On the contentious issue of ethnographic objects – 1.2 million euro for provenance research in northern Germany

The history surrounding the ethnographic collections in Hanover, Göttingen, Oldenburg, Hildesheim and Braunschweig will be the focus of a large collaborative project over the next three years.

Research in Museums
A collaborative project in Lower Saxony is pushing ahead with provenance research in respect of ethnographic objects. (Credit: K. Schmidt /Landesmuseum Hannover)

The controversial discussions about the conception of the Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Stadtschloss of Berlin have raised awareness of the problematic genesis of non-European collections and focused attention on the topic of provenance research. In Lower Saxony under the auspices of the Landesmuseums Hannover, the ethnographic collections in Göttingen (Georg August University), Oldenburg (Landesmuseum Natur und Mensch), Hildesheim (Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum) and Braunschweig (Municipal Museum) are looking into the legal, social, political and economic circumstances as well as the science policy under which ethnographical items found their way to Europe in the colonial period and the decades that followed. They also want to examine what effect these objects unfolded here – whether they contributed to the legitimization of colonial rule, for example, simply spread ethnological or art-historical knowledge, or rather such ethnological exhibitions, so-called "human zoos", served in the main to emphasize the cultural differences between Western civilization and "primitive" peoples.

Holzskulptur eines Soldaten
A soldier figure – example of a so-called colon depiction (Cameroon or Republic of the Congo, before 1911? (Credit: K. Schmidt /Landesmuseum Hannover)

The close cooperation between museums and the fields of history, anthropology and law (at the Georg August University Göttingen and the Leibniz University Hanover) opens up new perspectives on central questions surrounding the changing cultural-historical, legal and moral-ethical framework conditions of ethnological collections. A total of seven subprojects explore object and collection biographies, sources of origin and acquisition histories as well as the strategies and practices of the actors involved, their resources and scope for action. Regularly held workshops will serve to exchange results and develop different perspectives on an ongoing basis under participation of researchers from the countries the objects were taken from.

The collaborative project "Provenance Research in Non-European Collections and Ethnology in Lower Saxony" is being funded by the Volkswagen Foundation with around 1.2 million euro. The project aims to contribute to recent international debates on the colonial heritage of ethnology as well as to the international research on such collections and their political, legal and ethical dimensions. At the same time, the project is expected to set a cultural and political example for an innovative and transparent approach to collections of non-European cultural goods.