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The Ethnologisches Museum and Columbia Intensify Cooperation

20.09.2022
Humboldt Forum

The Ethnologische Museum (Ethnological Museum) – Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin holds two masks from the Indigenous Kogi community living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in Columbia. These objects with a ritual background continue to have sacred significance for the Kogi, who refer to themselves as the Kágaba. This special significance has led the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) and the Embassy of Columbia in Germany to initiate talks.

In addition to the masks, the talks addressed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the preservation of archaeological holdings and scholarly study of Columbian collections in Germany, as well as joint research on Columbian goldsmithing techniques. As part of its residency programme, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin will also establish a cooperation with Columbia in 2023 that focuses on the Berlin collection of objects from the San Agustín culture and related artefacts, as well as on the archaeological and historical investigation of pre-Columbian gold objects at the Ethnologisches Museum.

Ethnographic and Pre-Columbian Objects in the Ethnologisches Museum Collections

The two Kogi masks were acquired in 1915 by Konrad Theodor Preuss, ethnologist and curator at the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (Royal Ethnological Museum), the predecessor institution to the Ethnologisches Museum. He collected more than 700 objects on a research trip to Columbia between 1913 and 1919, some 440 of which are still at the Ethnologisches Museum. The objects from the Preuss Collection were long shown in the Ethnologisches Museum’s permanent collection and occasionally in special exhibitions. At the Humboldt Forum, gold objects from that collection stemming from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Muisca Region are displayed in the Der Wert von Gold (The Value of Gold) section on the second upper level.

During his research stay with the Kágaba, Preuss started a small collection. In collaboration with several Mamas (Kágaba priests), he recorded myths and chants in the Kágaba language (Kougian) and published them with a translation in 1926. Preuss acquired the two masks from the heirs of a deceased Mama, thanks to a „favourable opportunity”, as he wrote in his book Forschungsreise zu den Kágaba (Research Voyage to the Kágaba, 1926). He was not aware of the masks’ age or special significance. According to Kágaba/Kogi tradition, the masks are sacred objects that have been passed down from generation to generation of Mamas. They retain their significance to this day and are understood as, among other things, guarantors for the continuity of recovered territories.

Preuss was particularly interested in researching the prehistoric monolith culture of San Agustín in southern Columbia. He published a two-volume catalogue of the preserved sculptures, some of which he excavated or simply located. Preuss made numerous moulds, which were later cast at the Berlin Gipsformerei (Replica Workshop). He also brought some of the original stone sculptures from San Agustín and Briceño to Berlin; 23 are still preserved at the Ethnologisches Museum, along with six heads of such stone sculptures.