Mirjam Sarah Brusius (PhD Cantab) is a cultural historian with an interest in visual and material culture in colonial contexts. Prior to becoming a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in London, she held Fellowships at Harvard, Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is a recent recipient of the relaunched Dan David Prize, now the largest history prize, and initiator of 100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object, an antipode to Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100, which foregrounds formerly excluded voices on museum objects from the Global South. She is currently preparing a study on the politics of museum storage and completing books on W.H.F. Talbot’s photography in the context of science and empire, and on the transfer of archaeological objects from the Middle East.
“The Continuity of Ruptures: Slavery, Colonialism, and the Holocaust in Central Berlin’s Museums”
This talk explores the legacies of German slavery, colonialism, and the Holocaust in the place where they are at once most palpably materialized and also erased: the center of Berlin around the contested Humboldt Forum. This museum is housed inside the recently reconstructed imperial Stadtschloss, whose original facade was funded through the transatlantic slave trade. Instead of commemorating the enslaved, however, a plaque honours a right-wing donor who funded the recent reconstruction. This is one of many examples of how the site raises pressing questions about ruptures and continuities in Germany’s violent past. A sign at the castle’s entrance lists a number of national historical events, yet omits the site’s entanglement with Nazism – normally a cornerstone of German memory culture. Meanwhile, the famous antiquity collections on Museum Island are still presented as the ‘cradle of Western civilization’, rather than as a colonial collection of non-European origin that ought to be subjected to the same critical attention as the ethnological collections inside the Humboldt Forum across the road. Together with human remains from sites of German colonial genocide, these collections all contributed to colonial race science and racial antisemitism in the Wilhelmine Empire – areas which German historiography has insistently separated to this day. What do these separations, continuities, and omissions tell us about the self-proclaimed civilized German Kulturnation today? To what degree does the very race science that enabled colonialism still dominate the discourse about museums and Germany? Referring to an imperial Golden Age as an absolving projection, I argue that the museums’ current configuration has much deeper roots related to how memory culture has been managed in post-reunification Germany. Rather than counteracting “ruptures in civilization”, this national heritage site reflects the ways in which antisemitism and racism have persisted into the present – only in a new guise. By exploring these themes, my talk complicates narratives of national guilt and victimhood at a time when memory culture is undergoing a radical change.