The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s acquisition logs provide a record of the inventories of the museums’ collections and reflect the eventful history of the evolution of the collection and the provenance of the items that make them up, all the way up to the present day. These hand-written records date back to the 17th century, 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.
Generally, the logbooks 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.
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.
Despite the difficulties they pose, these acquisition logs represent important, sometimes crucial primary sources for provenance research, the documentation of archaeological finds and investigations into the collections. Making them accessible in digital form allows researchers to work together to interpret the data from diverse, transdisciplinary perspectives, and moreover, fosters the active participation of people with knowledge that is often regionally specific in efforts to shed light on historical processes of acquisition. Publishing this material online opens up a window onto the inner workings of the museums, expanding the access of civil society to the knowledge housed by the institutions. This process, reflective of the notion of citizen science, can throw up new questions that might expand our understanding of the accession strategies and acquisition policies that informed the composition of these collections.
Making the acquisition logs available online as part of an on-going digital publication also aids in efforts to identify and ultimately return cultural assets that were expropriated as a result of persecution by the Nazis, as outlined by the Washington Accord. At the same time, they contribute to our mission of investigating the colonial contexts in which some objects joined the collections, which are often difficult to reconstruct behind the seemingly matter-of-fact accession data contained in the acquisition logs. Opening up the archives and creating transparency around these sources will contribute to our aim to facilitate cooperation and a just dialogue between the collections and societies of origin.
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. In order to make it easier for the public to read and interpret the information these materials contain, and in particular to make them more accessible to non-German-speaking readers, further steps are required. This includes the partially automated expansion of indexes, as well as the development of an interface for the online catalogue of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s digital inventory. The transcription of the handwritten entries using OCR text recognition and their translation into other languages would improve accessibility, however, this exceeds the current technical resources available to the project.
The project Provenance and Collections: Publishing the Acquisition and Accession Logs of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Online aims to successively publish the entire historical collection of these books, comprising several hundred volumes. The only factor restricting this publication is the need to respect the privacy of parties included in the logs when a collection object is acquisitioned or donated. For this reason, for acquisitions since 1950, personal data is blacked out.
The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is happy to receive enquiries about this work, and if we are unable to provide immediate information, we will offer suggestions as to which other forms of access can be provided.
The acquisition and accession logs are currently being sifted, digitized, and made continuously accessible.