguity, which lumps together the cultures, languages and origins of the very many different people on the African continent under one title, is exemplary of the (racist) Eurocentric perspective on Africa. For racist structures refuse to recognise and distinguish between the differences between regions, places and groups of people, cultures and languages. This denial of individualism is the most common form of racism I have observed.” [transl. A.G.]

(Ngubia Kuria 2010: 231).

In the showcases the puppets were mostly grouped by country (Mali, Nigeria, Gabon, among others), but the specifics of the respective performance traditions and contexts were lost. With ‘atmospheric’ painting of the walls in a pseudo-African style and the effective hanging of large objects in the roof trusses (which could not have been presented in any other way due to the room situation), a special room was indeed created, in which, however, not only racism was inscribed, as explained by Ngubia Kuria above, but above all an exotic perspective was constructed: these puppets are something very special, but also something that cannot be fully understood, this room expressed.

Yet this ‘incomprehension’, this apostrophized ‘mystery’ is indeed something that could be better applied to all the theatre puppets in our collection. For the process of animation that fascinates us, and the meanings that arise at the moment of performance, are indeed difficult and scientifically always imprecise to describe. However, this idea was thematized in the space of ‘Africa’ alone (with reference to the alleged ‘ritual-bound’ nature of these traditions) and thus not assigned to the phenomenon of ‘animated objects and puppets’ but to the continent and its inhabitants.

In this context it is interesting to take a look at the last exhibition of puppets by the German puppeteer family Schichtl. Here a ‘historical’ shelf was reconstructed on one wall (on the opposite wall was the corresponding original photograph). This was intended to give visitors an idea of what it was like in the Schichtl family’s mobile workshop and props. Some of the original figures were also displayed on the shelf under Plexiglas. At another point, one walked through a curtain as if into a theatre situation and could take a seat on two benches. Spotlights illuminated different puppets one after the other in the dark depth of the stage.

Visitors should also be able to feel the atmosphere of a theatre visit here. In this context, puppets showing racist stereotypes were exhibited without comment. There was no room for questions of colonialism and racism in this ‘atmospheric immersion’. The puppets clearly reflected, for example, how the Schichtl family oriented themselves with their puppets and programmes to the extremely successful ‘Völkerschauen’ (ethnological exhibitions) at the time.

Colonialism and Puppetry
RAHMEN © Anna Pfau

Museums seldom rely entirely on the pure evidence of the view – we do not leave it at that, we simply let objects stand and work for themselves.

We want to explain them. This is often done by ‘talking about’ rather than ‘letting’ the objects speak for themselves. Or by people from societies of origin who are or were familiar with cultural practices, to whose own history they belong. The object sign has a supposed neutrality and scientificity attached to it, which gives general validity to what is written there. It is one of our most important tasks to lend polyphony to this speaking of the objects themselves and speaking about the objects. This includes actively establishing contact with people in the societies of origin. This includes an openness to the voices of the visitors, who come across our collection with their own experiences and cultural influences. This also includes a precise inventory of our objects, always stating sources – where does this information come from? Can it be proven? Is it possibly already outdated? And finally, this includes the publication of our holdings in an online database, so that what we have in stock can be viewed from anywhere in the world. Only in this way can a diversity of voices be created.

We cannot own people; we came to this realisation long ago, after the official end of slavery. Perhaps we also need to come to a new understanding of our collection artefacts. Perhaps we cannot possess them either. If we really take the concept of the ‘agency of things’ seriously as an institution, it means nothing other than to look at the possibility that things can leave us again. This is a painful insight for museums that actually operate exclusively ‘sub specie aeternitatis’.

Written by:

Antonia Napp & Sonja Riehn (2020)

Translated by:

Anthony Gaughan (2020)

Sources and further literature:

Gottfried Korff, Museumsdinge. Deponieren – Exponieren [Museum things. Depositing – Exposing], Cologne, Weimar, Vienna 2007.

Emily Ngubia Kuria, “‘AFRIKA!‘. Seine Verkörperung in einem deutschen Kontext” [‘AFRICA!’ Its embodiment in a German context] in Adibeli Nduka-Agwu, Antje Lann-Hornscheidt, ed., Rassismus auf gut Deutsch. Ein kritisches Nachschlagewerk zu rassistischen Sprachhandlungen [Racism in plain German. A critical reference work on racist language acts], Frankfurt a.M. 2010, pp. 223-237.

Krzysztof Pomian, Der Ursprung des Museums. Vom Sammeln [The origin of the museum. From collecting], Berlin 1988.

Thomas Thiemeyer, „Das Museums als Wissens- und Repräsentationsraum“ [The museum as a space of knowledge and representation] in Martin Walz ed., Handbuch Museum. Geschichte. Aufgaben. Perspektiven [Handbuch Museum. History. Tasks. Perspectives], Stuttgart 2016, pp. 18-21.


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.


Colonialism and Puppetry. Untangeling the Strings. Dr. Antonia Napp presents the virtual exhibition.


Explore the path of an artefact in our museum.


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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