Conference Review: Provenance Research


Impressions of the conference “Provenance research in ethnographic collections of colonial times”, 7-8 April 2017, Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich.

The event was organised by the Working Group on Museums of the German Anthropological Association (DGV) and the Museum Fünf Kontinente. Larissa Förster (CARMAH, Humboldt University Berlin), Iris Edenheiser (Museum Europäischer Kulturen Berlin) and Sarah Fründt (University College Freiburg) laid out their reasons for such an endeavour in their announcement of these two ambitiously scheduled days: Provenance research – itself a comparatively new concept in the museum field – has become a pivotal element of the work done in museums. But only recently have discussions on provenance in the German speaking areas been extended from items related to theft, dispossession, forced sales in the context of National Socialism to such things, artefacts, (human) remains appropriated in colonial times. During a general assembly of the Working Group on Museums in 2015, questions arising from these new research fields were discussed. Here, the need for further exchange, the creation of a broader network between people working on or preparing provenance research, structures for closer national and international collaboration and pooling of resources was articulated. With support of the funding initiative “Research in Museums” of the Volkswagen Stiftung, Förster, Edenheiser, Fründt and the host institution attempted to meet these needs. The conference was geared towards knowledge transfer between actors in Germany, working with ethnographic collections related to colonial times, as well as international experts with vast experience in provenance research (in contexts often referred to as “source communities”), and also included a panel on provenance research related to National Socialism. The first day consisted of an international panel in the morning and a panel on history and methods of provenance research related to National Socialism in Germany in the afternoon and was structured in a conference format. The day was concluded with a panel discussion in which international speakers reflected upon challenges and different perspectives of provenance research. On the second day, shorter presentations were given, introducing different projects working on ethnographic collections in Germany, examples of negotiations between institutions and expert communities concerning specific things in collections, as well as possibilities of including aspects of provenance research into exhibitions; it was conceived of as a workshop-like situation.


Congruent with the aims of the event, the audience was mainly professional, including museum staff, junior and senior researchers. The conference was not designed to serve a broader public; it focussed less on yet another introduction into the problematic issues of ethnographic collections from colonial times but rather on the question of how to deal with some of these issues in everyday museums´ work, in a pragmatic manner. Nevertheless, also these seemingly technical aspects of course raised fundamental questions. For example, speakers of both morning sessions introduced different methodologies of provenance research and showed possibilities of setting up databases, creating visualisations of the biographies of things in collections, of their connections to certain collectors, the ways they had travelled etc. Questions arose as to whether the categorisation underlying such systematizations could possibly be done adequately by German institutions, if they did not consider indigenous conceptions of things, places and their connections to people.

Throughout the different presentations, the ones working closer to the places and with the people from where the things had been taken/stolen, seemed to follow a slightly different course than those concentrating on German institutions as archival starting point. The latter seemed to be primarily concerned with the past of things; to find out as much as possible about the historic context of the collections and the ways in which they entered their institutions. Only in a second, third step would they link their findings with the knowledge of indigenous people living today who have a connection to the respective things. On the other hand, people being in a position to start their research from that perspective can look at the collections from this place of knowledge and thereby generate a different approach. Especially notable was this during the presentations by Eeva-Kristiina Harlin (University of Oulu, Finland), who spoke from a Sámi perspective on recording Sámi heritage in European museums and on contemporary projects working with Sámi art and design, and the paper by Amber Kiri Aranui (Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand). Aranui gave the audience an idea of the broad spectrum of archives she can work with when researching the provenance of ancestral remains – from shipping records, newspaper clippings, to reports from the people affected. She has worked for the repatriation program of the Te Papa for almost 10 years now. This enables her to quickly link information on places and collectors with the vast knowledge she has acquired over the years.


Many of the provenance research projects presented by German institutions seemed to be aware of the fact that collaborations with scholars from the contexts where the collections had been taken from would make their work more efficient. Christine Schlott (Leipzig) for example spent two months at the Te Papa museum for her research in the anthropological collections in Dresden. The museum had been addressed with claims for returns and repatriations since the 1990es, so that provenance research had become due. Paola Ivanov (Ethnological Museum Berlin/Humboldtforum) presented a project concerned with things looted during the Maji Maji war in Tanzania in which Tanzanian researchers shall work as partners. Also, one of the three people working in provenance at the Übersee-Museum in Bremen is from the region he is researching on: Ndzodo Awono (University Hamburg) from Cameroon, who has specialised on the history of the German colonial occupation of that area during his past studies. Eva Raabe (Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt) discussed the difficulties of  working with sacred objects, in the presented case Churingas from the Aranda in central Australia. How to deal with the fact that from an indigenous perspective she as woman is not allowed to handle these things? Another way of enabling collaboration was presented by Trevor Isaac from the U’mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada. Issac presented the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN), an online database with the aim to facilitate reciprocal and collaborative research about cultural heritage from First Nations culture from the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. The RRN contains more then 800,000 cultural items, held in 27 international institutions, which can be accessed for research, online discussions, and knowledge sharing.

During the panel on NS provenance research, facilitated by Andrea Bambi (Bavarian State Painting Collections), the invited speakers showed great interest in exchanging experiences with the attendees of this conference. They provided an overview of the most important steps towards the institutionalisation of NS provenance research, from the perspective of the Working Group on Provenance Research and tried to link their work with the challenges they see concerning ethnographic collections (Johanna Poltermann). Giving insights into their research methods, they also introduced the platform of the German Lost Art Foundation and how to work with its database (Claudia Andratschke, Lower Saxony State Museum and Provenance Research Network). A third presentation showed interconnections between NS related and ethnographic provenance research by talking about examples of provenance in collections in East Germany (Gilbert Lupfer, Dresden State Art Collections).

Surprisingly, these presentations evoked a lot of discontent among the audience of the conference. Objections were made that these two fields could not be compared with each other, although this had actually not been suggested by any of the speakers of the panel. It was astonishing to feel the emotional intensity with which people reacted. The organisers of the conference had to step in several times to defend the attempts of the NS provenance researchers to offer links to the ethnographic field. However, it can be hoped that this frail beginning of enabling linkages between these two research areas will be intensified in the near future.


Next to the axis of – quite literally – different view points from which one starts provenance research, another axis of difference was marked throughout the conference. Some referred to it as a kind of generational conflict or gap, although this is probably not a fully adequate description. On several occasions, objections were made as to whether the problems encountered and methods applied to confirm the provenance of specific things in the collections really were that new. Participants of the conference asserted that the determination of origin, meaning and context of the collections had always been at the core of the work done in ethnographic museums. Christian Feest´s presentation also addressed such issues by reporting on more than fifty years of working experience in the Völkerkundemuseum in Vienna (nowadays called Weltmuseum). Among other central aspects of successful provenance research, he emphasised the necessity of a reciprocal approach between institutions and ‘source communities’, the acknowledgment of different conceptions of things and their meaning for past and present as well as different forms of documentation.

A bottom line of the ‘former generation’ seemed to be that provenance research might be one of those terms with which academia tries to sell something long known as innovative. But during the discussions, one could not fully avoid hearing defensive and maybe also disappointed overtones in some speeches. Some seemed to sense a forgetfulness and maybe even ignorance in the way in which the ‘younger generation’ presented their approaches as having no predecessors.

During the open discussion following the morning session on the second day, Wiebke Ahrndt addressed this ‘generational gap’, inviting contributions from the panel and the audience as to what this difference between the approaches might be. Barbara Plankensteiner argued that it might not be a generational conflict that we witness but that there definitely had been significant changes in the way provenance research was conducted in museums. In her view, museums nowadays are less afraid. Less afraid of opening up their collections and make them accessible as archives, especially for people from regions where the collections are from. She senses less fear of having to return things, more engagement with different perspectives on the collections. Another main shift she pointed out lies in the way in which objects themselves are presented. Whereas until recently, every object was classically seen as just an ethnographic example of a specific ‘culture’, objects are now also on display as historic evidence or as the (previous) property of an individual person. Christian Feest pointed out that for him, provenance research had been a self-evident precondition of any exhibition, rather than something to be put on display itself. Earlier that day, Larissa Förster had hinted towards the capabilities of provenance research to actually help understand colonialism/s it/themselves – the different ways in which they played out in different geographical and historical settings. Maybe these contributions actually do implicate that there were different understandings of colonialism/s present at this conference, maybe the ‘generational gap’ does imply an epistemic shift.

Also on a more practical level, it seems reasonable to take these debates seriously. Indeed, findings of past research done within the respective institutions were not part of the presentations of recent projects. Questions of whether one could build upon such findings or maybe had to work against/rewrite them were not really addressed. Rather, in most cases the situation seemed to be one where researchers had to start from scratch: go through inventories, find pieces in museum storages, collect the little documentation available within the institution. However, intra-institutional histories of research long done and forgotten, of requests for information and returns from people outside answered or not, of contradictory opinions and actions of staff and different departments, of lost and found documentation, unknown files and drawers should maybe indeed be seen as part of the provenance research process – not only methodically and unmentioned, but even as part of the research results to be presented, for example at such conferences as the one in Munich. To acknowledge these histories, make them more transparent and work with them could become part of the current efforts to make collections more accessible. (If this is one of the aims).


Throughout the conference, questions of return and provenance research were sometimes discussed together, sometimes explicitly separated from each other. At one point during the open discussion following the international panel of the first evening, Wiebke Ahrndt, director of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen and vice president of the German Museum Association, intervened: She made a plea to stop confusing provenance research with returns. While this in itself might not be so surprising, her argumentation was remarkable: We should give up on the idea that museums today are afraid of giving things back. If there were arguments which made a return necessary, then this would be done and full stop. The naturalness with which she made this statement mirrors the prevailing atmosphere during these two days in Munich. It seemed as if there really was no question as to whether ethnographic museums had to engage in provenance research and therefore become more transparent institutions, or not. As if times in which these institutions acted behind closed doors, protecting themselves against ‘foreign’ intrusions were long past. Of course it was the selection of speakers as well as the theme and aims of the conference which made such an impression possible. Still it was exciting to witness.

Many questions remain open, and a few come to my mind. How will this new transparency influence the ways in which (permanent) exhibitions in ethnographic museums are conceived of and eventually presented; the ways in which research is done and who will do it; which will be the arguments which make returns appear necessary; which further forms of sharing knowledge, infrastructure, resources and collections will we see; how will questions of authority and possession be negotiated?

Provenance research is currently mostly done with third party funding and on a temporal basis (a problem that was also addressed during the conference), and by scholars socialised in Germany, sometimes with short academic training on the regions the collections come from. It is difficult to say how many of these projects will actually lead to restructurings of the institutions they are hosted by, and how many will remain in drawers and flash drives, temporarily put aside or forgotten, until the next funding enables new starts. But the report of these two days should definitely not end on a pessimistic note. Maybe it should rather end with another recurrent theme. Whenever the conversations changed into a lament of obstacles – lack of resources, lack of information, contradictory claims to collections, dead end attempts of collaborations, to name just a few – Wayne Modest (Head of the Research Center for Material Culture at the National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands) reminded everyone that people should rather focus on a horizon of possibilities. No matter how many unsolved cases and questions there are and remain: every step to a proper provenance, every return, every step towards opening up and sharing, is a step. And this conference has definitely helped in creating a better organised national and international network for working on these necessary transformations.


PS: In the same hall in which the conference was held, leaflets informed about the permanent exhibitions at Museum Fünf Kontinente. They include “Der Orient: Zum Staunen so nah”, “Indianer Südamerikas: Mythen, Tiere, Götterwesen” and “Indianer Nordamerikas: Sonnentanz und Bisonjagd”. // There were three microphones in a row on the table for the panel discussions. They were black, red and yellow, in that order.

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.