Dr. Eva Ch. Raabe about museum und ethnology during crisis 

Dear Friends of the Weltkulturen Museum,

In the media, psychologists and sociologists are volunteering explanations of people’s behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet much of what affects us right now is interesting from an ethnological perspective too.  

The numerous individual studies of various sections of the population and cultural groups have led to increasingly vocal criticism that ethnology focuses on the cultural differences between human communities, thereby emphasising their inequality. This censure, however, fails to recognise what lies at the heart of the discipline. Ultimately, studying local cultures and small groups is also about comparing cultural differences in order to discern what is fundamentally human. This can be illustrated by taking a look at purchasing behaviour during the crisis; particularly when measures to counter the pandemic were first introduced, people all over the world started stockpiling. The precise nature of the goods viewed as particularly desirable – whether toilet paper, pasta, red wine or marijuana – is determined by the prevalent lifestyles and everyday culture in each country. What links them all is people’s desire to retain control over their own supply chain.

Rituals as Events of Orientation

Religious celebrations are similarly falling victim to the restrictions placed on going outside and physical contact with others; even in a secular world, such festivities are still hugely important for social coherence. A central theme in ethnology is that of rites of passage: birth, puberty, marriage and death are life-changing events that are universally accompanied by rituals, even in industrialised countries. The Easter festival and its associated public holidays mark an important juncture in the year – and not just for devout Christians. Now that communions and confirmations are being postponed, large commemorations are prohibited for weddings and funerals, and families are unable to meet up for Easter, crucial points of reference are missing from people’s lives. We can now no longer come together to assure ourselves that the world we are used to will continue to exist. When these changes to our lives cannot be accompanied by familiar rituals, it makes them seem all the more threatening.

Changes at the Weltkulturen Museum

The staff of the Weltkulturen Museum are similarly facing many uncertainties at the moment. We simply do not know if all our events can take place as planned. With the restrictions on contact making preparations difficult, we have been forced to delay the opening of the exhibition “SW5Y: 5 Years of Civilian Sea Rescue” to 4 June, and right now we are unable to tell if the activities scheduled for our special focus on migration can be held or not. Even before the beginning of the Corona crisis we had decided to extend the exhibition “WORLDS IN MOTION. Narrating Migration” until 31 January 2021, and so we will try to stage any cancelled events in autumn instead. At the Weltkulturen Museum – a museum dedicated to the cultures of the world – our events rely on the participation of people from around the globe. Even if the travel restrictions in Germany were to be relaxed, nobody can know what impact the crisis will have in countries such as Indonesia and Canada.

“Weltkulturen News”: Focus on Dedication

With the museum itself closed, now is an ideal time for us to give you an insight into our work behind the scenes. And so the second edition of our publication “Weltkulturen News” will appear as originally planned before the Corona crisis. It addresses personal, social and political dedication, which are all particularly important in times of crisis. Moreover, it deals with issues – providing assistance for refugees and taking environmental action – that are currently fading into the background, even though they remain critically important. In our first edition we launched a new format, and now in our second we are establishing once and for all: yes, this is going to be continued.

Digital and Analog

At the moment many museums are relying on digital content, and the Weltkulturen Museum is no exception. Not only is our website offering films, podcasts and a cookbook in digital format, but “Weltkulturen News” is now accessible online. Yet we still find that our analogue newspaper format is unbeatable: you can feel and smell the paper, you can hear the rustle as you turn the page. Unlike the online editions of newspapers there are no annoying adverts popping up or news tickers scrolling by. You can completely immerse yourself in the articles and thoroughly enjoy the read. So perhaps we can provide you with some welcome distraction during this crisis. 

We wish you all a great deal of enjoyment with your reading, but above all stay healthy and in good spirits!

With the best regards,

Dr. Eva Ch. Raabe,

Director Weltkulturen Museum

Here you can read the second edition of Weltkulturen News and sign up for the print edition.