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Director of Frankfurt’s Ethnographic Museum Fired Without Explanation

The exterior of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, where Clémentine Deliss was the director from 2010 to 2015. (photo by dontworry, via Wikimedia Commons)
The exterior of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, where Clémentine Deliss was the director from 2010 to 2015. (photo by dontworry, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last month the city of Frankfurt fired Clémentine Deliss, the director of its museum of non-Western art, the Weltkulturen Museum, preemptively ending a contract that was due to run through March 31, 2018.

No official reason was given for her sudden dismissal, and Deliss told Hyperallergic she couldn’t comment on the situation due to ongoing legal developments stemming from her firing. Reports in the German press have cited factors including “problematic financial management” and “extremely tense” relations between Deliss and the museum’s staff, while Frankfurt’s Director of Cultural Affairs Felix Semmelroth has said the decision had nothing to do with her programming choices. A spokesperson for the city’s cultural affairs department declined to comment on the reasons for Deliss’s dismissal, instead offering the following account of events:

Clémentine Deliss started to work as director of the Weltkulturen Museum on April 1, 2010 after the concerned committee had appointed her. As her contract has not been cancelled, it has been automatically extended until March 31, 2018. Unfortunately, on May 22, 2015 the municipal authorities of Frankfurt felt constrained to give Clémentine Deliss a dismissal without notice.

Clémentine Deliss (photo via Clémentine Deliss/Instagram)
Clémentine Deliss (photo via @Clémentine Deliss/Instagram)

Deliss’s time at the Weltkulturen Museum had its share of hardship, most notably when in 2012 the city government scrapped an €80 million (~$91 million) expansion plan that would have connected the three 19th-century villas that house the institution. But her work at the ethnographic museum, grappling with its collection of 67,000 artifacts from Oceania, Africa, South East Asia, and North, South, and Central America, as well as the colonial legacies they symbolize, has made her one of the most prominent figures working to correct for the legacy of Eurocentrism in art history and the art museums that shape and teach it.

“The underlying condition of this museum remains one of anachronism: The collection is inconsistent in terms of today’s postcolonial condition and does not reflect the current geopolitical circulation of people and goods,” Deliss said in a 2013 talk at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “As a result, affinity to an ethnographic collection of this kind is not a given. In Frankfurt, we try to tackle the hiatus between then and now through a particular approach based on critical heterogeneity. We introduce external impulses into the museological setting 
in order to work with, rather than against, anachronism.”

One of the hallmarks of Deliss’s tenure at the museum is the Weltkulturen Labor program, which grants residencies to artists and researchers, gives them access to the collection, and then exhibits the fruits of their research.

“The Weltkulturen Museum builds up an unfinished collection of emergent works of art or literature created on site, in its laboratory,” Deliss said in a talk at last year’s “Decolonizing the Museum” seminar at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, which was recently published by L’internationale. “These works reflect an intimate fieldwork situation, and an acute interaction by the guest artist or scholar with the specific context of the museum and its artefacts, photographs, people, situations, and exhibitions. It is about decoding the tacit knowledge of objects by using small in-roads rather than mainlines within existing anthropological discourse.”

Such engagements with the problematic legacy of her institution, and the many other projects she has undertaken over the last two decades, have made Deliss a revered figure in the museum and curatorial communities. From 1992 to 1995 she was the artistic director of the Africa ’95 festival organized by London’s Royal Academy of Arts. In 1996 she launched the research-oriented art magazine Metronome. In 2002 she founded the Future Academy, an international research initiative, at the University of Edinburgh.

“For me she has been admirable in the way she produced thoughtful decolonial filters to take on the collections and the heritage of the Weltkulturen Museum,” Vasif Kortun, the director of research and programs at SALT in Istanbul, told Hyperallergic. “It is not often in our managerial museum epoch that we get visionary directors like Deliss who can both articulate a strong intellectual position and put it into action. This is what more and more museums should be doing today as public tools.”

While the reasons for Deliss’s dismissal remain unknown, many were surprised to learn the news, given the transformative impact she has had at the Weltkulturen Museum.

“She brought an exciting new approach to Weltkulturen Museum and above all brought to it a sense of living culture that I could only think benefitted the museum and its public, as well as its collections,” Juan Gaitan, the director of Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, told Hyperallergic. “There were of course disagreements but these were always very productive ones, and this is what I think our engagement with institutions should generate: productive discussions and disagreements. In the end, Clémentine and I and many others agree on the critical part that culture plays in our current political imagination and on the need to engage with these artifacts, as ethnographic collections and museums are, with full knowledge and awareness of the colonial and imperial attitudes that animated them in the first place, and of the fact that none of the objects in those collections naturally belongs in a museum.”

Gaitan added: “Perhaps the orthodoxy persists, but I’d say that Clementine managed to bring all these things out in the time she was allowed to remain there and to implement her program.”

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