Ethnographic Collection of the Georg-August-University Göttingen

General information about the institution


The Ethnographic Collection of the Georg-August-University Göttingen is one of the most important teaching and research collections in the German-speaking world. Its beginnings date back to the time of the Enlightenment. In 1773, the Royal Academic Museum was found at the University, whose holdings soon included the first ethnographic objects. On the initiative of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), extensive collections from the South Seas and Northwest America (Cook/Forster Collection) as well as the Arctic polar region (Baron von Asch Collection) reached Göttingen as late as the 18th century. These two unique old holdings still establish the international reputation of the collection today.

Meanwhile, the collection counts about 19,000 objects from all continents. It also includes graphics and paintings, photographs and hands-on objects of museum education. Since December 2017, the first holdings have been accessible on the online collection portal of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. Depending on the available funds, the online presentation of the collection will be successively expanded.


General information on collections from colonial contexts in the respective institution


The precise recording of the holdings from colonial contexts is the subject of current research. The heterogeneity of the existing convolutes as well as the often insufficient documentation of the entries make this work a small-scale and time-consuming affair.

According to the current status, between 1884 and 1918, approximately 600 objects from the German colonial territories were added to the collection. Several hundred further objects did not reach the University of Göttingen until later, but their original acquisition context also lies in the period mentioned. In addition, there are extensive convolutes of objects for which either the year of acquisition or the regional allocation cannot yet be clearly determined, but for which a colonial acquisition context is considered a possibility.


Information on the sub-collections to be researched in PAESE


The Ethnographic Collection of the Georg-August-University Göttingen is home to two sub-projects of the joint project, which work closely together. In both studies, object collections with different characteristics in terms of object types, materials, acquisition contexts and participating people are taken into account.

One sub-project is devoted to the university use of objects in teaching and research. For this purpose, those holdings are considered that allow conclusions to be drawn about the connections between colonial collections and university practice. A further focus is on collections from present-day Tanzania. These studies are institutionally linked to the Ethnological Collection and are conducted by Hannah Feder.

The dissertation project (working title: Colonialism as It was Taught – the Teachings of Colonialism. Colonial Holdings of the Ethnographic Collection Göttingen and their Academic Utilisations ) is conceived as provenance research and focuses on the history of the impact of collection holdings of the Ethnographic Collection Göttingen from colonial contexts by analysing their histories of documentation, use and interpretation. University collections are understood as places with epistemological power, which have been and are still being interrelated with university practices of teaching and research. Provenance research is understood as a contribution to the understanding of complex collection histories beyond the approaches of acquisition history and object biography. In a combination of historical and ethnological methods, insights into collection-related historical practices of the appropriation of objects as well as the university production of meaning and knowledge as academic practice are to be generated. By means of cooperative research elements, the current relevance of colonial collections for today's research practice will also be investigated. The overarching goal of the project is to contribute to the development of a complex collection history and thus to the history of science, disciplines and institutions as well as to the colonial context in interaction with the production of meaning and knowledge.

A second sub-project analyses networks and trade routes. The focus of the investigations is on objects from the German colonies in the Pacific, especially from today's Papua New Guinea. These are institutionally linked to the Department of Modern History and are conducted by Sara Müller. Aim of the dissertation project (working title: Many roads lead to Göttingen. The Ethnographic Collection of the Georg-August-University of Göttingen and the International Trade Routes and Networks in the 19th and 20th Century) is the reconstruction of trade routes and networks between Germany and its former colony in German New Guinea, today's Papua New Guinea. Those networks and trade routes that are directly related to objects from the Ethnographic Collection of the University of Göttingen will be examined and analysed. Of interest are those objects that were acquired in the South Sea Colony between 1890 and 1914 and are thus to be seen in a colonial context. On the basis of these object, various questions will be investigated: Who were the men and women who produced these objects and traded with them or from whom they were stolen. How did Europeans, both female and male, and also locals acquire objects in the colonies? Why are these objects in Göttingen today and how did they get here? How has the significance of the objects changed in this transfer process? What motives did the actors pursue in producing / giving away / selling / buying the objects or appropriating them by force?

In order to answer these questions, various sources have been used. In addition to the archives of the Ethnological Collection of the University of Göttingen, travel descriptions of the collectors, correspondence, publications and the objects themselves will be analysed. The historical context from which the objects originate will also be considered. This includes contemporary political and social debates as well as collection strategies, standards and the contemporary understanding of the generation of knowledge. On this basis, the work will contribute to the reappraisal of German colonial history in Oceania, as well as to the reappraisal of the colonial collection holdings of the Ethnographic Collection in Göttingen.


Curator: Dr. Michael Kraus

Subprojekt: Trade Routes and Networks

Researcher: Sara Müller

Head of the Subproject and Academic Adviser: Prof. Dr. Rebekka Habermas

Subproject: Collecting and Teaching

Researcher: Hannah Stieglitz (née Feder)

Head of the Subproject: Dr. Michael Kraus

Academic Adviser: Prof. Dr. Elfriede Hermann