Cultural contacts across Europe

Traditions, people and culture are a crucial dimension of Europe. Therefore we want to start the week with an interview with Dr. Elisabeth Tietmeyer, the Director of the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin (Museum Europäischer Kulturen).

What can a visitor find in the Museum of European Cultures?
Our permanent exhibition is called “Cultural contacts”. It focuses on current discussions surrounding social and cultural movements in everyday life. We understand that cultures are always hybrid and subject to changes, since people are moving all the time from place to place.

How does the Museum approach the topic of cultural contacts?
We take a historical and ethnographic perspective. Social connections in the past and in the present are examined on the basis of original objects and their interpretation.
It is important to point out that our interest is ethnographic and not politic. This approach is clearly shown for instance in the presentation where we of course show objects from Russia or Ukraine. We see Europe as a cultural and historical entity rather than a governmental institution like the European Union.
Our Museum was established in 1999 by merging the Museum of Folklore with the European Department of the Museum of Ethnology. So it was created because of internal reasons and above all because of the fact that culture does not end at the national border. The fusion was not promoted by any public institution, and therefore we have always been independent.

We doubt that many Europeans identify positively in a European identity

Which is the perspective of Europe in the Museum?
Our aim is to draw attention to Europe, to reflect and to discuss ideas about it. We recognize that the different cultures in the continent share many similarities that arose from business, migration, wars, religions, etc. This influences us a lot. But in spite of all these similitudes, we doubt that many Europeans identify positively in a European identity. We see some ambivalences: on one side, people criticize Europe – above all the European Union. But on the other side, they support it, especially when they feel threatened by immigration. We notice that citizens feel more European when they want to limit themselves from a third element (immigrants coming from other continents, for instance).
Besides, we underscore the European orientation of the Museum by our ‘European Cultural Days’, a series of events started in the year 2000, which involve a European country or a region and people from Europe being introduced under a specific theme. The ‘Cultural Days’ last up to four weeks and comprise an exhibition as well as a supporting programme. They are usually organized in cooperation with European cultural institutes, associations and / or the respective embassies in Berlin, occasionally also with the corresponding partner museums in Europe. Events such as these are designed to re-establish the museum as a forum for intercultural contacts.

Which general impression does the Museum of European Cultures leave on the
visitor?

I have the feeling that Europe is highly appreciated by those people visiting our exhibitions. The opening of our permanent exhibition brought a lot of attention. We thought it was not going to be well approved due to the critics and bad reputation of Europe emerged from the financial crisis, for instance. But the opposite was the case.

Related to the understanding of Europe, which role do museums play? In other words, what does a visit to a museum bring comparing to other forms of learning (books, films, classes, etc.)?
I see there are two main differences. Firstly, the way of presentation: in the museum there are objects, which have a history behind them. And secondly the environment: at home, sitting in the coach in front of the television, we get easily distracted, whereas in a museum the concentration is higher and we are able to see original objects – this is the unique selling point of museums in general.

How many other museums are devoted to the understanding of European Ethnology?
Apart from the one in Berlin, there can be found two more that entirely apply to European cultures: in Marseille (France) and Vienna (Austria).  In addition, some ethnologic museums have a department addressing also this topic: in Zagreb (Croatia) in Basel (Switzerland) and Osaka (Japan). This means that not the whole museum is about European Ethnology, but there is one section devoted to it. In short, Europe is presented along with other issues in the world. And there are still ethnographic museums in Europe which concentrates with their topic on their national or regional cultures. With many of them we curators of the Museum of European Cultures cooperate for different projects and exchange exhibitions for example. Together with these colleagues we hope that the themes we present will also animate the debate on issues which stir the people in Europe.

Photos copyright:

Front page: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum Europäischer Kulturen / Ute Franz-Scarciglia

Gallery: Main Entrance Hall of the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin / Ute Franz-Scarciglia and Dr. Elisabeth Tietmeyer/Berlin Fotostudio Klam

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