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Since the year of its founding in 1873, the Ethnologisches Museum has not only been a place to showcase cultural artefacts from around the globe and a site of knowledge transfer, it has also served as a research institute that is involved in scientific projects and expeditions.

The manifest results of such projects are the museum’s extensive collections themselves, whose objects were gathered and studied over time by various teams of ethnologists and archaeologists, sociologists of religion, musicologists, philologists, and art historians, an other working interdisciplinarily.

The ‘decolonization’ and opening-up of ethnological museums is currently a subject of intense debate, particularly in the context of the establishment of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. In this context, the Ethnologisches Museum aspires to transfer the prerogative of interpretation of its collections to others, particularly to people from the regions from which the objects themselves come, thus giving voice to diverse perspectives in its exhibitions.

The project ‘Living Things in the Amazon and in the Museum – Shared Knowledge in the Humboldt Forum’ seeks to illustrate some of the ways these goals can be accomplished. This project continues and expands on the similar project called ‘Sharing Knowledge’, developed in the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, and is made possible by the financial support of the VolkswagenStiftung, under the auspices of the funding initiative ‘Forschung im Museum’ (Research in the Museum), and of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Germany’s version of the National Arts Council). Museum employees will use an online platform to research ethnographic objects and evidence of non-material culture from Amazonia, working together with representatives from indigenous educational institutions and organisations in Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia.

An exhibition version of this platform, which will be developed over the course of the project, will form a part of the Amazon Exhibition in the Humboldt Forum, allowing visitors to trace the processes of exchange that make up the project and better understand its conclusions. A parallel research project is also planned to reflect on the epistemological consequences of this collaborative project for all the participants.

More information: News: Shared Knowledge - Collaborative Provenance Research

Museum and the City: „Spiritualität und Macht: Kooperationsprojekt zur Amazonas-Region in Dahlem“ on the blog of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (German only)

Project Director: Dr. Andrea Scholz
Funding: VolkswagenStiftung, Kulturstiftung des Bundes
Duration: 2016 to 2020

German-language works by travellers and explorers in Alaska, the northwest coast of America, and its hinterland

From the 18th century onwards, German travellers were active participants in the scientific exploration of the northern Pacific and the coastal regions on either side of the Bering Strait in northern Siberia and northwest America. They observed, documented, and collected. Their natural-scientific and ethnological collections found their way into institutions and museums in Germany, Russia, and North America. Their voluminous written legacy, partly composed in German, was made available to the early international scientific community, but has never been republished. It contains the earliest ethnographical, historical, and natural-scientific discoveries about these regions of the world. The selected works by authors of different origins show how well-known and important all these enterprises were in their time and still are today.

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Viola König, director of the Ethnologisches Museum
Partners: Georg Olms Verlag AG, Hildesheim
Funding: Fritz Thyssen Stiftung
Duration: ongoing since 2006

International graduate programme

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the international graduate programme 'Between Spaces – Movements, Actors, and Representations of Globalization' opens up new perspectives for research on how globalization affects the social and cultural sphere. By generating and engaging in the dialogue between disciplines and different scientific traditions in Germany and Mexico, the research programme aims to make a significant contribution to a transnational and interdisciplinary field of research. The programme chiefly focuses on the movements and fluctuations between different regions of the world and the new spaces that are opened up as a result, in both historical phases of globalization and those of the present day.

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Stefan Rinke, FU Berlin; Prof. Dr. Viola König, director of the Ethnologisches Museum, among others.
Partners: Freie Universität Berlin, Lateinamerika-Institut; Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Institut für Romanistik; Universität Potsdam, Institut für Romanistik; Colegio de México, Universidad Nacional Autónom de México (UNAM); Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social (CIESAS)
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Duration: ongoing since 2009

The Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilizations

Involvement in the research group C-5 (Common Sense Geography)


1. Cognitive Perception and the Presentation of Space and Place in Mesoamerica – pre-Columbian mapping Processes in Ancient Mexico up to the early modern era

The project examines documents that resemble maps and which date from pre-colonial Mesoamerican cultures, and highlights the changes that these representations underwent as a result of contact with the Spanish conquistadors. On the basis of the few surviving codices from the pre-Spanish era, this publication project analyses the collision of two cognitive worlds: that of Ancient Mexico and of Europe in the late Middle Ages. Both sets of concepts and forms of representation were combined in the 'mapas' and 'lienzos' purposefully laid out as land maps to create new hybrid forms and a blending of indigenous and European styles.

2. The representation of space and place in Mesoamerica – the Lienzo Seler II in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.

The Lienzo Seler II (Coixtlahuaca II), an early colonial-era cotton cloth resembling a map, from the Coixtlahuaca Valley, Oaxaca in Mexico, is part of the collection of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum. The lienzo is a "transitional document", that is, it conveys information in a predominantly pre-Columbian style, supplemented by European images and glosses. A field expedition is planned to match up all the localities shown in the Lienzo Seler II with the known archaeological remains of settlements and to investigate these sites for evidence of the pyramids, stepped structures, buildings, and striking natural features such as rocks and caves which the lienzo illustrates.

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Viola König, director of the Ethnologisches Museum
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Duration: ongoing since November 2012

Within the framework of this DFG-funded project, approximately 6000 historical photographs from Latin America are being digitized, scientifically assessed, and made available to online research via SMB-digital.

Image editor: Dr. Michael Kraus
Coordination: Dr. Manuela Fischer, Dr. Richard Haas, Dr. Maria Gaida, research associates at the Ethnologisches Museum
Partners: Dr. Stefan Rohde-Enslin, research associate from the Institut für Museumsforschung
Funding: German Research Foundation in the funding line: Scientific Library Services and Information Systems (LIS)
Duration: 2010  to 2013

The Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission was set up in 1915 to document the speech and music of foreigners held in German prisoner-of-war camps. Renowned German scientists were involved in the project, led by Professor Carl Stumpf, the founder of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv.

Comprising 1022 wax cylinders, the Phonographic Commission’s collection is the largest of the historical collections held by the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv at the Ethnologisches Museum. The archive files consist exclusively of music recordings, but these will be supplemented by relevant documentation (recording procedures, song texts in the original and in translation, drawings, photos, and correspondence). A multiplicity of ethnic groups is represented in the recordings, mostly from European countries and their former colonies overseas.

The goal of the project is to digitally archive the Prussian Phonographic Commission’s collection along with all associated written documentation, to collate this material in a single database that combines corresponding records from the Humboldt-Universität’s sound archive, and to make this available to the public.

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Lars-Christian Koch, head of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and Phonogramm-Archiv at the Ethnologisches Museum; Dr. Susanne Ziegler
Partners: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Helmholtz-Zentrum
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Duration: 2012–2015

Thanks to crucial financial support from the German Federal Foreign Office, two projects relating to the digitization of historical audio documents were launched on 26 March 2012, at the initiative of the German consulate in Kolkata. Some 800 shellac records owned by a private collector from Kolkata are to be digitized in the project; the majority of the recordings are of Bengali music for the theatre, as well as complete plays. The second part of the project entails the digitization of a private collection of musical recordings on tape and cassettes dating from the period 1960 to 1985; this collection was also amassed in Kolkata.

The projects were initiated, planned, and technically equipped by the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Phonogramm-Archiv of the Ethnologisches Museum. It was also responsible for the training of local staff, who are currently conducting the work at source. The department aims to make the recordings and related background content available online. Appropriate agreements have been made with the collectors.

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Lars-Christian Koch, head of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and Phonogramm-Archiv at the Ethnologisches Museum
Partners: German Consulate in Kolkata, India
Funding: German Federal Foreign Office
Duration: 2012–2013

The aim of the envisaged project is to digitize historical and contemporary musical instruments from South Asia – the nucleus of the project being the collection of Sourindo Mohan Tagore, amassed in Calcutta around 1900 – using multi-perspective imaging and deep metadata structures, and to use this as the basis for developing research into the historical reconstruction of musical instruments, using music-archaeological methods amongst others.

The first step is the complete digital archiving of the S.M. Tagore collection. CT and 3D photography will play a key role in this. Comparable objects from South Asia held in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum will also be digitized using these procedures (involving about 430 instruments in all).

Using this virtual data, it will be possible to study the processing of construction materials, cultural practices reflected in the use of the instruments (patina, marks caused by playing), aesthetic principles and craft techniques, for the purpose of dating the instruments, something which would otherwise be impossible without costly on-site research.

A database will be established – with facilities for calling up additional data from other European and Indian collections – which will form the basis for historical reconstructions and, to a limited extent, for the repair/rebuilding of damaged or destroyed instruments. At the same time, it will lay the foundation for the creation, in the medium term, of a Europe-wide database and will serve as a model for further similar projects in the area of musical instrument research.

Project Director: Prof. Dr. Lars-Christian Koch, head of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and Phonogramm-Archiv at the Ethnologisches Museum
Partners: German Archaeological Institute (DAI)
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Duration: 2012 to 2014