JEvery museum has a stage and a backstage area. On the stage, selected objects are staged for the visitors and supplemented by an information board. In the backstage area, on the other hand, the much larger part of the collection is slumbering – wrapped in bubble wrap, locked away in cupboards or distributed on euro pallets. The archive is something like the museum’s guilty conscience, because what is there is no competition for the gems and may remain permanently hidden from the view of the public. This division between front and back marks a separation between connoisseurs and interested laypeople. Research and cataloging is carried out in the depot, and people are amazed in the showroom.
Thomas Struth has photographed how visitors to the Louvre or the National Gallery in London look at paintings. Anja Nitz, born in 1971, shows what surprises a depot comes up with. For her new book, she photographed objects from the collections of the Ethnographic Museums in Leipzig, Dresden and Herrnhut. Some of the pictures look almost like snapshots, others captivate with their subtle composition. There is nothing sacred about the aesthetic experience to which they invite, since it owes itself to a sober inventory in the concrete sense. Ironically, the photos of the objects form their own collection, as they are numbered, sorted, listed in an index and provided with explanatory texts.
Colonialism and looted art
Nitz is on familiar territory, because she visited the depots of the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony for her installation “Behind the Mirrors” in 2016. It would have been impossible to keep an overview, after all, there are around 200,000 potential exhibits in Leipzig, 88,000 in Dresden and 6,700 in Herrnhut. Some of them could be perceived as so problematic that the book begins with a trigger warning: “Please note that depictions of ‘sensitive objects’ such as human bones in this volume have a disturbing or hurtful effect due to the history of colonial violence associated with them can – especially for the descendants of the individuals whose bones are in the depots. “
The director of the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony, Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, writes in her contribution that plaster casts testify to a “racist past”, which is why there is no room for them in the showroom. The situation is different when it comes to Anja Nitz’s photo book: “In this particular case, we made the decision that the casts should be part of the book.” The reasons for this decision remain in the dark. With the warning in mind, the question arises as to the exact difference between an object that is not presented out of consideration and a photograph of the same that is made available to the public. With such considerations, the debate about colonialism and looted art always resonates in the background. It is therefore appropriate that Anja Nitz refrains from emphatic representations. Many of her recordings appear sterile.
Traces of the will to inventory
Her artistic principle is casualness. Here tools, transport boxes and mobile shelving systems, there traditional costumes, poison arrows and wax busts. Here an embroidered picture of Ho Chi Minh looking into the distance with alert eyes, there a framed portrait of Mahatma Gandhi behind a computer screen. Everything is staged on an equal footing, without any glaring effects. While order is established in museums through hierarchically organized courses and epochs, their magazines show the chaotic simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. One thinks, because in fact there is also absolute accuracy in the warehouse.
The collection conservators are in charge of supervision. They do not appear in the pictures, but have left traces of their willingness to take an inventory in the form of index cards and folders. The often invoked aura of an object is – so one thinks when looking at the photographs – primarily due to the magic of the stage in the museum room and less to the exhibit itself. Backstage, the objects appear as if they were only there to illustrate the storage principle used ultimately be mothballed.
Anja Nitz: “Depot”. With texts by Kevin Breß, Matthias Harder, Megan Krakouer, Léontine Meijer-van Mensch and Laura van Broekhoven. English and German. Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld 2020. 144 pp., Ill., Hardcover, 40, – €.