On Muscles by Edi D. Winarni

We remember: the inception of museums and in particular ethnographic museums was, at its core, a manifestation of colonial ambitions. Driven by the relentless pursuit of objects, colonial administrators sought to assemble collections that would captivate and enthrall their homelands with the allure of the exotic from foreign lands. These repositories became the symbolic battlegrounds of imperial powers, where possessing the grandest collection equated to asserting dominance and power.

The metaphorical flexing of muscles within these museum walls became an ingrained automatism, an unchecked impulse that led to the relentless accumulation of artifacts—quantities that, in the case of Berlin’s “Preussischer Kulturbesitz” and its Ethnological Collection alone, amounted to roughly half a million pieces. This insatiable gathering of “the others'” possessions metamorphosed into a muscle memory, an unsettling behavior residing just beneath the surface of conscious and ethical awareness.

Yet, let us turn the gaze inward. Reflecting upon one’s own cognitive habits, one is compelled to ponder the entanglement with learned ways of thinking—a mental muscle memory acquired over a lifetime. This raises the critical question of how to navigate and transcend these ingrained patterns. We all work and conduct research with what is available in the collection and its archive, the foundation for what is to come and what we create with it—our so-called memory of society. But isn’t memory always inherently slightly deceitful?

The challenge lies in devising a new methodology that disrupts the established muscle memory. How can we, as agents of culture and knowledge, redefine our relationship with these so-called objects? Is it possible to forge an approach that extends beyond the confines of conventional learning and thinking, daring to venture into uncharted territories of understanding? – An understanding, that dismantles the legacy of colonial muscle memory and guides to an era of conscious, ethical engagement with the diverse interweavings of human history.