Paths of Acquisition in Light of New Provenance Research. The Ethnological Collection of the University of Göttingen from 1933 to 1958
- Beate Herrmann M.A.
Telephone: +49 (0) 551 5085840
- March 2016 to July 2017
The social and cultural-historical significance of scientific collections at German universities has been attracting growing attention in recent years from both the professional community and the general public.
One of these is the Ethnological Collection at the University of Göttingen, which was established in 1775 as the “Ethnographic Collection” of the “Royal Academic Museum” of the University of Göttingen. The collection, now totalling some 18,000 objects, primarily serves research and study purposes, and strives to present the results of scientific investigation of the collections to the public. In line with the Joint Declaration of 1999 and the Washington Principles of 1998 which pledged to intensify efforts to identify potential cases of cultural assets seized through Nazi persecution, this projects aims to investigate the Africa Collection of its Ethnological Collection in the years 1933 to 1958.
This long-term provenance research project, which began on 1 March 2016, follows a time-line of investigation which begins with the National Socialists’ rise to power in 1933 and ends with the retirement of the first professor of Ethnological Studies in Göttingen, Hans Plischke (1890-1972). His professional career included a number of key university positions and the combination of academic and political offices which not only helped establish Ethnological Studies as a discipline, but also shaped the management style of the institute and the Ethnological Collection in the long term.
The project will investigate and document the collection’s acquisitions particularly during the post-war years and the 1950s. Researchers will work to clarify to what extent these items acquired through purchases, donations and estates, as well as Plischke’s network of second- and third-party connections, have a suspicious provenance history, especially items in the Africa Collection. The research will focus on 171 names of individuals who contributed to building the Africa Collection between 1933 and 1958 according to the inventory cards.
In order to advance contemporary and scientific-historical study, the project wishes to reconstruct Plischke’s academic-political network and acquisition policies in interplay with the social upheavals and the political systems of his day. In this way, the search for cultural assets confiscated through Nazi persecution could offer insights into the genesis of the university collection during his almost thirty-year term at the University of Göttingen.
This provenance research and investigative project is being supported and accompanied by Prof. Dr. Roman Loimeier from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen.
The new provenance research project builds on two earlier provenance research projects which were conducted at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology:
During the systematic study and investigation of the Ethnographic Collection Łødź, financed by the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, researchers discovered complex paths from which the items were purchased or otherwise acquired. The research conducted between 2010 and 2012 illuminated the history and background of the works and the active participants in question, including their respective contact structures. Project researchers were able to prove that approximately 300 items in the Ethnographic Collection Łødź in Göttingen meet the criteria of “war-related looted art”. Originally part of the collection of the Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum in the Polish city of Łødź, 1,298 ethnographical works were transported to Leipzig in 1940 as part of an exchange agreement between the representative of the general trustee responsible for safeguarding the art and cultural assets in Łødź, Dr. Walter Frentzel (1892-1941) and the director of the Leipzig Museum für Völkerkunde, Dr. Fritz Krause, (1881-1963). In 1942, the collection was put up for sale, and parts of the collection were purchased by Leipzig and Göttingen, as well as by the directors of the ethnological museums in Cologne and Hamburg.
In April 1967, the Leipzig sub-collection was officially restituted to the Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum in Łødź in an official ceremony held at the Polish embassy in East Berlin. Comparing various sources, it appears that the Cologne sub-collection never arrived in Cologne. It is believed to have been lost following the heavy aerial bombing of the Leipzig Grassi Museum. The sub-collection destined for Hamburg was only transported as far as Lautenthal in the Harz Region in 1942, where it was stored in a factory building which served as a reserve depot for the Hamburg Völkerkunde Museum. On 12 April 1945, as the American forces were approaching, the local SS Battle Commander ordered the detonation of a TNT-laden radio lorry which was parked in front of the building. The explosion caught the adjacent factory building on fire, resulting in the destruction of all of the Hamburg museum’s holdings which were stored there.
Against this background, the Göttingen sub-collection of the Ethnographic Collection Łødź provides a fascinating view of Polish and German contemporary history which promises to culminate in restitution sometime in 2016.
The documented findings of the provenance research conducted by Beate Herrmann M.A. are added to the Lost Art Database and were submitted in paper form to the Federal Foreign Office by the Magdeburg Coordination Office in 2012 on the basis of the Polish–German Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Cooperation of 1991.
Thanks to a short-term project grant provided by the Office of Provenance Research at the Institute of Museum Research of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Beate Herrmann M. A. was able to conduct a provenance research project titled “On the Trail of Nazi Looted Art in the Library of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen” from February to August 2012. In addition to documenting bookplates, autographs, dedications, initials, stickers and other markings, Ms Herrmann also recorded instances of intentional damage, e.g. blacking, paste-overs, cut-outs, torn edges and ripped-out endpapers.
Herrmann, Beate (2012): Die Göttinger Ethnographische Sammlung Łødź. In: NS-Raubgut in Museen, Bibliotheken und Archiven. Viertes Hannoversches Symposium. Frankfurt am Main, Klostermann Verlag, pp. 241-257.
Currently in planning:
Article for the conference proceedings on the workshop “Zwischen Forschung, Lehre, Recht und Verantwortung. Zum Umgang mit sensiblen Objekten in wissenschaftlichen Sammlungen” 21/22 January 2016, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz