Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and The Ethnographic Collection

Social and Cultural Anthropology in Göttingen

What is Social and Cultural Anthropology?

Social and Cultural Anthropologists study different ways of life in human societies around the world. ‘How do we relate to, make sense of, and organize the world differently and what do we have in common?’, are the big questions anthropologists ask. They study socio-political forms of organization, economic strategies, constructions of identity, religious and ideological imaginations and values in different socio-cultural settings. But their subject matter really is as diverse as is humankind. What all anthropologists have in common, though, is an interest for the ‘cultural other’. However, perceptions of ‘other’ and ‘self’ are interdependent. A condition for anthropological research is an awareness of own cultural constructions and how they impact on our perception of the world. It is impossible to study the ‘other’ without studying the ‘self’.
Anthropologists employ long-term ethnographic fieldwork to collect data. Their central research method is called ‘participant observation’; anthropologists do not only observe but also take part in people’s daily life aiming to gain a deeper understanding of a society by living and actively participating in it. However, with our world becoming increasingly interconnected, the research methods of anthropologists have changed. Today, some anthropologists follow their interlocutors to multiple sites where their lives unfold, others employ new technologies to collect information. In our globalized world, anthropologists do not only conduct fieldwork in faraway places but also ‘at home’. What has not changed, is anthropology’s attempt to understand different lifeworlds from an insider’s perspective and its aim to contribute to a better understanding of human lives around the world.

The History of the Institute and the Ethnographic Collection

Anthropology in the first German university-museum

In Göttingen the foundation for anthropology as a comparative cultural science was laid much earlier than in other places in Germany. While most German ethnographic museums were founded during colonial times in the late 19th or early 20th century, the ethnographic collection in Göttingen was already established during the Enlightenment. The Georg-August-University was founded in 1737. It received an Academic Museum in 1773, in which an ethnographic collection was systematically started.

Early International Contacts

The Göttinger scientist and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was in contact with participants of scientific expeditions during the second half of the 18th century. His vision was to use the museum not for display but for research and teaching. Especially two collections that Blumenbach acquired were the foundation for early anthropological research: The Baron von Asch-Sammlung (Siberia and Alaska), and the renowned South Sea Collection (500 objects). The latter was acquired during James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific of which also Johann Reinhold and Georg Forster were part. Those extremely valuable, old holdings and their international renown were one of the reasons why anthropology and a focus on Oceania became permanently established in Göttingen.

Institutionalization and cultural legacy

In 1928 anthropology was established as a university subject in Göttingen. In 1934 an ordinariate for anthropology was founded and the institute of social and cultural anthropology was established shortly after in 1935/36. The Cook/Forster collection became one of its teaching collections and ‘Oceania’ became the main regional focus in research and teaching. Until today, the ethnographic collection is an important teaching collection and actively used to educate our students and a public audience. It holds more than 17.000 objects and is from a history of science perspective, as well as from an anthropological perspective, a unique cultural legacy.
Our institute does not only accommodate an impressive ethnographic collection, but also a specialized library and collection of visual materials. Today, our regional foci are Oceania, South East Asia and Africa.