Online Publication: The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Publishes Historical Acquisition Logs

12.08.2021

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s acquisition logs provide a record of the inventories of the museums’ 15 collections and reflect the eventful history of Berlin’s museums and the establishment of their collections. These hand-written records date back more than a quarter of a millennium, noting information about the accession conditions, previous owners or the circumstances under which the artefacts were uncovered, as well as later losses or collection relocations. In the course of work to digitise these materials and make them publicly accessible, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is currently publishing these documents in instalments, beginning with seven collections: www.smb.museum/erwerbungsbuecher.

The popularity and position of museums within society are defined predominantly by the unique qualities of their collections. Knowledge about the art-historical and cultural relevance of the objects they preserve is the life source of museum work. For gathering and maintaining this knowledge, inventories and acquisition logs, functioning as repositories of collective memory, have always provided a central foundation. For this reason, we are so happy that this essential source of information for provenance research with respect to Berlin’s collections can now gradually be published online, making them accessible to the public right across the world.

Michael Eissenhauer, Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Advance Publishing: Online Publication of the Acquisition Logs from Seven Collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The acquisition logs of the following collections are already accessible online:

All in all, these historical documents cover a period stretching from 1650 to 2010, and contain some of the absolute highlights of the collections, such as the Bust of Nefertiti, the Mschatta Façade, masterpieces by Botticelli, and exquisite drawings by Piranesi. Since 2014, new accessions to the collections have been recorded in digital form.

Putting PDFs of the scans of the acquisition logs up for download with almost no annotation is intended as a form of “advance publishing”. It is a first step, which seeks to provide scholarly communities with access to materials in the quickest and most comprehensive way possible. The acquisition logs of the other eight collections are currently being inspected, digitised, and will be made accessible as they are completed.

Documenting the Work of the Collections through Acquisition and Accession Logs

The acquisition and accession logs that have now been made accessible are structured as tables, containing only the essential details. The organizing principle of the line-by-line entries is a continuous sequence of item numbers, either ordered chronologically or divided up into years. The length of the entries and the depth of information they contain varies according to the historical collection departments and the periods in which they were made. While one entry might contain little more than an accession date and an inventory number, others might include copious notes on the condition of the objects, their provenance history and previous owners, as well as on the acquisition process. Generally, the logs were kept by the directors of the collections, research staff, or curators.

The significant variation in handwriting styles – some in the German Kurrent script, a cursive script that went out of use in the mid-20th century – makes reading the material difficult. Abbreviations that were familiar to the staff at the time but have since become obsolete represent an additional barrier. It is not uncommon for information about relocations, transfers, and items being removed from storage, about losses during the war and re-acquisitions to end up in labyrinthine structures that can only be unravelled with a solid understanding of the history of the museums and how they operated.

As repositories of the histories of the collections, the acquisition logs document the activity of the collections, stretching back several hundred years. In addition to the emergence and continual expansion of the museums, the logs also continually reflect little snippets of world history: the German Empire, two world wars, the creation of two German states and the division of the museums into “twin museums” in East and West Berlin, as well as their reunification post-1990.

Research Project

As part of the research project Provenance and Collections: Publishing the Acquisition and Accession Logs of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Online, in keeping with the principles of citizen science, open access primary sources on provenance research and the history of the collections are being digitised and made publicly accessible. The goal of the project is to successively publish the several hundred volumes that make up this extensive historical collection. This project was initiated and funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

Information Sources and Tools for Provenance Research

Together with the acquisition files held by the Zentralarchiv der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, these acquisition logs are essential sources of information and indispensable tools for provenance researchers, who are now able to access this data from right around the world. While the logs often contain very sparse information, the files held by the Zentralarchiv document the entire process of each acquisition, including correspondence with the previous owners or with dealers, expert assessments of the objects, right through to sales receipts or donation contracts. Much of the material in the historical acquisition files held by the Zentralarchiv has already been subject to extensive research and is freely accessible online: www.smb.museum/zentralarchiv-bestaende.