The Coloniality of Natural History Collections by Katja Kaiser

Panel: Transdisciplinary Provenance Research on Objects from Colonial Contexts
Tuesday, 22 June, 11:15 a.m. - 12:45 p.m. (CET)


Natural history collections have so far only played a marginal role in the debates on collections from colonial contexts. They are either mentioned without defining their special features or not mentioned at all. Yet natural history museums experienced an unprecedented expansion of their collections during colonial expansion. To this day, collections of colonial provenance form a nationally and internationally significant basis for research and exhibitions.
On the one hand, natural history collections are a central part of the history of imperial appropriation of the world. They are inseparably linked to the history of the collecting sciences and their institutions. On the other hand, we are only just beginning to understand the particularities of natural history objects from colonial contexts and to let the colonial past of natural history become part of the institutional self-understanding of natural history institutions. This means a profound transformation of the way we work with natural history collections, how we exhibit and research them, how we enter into collaborations and how we understand digitisation processes. Using the example of the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde, it will be discussed how colonial entanglements shaped the history of institutions and collections and which legal frameworks, colonial infrastructures and collector networks determined the centralisation of ethnological and natural history collections at the Berlin museums. It will be argued that natural history collections must be considered in an interdisciplinary context with ethnological or anthropological collections in order to recognise the similarities and differences and to reconstruct shared acquisition contexts and provenances. In addition, initial considerations on specificities of natural history collections from colonial contexts will be presented as first results from projects at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.


Katja Kaiser is a historian specialized in colonial history, museum and collection history and gender studies. She has published on the emigration of German women to the colonies and on the institutional and collection history of the Berlin Botanical Garden and Museum. She has also been involved in various exhibition and research projects in cultural history museums and natural history museums. Since 2020 she is a researcher at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and works on guidelines on dealing with natural history collections from colonial contexts.