"Sensitive Provenances" Research Project, 2020-2023

Human remains from colonial contexts in Göttingen University collections

Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation

Debates about human remains in museums have not left academic collections untouched. However, a critical discussion about the origin of university holdings and their use in research and teaching has so far existed in Germany in a rather rudimentary form. This research project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, investigates the provenance of human remains from (proto-)colonial contexts in two collections at the University of Göttingen. It aims to examine the origin of mortal remains, the circumstances of their acquisition, their transfer and transformation into 'things of knowledge' in scientific practice, and their use for teaching and research purposes.
The project team will focus, first, on the so-called 'Blumenbach Skull Collection', which was initiated by the natural scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840). After Blumenbach's death, his collection of approximately 245 ancestral remains was continuously expanded by his successors until the 1940s. Today there are approximately 800 remains in the collection, of which approximately 200 ancestral remains are of non-European provenance. Second, we will focus on the extensive collection of human remains handed over from the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology to the Biological Anthropology Department at the University of Göttingen in 1953. The collection originates mostly from the German colonial period between 1890 and the 1920s. An initial review revealed that circa 1.200 ancestral remains originate from Oceania and Africa.
The project proceeds with an interdisciplinary approach and intertwines different disciplines, each contributing their own methodological and theoretical insights. Critical historical provenance research which is mainly based on archival research will be complemented by an anthropological-anatomical sub-project. In parallel, an ethnographic socio-cultural anthropological research will be carried out about the project in itself exploring the usually un-reflected assumptions and research practices related to mortal remains within the participating disciplines. This part of the project will also comparatively examine extant and ongoing research endeavours engaged in human remains and their restitution, and will accompany likewise the ways in which our project establishes contact with societies of origin.
Contact and cooperation with representatives of the societies of origin is one of the key elements of the project. In granting access to our research source materials as well as to potential ancestors in Göttingen’s collections, we hope to contrast and integrate diverse perspectives on how to understand human remains of colonial origin.
Our aim is to jointly develop a research agenda marking a comprehensive contribution to further provenance research. The long-term goal is to acquire the necessary knowledge to facilitate potential repatriation to diverse sites of origin. This goal will be furthered by several short-term scholarships which we will offer to researchers from the societies of origin.
This interdisciplinary research project is jointly carried out as a cooperation of the Centre of Collection Development, with the Chair of Modern History, Prof. Dr Rebekka Habermas, PD Dr Richard Hölzl, the Institute of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, Prof. Dr Regina Bendix, the Institute of Historical Anthropology and Human Ecology, Dr Susanne Hummel, and the Centre for Anatomy/Blumenbach's Skull Collection, Prof. Dr Christoph Viebahn. Research is carried out by Dr Jonatan Kurzwelly, Dr Holger Stoecker, Katharina Stötzel, and Dr Tarisi Vunidilo.