“Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum.” A temporary exhibit at the Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany, on view from October 27, 2017 to June 2, 2019.
In introducing their Beyond Compare exhibit at the Bode Museum, curators Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine, and Paola Ivanov have been very clear and consistent about the unique opportunity that allowed them to juxtapose African and European art: objects from the ethnographic collections became available while they waited for their new home in the controversial Humboldt Forum. The ephemeral nature of this experiment thus hovers over this temporary exhibition more than over most—a window is only briefly open to challenge our current museological practice, and will close again soon. That said, we are keenly aware of this because the curators, to their credit, have used this opportunity to raise fundamental questions about how we display the arts of different places and periods, and to investigate the meaning of continuing disciplinary and institutional divisions between them. In the catalogue, in the introductory wall panels, and in the “About this Exhibition” section of the exhibit’s companion app, they almost immediately segue from explaining this unique opportunity to challenging their visitors’ ideas and expectations. “What causes us to view objects as similar or different? What insights can we gain from the joint display of works of art with different histories? Why were some objects classified in the past as ‘ethnological’ and others as ‘art’?” In the end, however, the temporary nature of this exhibit and the questions raised by this remarkable and ambitious show are poignant and haunting because they underscore the disciplinary and institutional divides that will re-emerge when it closes in June.
What is this ambitious and timely exhibition? As it promises, Beyond Compare sets objects mostly from western and central Africa from the collections of the old ethnographic museum in Dahlem alongside Italian, Byzantine, and central European objects from the collections of sculpture, painting, and decorative art in the Bode. In the museum’s designated temporary exhibition space on the lower (basement) level, visitors move through more than a hundred objects grouped into six thematic sections: The Others, Aesthetics, Gender, Protection and Guidance, Performance, and Taking Leave. Additional pairs of objects in specially labeled “stations” appear throughout the rest of the permanent collection of European decorative art and painting on the upper floors and are also interpreted thematically. These “stations” both bring the temporary exhibition to visitors in the rest of the museum and subtly shift the interpretive context of the other objects in those galleries. The beautifully designed smartphone app provides an audio guide and supplemental text; it also helps visitors who have downloaded it to find the additional objects. Together, the “stations” and the app have a kind of treasure-hunt quality, although museum visitors without the app or unaware of the exhibit might experience either a sense of serendipity or confusion in stumbling across these fascinating pairings.
As we have seen, the curators explicitly ask visitors to consider museological conventions from the outset. They even devote one of the first large wall panels on the entrance-level ground floor to “Exhibition Labels,” drawing attention to museum conventions and to the choices they have made about how to treat the (mostly African) objects whose creators’ names they do not know. Throughout the exhibition, they challenge traditional ethnographic and art historical designations, inviting viewers to abandon their usual historical or aesthetic categories and instead focus on themes that emphasize broad cultural comparability and that often consider the social functions of objects. Pairings consider questions and themes like “How Does Art Become Art?,” “Must a Portrait be True to Life?,” “Powerful Women,” “Wild Animals,” and “Hair.” In doing so, this curatorial work gives us a strong example of “decolonizing” the art museum by pointing out how European museums have interpreted African art as evidence that illustrates anthropological theories. Just as importantly, however, the exhibition also simultaneously “provincializes” Europe, calling attention to how museums have transformed a variety of European objects into “art”—objects that were actually created in a wide variety of ritual contexts. For instance, in comparing a Belgian reliquary bust of a bishop, c. 1500, to a nineteenth-century Kota or Kélé (Gabonese) Bwiti figure, art historian Andrew Sears points out that it is the reliquary that still contains human remains, and thus is far more an “ethnographic” object, even though it is the one that has been historically treated as a work of art. Likewise, the exhibition helps to localize ideas about and standards for “beauty,” moving away from universal categories and helping viewers consider the particularities of European aesthetics.
One of the most fascinating questions that arose for me from this exemplary exhibition is what it means that these objects are going through yet another cultural translation. Rather than framing them as ethnographic objects, displayed to illustrate various (European) anthropological theories of human development, diversity, or change, this exhibition puts objects into conversation through a (European) language of art. What does this new act of translation mean? In an exhibition so self-aware, the curators themselves repeatedly call attention to the divides between “ethnographic object” and “art.” But it is difficult to escape the feeling that we are still to some extent trapped in these European categories. The Bode has boldly displayed these objects in a radical new way, but they are still displayed alongside European art, in a European style, in a European museum, and often discussed using European art historical categories as well as cultural or historical context. Translating African art objects into European terms still means understanding African cultural figures through a European artistic tradition. Does that have the danger of re-inscribing such forms of analysis into universal categories? Do art historical analyses of form, material, and function have such universal application?
“Beyond Compare” will close on June 2 and the African
objects will move into their new home in the Humboldt Forum, alongside the
objects from the Asian Art Museum. I can only hope that, in conjunction with efforts
to return or loan objects to their places of origin, experiments like this
continue. This is not just crucial for our understanding of African or Asian art
and culture, but to help us see European art and art institutions differently:
as historical creations themselves, that wield their own magical and ritual
 The Forum will be housed in reconstruction of the Berlin Schloss, damaged by Allied bombing in World War II and torn down by the East German government in 1950; the new museum will house the national ethnographic collection and the Museum of Asian Art. For a discussion of the controversy, see, for instance, Graham Bowley, “A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany,” New York Times, October 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/arts/design/humboldt-forum-germany.html.
 This pairing appears in “Fragmented Objects,” Station 7.6A, Room 209, Floor 2. See Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine, and Paola Ivanov, eds., Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum (Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2017), 150.