The bookshelves are still empty, it looks like a new start – on dignified stained boards, behind glass doors. Anyone who visits Tina Brüderlin in her Dahlem office, where the hallways are otherwise being rearranged, will experience a spirit of optimism.
The new director of the Ethnological Museum has been in office for almost six months. She brings momentum, as was already experienced in the relaxed talk show at the annual reception of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation – and a refreshing laugh.
When the talk show host, when questioning the new museum directors, asked her how her arrival in Berlin had gone so far, Tina Brüderlin answered frankly: it was pretty exhausting. She had obviously imagined it differently.
In addition to familiarizing herself with her new job, the ethnologist had to spend weeks looking for an apartment and also find a daycare place for her five-year-old son – a real challenge in Berlin. But in the meantime it has worked out and the family of three has moved into new quarters in Prenzlauer Berg, in which shelves can now also be filled with books.
The volumes come from Freiburg, where Tina Brüderlin has been head of the ethnological collection at the Museum Natur und Mensch for the last ten years – and very happily, as she emphasizes. Nevertheless, the scientist, who specializes in East Africa and North America, threw her hat in the ring when she found out about the Berlin job advertisement.
Even if she enjoyed freedom in Freiburg, so Brüderlin, she was able to realize exhibitions in her department within a very short time, the change appealed to her. Despite all the activities, even smaller municipal houses, the greatest attention is directed to the capital. That can also be frustrating. “There’s an incredible amount happening in Berlin right now,” adds the 44-year-old. “It was the right time for me to get involved.”
For the ethnologist it is also a return, because between 2009 and 2012 she took part in a research project at the Humboldt University, which examined the trade with the Haida and Tlingit on the northwest coast of America using the example of the collection of the Berlin Ethnological Museum. There she traveled back and forth with her laptop, interviewing Native Americans.
Freiburg was the next step. When Brüderlin talks about it, her eyes light up. “The discourses held in Berlin are taking place elsewhere, just less noticed there,” she regrets. Right at the beginning of her work in the city council, the ethnologist was interrogated on the subject of colonial history, since the ethnological collection also contains Benin bronzes.
The discussion culminated in an exhibition on the subject of colonialism. The objects have now been put online and are being prepared for restitution.
But always just German colonial history? Brüderlin wants to broaden the focus of public attention. There is more, says the half-Brazilian, half-Black Forest woman, referring to her own roots. Through her research work in Canada and Alaska, she is familiar with the “Native American Graves and Repatriation Act” of the USA. Since then, Brüderlin has relied primarily on cooperation with the communities of origin from which artefacts in public collections originate.
She is convinced that their participation in exhibition concepts is particularly important, not necessarily the restitution of objects. When she mentions Bénédicte Savoy and her vehement demands for her return, she responds with a smile that quickly disappears and points out that museums also have a responsibility to preserve cultural heritage.
Brüderlin is coming to the Humboldt Forum at a moment when the decisions for the presentation of the Ethnological Museum have long since been made – even if the second part of the permanent exhibition will not open until autumn and it is not clear what of the Benin bronzes will be on display, their return pending.
It is quite possible that the exhibits will remain in Berlin for the time being and can be shown. The decision lies with the Nigerian partners, stressed foundation president Hermann Parzinger a few days ago on the sidelines of the handover of 23 objects to the National Museum of Namibia.
In any case, Tina Brüderlin no longer wants to intervene in the design of the permanent exhibition in the Humboldt Forum, she says so clearly. “I have far too much respect for the work that has been done by others over the past few years.” So it could be a while before her handwriting becomes visible to the audience.
And yet the ethnologist has decided to bring “the dynamics behind the scenes”, the results of the research work in Dahlem, where the depot of the Ethnological Museum is located, to a greater extent in the temporary exhibition areas of the museums.
In the meantime, your own research work must be put on hold. As the person responsible for a 25-strong staff and around 500,000 objects that are in the collection of the Ethnological Museum – even if only just under four percent of them can be seen in the exhibitions – she does not get around to it at first.
In her new job, Brüderlin sees herself primarily as an enabler. But she wants to convey new topics to the public, she has set herself, which have a current connection to the historical objects: land law, politics and sustainability, environmental protection.
Even if there is a second desk in the Humboldt Forum, Brüderlin will mainly be found at her workplace in Dahlem. Her heart beats here with the collections, says the ethnologist, they are the backbone of the museum. Nevertheless, it should also be lively here.
Co-working spaces and workshops are planned for the future Dahlem campus. And at some point the bookshelves will also be cleared.