Note: This piece was adjusted on 10/21/14. The title of the former curator, Peter Bolz, was changed and a quote from the organizers of the Humboldt Lab was altered to better express their intent
At the Ethological Museum’s Humboldt Lab in Berlin, the play Captain Jacobsen recently premiered, featuring a performance by the group Das Helmi that culminated with brightly painted and masked dancers provocatively presenting what was supposed to be Natives of the Northwest during a potlatch feast. The dancers writhed intertwined and rode on each other’s backs in what was described as “a naked orgy of naked savages“ by the museum’s outraged former curator of the North American Collection, Peter Bolz (who retired in 2012). Males wore socks that covered their genitalia but most of the young female dancers were naked as they playfully simulated sexual wildness before an audience that included small children.
The play is about the ethnologist Adrian Jacobsen, who traveled to the Northwest Coast to trade with the Kwakiutl, Haida and other tribes, and much of his acquired booty is still at the museum to this day. At its premiere in September, the recreation of his adventures received mixed reviews.
“Part of the audience saw it as an innovative experiment, and part saw it as a form of neo-racism against Native Americans,” said Bolz. “Imagine if representatives of these Indigenous Peoples had been present in the hall. They would immediately leave Berlin under protest and never come back!”
Other opinions were even more harsh. “Lacking in every respect; coarse, anarchic, ironic, absurd” and “stereotypical and done with low skill” said the review in the The Berliner Zeitung. It said the show was representing “the vulnerability of traditional Indian cultures through contact with the ethnologist (Jacobsen), which was interpreted with anarchic humor by Berlin puppet theater, Das Helmi.
The Ethnological Museum continues to be the center of controversy regarding cultural insensitivity, misinformation and shock-value displays of indigenous items from around the world. One such was a display case of sacred Native items alongside a crushed Budweiser can and empty flask of whiskey, with a blurb stating that the biggest problem among Native Americans was alcoholism.
The museum’s director, Viola König, defended the sexualized performance and the museum’s collection. “Das Helmi were simply, playfully implementing all typical contemporary prejudices in a vivid, imaginative way to entertain,” she said. Regarding the controversial objects and displays in the museum, she said, “Organizers of the Humboldt Lab said, ‘Cultural appropriation is always a violent act, and direct or structural violence were likely used in acquiring many objects of our ethnological collections, but they still need to be shown.’”
Red Haircrow is a BSc of Psychology, Graduate student attending Montana State University, and award-winning author/poet of mixed Native American descent, currently living in Berlin, Germany.