Investigation begins into the origin of the historical, anthropological collection of skulls

Neues Museum

In October the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) began a two-year project which investigates the exact origins of around 1,000 human skulls. The collection was compiled around 1900 in the former colony of German East Africa. The project is headquartered in the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and is funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

The skulls belong to the anthropological collections that the SPK acquired in 2011 from the Berlin university hospital, the Charité. The collection was in very poor condition; in the past few years basic conservation treatments were implemented – including a laborious cleaning process – to prevent any further deterioration of the skulls. The scientists responsible for the project developed a research database and conducted preliminary research in foreign archives in order to pave the way to identifying the skulls’ origins.

This two-year project – during which time the holdings from former German East Africa will be reassessed – should also ultimately serve as a model for investigating the origins of all of the human remains in the care of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte. In addition, the information that is scattered worldwide has to be added to the database and analyzed. Since the project requires backgrounds in both ethnology and anthropology as well as a knowledge of colonial history, professionals from various fields will work together. Another goal is to develop an international network of scientists from the respective countries of origin (Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda), in order to guarantee impartial research methods. Whether or not the skulls will be returned depends on the research results. 

Because primary accession documentation of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte’s anthropological collections – such as inventory registers, card catalogues, or acquisition correspondences – largely no longer exists, numerous other sources will need to be consulted for the research. Collectors’ records – found in both public archives and private collections located domestically and abroad – are a relevant resource, for example. Because the collecting activities frequently occurred within the colonial infrastructure, records from economic, military, and ecclesiastical institutions are also of interest. Supplementary (non-invasive) anthropological examinations of the objects themselves could also provide important insight into their origins and how they were acquired.

The SPK’s handling of human remains is governed by the Deutscher Museumbund’s guidelines, as well as by the SPK’s own basic policies, developed in response to and in accordance with those guidelines. Provenance research will accordingly be prioritized above all else.

The Gerda Henkel Stiftung – a private non-profit foundation – was established in June 1976. The foundation’s sole purpose is to promote scholarship, primarily in the humanities. It has provided approximately €160 million to date to more than 6,600 research projects worldwide. With the introduction of their 2015 funding priority initiative ‘Patrimonies’, the foundation strengthened its efforts to support the preservation of cultural heritage, particularly in crisis regions.