By Stefan Eisenhofer


objects intro

Figure1: Vigango - Installation by Atis Rezistans - Ingolole


  • Left: Vigango, Funerary Post from the Giriama Community (Link)
  • Center: Atis Rezistans, Installation in the Church St. Kunigundis, Kassel (Link)
  • Right: Ingolole, Circumcision Mask of the Tiriki People (Link)


In museums and exhibitions in the Global North, objects[1] - from Europe and other world regions as well as from different epochs - are usually perceived from the quality of their formal design. This means that they are frequently reduced to their aesthetics and then often staged as works of art accordingly. However, it is often forgotten that in their societies of origin, these objects were very rarely produced for pure contemplation or aesthetic enjoyment.

About functions and meanings of objects

As a rule, they had functions and tasks in people's everyday lives or in extraordinary situations such as rites and ceremonies. This means that they were created to be acted with. Accordingly, the perception of these objects went beyond contemplative observation. This question is exemplified in the article "Is Ingolole an Artwork or a Ritual Object?" (link) by Njeri Gachihi on masks used by the Tiriki in Kenya for circumcision rites.


Irrespective of this, objects often have personal and emotional significance in addition to their practical-functional material, to their utility or their exchange values. And they frequently acquire personal or collective commemorative value - of people, places, times and events.


The manifold relationships of people to objects can only be hinted at here. Besides their countless personal, emotional and functional meanings, objects exhibited in museums, for example, serve as cultural signs. They provide information about the people who have or had something to do with them. They are linked to cultural norms and values. They tell us something about their makers, owners, users and collectors as well as about those who admire (or despise) them. They allow conclusions to be drawn about those who pay special attention to them and about those who ignore them. Acquisitions or transactions also reflect relationships: Between individuals, but also of groups, communities, world regions and times.


In some societies, however, certain objects were or are not regarded as inanimate objects or disposable matter that can easily be exhibited in a museum. Rather, they are afflicted with agency, they are, in a sense, living beings with special powers. In this way, they can influence and shape people's lives. This becomes clear in the article "Giriama Vigango - An East African perspective" by Juma Ondeng (link): Certain grave figures in a Kenyan community are not perceived as things, but as the revered deceased people themselves.


Especially with objects in ritual-religious contexts, the physical object itself was and is often not the focus in indigenous contexts. Rather, what is important is its invisible charge, e.g. with sacred powers. Such objects therefore became and still become "complete" only after being treated by a ritual specialist. When this charge has been ritually removed again, they are considered incomplete.


That is why ritual objects were and are often subject to restrictions. By no means everyone is allowed to have contact with them, use them, touch them or even just see them. This is often restricted to persons or communities, or to members of certain age groups and degrees of initiation in associations and secret societies. When acting and interacting with certain things, it can also be decisive whether one is considered a full grown man or woman in the community. Many objects are therefore closely linked, for example, with ideas and ideals of masculinity and femininity, of growing up and being an adult, with obligations and constraints, but also with privileges and powers.


Dealing with such objects is thus subject to rules and ritualised actions. It enables specific non-verbal communication and is also a sign of individual or social identity. It often serves as a social distinction: it shows who belongs to something and who does not, who wants to belong or is allowed to belong - or does not want to or is not allowed to.


Objects symbolise and thus also represent human power relations. Some are also seen as representatives and mediators of transcendental and sacred powers that manifest themselves in earthly contexts. This refers not only to the use of things, but also to ideas of their non-human manufacture. For example, certain things are considered to have been created or at least transmitted by the ancestors or certain spirit beings for the living.


Often, objects also get and have got into religious-polemical contexts through charges of meaning, for example when certain things are regarded as "real" sacred objects, created or sanctified by God or gods, by spiritual beings or ancestors. In contrast, objects of other religious communities were and are pejoratively classified as all-too-earthly or even "devilish" works. The centuries-long European discourse on certain West African ritual objects, which were repeatedly contrasted with the "divine" Christian liturgical devices as worthless man-made "fetishes", can serve as an example here. The discussion of Atis Resitanz's installation in Kassel 2022 (link) provides an interesting insight into this. (The Lutheran polemic against Catholic relic cults or the Reformation iconoclasts, who did not want to tolerate images or even their veneration in Christian churches, would also be a good example from Central Europe here).


Research on objects

It must always be remembered that evaluations and meanings of things are in constant flux and are by no means static. In ethnology, "object biography research" is dedicated to these permanent shifts in meaning and sometimes even reversals. Here, research is conducted (analogous to biographies about people) into the various stages of change in meaning and value attributions that objects go through between their production and their decay.


“Appropriation research" is concerned with the different ways in which similar objects are used and valued in different cultures, the culture-specific forms of interaction, and the physical and ideological transformation processes involved in the adoption of objects and object types.


Thus, it remains to be said that objects are important cultural witnesses. They can - if their function is understood - serve as voices "from within", as interior views of a society or community. This also and especially applies to societies that are not characterised by writing but by oral and visual traditions, as well as to those from past eras.



Regarding the power of things over people, Karl-Heinz Kohl[2] has pointed out a paradox. On the one hand, things increasingly dominate interpersonal relationships today - without cars, telephones, computers, television and smartphones, our current way of life would be inconceivable. And human contacts are increasingly being replaced by things. But the more important things become for us, the more meaningless the concrete individual thing itself often becomes. Things have growingly shorter expiry times and are replaced more and more quickly by new and different things. In addition, the rapid development of virtuality promotes the loss of meaning in the sensual world of things.


But on the other hand, our present is also characterised by an opposing movement - by an enthusiasm for unique objects, works of art, "authentic things", antiques, things with history, as well as those with (actual and supposed) traces of use. We can therefore be curious to see how the treatment of objects and the associated discourses will develop in the future.

[1]              The terms "object", "thing" and "item" are used synonymously in this paper.

[2]              Karl-Heinz Kohl: Die Macht der Dinge – Geschichte und Theorie sakraler Objekte (=The Power of Things - History and Theory of Sacred Objects). München, 2003