13. September 2017

How museums deal with their colonial heritage is not a big issue in Germany. With their project “Not A Single Bone”, however, artists Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles are asking uncomfortable questions.

By Philipp Hindahl

When Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles talk about their work, they frequently use the word “narrative”. This is because for them, it is all about stories and about the knowledge that these stories convey. And, most significantly, about those stories that art and cultural institutions tell themselves and one another. Their work “Not A Single Bone” concerns a dinosaur skeleton that is on display in the Natural History Museum in Berlin.

The story takes place in the year 1909. It is two years after the end of the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa, which is now Tanzania. After the rebellion was put down with much bloodshed by the colonial forces, excavations began in the German colony. The colonial masters were actually looking for raw materials for arms production, but found something else as they were doing so. At least that’s how the official story goes.

At the foot of the Tendaguru

“Institutions frequently tell these stories in such a way that those discovering the exhibits are romanticized”, says Nora Al-Badri. But: “The bones were visible to everybody and the population of the Tendaguru hills knew exactly where they lay.” So in reality it was the local people who drew the attention of the Germans to these extraordinarily large bones at the foot of the Tendaguru. The indigenous population were subsequently put to work as burden-bearers, carrying the fossils to the coast so that they could be shipped from there to Germany.

Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles, Territories of cultural fracking, 2017
Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, Single Bone, 2017

An exhibition has been created from Al-Badri and Nelles’ research work. With film footage from the now overgrown and barely recognizable site of the find in Tanzania. With detailed interviews on dinosaurs and the cultural preconceptions that surround them. With bones that are based on precise data from the Natural History Museum. Even though the museum would not produce this data when asked. Al-Badri: “We managed to – as we like to say – ‘find’ the data on the bones anyway.”

An invention of modernism

The existence of giant fossilized bones has actually always been known – whether it was in ancient Greece or among native Americans. The fact that their knowledge was often far more comprehensive than that of natural scientists was only recognized late in the twentieth century. It was just more important to the First Nation Americans that the fossils remained in the ground. In a video of the exhibition, the writer and philosopher Denny Gayton explains that for the nomadic Native American tribes, it is an obscene and potentially dangerous notion to take things out of the ground.

Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, Single Bone, 2017

Almost 20 years ago, the art historian W.J.T. Mitchell wrote that dinosaurs were the totem animals of Modernism and at the same time its invention. “Dinosaurs are us”, says Mitchell. The “terrible lizards” of modern times and the Dino of popular culture are a projection, since we can barely imagine that our own species will itself one day die out. Al-Badri: “Creativity and speculation have always been involved here. So far no complete dinosaur skeleton has ever been found. Even the brachiosaurus from Tanzania was only around 70 percent complete, the rest is speculation.” The Berlin brachiosaurus has even had to be rebuilt a few times according to the latest scientific findings.

We really don’t know

Another part of the exhibition is called “How an Al Imagines a Dinosaur”. A self-learning algorithm designed two bones on the basis of protein structures in order to show that many different versions of dinosaurs are conceivable. First and foremost: how do we know how dinosaurs looked? We really don’t know. After all, a large proportion of what we believe about dinosaurs is invention, a more or less specific guess by natural scientists.

Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, Single Bone, 2017
Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, Single Bone, 2017

The scientific preoccupation with these prehistoric beings developed in parallel with the imperialism of the 19th century. A coincidence? Establishing hierarchies of knowledge appears to be a concern for the colonial masters and even early paleontologists. The fact that science is oriented towards facts is another narrative: “In our society, it is taken for granted that the significance of natural science is higher in the hierarchy than the knowledge of indigenous peoples”, says Nikolai Nelles.

Never to be brought to Europe

Even in Lindi, the district capital at Tendaguru, almost nobody knows anything about the excavation site today. “For us it’s important to identify with and speak to the local communities in Tanzania, whose grandparents were still laboring under the Germans. They challenged us to do something in Germany to bring something back – and basically to build a museum.” But of course that doesn’t mean a closed building with a centuries-old tradition of knowledge production.

Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles, How an AI imagines a Dinosaur N°2, 2017

 “Instead, it should be a virtual place that can even travel”, says Nelles. This also means a datacenter, however, and ensuring the knowledge production is not left up to others. The geographical location in Africa is important regardless, because it is the one thing that ultimately cannot ever be brought to Europe. 

For the two artists, the project is not about returning stolen goods. Nevertheless, they do aim to show the practices of extraction. A misunderstanding: When they approached the Natural History Museum for the data to reproduce the bones, the reaction came quickly: “Not a single bone” will be returned to Africa.

Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles, Territories of cultural fracking, 2017