"Recognising commonalities between people and overcoming cultural differences"
The outgoing director Dr. Eva Raabe looks back on her professional life

Eva Ch. Raabe was curator for Oceania at the Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt am Main from 1985 to 2019, at which point she became the museum’s director. Ahead of her retirement at the end of 2023, she talked to us about the pleasures and challenges of her career.

Weltkulturen News: What brought you to ethnology?
Eva Raabe: When I was learning to read, my first book was a children’s compendium of stories and fairy tales from Africa. As a teenager I focused on books in which people from other cultures were the central characters. To take one example, I found Anna Jürgen’s book “Blauvogel” (Blue Bird) about a white settler boy adopted by the Iroquois absolutely enthralling. The way people lived in other cultures fascinated me. Shortly before finishing my secondary school diploma in 1976 I found books by the famous ethnologists Ruth Benedict und Margaret Mead in my parents’ bookshelves, published in German by Rowohlt. That’s when I considered studying ethnology, which at the time was still called “Völkerkunde”, or the study of peoples. I travelled to Berlin with some schoolfriends to see the new South Seas section of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem. After that I was absolutely convinced that ethnology was the right discipline for me.

Dr. Eva Ch. Raabe. Photo: Stefanie Kößling

WKN: How did you come to work in a museum, with Oceania and contemporary art as your special interests?
ER: In 1977 I registered to major in ethnology at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen. The ethnological institute there has an extensive old study collection that largely stems from Georg Forster’s journey to the Pacific with James Cook. There were a few introductory courses on ethnological work in museums. The students would undertake a scholarly identification of objects and devise tours through the collection. Later on, as a student assistant I also produced a catalogue of Göttingen’s Oceania collection. I found it particularly stimulating to combine mental activity with practical tasks. That’s why working in a museum became my goal as a career. The professor at the institute, who also supervised my doctorate, specialised in Oceania. When I first took up my studies he had just returned from a field trip to Papua New Guinea, which had just achieved independence, and cultural change in the country was an important theme of his seminars. That’s how I developed my enthusiasm for contemporary art. It was interesting to see how a generation of young artists in Papua New Guinea established links to their own cultural traditions and reinterpreted them using European artistic techniques. Once I’d completed my foundation course at university I travelled to Papua New Guinea and got involved with the contemporary art there in particular. This theme has always remained part of my life in the museum because it collects contemporary non-European art.

WKN: How have your activities changed throughout the decades?
ER: The first two decades of my career, in the 1980s and 1990s, were marked by infrastructural change. A new storage facility was built. That involved a huge amount of practical work such as moving the collections. And it was still in the analogue era – there was no database where you could retrieve the location of an object with a click; each and every index card had to be written out by hand or typed. As late as the 1990s, the layout of the publications was done manually, and reprographics or internegatives had to be produced of photos and slides for the illustrations. At the same time there was a gradual move away from typewriters via Word for DOS to Windows. Initially there were self-made object directories that used dbase. It was around 2004 that work started on a professional database! That made so many things easier, but it involved a huge amount of development. Maintaining a well-functioning collection database is still hard work today! The radical digital transformation has been particularly noticeable in international communication. Previously, contact with countries like Papua New Guinea or Brazil was only possible by laboriously exchanging letters or faxes, with the occasional telephone call at night because of the time differences. E-mail was a real revolution for us! In terms of content too, our work was involving more and more close interaction with contemporary artists, Indigenous cultures of origin and international cultural institutions. Without digitisation, the kind of collaborative exhibitions we do today wouldn’t even be possible.

WKN: How did you experience the shift from curator to director?
ER: It initially felt like a fairly sudden event accompanied by considerable conflict. Becoming the director was never my goal. I was happy being the Oceania curator. But at the same time I was also the deputy director, and that’s why it was obvious that I would take over as acting director if necessary. When I was then named as official director I already knew full well how much work the associated administrative tasks involved. But moving away from working with the Oceania collection was certainly a little painful. In terms of human resources I had a very clear home advantage, because I’d experienced my colleagues’ commitment and dedication at first-hand for many years and I trusted the team. I certainly grew as a person from having that responsibility for managing others. You have to work pretty hard on yourself: making an effort to hold back your own personality, not taking anything personally, and having an objective attitude to conflicts.

WKN: What kind of challenges do you face today as the director of an ethnological museum?
ER: Managing the budget and battling for financial resources were always challenges for museums. That’s become more acute over time because after the pandemic came the war in Ukraine and the associated energy crisis. But I find the greatest challenge is the stigmatisation of ethnology that accompanies the current discussion on how to approach the colonial era. Because in public everything has to be labelled as “looted art”, you always have to explain just how much the origins of the collections vary. The raison d’être for ethnological museums is often questioned. And that’s completely unfair, because during the political upheavals in the 1960s, if not before then, it was ethnology that demanded all cultures should be treated equally and advocated for the interests of Indigenous groups. In the current heated debate you have to keep on intervening, patiently explain what ethnology is all about, keep on referring to the work done in the past fifty years, and particular in the case of Frankfurt referencing its cooperation with contemporary artists.

WKN: Is there a specific object or encounter that has made a particular impression on you?
ER: There’s a picture in the collection by the painter Joseph Nalo from Papua New Guinea, in which he recounts a myth about the island he comes from in Manus Province. It tells of an island which is swallowed by a mighty shark as punishment for the sinful lives led by its inhabitants. When Nalo visited Frankfurt in 1992 we swapped stories – such as the myth of the sunken island Leip on the one hand and the legend of the submerged North Frisian town Rungholt on the other! After that we discussed the existence of mermaids. When I asked what they looked like in New Guinea, he answered that they were undoubtedly identical to those in Germany – they definitely had long blonde hair tinged with seaweed green. In 1993 he painted that picture and sent it over to us for purchase. When I unrolled it, the first thing I noticed was the image of a mermaid with long yellowish-green hair. I viewed it as so much more than a reminder of our conversations. I sensed that it contained an avowal of the human commonalities that can overcome cultural differences. Since then, whenever I’m working on the collection I always try to establish a link to objects and pictures through commonalities like that.

WKN: What are you particularly looking forward to in your retirement?
ER: I’m not saying goodbye to ethnology, just to working in an institution. Now I can choose my own ethnological topics and concentrate on Oceania once more. But I’ve resolved not to make any firm resolutions, nor to make any fixed plans immediately. I’m looking forward to one thing in particular – living for the moment and feeling free. That can be a very creative process that leads to astonishing results!

WKN: What would you describe as your current soundscapes?
ER: What occurs to me spontaneously is Schaumainkai, the street which runs past my office window. In the Sachsenhausen district there tend to be traffic jams in particular when Untermainkai is closed along the other bank of the River Main. Engine noise and alarm sirens are the permanent background noise accompanying my work. In summer the soundscape changes in a very special way: the shrill calls of the swifts nesting above my office window are heard over the commotion of the street.

The interview can be read in the current issue of Weltkulturen News, which you can subscribe to here: