Project: “Precarious Provenance – Human remains from Africa’s colonial past before 1919 in scientific collections of Baden-Württemberg”

In addition to a large number of objects, Baden-Württemberg’s scientific collections also retain unprocessed human remains from Africa. In our collaborative project, we explore human remains which are presumed to predate 1919 and to originate from Africa. According to initial estimates, there are about 130 unprocessed human remains, but often only rudimentary indications are available, so that the exact number cannot yet be specified. The related historical documents, such as inventory and entry books, are often incomplete and sometimes contain unspecific terms such as “non-European”.

In addition to Africa, other regions of the world also need to be considered as places of origin. The aim of the project is to determine the origin and clarify the paths of origin of these human remains as a basis for repatriation to the respective community of implication. Thereby, historical data will be collected, especially in the field of network research, which will then be made available for further investigations. Additionally, the potentials of historically existing links between South-West German institutions will be exploited for the current-day transfer of knowledge.


The project “Precarious provenance”

At the initiative of the Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, several institutions storing cultural property have now joined forces to systematically investigate the origin of the unprocessed human remains in a collaborative project. This excludes the processed human remains held at the Linden Museum, such as a skull drum. The project “Prekäre Provenienz – Menschliche Überreste aus dem kolonialen Erbe Afrikas vor 1919 in wissenschaftlichen Sammlungen Baden-Württembergs” (“Precarious provenance — Human remains from Africa’s colonial past before 1919 in scientific collections of Baden-Württemberg”) is funded by the German Lost Art Foundation and the Ministry of Science. It is headed by the Museum of the University of Tübingen MUT, further project partners are the Osteological Collection of the University of Tübingen, the Linden Museum Stuttgart, the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart and the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe. Associated partners of the project are the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau and the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute for Cultural Studies (ABI).

In our project, we collect historical data, especially in the field of network research. This basic research will first investigate the received information, files, inventory books and archival records as well as explore the former networks. Furthermore, the potentials of the historical existing connections between South-West German scientific institutions will be exploited for the current-day transfer of knowledge.

The collaborative research has great potential in many respects: The transfer of knowledge between the participating institutions allows synergies to be created. Research is carried out in a coordinated and structured manner for concurrent and co-ordinated groups, thus avoiding double research and conflating resources. It is expected that the records of the project partners provide additional information on their collection, as well as on human remains which were often part of various collections. The network also provides an ideal starting point for researching actors and reconstructing their networks.

The project started on 1 September 2021. The first project phase takes one year, with the option of an extension to up to three years in total. The first working session took place at Hohentübingen Castle on 27 October 2021.




Project partners

Museum of the University of Tübingen MUT

At the Museum of the University of Tübingen MUT, the topic of provenance research has been a focus in teaching and research for several years. In 2015, 70 years after the end of the war, a Studium Generale study-general series on the subject was launched.

At the Museum of the University of Tübingen MUT, the topic of provenance research has been a focus in teaching and research for several years. In 2015, 70 years after the end of the Second World War, a Studium Generale series on the subject was launched.

Additionally, the Museum of the University of MUT presented two exhibitions: “Forschung, Lehre, Unrecht” (Research, teaching, injustice) and “In Fleischhackers Händen. Wissenschaft, Politik und das 20. Jahrhundert“ (In Fleischhacker’s hands. Science, politics, and the 20th century). Provenance research is regularly part of the curriculum of the Master Profile Museum & Collections and an important aspect in the education of young scientists. In the winter and summer semester 2020/2021, for example, Professor Dr Ernst Seidl, Michael La Corte and Bettina Zundel offered a practical seminar during which a group of students developed the workshop “MUT zur Herkunft – Workshop zur Provenienzforschung  für Jugendliche” to give pupils an understanding of provenance research. It intends to stimulate a critical examination of the origin of collection objects and the handling of such objects in museums. Since August 2020, Dr Fabienne Huguenin has been a provenance and collection researcher at the MUT – including responsibility for third-party funding acquisition in this area - as well as teaching of seminars on the topic. Since February 2021, she has been spokesperson of the AG Thesauri within the “Netzwerk Koloniale Kontexte” (Network of Colonial Contexts). Annika Vosseler M.Sc. started as research assistant in the project on 1 September 2021.

Contact: Prof. Dr. Ernst Seidl, Dr. Fabienne Huguenin, Annika Vosseler


Linden-Museum

The Linden-Museum with its director Professor Dr Inés de Castro is a nationwide pioneer in dealing with colonial heritage. It is one of 25 pilot institutions that make their collection material from colonial contexts available online on the portal of the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library DDB) since 30 November 2021.

The Linden-Museum's “Sammlung digital” (Collections online), (which offers open virtual access to its museum holdings, was already released a year earlier. It presents detailed information, interesting stories and background information on objects and cultures from all over the world and makes methods and results of provenance research visible. As the project “Schwieriges Erbe” (Difficult Heritage) has shown, the Linden-Museum occupied a key position within the collection landscape over 100 years ago. Many objects, including human remains, first came to the Linden-Museum and were then passed on to other institutions, often in southern Germany. Only a few unprocessed human remains from Africa predating 1919 remain at the Linden-Museum. An important part of the collaborative project is to trace the routes of translocations, sift through the files and reconstruct the networks. Making this possible and supporting the leading researchers of the project is the Linden-Museum's contribution.

Contact: Prof Dr Inés de Castro, Markus Himmelsbach, Dr Fiona Siegenthaler

 


The Osteological Collection of the University of Tübingen

The Osteological Collection of the University of Tübingen is a research and teaching facility for investigating human skeletal remains from archaeological excavations. In the early 1920s, the collection was founded as a small private collection and was later expanded by finds from the University and the Monument Office.

The collection currently comprises more than 11,000 human remains. Most of the stock originates from southwest Germany. Most of the stock originates from southwest Germany, covering time periods from modern times to the Stone Age.  Today the collection is part of the working group Paleoanthropology at the Institute for Archaeological Sciences and Human Evolution (IASHE) and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (SHEP).

The Osteological Collection is currently carrying out extensive inventory work. Parts of the stock are scanned in 3D using state-of-the-art computer tomography technology. Historical collection catalogues and inventory lists are being transcribed and digitised. For the joint project “Precarious Provenance”, the Osteological Collection is examining a small number of human skeletons that may originate from Africa before 1919. Furthermore, a larger collection of human skulls is being investigated, the provenance of which is at yet unclear. The aim is to determine the approximate geographical origin of the skeletons on the basis of non-invasive morphological studies in order to narrow down these regions enabling more focused historical research.

Contact: Prof. Dr. Katerina Harvati, Dr. Hannes Rathmann

 

 


State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart

Already 100-150 years ago, the great scientific interest in human bones greatly increased the anthropological collection of the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History (SMNS). Private collectors, colonial officials and anthropologists handed human bones to the SMNS either directly or via the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart.

In many cases, the origin of the bones is well documented on labels, index cards or archived correspondence — in others, basic information is lacking. In recent years the growing societal and political interest in dealing with the colonial past of German museums has increasingly moved provenance research into the focus also of Dr Stefan Merker’s work, Head of Department Zoology and Curator of Mammals at the SMNS. He has been supporting the joint project since the start of the project by reviewing the collection material, generating specific object lists, researching existing documents and targeting the digitisation of archival materials.

Contact: Dr Stefan Merker


State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe

The Zoological Collection of the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK) contains  a vertebrate collection which includes scientific evidence and displays preserved specimen of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals from all over the world, with mammal skulls from West Africa, feathered bird and mammal skins from East Africa as well as the collection of evidence of small mammals and bats from Baden-Württemberg.

In the Zoological Collection of the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK)  is a vertebrate collection. It includes scientific evidence and displays preserved specimen of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals from all over the world, with mammal skulls from West Africa, feathered bird and mammal skins from East Africa as well as the collection of evidence of small mammals and bats from Baden-Württemberg.

Since 2014, the expansion of the comparative collection of vertebrate skeletons has been a new focus of the collection. In 2015, the body of the first wolf (Canis lupus) in Baden-Württemberg since 1882 arrived at the SMNK and was skeletonised. Likewise, since 2014, all areas of the collection have been reorganised, inventoried and digitised and particular attention is paid to clarifying the provenance of individual objects.

Contact: Dr Albrecht Manegold

 



Associated partners

The associated project partners from Freiburg have joined forces to form an own joint project, which focuses strongly on network research, is also funded by the German Lost Art Foundation, and also puts human remains from Africa at the centre of interest. The project involves the University Archive and the Uniseum Freiburg (Professor Dr Dieter Speck), the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute for Cultural Studies (ABI) (Professor Dr Andreas Mehler), the Africa Center for Transregional Research (ACT) in Freiburg (Dr Annika Hampel, Dr Anika Becher) and the Department of Biological Anthropology of the Faculty of Medicine of the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Professor Dr Ursula Wittwer-Backofen). They implemented an external advisory board of persons from communities of implication which is regularly informed about the project’s progress and assesses it critically and from a local perspective.



Network research database

The researched data within the project on individuals, institutions, and networks from the period up to 1919 in the colonial context, and especially regarding human remains from Africa, will be made available to all interested parties. They contain the usual data standards, such as the GND number, geonames or controlled vocabulary/thesauri.


Lectures/Interviews
  • Interview with Prof. Dr. Ernst Seidl, Dr. Fabienne Huguenin and Annika Vosseler, conducted by the students of the workshop "MUT zur Herkunft. Workshop zur Provenienzforschung für Jugendliche" (Workshop on Provenance Research for Young People) .

Reporting on the project

Courses
  • Fabienne Huguenin: Advanced seminar „Einführung Provenienzforschung“ (SoSe 2022)
  • Annika Vosseler/Fabienne Huguenin: Practice seminar „Provenienzforschung – aber wie? Transkription, Metadatenerfassung, Netzwerkforschung“ (SoSe 2022)
  • Fabienne Huguenin: Advanced seminar „Einführung Provenienzforschung“ (WS 2021/2022)

Further activities


Contact information

Prof Dr Ernst Seidl

Directorate of the MUT                       

Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 74134

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Dr. Fabienne Huguenin

Collection and Provenance research 

Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 74127

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Annika Vosseler M.Sc.

Collection and Provenance research

Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 76437

Send email


Student Assistants
Katja Schurr

Provenance research

Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 74127

Send email

Sümeyye Tarhan

Provenance research

Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 74127

Send email

Dominique Gabler

Provenance research

Tel: +49 (0)7071 29 74127

Send email