Provenance research interrogates how museum objects were collected, acquired and sometimes misappropriated, and shines a light on the often circuitous paths they took to end up in the museum. It deals with the contexts behind changes in possession and ownership, from the creation of an object to its inclusion in the collections. The work of provenance researchers highlights the forgotten stories behind the objects. These stories are almost always fascinating, but are sometimes also bizarre or shaped by violence.
Provenance research fulfills an important social task. With the 1998 Washington Principles, the Federal Republic of Germany pledged to search for cultural artefacts in museums that had been seized as a result of Nazi persecution, and to find fair and just solutions in dialogue with the rightful owners. The Principles constituted an effort to take responsibility for the grave injustices that had occurred. In recent years, awareness of the effects of German colonial rule has also become more widespread. In light of this, it has become particularly important to reappraise collections that originated in colonial contexts.
However, provenance researchers do not focus solely on problematic holdings, illegality and restitution; they also make an important contribution to the history of their own collections, to the history of the art and antiquities trade and of the interactions between cultures and particular protagonists and industry professionals, stories that are rooted in the past but whose effects often extend into the present. Provenance research also tackles the question of how we should interact with historical collections in the present day. This work forms an important foundation when working with collaboration partners around the world and formulating potential future scenarios for the objects.
Systematic provenance research is a core undertaking for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collections, and the Zentralarchiv coordinates these efforts. The Zentralarchiv functions as the “memory” of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and as the site of its historical record-keeping. This is where the extensive archival records are located, which are the starting point for all types of provenance research on our own holdings.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Zentralarchiv is dedicated to the complex and multi-layered tasks and questions that arise in the diverse and very different collections that make up the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. These provenance researchers investigate whether the collections contain cultural property that was acquired as a result of Nazi persecution, or within the context of European colonial rule. In addition, researchers examine acquisitions after 1970 for violations of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, in order to ensure that they were legally exported out of their countries of origin. In the Soviet occupation zone and the GDR, cultural property was also seized from its owners without compensation, for example in the context of land reforms or in the course of political persecution. And another, particularly task of provenance researchers is to look into objects of unknown ownership (known as Fremdbesitz) in the collections, and the circumstances surrounding items from the museums’ own holdings which were lost during the war. These examples illustrate the full breadth of this still very young discipline.
In addition, the archivists of the Zentralarchiv support provenance research through targeted in-depth research of selected records, such as acquisition records. This makes it easier for researchers to access the relevant archival records and considerably reduces the time required to carry out research in the field, both for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s own collection-related provenance research and for external researchers.
Dr des Julia Binter studied social and cultural anthropology as well as theatre, film and media studies in Vienna, Paris, Brussels and Oxford. Her doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford focused on material culture (from religious, artistic and museum contexts), transatlantic trade and related forms of memory in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. She has conducted research in ethnological, historical and art historical museums and, in 2017, curated the exhibition The Blind Spot. Bremen, Colonialism and Art at the Kunsthalle Bremen. She is currently overseeing the collaborative research and exhibition project Confronting Colonial Pasts, Envisioning Creative Futures on the collections from Namibia at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin.
Historian Dr Sven Haase began his career in provenance research with a traineeship at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung and in the Generaldirektion. He has been responsible for provenance research in the field of European art since 2014. Between 2016 and 2021, he served as a board member for the Arbeitskreis für Provenienzforschung. In 2018, he curated the exhibition The Lives of Images: Provenances at Museum Berggruen Picasso – Klee – Braque – Matisse and worked on the exhibition Max Beckmann: The Barbara Göpel Bequest at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett.
Historian Dr Christine Howald (deputy director of the Zentralarchiv) spent many years in Berlin, Paris and Beijing researching the history of various collections in a number of different contexts. After this she established the research project Tracing East Asian Art (TEAA) at the Technische Universität Berlin. She now oversees provenance research on the collections from East, Southeast and South Asia at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and the Ethnologisches Museum and related collaboration projects.
Ilja Labischinski studied ancient American studies, anthropology and history of the Americas in Bonn, Berlin and Madrid. He worked as coordinating curator for the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst at the Humboldt Forum, where he curated a collaborative exhibition project on Francis La Flesche, and in his research work, laid the foundations for the return of objects to the Chugach in Alaska. In the future, his work will focus primarily on expanding current collaborations with the Chugach Alaska Corporation as well as researching the provenance of the human remains held in the Ethnologisches Museum’s collection.
Franziska May studied art history and history in Berlin and Madrid. From September 2020 to December 2021, she was a curatorial assistant at the Gemäldegalerie, and has been working at the Zentralarchiv since January 2022, focusing on provenance research in the area of European art. She contributed to the exhibition The Solly Collection 1821–2021: Founding the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, and is currently co-curating the exhibition In:complete: Destroyed, Divided, Complemented at the Kunstbibliothek.
Dr Laura Puritani studied “Lettere classiche” with a focus on archaeology and classical philology in Pavia, Italy. She completed a traineeship as a assistant curator at the Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel and worked as an assistant professor in the Archaeology Department of Universität Marburg. She began working as a provenance researcher at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 2013, initially on a project basis, and in 2017 she published a catalogue on the objects with unknown ownership of the Antikensammlung. Today, she is responsible for provenance research in the field of archaeology.
Birgit Sporleder studied classical archaeology, cultural studies and art history in Berlin and Havana. Drawing on her Master’s thesis on the early 20th-century antiquities trade, she curated the exhibition Gefunden, gehandelt, gestundet hosted by the collections of the Winckelmann-Institut at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. From 2018, she worked as a trainee assistant curator at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. During her traineeship, her work focused on the archaeological collections from Central America. She currently works as a research associate for provenance research at the museum, and continues to focus on collections from Central America.
Art historian Dr Hanna Strzoda has been working on provenance research projects for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin since 2010. She began her work here investigating the collection of West Berlin’s "Galerie des 20. Jahrhunderts“ in a joint project between the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz and the State of Berlin. She then went on to carry out research on the “Collection of Drawings” held in the Kupferstichkabinett, ending in 2016. She is currently researching the former art collections of the Dresdner Bank, which were acquired by the Prussian state and transferred to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 1935. She is responsible for art collections, in particular the large-scale collections (Kupferstichkabinett, the Kunstgewerbemuseum and the Kunstbibliothek).
Kristin Weber-Sinn studied African studies (with a focus on history) and ethnology in Cologne and Berlin. In collaboration with four historians, she created the online audio guide “Kolonialismus im Kasten?” (2013) as a critical intervention into the permanent exhibition of the DHM. She has been researching sensitive collections from contemporary Tanzania at the Ethnologisches Museum since 2016. This work has been and is still beeing carried out in collaboration with Tanzanian colleagues at the National Museum of Tanzania, the University of Dar es Salaam and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (research and exhibition).
Dr Petra Winter, director of the Zentralarchiv, studied history, Polish studies and archive studies in Berlin, Krakow and Potsdam. In 2008, she received her PhD in modern history from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin with a study on the “twin museums” in a divided Berlin between 1945–1958. From 2000 to 2008 she worked as an archivist at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Zentralarchiv. From 2008, she worked as a provenance researcher for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and at the same time took over as deputy head of the Zentralarchiv. Since 2015, she has been head (since 2020 director) of the Zentralarchiv and of provenance research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In addition to provenance research, her research interests include the history of museums in the 19th and 20th centuries.