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New Approaches to Establishing the Provenance of Archaeological Collections

16.05.2023

The archaeological collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin preserve a range of objects whose diversity and volume is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Over the coming years, these institutions will carry out extensive research into the provenance of their holdings. In a joint, interdisciplinary position paper (PDF, 324 KB), the custodians of these collections have made a commitment to the principle of transparency in dealing with their archaeological holdings, and to critically interrogate the provenance of these artefacts.

In days gone by, the focus of museum work was on building up the collection of the museum and carrying out fundamental research into the holdings. Today, in response to global developments and the diversity of our pluralist societies, museums see themselves faced with new tasks and responsibilities when it comes to their work with archaeological collections. These new challenges form the focus of the position paper penned by the relevant collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The paper touches upon key topics such as provenance research, questions of legality, and ethical considerations, as well as sketching out contemporary and future perspectives on their work. This position paper serves as a first step in a joint research initiative being launched by the museums.

Within the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin network, a total of nine museums preserve archaeological objects in their collections, namely the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, the Antikensammlung, the Ethnologisches Museum, the Münzkabinett, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, the Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, and the Vorderasiatisches Museum.

The Content of the Position Paper

Nowadays, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin views research into the contexts of origin of its archaeological collections and the circumstances under which they were acquired as one of its core duties. In carrying out this work, our objective is to identify the paths taken by each archaeological object in our collections, from their discovery to their present position in the museums. This contributes to a deeper understanding not only of the objects, but also of the museums’ acquisition policies and their institutional histories.  

When assessing the origins of archaeological objects today, political, legal and economic circumstances are addressed, along with ethical considerations. In carrying out this research and assessment work, we also incorporate current perspectives from outside the museums: working with partners and institutions from the countries of origin, with civil society in Germany and around the world, and with the scientific and scholarly community. We deal with the outcomes of this research in a transparent matter, for example by releasing extensive publications and building online, accessible databanks. One of the more recent examples of this work is the seventh volume in the series Schriften zur Geschichte der Berliner Museen (Texts on the History of Berlin’s Museums), published in the spring of 2022. This volume draws on extensive research to provide a detailed reconstruction of the excavations carried out by the Königliche Museen zu Berlin on the island of Samos between 1910 and 1914, and into the circumstances surrounding the ensuing partage agreement and the exporting of the antiquities.

The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is conscious of the fact that institutions such as museums have profited from economic and political inequalities and an asymmetrical distribution of resources, and that we continue to benefit from these inequalities. We face this history head on and use it to identify priorities for our present and future work. Our objective is to develop a responsible approach to our archaeological collections that is responsive to contemporary debates and concerns. Whenever we identify objects with a questionable provenance, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin actively seeks contact with the countries of origin in order to work together to find appropriate resolutions, which in some cases involves the restitution of the objects.  

Current Collaborations and Research Projects

This March, under the supervision of the Zentralarchiv, the Antikensammlung, the Museum für Islamische Kunst and the Vorderasiatisches Museum launched a project that received some 350,000 euros in funding from the German Lost Art Foundation. This project will see the three museums working together with Turkish partners and institutions to investigate objects and archival artefacts connected with the historical excavations in the territory of the former Ottoman Empire at the sites of Sam’al, Didyma und Samarra. The aim of this work is to enable the broadest possible research into the origins of questionable holdings belonging to these three museums. Previously, most projects have only looked at selected groups of objects. With the creation of a permanent position at the Zentralarchive der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin dedicated exclusively to the investigation of archaeological objects, the research carried out in the context of this new project can occur on an entirely new scale.

An important stepping stone on the path to a transparent approach to the provenance of our collections has been the project to digitise and publish all the acquisition logs of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which got underway in 2019. These materials provide a record of the inventories of the collections and reflect the eventful history of Berlin’s museums and how their collections have evolved into their present form