Shared Knowledge: Collaborative Provenance Research – Researchers from the Amazon basin at the Ethnologisches Museum

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

Following up on the 2014–2015 pilot project Wissen teilen (Sharing Knowledge), the Ethnologisches Museum is now working with partners from Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela on a long-term, collaborative project called Shared Knowledge. The project partners will work together to investigate ethnographic objects from the museum collection originating from the north-east and north-west of the Amazon basin. In the lead-up to the project’s mid-term symposium, the partners are now visiting Berlin to participate in workshops and carry out work in the museum’s storage facilities.

The focus of the collaboration is formed by some 3,000 objects, along with photographs, music recordings and films from the Ethnologisches Museum, the provenance of which was previously documented from a Western perspective. In their original cultural contexts, many of the objects – such as vases, jewellery and musical instruments – embody various layers of meaning related to the manner of their production, the materials used, their function in networks of exchange, and sometimes also their use in rituals. The aim is to expand the knowledge about their provenance through an on-going dialogue. What stories and histories are the project partners able to share about these objects? Are there indigenous perspectives to be considered that have previously been underrepresented? Which issues do the partners consider to be particularly relevant? What meaning do they attribute to these objects that are now held in museum collections? And what recommendations can be derived from this dialogue about future steps? 

One of the central foundations of the collaboration is an online databank created specially for the project. Established in 2015, this databank provides a secure platform for  participants to discuss details about the objects in the Berlin collections and about similar objects in the possession of the partner institutions. The platform is multilingual, and currently incorporates Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, as well as nine indigenous languages.

The bulk of the objects that have been examined can be traced back to the collector Theodor Koch-Grünberg, who acquired them in the upper Rio Negro and the regions along the borders that Brazil shares with Colombia and Venezuela. We already know a relatively large amount about these objects through Koch-Grünberg’s own documentations of his travels. For other collections, especially older ones, the biographies of the objects are largely unknown. Viewed in Latin American terms, the historical period in which all the collections being investigated in the project were gathered was postcolonial, however the social circumstances in these areas were characterised by dramatically unequal power structures. 

At the project’s half-way point though, it has already become evident that for the participating indigenous partners, the circumstances surrounding the change in ownership of the objects is currently less of a focus. What’s more important is recording their functions in rituals, their production methods and the mythical origins of the materials used. Some objects are powerful representations of origin myths, for many, there are similar objects that are still in use, while others are no longer in existence, and some are even forgotten to the communities from which they originate. However there is one thing that all the objects held by the museum have in common: that in the eyes of the indigenous project partners, they are representative of the territories from which they originate. Particularly for ritual objects, which for the partners incarnate living beings or ancestors, new, respectful forms of preservation are currently being developed and implemented.

The research findings will feed into the media stations of the permanent exhibition The World as a Hut – On the Origin and Life of Things in the Amazon Basin[JS1]  in the Humboldt Forum.

Shared Knowledge continues and expands upon the 2014–2015 pilot project Wissen Teilen (Sharing Knowledge), which took place as part of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem (2012–2015), and was funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The current, follow-up project, Shared Knowledge (2016–2020), is sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation and the German Federal Cultural Foundation.