1977-83 I studied business administration, politics and ethnology in Munich and qualified as a professional trader;
1984-86 I worked for Siemens PLC, in IT and sales, as a technical editor;
1987-91 I completed a doctorate in IT (under the supervision of Prof. Klaus Häfner);
1992-2010 I worked as an independent entrepreneur in Berlin;
2002-present I have worked as an ethnologist.
Our cultural diversity is preserved in museum depots, which are in effect libraries of material culture. In order to understand and master the language of this heritage we need to compare as many objects as possible, especially those conserved in museums, where the number of pieces that are documented but still in more or less original condition is far greater than in private collections. The patina, in particular, is often altered by art collectors and traders, with the result that it no longer bears any resemblance to the original surface and its original use. Bizarrely, it is often this modified patina which is thought to be typical and most valuable.
I specialize in African and Oceanic masks and figures, as well as in Amazonian feather ornaments, clubs and rattles. My work therefore consists in producing photographic inventories of these objects, together with the relevant documentation. My aim is to complete a database inventorying the objects in as many museums as possible, along with a thesaurus of common key words. For example, about 15-20% of the objects in the collections of Amazonian feather ornaments are poorly inventoried, either in terms that are too general or even not inventoried at all. One essential part of my work is to reclassify the objects from this region, based on those that are already reliably documented (biologists refer to this as systematization). As for the materials and technique, these are still very often wrongly classified and it is necessary to refine, to complete and to correct these errors.
In this way it is possible, little by little, to reconstruct an ethnic group's whole artistic history, the various artefacts of which are today distributed among numerous museums. Thanks to the systematic application of a common database of all the relevant objects, texts and photos, we can publish far more precise details of these museum collections. My articles focus on an analysis of the objects themselves, their geographic origins, their history as collectors' items in Europe, and on reconstructing the way they were worn or carried. They also focus on a description of the whole range of dance costumes in a given ethnic group and reveal which museums have the different parts of a dance costume (the parts of a costume are rarely all in one and the same museum). Once we know enough about a sufficient number of objects we can perform a comparative analysis of the history of the materials used in a given region over a period of about 200 years. This, notably, enables us to recognize which colour combinations and bird feathers were typical. Based on the materials used, i.e. the feathers, we can almost always detect a "Euro-Brazilian" influence. Ethnological theories are not supported often enough by an exact analysis of the material cultures. So they become texts that are merely ethno-philosophical fantasy, based instead on European issues and preoccupations, telling us more about their authors than about the people purportedly described.
On the contrary, scientific articles ought to analyse the various objects according to how rare they are, how well preserved and how aesthetically pleasing. These criteria should not be based on personal or European preconceptions, but should reveal their creator's typical aesthetics. Such an analysis should, in each case, enable us to assess the object's importance as world heritage, since the findings may influence how well, if at all, it is preserved in the museum. My cooperation with the various museums has not been the same in the case of Amazonian art as it has been regarding African masks and figures. Whereas I have been able to work together successfully with numerous museums on Amazonian art, I could not make inventories for parts of the African collections in the ethnological museums of Berlin, the Berthoud (Burgdorf), Göttingen, Mannheim and St Gallen.
The work I have been doing in numerous ethnological museums since 2002 has enabled me - without me planning it - to compare such institutions across Europe. This issue is, as yet, seldom discussed in Germany. There is no museum lobby in politics and there are no specialist museum journalists in the media (newspapers, TV, radio). However, there is a lot that needs to be discussed - models to emulate and new solutions, but also various problem areas: content omissions and structural errors relating to the organisation of the Berlin Humbolt-Forum; the closing of exhibition rooms without replacing them (e.g. in the Riemer-Museum, Wittenberg); difficulties faced by researchers regarding access to museum depots (e.g. in the Hamburg Ethnological Museum); the poor conditions in which certain objects are conserved, which can sometimes lead to their loss (e.g. in the Berthoud Ethnological Museum); the creeping elimination of scientists' jobs (e.g. Dresden Ethnological Museum, GRASSI Ethnological Museum, Leipzig); a lack of restorers in most small and medium-sized museums; the blocking of scientific articles by copyright, photography rights and charges; and the introduction of leasing charges when objects are lent to other museums for exhibitions. Other issues outstanding include the management and organizational structures in museums. Their ethnologists freely criticize colonial history and collections but are far less likely to dare to question the organizational structures of their own museum, which have not changed since the colonial era. The German ethnological museums are in need of a paradigm change towards democratization,, in line with what has taken place in France with the Musée du Quai Branly or in Switzerland with the MEG. Whereas in libraries anyone may obtain free access to books, find out which works are available and consult them, museum curators still limit access to their objects to exhibitions and publications. Only a select few scientists have access to the objects. I don't ask that everyone be accorded an individual meeting in the depot or allowed access to objects any time they wish, but rather that each object be virtually accessible on the internet in the form of photos and documentation on the collections (inventory books, cards and files).
The smugness with which the museums consider they are an end in themselves can also be seen in exhibitions, where the curators showcase their knowledge. The possibility that the thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands, of visitors might have specific knowledge about the objects that could be made use of, does not occur to the museums. Is there ever an exhibition without a single fault or omission? Why are the object texts always so uninformative («cloth, feathers, wood » etc)? If the exhibitions were more interactive, the visitors might, for example, be questioned regarding as yet unidentified birds' feathers and the information thus attained could be added in the course of the various exhibitions. If the objects could be viewed on the internet, the internet users could complete joint exhibition projects with the museums, starting with virtual exhibitions, then real ones. This would be a real paradigm change. With a view to facilitating articles on these questions the magazine Kunst&Kontext was launched in early 2011.
I don't know exactly how many objects I have in my collection, but there are certainly more than a thousand. I acquired my first pieces – two African masks and two small figures from Papua New Guinea – in Flensburg, Germany. During the next few years I bought several objects in Copenhagen, then, from 1994 onwards, in galleries in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Zurich. I was also able to buy some from a painter-restorer-antique trader who lived in Berlin from the 1960s until his death in 2004. Starting in 2005, I have bought several pieces from a collector who specializes in Nigerian art. On the other hand, I have rarely bought pieces at auctions. In 1993 and 1995 I purchased two complete collections from ex-East Germany, one of about 100 pieces, the other about 400 (about half these objects were put aside and a number sold at auction in 2000). Apart from these sales and two exchanges, I have not sold any other pieces.
I acquired my first feather ornaments from a German collection in 1995, and since then I have continued to purchase regularly, each year. In this collection I focus exclusively on an object's aesthetic qualities. I do not take account of commercial considerations as these artworks are virtually impossible to sell. There are still too few collectors and no specialist traders. This experience has strongly influenced the way I go about collecting African and Oceanic art, which are both dominated by traders.
Figurines, masks and feather ornaments have long been a feature of my workspace. So I have been able to study them regularly and to analyse them in a way that is not permitted in the museums. It is true that when you analyse the materials there is always a risk of damaging the object. Sometimes the hands can recognize given details better than the eyes, especially in the case of pieces which have been handled and used often. Additionally, the smell of an object may sometimes provide clues to its history.
Few people have been invited to view my collection because this was (and still is) too stressful for me. Only a handful of German collectors and a gallerist friend from Brussels have been able to view a part.
Contrary to what certain older collectors claim, I do not believe that the ability to judge an object's quality increases with years of experience. The idea is an illusion because your vision deteriorates with age. My best years as a collector were between 35 and 50.
Collecting objects involves conserving and documenting them. In 2014 I decided to sell four objects from my collection each year for the following reason: on a photo in a 1932 journal I could see a kwoi or gope votive board from Papua New Guinea. I was convinced that I knew this object and searched for it unsuccessfully among the museum photos and literature in my database. In December 2013, while I was again looking at a photo of this object and searching for it in my database, my eyes wandered to the side of my desk. There was the object! After observing it briefly, I recognized the initials «N.W.169» from Nell Walden's numbering system. For me this was a wake-up call, telling me that I should document my own collection. Up to that point I had worked exclusively on museum collections. Now selling objects has become the necessary impulse for me to document them and to focus once more on each one before it goes to a new collector.