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Anthropologist Carola Lentz will soon take charge of Germany’s prized cultural institute. She tells DW about her vision for the future and the challenges ahead.
DW: As an anthropologist, expert in German studies, Africa researcher and last but not least an agricultural scientist, you have traveled the world a lot. What drives you? Are you simply a curious person?
Carola Lentz: Yes, I am a very curious person. That is a very important motivation. And I enjoy meeting other people. And I do so across all social classes, across national boundaries. I like to listen to different life stories, to engage with different perspectives on the world.
Did these different perspectives sharpen your view of Germany and the world?
Yes, because what really appeals to me as an anthropologist is to see my own society through the eyes of others, through my experiences in other societies and by getting to know different world views.
The Goethe-Institut stands precisely for the values to which I also feel committed in my professional career as an anthropologist: democracy, non-violence, tolerance and openness to many perspectives. At the Goethe-Institut these values inform cultural-political work and work with language.
You will take over the management of the Goethe-Institut during difficult times. Populism is flourishing, the pandemic is rampant. Perhaps you would have liked to start off in a time that was a bit easier?
I honestly admit that, yes. But you grow with your tasks. The Goethe-Institut has positioned itself successfully with its digital offerings. My trips to various Goethe-Institut locations will probably be limited for the time being; I am replacing a lot of visits and meetings with video conferencing. But despite the success of online offerings, what is missing are personal, physical encounters.
How do you organize cultural exchange in times of pandemics, when institutes are forced to close?
At the moment, about half of the institutes are open to the public, with restrictions related to hygiene measures. In places where no public access is possible, language courses and cultural events take place online. Language tests are carried out under strict conditions, but are still possible in many places. Intensive research is being done to develop fully digital examination formats. The Goethe-Institut can become a pioneer here.
With its cultural program, the Goethe-Institut has largely switched to online formats that have a large number of participants. One example is the Latitude festival, which included discussions and performances, or the "Kulturama" platform, where artists can offer their work online in return for donations.
The Goethe-Institut has many channels where exchange can be fostered, but of course these cannot entirely replace meeting in person.
We are currently experiencing growing populism in many countries, including a return to nationalism. How can the Goethe-Institut react to this?
By making different perspectives heard. The Goethe-Institut works with non-governmental partners in many countries. In all societies you'll encounter a multiplicity of voices. In countries with authoritarian regimes, our institutes offer protected spaces for free discussion and information.
The restitution of cultural assets from former colonies is a current issue of a discussion in which the Goethe-Institut is also involved. Is the discussion going in the right direction?
Yes, it is. The Goethe-Institut itself does not own such objects. We are not a museum, we don't have a collection. But we can provide a space for discussions between participants from the source communities and museums in Germany and Europe, like our museum talks in Africa, for example.
There are objects acquired in unjust contexts, or let us say "stolen objects," where restitution claims are politically and morally justified and must be responded to. In addition, we have the much broader area where no demands for restitution are made but other forms of cooperation and exchange are sought.
In any case, we are dealing with many diverse actors in the societies of origin as well as in the countries the objects were sent to or where they are currently being held. This can be very complex. In any case, these questions should be dealt with in such a way that connections are created rather than cut off. The relations should not end with the return of an object, but a new chapter of exchanges should begin.
In other words, do you see potential in the restitution debate?
Absolutely. I see great opportunities to create new relationships. Moreover, the debates and new networks will enliven our own museum landscape.
Should Germany come to terms with its colonial past more strongly, for example with the help of the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin?
That will certainly happen, and it is a good thing. However, such debates should not be limited to Berlin, which is the capital, or to Munich, Frankfurt or Cologne. What about the many small museums and other cultural institutions outside of such centers?
Furthermore, the new Humboldt Forum should not become a museum of colonial history. Rather, we should consider politics of memory and visions for a more just future as one great project. The Goethe-Institut will work closely with the Humboldt Forum on residency programs, fellowships and other formats of exchange. I look forward to this collaboration.
Where will you keep the Goethe-Institut "ship" on course and where do you want to change its course?
I don't see myself as the captain of a tanker plowing through the oceans on a single course. The Goethe-Institut works in a decentralized manner and I am very happy to continue this legacy from my predecessor Klaus-Dieter Lehmann. To stay with the analogy, it is more like a fleet that sails different seas. There is no command center from which everything is controlled. I see myself as a team member who listens, observes, asks questions and conducts conversations, but of course also suggests a common course.
The relation between domestic and foreign aspects of cultural policy has changed over the past 10 or 20 years. Today Germany is closely intertwined with the world, and the world is definitely present in local society.
The Goethe-Institut needs to make the experience, networks, friendships and insights from its worldwide work even more visible in Germany. The award of the Goethe Medal or the Kultursymposium Weimar are successful formats, but the Goethe-Institut could do even more to strengthen this multi-perspectivity in the German context.
So are you looking forward to your tasks as president of the Goethe-Institut?
I am very much looking forward to it, otherwise I would have enjoyed my retirement [the office is a voluntary position] — and perhaps written two more books.
Anthropologist Carola Lentz, born in 1954, is a senior research professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. On November 19, she will take over the presidency of the Goethe-Institut.
This interview was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.