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U. F. O. S in the archive
The Dark Secret of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum

A comment by Yuna-Lee Pfau


What are UFOs?

In the archives of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum there is a collection of more than 3000 artifacts, which are referred to as unidentifiable found objects - Ufos for short.
"Unidentifiable" in this context means that the essential information of the objects is completely missing or incomplete.
Without said information, such as: Country of origin, place of origin, year of origin, purpose and materiality, the objects cannot be used for ethnographic scientific work and are thus initially useless for museum operations.
But what exactly happens to these UFOs now and in the future? Are they nothing more than physical matter, doomed to mold in the museum's archive?
And if so, how and why did they come into the possession of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in the first place?

Where do they come from? Origin of the UFOs

The first UFOs were probably given to the museum as part of the gigantic legacy of the "world traveler, collector" and self-proclaimed ethnographer, Heinrich Joest.
While he successfully pursued his mission of ethnographic science throughout his life, i.e. to collect as many objects as possible from the cultures he encountered on his travels, he also found some UFOs among his dated souvenirs.
It must have been difficult for him to keep track of such a conglomerate of over 3,500 objects. In addition, over the years, generous donations of collections from private ownership followed again and again, from which a large number of objects also remain unidentifiable to this day. And while the museum has, since its founding, faced the challenge of creating a form of conservational order for this constantly growing collection, categorizing and sorting it, the unidentifiable objects also had to give way to order.
And so the Ufos came into being, those objects that were categorized solely by their uncategorizability.

What's next? The Subversive Power of UFOs

The label that was placed on these „outsider artifacts“ is a result of the methodology of ethnographic knowledge production. I therefore creates a potential to consider and question this very methodology on a theoretical, practical, and poetic level in the current decolonial discourse.
The Ufos, in their apparent unidentifiability, remind us that the methodology of ethnographic knowledge production must be understood literally as a form of production.
Meaning that all objects extracted from their primordial cultures and realities (forcibly or not) are systematically filtered through the social reality of Western hegemonic ethnography/social sciences and then transformed into context-specific artifacts. The artifacts are only useful for European ethnography and its museum operations in this exact form.

The exhibits, which can be seen today in the RJM's permanent exhibition for example, tell a coherent story. They tell of the world’s distant culture’s diversity and evoke exotic adventures in the visitors minds. Within a controllable framework the museum also reflects its own and Europe's colonial history in general. In such a way that the broad spectrum of society feels addressed to learn and deal critically with the (mostly) own colonial history, but is also entertained.
The image that is being painted by the curation is thus still shaped by an institutional narrative that can transform itself at will and move with the times. But it remains immanently and inevitably an image that was and is drawn by and for the German/European population. The debate about the raison d'être of ethnographic institutions, such as the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, will probably progress rather slowly, if at all, in view of the German bureaucratic mentality.

If one reduces their critical gaze to the discussion's partial question of whether and how to exhibit products of the colonial era in an ethnographic institution, then the Ufos have the right to become part of the conversation, at least in this respect. The Ufos are like small pebbles stuck in the cogwheels of the ethnographic production of knowledge. They have an immanent subversive power that may be able to not only complete the image of the museum and its history, but to tear it apart. Into many small snippets. A multitude of views and realities, a chaos that an ethnographic institution as we know it is perhaps no longer capable of grasping.
Exhibiting the UFOs could mean that the museum would not be able to deliver its supposed knowledge.
It would be a chance to reveal the restrictive nature of ethnographic work and, not least, to confront the colonial traits in the methodological filtering process that objects from non-European cultures undergo in order to become artifacts of a European narrative.


This text is a free, non-scientific commentary written in the context of the exhibition "Not allowed to rot" of the Leaky Archive project by the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum.
The commentary is a counterpart to the satirical video work of the same name by Yuna-Lee Pfau, which was also created and shown as part of the exhibition.
The information provided critically in the text was primarily taken from interviews with museum staff of the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum.
In addition, the text refers to scholarly sources on the topic of archiving in ethnography.


Carl Deussen, member of the research project “Wer ist Joest?”
funded by: Fritz Thyssen Foundation, Museumsgesellschaft RJM e.V.
Interview on 25.05.2023

Dr. Fabiola Arellano Cruz, Head of Education and Communication, Museum Service RJM
Interview on 17.08.2023

Christian Meyer.Problems of archiving and secondary use of ethnographic data.
published in: Hollstein, Betina and Jörg Strübing (eds.) 2018): Archiving and Access to Qualitative Data. RatSWD Working Paper Series 267. Berlin

Miraj Rasool.Rethinking the ethnographic museum.Downloaded from Brill.com04/10/2023 04:44:00PM via free access, seen on 05.09.23

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