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Traces of the ‘Boxer War’ in German Museum Collections – A Joint Approach

Porcelain, bronzes, picture scrolls - hundreds of objects from China in German museum collections were sourced during actions of looting that took place around 1900 in the context of the so-called 'Boxer War’. In most cases, their problematic history is unknown, and the various ways in which they found their way into German collections have only been researched in a cursory manner. For the first time, seven German museums under the management of the Zentralarchiv of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Central Archive of the National Museums in Berlin) have joined forces in this project in order to systematically examine their holdings for looted goods from the Boxer War in cooperation with the Palace Museum Beijing and to jointly research their provenance histories.

Fighters referred to in Western literature as 'boxers' were the driving force of an anti-Imperialist movement in northern China in the late 19th century called Yìhétuán Yùndòng (義和團運動, Movement of Associations for Justice and Harmony). The insurgents initially attacked Christian missionaries and their Chinese supporters, and soon also turned on foreign businessmen and diplomats. In May 1900, the violent riots spread to Beijing and culminated in a siege of the foreign legations in June. An eight-nation alliance, which included the German Empire, sent troops to China. During the so-called 'Boxer War of 1900-1901, not only were the rebels violently suppressed, but Beijing was also looted and burned. Thousands of works of art and other artefacts from the looting subsequently found their way directly or indirectly into German museum collections, for example via the art trade, where they are still kept and exhibited today.

The project Traces of the ‘Boxer War’ in German Museum Collections examines both objects in the individual institutions and the actors involved in their theft, transport and trade. In doing so, historical mechanisms of collecting these sensitive objects in Germany will be made visible. In addition to researching the collection holdings, the goal of the project is to publish a methodological guide. This will create the basis for a more comprehensive examination of the Chinese collection holdings in national and international museums in the context of the 'Boxer War'.

Project network: Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, GRASSI Museum für Angewandte Kunst Leipzig, Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Museum Fünf Kontinente München
Project management: Dr. Christine Howald
Research assistant: Kerstin Pannhorst
Cooperation partner: Palace Museum, Beijing
Project funding: Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (Projekt-ID: KK_LA03_I2021)
Project duration: November 2021 to June 2024