06 Jun 2024 - 08 Jun 2024  |  Joachim Baur, Sharon Macdonald & Philipp Schorch


inherit. heritage in transformation, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Since James Clifford published his highly influential essay on ‘museums as contact zones’ (1997), its ideas have contributed to a sea-change in museum practice and innovation – particularly in ethnographic museums – across the Americas, Europe, the Pacific, and beyond. While his text has been critiqued from various perspectives, it remains useful and productive in many ways. Museums, despite, and even because of, their entanglements in colonial pasts and post/neo-colonial presents, are places that afford moments of contact, or contacts – between bodies, biographies, cosmologies, disciplines, histories, objects, philosophical positions, and political convictions – and may enable unexpected, revealing and even disruptive knowledge-making.

Against the backdrop of Clifford’s proposition, this workshop sets out to generate practice-based reflection on museological contact work and its potentials. It brings together participants who have variously worked with, against and beyond ‘contact zone’ ideas to assess and explore their continuing salience. Focusing especially on examples from Europe, the workshop will include attention to ethnographic collections and collecting institutions but will also seek to expand the remit to other kinds of museums – including those of art, history, medicine, and science and technology – and museum-related initiatives. In addition, it attends to a wider range of topics – such as restitution, new museum developments, and public engagement – and of multiple kinds of material things and entities, including non-human beings. In this way, the workshop will enable reflection on the nature of possible contacts, as well as on the kinds of knowledges and ways of knowing that might be encouraged in and by museums.

More specifically, the workshop aims, through specific cases, to examine: (1) the ways in which contact happens, that is, the moments and processes of contact work – within, against and beyond the notions of uneven reciprocity, ongoing relationship, shared control, honest disagreement and/or current struggles that Clifford variously mentions; and (2) the political and epistemic consequences of engagements that may be collaborative yet contested, negotiated yet asymmetrical. Presenters are asked to (1) draw on their own experience of museum contact work, including any tensions and ruptures, break downs and resurrections, as well as any generative and transformative capacities; and (2) reflect upon what emerged and has been learned from the experience, including what knowledge claims could be made and by whom, and based on what kind of contact work. Collectively, workshop participants will then address broader questions, for example: what happens when contact work is undertaken in different kinds of museums, such as those of art, ethnography, history, and science and technology? What are the agendas of contact work and who or what are implicated in which ways and to which ends? What epistemic contribution can museological contact work make, including to academic developments, such as the material and ontological turns? Are there limitations in certain understandings or practices of ‘contact,’ and are there other notions or ways of engaging that might be employed instead?

In pursuing these questions and offering some answers, the workshop positions itself historically in the last quarter century of (re)thinking and (re)doing museological contact work through and potentially beyond contact perspectives. It attempts to explore contact (re)doing and (re)thinking across museum types and curatorial regimes, thus paving the way for the next quarter century, the yet unknown futures of museums-contacts-knowledges.

For more information, download the workshop program.


Joachim Baur (TU Dortmund University)

Sharon Macdonald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Philipp Schorch (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München)


Irene Hilden (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Margareta von Oswald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Andrei Zavadski (TU Dortmund University)


Safua Akeli Amaama (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

Julia Binter (University of Bonn)

Peter Bjerregaard (Danish Museum for Science and Technology)

James Clifford (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Sabine Dahl Nielsen (University of Copenhagen)

Maria Silina (University of Quebec in Montreal)

Margareta von Oswald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)