The Lack of Inner Ethnology

As Lucius Burckhardt, Swiss sociologist and an expert in cultural studies says: liberated from the compulsion of identity-building, 20th-century museums must be ready to engage in a dialogue between ‘own’ and ‘alien’. In this respect, the Völkerkunde museum provides lessons for all others, demonstrating that a museum of today must be based on inner ethnology.

When Burckhardt used the phrase Völkerkunde museum in his emblematic sentence referred to above, he did not refer to what in Hungarian translates into museum of ethnography.

The Hungarian and non-Hungarian terms used for ethno sciences – disciplines, paradigms, methodologies, institutions and representations – show great diversity across different periods and in the interrelation of languages. Also, the linguistic forms of words with the same roots (ethnographia, ethnologia, anthropologia, cultura) barely correspond to one another in their usage by the different nations. When and what was referred to as Völkerkunde, Ethnologie or néprajz(tudomány) (ethnographic science) is integrally linked to how society was viewed in a given period, what expectations of the sciences were held by society, and the extent of social responsibility assumed by the various branches of science.

From the 18th to the mid-20th century – the period when the terms applied to ethno sciences were shaping and became institutionalised – the process of arriving at a permanent term was closely linked to the notion of ‘other’ or ‘alien’ each nation needed to ‘discover’ in order to define and confirm their own identity: they either found this in other ethnoses or perhaps in the subordinate strata of their own societies. Having found this ‘alien’, the question of how and where it was eventually positioned in the given society in comparison to itself much depended on the definition of its own identity, or rather its representation: was it defined from the standpoint of a world power or from the perspective of imagined, real or constructed historical, ethnic and national in isolation?

The temporary parallels in the Hungarian and German scholarly terminology applied to ethno sciences partly stemmed from the fact that up until the middle of the 20th century many similarities had existed in the self-definition of the two societies, including nation-building, the construction of a national culture and the role assigned to ethno sciences in these. It was thanks to these shared experiences that the German terms for the ethno sciences –Volkskunde and Völkerkunde – can be largely seen as equivalent to the Hungarian néprajz (ethnography) and etnológia (ethnology), inasmuch as the former vindicated the right to explore domestic, national, ethnic and historic cultures, while the other laid claim to the realm of distant, universal, ’primitive’ cultures outside Europe. The above parallels had come to an end after WW II and – starting from 1968 as a symbolic date – the discourse of ethnography and ethnology has been diverging to such an extent that they are no longer compatible without lengthy explanations. From 1968 onwards the German Volkskunde has undergone a radical and self-reflexive paradigm shift, while Völkerkunde arrived at post-colonial criticism in a far slower course that had been imbued with colonial notions for a long period of time.