‘Splendour and Shine in the Flow of Time- Ethnic jewellery and traditional costume in a changing world’ is the title of a new exhibition by Irene Steiner in the Kreismuseums Zons, Germany. The exhibition will open this month and combines dress and adornment from Europe and abroad. The accompanying book will also appear this month (September 2021), and as usual Irene has left no stone unturned when it comes to our perspectives on dress and jewellery from the recent past. We sat down digitally in advance of the opening of the exhibition and talked about so many things related to curating an exhibition, working with jewellery, the current discussions about non-Western and Western adornment…Irene shares her personal and professional view on her work with us in this article.

How did you first become interested in ethnography? What sparked your interest?

Ethnologists are in a sense “fence sitters” – like, among others, diplomats, shamans, healers, interpreters and witches (in old high German “hagazussa”, old Icelandic literally “tunrida”) – they move between “worlds”, between realities separated in space, time, language or otherwise. Ethnology puts many things into perspective that at first seem self-evident. It is – broken down abstractly – about discovering, documenting, communicating, and researching cultural phenomena and structures. I always wanted to become an ethnologist. My parents were very interested in art history and travelled a lot. That left its mark on me. At the same time, there was a desire to fight disease and misery. I studied Ethnology/African studies and medicine at the University of Cologne. I dealt with topics of comparative religion, ethnomedicine, constructivism, women’s studies, material culture and especially jewellery and regional clothing. In 1996, I graduated with a master’s degree in ethnology, and in 2000, I became a medical doctor. The opportunity to work more intensively as an ethnologist arose when my daughters grew up.

You connect and research adornment from all over the world in your exhibitions: could you tell us a little about how that works and what its results are?

Moving freely between cultures and disciplines, all jewellery traditions were fascinating to me from the beginning. The classical separation of ethnology and folklore until 2000, only made sense in terms of sources and some methods. In terms of content, many disciplines could never understand the separation of “European cultures” and “the rest of the world”. Even around 1900, many cultural researchers, linguists, archaeologists, historians, and others conducted their researches both far away and at home; the boundaries between disciplines were more fluid as well.

But with this fluidity, how is it that non-Western jewellery is so often perceived as different from Western jewellery?

The fact that non-Western jewellery was perceived and researched as “different” had many causes.

On the one hand, jewellery research in Europe was initially devoted to the jewellery of the upper social classes (nobility, upper middle classes). Jewellery objects of the rural population were assigned to folklore and considered inferior, so to speak. Like “folk jewellery”, “ethnic jewellery” was perceived and collected as exotic “ornaments”, but rarely systematically researched or presented in its internal differentiations and in relation to individual wearers and their lives.

This led to categories created by scholarly discourse – whether consciously or unconsciously – of “primitive art” (non-Western), “folk art” (rural-“peasant”-European), as well as “applied” and “abstract”/”real” art. Non-European and rural European jewellery is often treated exclusively typologically, implicitly denying its individuality and artistic value. Moreover, traditional European jewellery was long regarded as a “cultural asset that had descended from the upper classes” and, just like non-European jewellery, was perceived as “simple”, i.e., less valuable, and artistically inferior.

On the other hand, the idea prevailed that there were “advanced cultures” – among them many European cultures – that were superior to other forms of human life. How deeply rooted this thinking is, can be seen – among other things – in the still difficult conceptualisations of topics in jewellery and textile research. In this exhibition and in my new book, I have provocatively included European region-specific jewellery under “ethnic jewellery”, although the term “ethnic” itself is very problematic.

How do you yourself deal with these differences and similarities?

For me personally, significant parallels and differences are equally interesting in my field of investigation. From the cultural anthropological perspective, it is ultimately about cultural metastructures, be it in a functional, structuralist and/or cultural materialistic sense.

Beyond that, I do try, like all curators, to make the object speak and to make people, especially the women who wore the jewellery, visible. How did they manage their lives?  What structures did they live in? What were their realities like? I often dream that all the wearers and owners of the exhibited objects could be present at the vernissage to tell their personal stories.

The cross-cultural and cross-epochal approach is laborious. On the one hand, time periods in a region are to be researched and presented correctly. On the other hand, the overarching theme has to serve as a guide through entire worlds. It is like commuting between a detailed and an overview view and, figuratively speaking, quickly leads to a loss of “depth of field”.

It takes a good network of specialists, a lot of literature, many databases, and a lot of time. I dream of a large digital archive on traditional costumes and jewellery worldwide, preferably with every comparative object that has ever been documented, the one virtual meta-reference collection, so to speak. The first ethno-mathematical studies on pattern analysis in textiles already exist. Having been involved in the development of health economic meta-analyses myself, this idea fascinates me, but the implementation is methodologically and financially very costly.

The young generation of many countries that were traditionally “researched” in the Eurocentric discourse are now creating their own scientific discourses independent of the Western scientific hegemonic claim. Communities are writing their own history, and this will lead to new insights and discourses. In my new book, I try to let the people who work with and wear traditional costumes, speak for themselves. My vision is the same for “non-Western” countries: research that writes the respective history “from the inside out”, i. e. together with or from within the cultural communities. This requires more trained “cultural native speakers” as scholars, financial resources, and an openness of international discourse.

In this sense, the present exhibition can only outline some topics, give impulses, and perhaps create stimuli for further research.

How do you decide what to show and what to leave out?

The selection of objects is a lengthy process, especially since each selection creates bias, but, on the other hand, it is also necessary for the presentation of the main theme. For me, a multitude of pieces does not devalue the single object, because each element is part of a big puzzle. I like to show many different contrasting pieces to arouse curiosity. At the same time, I have also selected groups of comparative objects in some places to show series of development, local variations in form, or individual variations of a “type of object”. The currently popular reduction to “top objects” visually enhances the value attributed to things. At the same time, this may distort the representation of the original context, especially in the case of objects of everyday use also shown here. For example, the traditional costume of a single woman often included numerous outfits at the same time. I show this “pars pro toto”, because of the lack of space, partly on the bonnets. Likewise, internal variation and individuality only become visible, when comparing several objects of one genre. For example, in the case of the well-known Schwälmer Betzel (caps), one was never exactly like the other.

It would take an entire museum to outline the jewellery regions and traditions of a country like Yemen. Here, the selection is particularly difficult. Thus, I chose objects from many parts of the country – important, rare, but also widespread pieces – to give as comprehensive an impression as possible.

The title is Splendour and Shine in the Flow of Time: what is the exhibition about? What will visitors see?

On the “classical” themes of “life course” and “cultural change”, the exhibition shows over 30 traditional costumes and more than 500 jewellery objects from over 50 countries worldwide in four halls. Small regional focal points are Lower Saxony, Franconia, Romania, the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula, and headdresses from German-speaking regions of traditional costume. Festive, and everyday jewellery, and mainly festive costumes are shown. Another room shows photographic studies by Markus Bullik on the theme “In the face of traditional costume”. Both the changes in traditional costume and jewellery in the course of an individual’s life and the change in traditions across generations, through technological and cultural change, flight, displacement and migration, processes of exchange and appropriation are topics that are presented.

In what way is this different from the exhibition of almost the same name in Liechtenstein in 2020?

The exhibition “Splendor and Shine in the River of Time” at the Liechtenstein National Museum in 2020 was oriented towards the life cycle of the individual, from the cradle to the grave. About half of the objects shown there, will also be shown in Zons in two halls, with some changes and additions to the classic theme of the life course. Many of the objects with a close regional connection to the Principality of Liechtenstein and the neighbouring regions will not be on display in Zons. Instead, we are now exhibiting regional clothing and jewellery on topics of cultural change that have not been shown before, which has also resulted in a new, second catalogue, containing again more than 400 illustrations. Because of its focus on cultural change, the new exhibition in Zons is therefore called “Splendour and Shine in the Flow of Time”.

What is the main goal of this exhibition for you? What would you like visitors to remember?

Both glimpses into the world as well as glimpses into the past are worthwhile, not only from an aesthetic point of view.

“Phylogenetically proven orders” such as age classification and kinship systems, religious structures, etc., have been accompanying humanity from the very beginning. One problem of postmodernity, with all its freedoms, is fragmentation; identities, relationships and loyalties appear to be freely selectable; age classes are dissolving, religious reference systems are disappearing, and orders are disintegrating. In a sense, “social entropy” is increasing, which is an overload for many people. In this sense, many cultures are becoming deficient in the context of globalisation. A look into the past makes man-made systems of order – for better or worse – visible on the subject of clothing and jewellery. 

Many regional traditions are dying out, their “language”, and furthermore, their craft techniques are being lost. Today, in contrast to earlier times, we have more opportunities to preserve artifacts today, and like our predecessors, we still have the task of documenting them for posterity. In addition, regional clothing and jewellery offer many ideas for highly topical issues such as sustainability, identity, interculturality, and others. Beyond all theories, they remain fascinating objects of art in their time-defying beauty, simply splendour beyond all transience.

 I would be delighted if the colourfulness, diversity, and uniqueness of traditional forms of clothing and jewellery would fascinate visitors, spark curiosity, and contribute to openness and mutual appreciation in a multicultural world.