How did objects come to be in museums and who is entitled to own them?

How did objects come to be in museums and who is entitled to own them?


The curators of the Weltkulturen museum of ethnography in Frankfurt, Germany trace the origins of objects that ended up in their collections, and ask if they were: COLLECTED. BOUGHT. LOOTED?


The art dealer Carel van Lier with the ivory hunting horn, 1932. Image credit Erwin Blumenfeld (Courtesy of Erwin Blumenfeld Estate).

There are over 60,000 objects from Africa, the Americas, Oceania and South-East Asia in the collection of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. In many cases it is not known how these objects came to the museum, which was founded in 1904 as the Städtisches Völkermuseum. Were they bought, donated, exchanged or even looted?

The context in which objects from the colonial and Nazi eras were acquired is particularly problematic. As the debate about how objects came into museums and who is entitled to own them is growing, it is essential for the Weltkulturen Museum to contribute to these important conversations. This is why we are very happy that “COLLECTED. BOUGHT. LOOTED?” (from 16 August 2018 to 27 January 2019), an exhibition we curated at the Weltkulturen Museum, is part of a major cooperation between four museums in Frankfurt, all of which examined their collections for objects that had been acquired under problematic circumstances.

Choosing case studies for this exhibition has not been an easy task. From the Nazi era, the exhibition focuses on objects acquired in occupied territories during World War II. Meanwhile from the colonial period, we have focused on objects which were either collected in former German colonies or were acquired by Germans in other colonies. The cases presented, reveal a wide range of contexts that show how the objects were acquired and the routes they took from the territories of origin to the museum. We decided to reconstruct their provenance in detail on the labels, not least in order to emphasize the gaps in our knowledge.

The object biographies presented in the exhibition are very different. One example is a war trophy from South Africa: the war belt had been “collected” by Carl Immanuel Müller (1854–1922) before 1879. Müller was born in Mannheim, Germany and emigrated to South Africa in 1876. In the nineteenth century German legions participated in the Cape Frontier Wars in what is now the Eastern Cape. As the head of the German Stutterheim Foot Police, Müller fought in the ninth Frontier War (1877–79) against the Ngqika, a Xhosa people in what is now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. (The Frontier Wars were a series of wars by Xhosas against Dutch and British colonizers who were encroaching on and annexing Xhosa land.)  In Müller’s diary he wrote that he shot two opponents on 11 March 1878.

The certificate found in the metal tube of the war belt lists details such as the age and height of the former owner. A name—Colani—is mentioned too, but strangely this does not correspond to the details in the museum’s database, which refer to a Ncalu Maxiti. Still a lot of questions remain unanswered: Did Müller possibly take the war belts of two Ngqika, who were then later confused? And might the war belt that is in our collection have belonged to one of the men shot by Müller in March 1878?

The Weltkulturen museum’s own archive was largely destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid during World War II, and thus only by conducting research in other institutions and archives were we able to determine more or less how the objects came into the collection. Initially, this led to correspondences with dealers, descendants and institutions in the Netherlands, France and South-Africa with whom we exchanged information. It was not only important for us to determine the chain of ownership, but also to take into account the specific historical contexts in order to obtain a thorough picture of the objects’ biographies. Nonetheless, many details, particularly the names of local producers and previous owners, can hardly be reconstructed. So, although the findings presented in the exhibition are therefore incomplete, they do provide a starting point for further joint research.

The histories of the objects presented clearly underscore the importance of a long-term analysis of the museum’s own collection history. The exhibition aims to encourage critical reflection on the journeys taken by exhibits on their way to the museum while also raising awareness about the respective contexts in which the objects were acquired.


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