"It Takes Trust!"

20.06.2019"It Takes Trust!"

Thorsten Strauß, chairman of the Kuratorium Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Board of Trustees), on provenance research and the "Tanzania-Germany: Shared Object Histories?" project

By Stefan Müchler

Bag with 96 medicinal objects owned by a healer from Mohoro.
Bag with 96 medicinal objects owned by a healer from Mohoro. © SMB, Ethnologisches Museum, Martin Franken

The Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) launched “Tanzania-Germany: Shared Object Histories?” as a pilot project in 2016. Its purpose is to develop a framework for provenance research on problematic holdings, especially ones collected during the colonial period in what is now mainland Tanzania. Thanks to the Humboldt Lab Tanzania project, which ran parallel in Dar es Salaam and is now completed, cooperative formats of artistic research and forms of representation for historically sensitive objects that were carried off during colonial wars could be examined by our staff together with Tanzanian scientists, experts, and artists. The projects received special support from the Preussischer Kulturbesitz board of trustees. Memoranda of understanding signed with the National Museum of Tanzania and the University of Dar es Salaam as part of the projects created a basis for long-term, sustainable cooperation.

Mr. Strauß, why did the Prussian Cultural Heritage Board of Trustees get involved in the "Tanzania-Germany: Shared Object Histories?" project?

Humboldt Lab Tanzania
Humboldt Lab Tanzania © Reimer Verlag

The Book

The Ethnologisches Museum storage area holds countless objects that were carried off between 1885 and 1918, during German colonial rule in Tanzania. In the Humboldt Lab Tanzania project, Tanzanian and German scientists, curators, and artists critically analyzed a selection of objects together. The book of the same name (Reimer Verlag, 59 euros) summarizes the project on 398 pages.

Thorsten Strauß: It was immediately obvious to the board that it would be important to address and support a subject like this one. The board made 220,000 euros available for the pilot phase; later the budget was increased by 100,000 euros. Provenance research is time-consuming and requires special knowledge and intensive interaction with Tanzanian colleagues.

Could you summarize the most important results of the Tanzania project?

Based on the research to date, we can conclude that the paths that objects followed to the Tanzania collection in Berlin are as diverse and complex as colonial history itself. Objects were given as gifts, traded, bought, but also extorted, stolen, or carried off. Due to the source situation, we unfortunately cannot reconstruct the exact means of acquisition for some objects. In these cases, the goal is to try to reconstruct the acquisition context locally as much as possible and show it. In this way the previous African owners are made visible by supplementing the entries in the museum database.

Does the Prussian Cultural Heritage Board of Trustees have a catalog of general criteria for identifying projects that are especially worthwhile to fund?

The organizations represented on the board have defined various funding priorities that are especially important to them. These specifically include topics involving education and outreach, the areas of digital transformation and communication, large exhibitions, and projects related to the Humboldt Forum – like the Tanzania provenance research project. The board would like to help the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) promote socially relevant topics. We want our funding to make cultural participation possible. The organizations we represent feel a special responsibility in this area. We are very happy that our funding made the Connections on Museumsinsel (Museum Island) summer program possible for the third time. We were also able to drive forward a project for school-age children in Haus Bastian, the future center for education and outreach.

Thorsten Strauß
Thorsten Strauß © Michael Kuchinke-Hofer

Thorsten Strauß

Thorsten Strauß is the global head of art, culture, and sports for Deutsche Bank AG and has been president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Board of Trustees since 2014.

How important will cooperative research projects that are carried out together with people from the original cultures be for the future?

International cooperation based on equal opportunity is indispensable for a deeper understanding of the collections and must be expanded. This collaborative approach can merge the knowledge of the museum curators with that of their partners and make it available to both sides. Provenance research needs to have stamina and trusting cooperation between the parties involved: aiming at quick results would not be effective. But I think that policy makers also have a duty to provide much more support museums in this regard.

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