Pilot project: Tanzania–Germany: Shared Object Histories?

Provenance Research in the Future Humboldt Forum:  The pilot project Tanzania–Germany: Shared Object Histories? aims to develop a conceptual framework to research the provenance of problematic holdings, in particular those collected during the colonial period.

After the German Empire joined the ranks of the colonial powers in 1884, an increasing number of objects were sent from the so-called ‘German protectorates’ to the Royal Museum for Ethnology (Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde), which had been founded in Berlin in 1873. As a result, the holdings of the museum’s Africa department increased from 3361 catalogued items in 1880 to some 55,079 items in 1914. This made the museum the German Empire’s most important centre for the accumulation of ethnographic objects, all the more so after an 1889 parliamentary decision granted the museum the right of first refusal on purchasing any collections made with public funds in the colonies. The museum amassed a particularly comprehensive collection from the area known as German East Africa (today Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi).

The pilot project Tanzania–Germany: Shared Object Histories? aims to develop a conceptual framework to research the provenance of problematic holdings, in particular those collected during the colonial period. It will begin by investigating a selection of materials from the collection’s holdings from present-day Tanzania, which totals around 10,000–11,000 objects. The material to be researched will be selected either because it is slated for future display in the Humboldt Forum and/or because it is particularly representative of a particular form of object accession, whether purchase, exchange, gift, or violent appropriation. The focus will initially be on objects which came to the museum through violent appropriation and colonial wars. This includes objects captured during the Maji Maji War (1905–07) in the south of what was then ‘German East Africa’. In 1907, the colonial government in Dar es Salaam, the territory’s capital, sent a total of ‘1872kg’ of objects designated as ‘war booty’ to the museum in Berlin. Although previous scholarship held that the objects had been judged to be ‘non-traditional’ and burned as a result, research recently carried out in preparation for the opening of the Humboldt Forum suggests a small number of items from the consignment – totalling 94 – were accessioned into the museum’s collection. Of these, 32 items with accession numbers have survived.

The planned project on objects and groups of objects from what is today Tanzania begins with the classic questions posed by provenance research: What are the objects’ biographies? Who were their previous owners, and who were the possible intermediaries? In each case, how did the object end up in the possession of the museum? Other questions arise if we consider the specificity of African history and of ethnographic provenance research: questions on the role and significance of objects in colonial encounters and power relations, a history largely characterized by the colonists’ violent introduction of new spatial, social, political, and religious regimes. In spite of the focus on the violence of colonial expansion and the objects connected with it, the fragility of German colonial power and the agency of Africans should always be kept in mind. In addition, the research will also address the meanings and valuations – possibly diverging – attributed to objects by owners, intermediaries, and collectors. In a second phase, the project will trace the objects’ shifting biographies as far as the present day. It will inquire into how the interpretation of the objects has changed, among different groups, over the course of the colonial and post-colonial eras.

Work on the history of the Tanzanian Collection can thus only take place in cooperation with Tanzanians: scholars and artists, as well as individuals from the communities where the objects originated. We therefore plan to invite two curators-in-residence from Tanzania for research visits of several months to the Ethnologisches Museum in 2017. In addition, a memorandum of understanding has been signed between the University of Dar es Salaam and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, which will serve as the basis for collaborative research by joint Tanzanian-German teams in the project’s second phase. In addition, the second phase will see the development and systematization of ideas on establishing a digital platform to make the research accessible to visitors to the Humboldt Forum and to an even broader audience, above all a non-European one. 

Project director: PD Dr. Paola Ivanov (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Project staff: Kristin Weber-Sinn (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), Hendryk Ortlieb (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Cooperation partners: University of Dar es Salaam, Department of History; National Museum and House of Culture, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Funding: the Board of Trustees of the SPK (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation)
Project duration: July 2016–September 2018