The project ‘Colonial Germany and the Hidden Cultural History of Germany in Ethnographic Collections’ brings together historical colonial collections from across Germany and the United States of America in a unique approach to provenance research. Working with major museum collections from New York to Bremen, the project has compiled an electronic database of more than 20,000 objects and more than 400 collectors, as of the end of 2019. The database is made up of objects that were collected by German collectors from the German colonies between 1884 and 1919. By visiting museum collections across Germany and the USA, the project is able to bring together collections that had been separated and sold to various museums in the past, thereby presenting a more complete picture of what a single collector had collected from the colonies.
The establishing of such a database allows a new approach to be taken in provenance research and provides opportunities for new questions to be asked regarding not just the collections and objects, but also of the collectors. For example, from the database, a collector’s collection can be mapped onto historical maps of the regions, detailing what type of objects were collected. Collection maps such as these provide interesting insight regarding the collectors when the maps are paired with historical accounts. While this mapping and pattern analysis is still being undertaken, preliminary mapping and research carried out at the Landesmuseum für Natur und Mensch Oldenburg (2013-2015) has shown that for some military collectors there is a strong correlation between where the objects were collected; what type of objects were collected; and areas of conflict. In this case, the collectors in the military were collecting more weapons when and where there were conflicts between the local population and the Schutztruppe, particularly in German East Africa.
What the project hopes to accomplish is a better understanding of German collecting patterns and habits during the colonial period from the colonies. If a common collecting pattern for regions or occupations can be reasonably established, then collectors that do not fit the collecting patterns may be of interest for more detailed provenance research. For instance, if from a region very few collectors collected weapons, this can be considered “normal.” If there is one collector from the same region that gathered a significant number of weapons, this anomaly may point to unethical collecting practices resulting from historically hidden punitive expeditions. The project’s analysis potential can help highlight possible unethically obtained objects that may be hidden in a museum's collection. Such an analysis has been, up to this point, nearly impossible to establish since the collections of a single collector or expedition have been divided up and traded amongst museums over the past hundred plus years.