„Of Course Provenance Research Is Being Done“

News from 08/08/2017

Conducting provenance research on ethnological collections is often more difficult than research on Nazi-confiscated art, the president of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Parzinger, said in an interview with Maria Ossowski of Deutschlandfunk. But, he pointed out, the Humboldt-Forum works closely with affected countries, such as Rwanda and Tanzania.

President Hermann Parzinger (Opens a Larger Version of the Image)
The President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Prof. Dr. Hermann Parzinger © SPK / Herlinde Koelbl

Your most important project, Professor Parzinger, is currently the Humboldt-Forum in the new Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace), with its non-European collections. The project has a distinguished advisory board. One of its members, art historian Bénédicte Savoy, has left the committee with a furious, media-hyped bang, announcing her departure in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. She says that it’s not the right time for the Humboldt-Forum, that the provenance of the exhibits has not been established, that the advisory board meets too rarely, that the advice of the board is not heeded, and that there's too much money involved – these are fierce accusations. You must have been quite irritated.

Yes, of course. Especially from someone who really should have known better, someone we've worked with for a long time. If someone has this impression of a project and they sit on its advisory committee, then they would normally try to talk to the founding directors and say „wait a minute, what are you actually doing here?” That didn’t happen. And the last time the advisory board met, over three days in April, she wasn’t there at all. And that is a bit odd. It was at that very meeting that we spent an entire afternoon discussing how to deal with our Africa collections.

We included two outside experts on African history. That was very controversial. That was very important. I don’t think that any of the experts that were there in April had the feeling that they were taking part in some token exercise or that they were not being listened to. Far from it – in fact, Neil McGregor had asked Ms. Savoy to attend the January meeting and then decide. So we are a bit surprised by this fundamental criticism that no provenance research is being done. That is, of course, not true. It’s certainly being done. Of course, you could do even more. That goes without saying. It’s always a question of the glass being half full or half empty. We have a large research project, examining the provenance of items from East Africa, where we’re cooperating very closely with Tanzania. I myself was there last fall. We did this with funds from large German corporations that work with us on the Kuratorium Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), and that made it possible for us to take on the project. But, really, there needs to be some sort of body to which you can submit project proposals for provenance research on ethnological collections, just as there is for Nazi-confiscated art. You can’t always expect museums to do everything, and to do it using their regular staff and funds from their regular budget. That is simply not possible. We do it to a certain extent, but if you want to dig deeper – and, as I said, we do the same with Nazi-confiscated art – then you have to define projects, do the fund-raising, and take it from there. And as far as that goes, I have no problem admitting that there's still a lot of work to be done in the future.

Professor Parzinger, the Humboldt-Forum contains ethnological collections from the colonial era. It is a panorama of the world. Why is it that provenance research in this field is more complicated than in the art world – for paintings, say.

I wouldn’t say that it’s more complicated. It can be very convoluted there, too, and you have to sift through numerous archives. But if we look, say, at the art market of the 1930s, which is very important for NS-confiscated art, there are often just a lot more records available. It is considerably more difficult for ethnological collections. You have to look at the collectors who acquired these things for the museums, and examine their purviews, their responsibilities, and their personal histories. Were they colonial civil servants? Were they scientists? Quite often, too, there are objects acquired by German colonial soldiers and others during colonial wars – in other words, through the use of force – that ended up in ethnological museums. Of course, these are things in a clear context of injustice. So, all these things have to be investigated – you have to do research – ideally, of course, including where our archives leave off, i.e., with our counterparts in the affected countries. And that is what we are doing. We currently have cooperative projects with Rwanda and with Tanzania, where it is important to genuinely work together to examine how these collections came to exist, to examine their history.

And if there were a restitution claim, what would happen then?

The real objective of provenance research is to proactively examine collections and then to voluntarily return any objects that aren’t „clean.” When you look at how Nazi-confiscated art is handled, for example, we don't just passively process restitution claims. We establish projects with specific objectives, comb through our collections in a targeted manner, one collection at a time, and come across things again and again that were possibly or, indeed, most likely taken by force, and then try to find the descendants, and take it from there. And that is more or less how I imagine things could be handled here, too. And that is what happened in the specific case of objects that we discovered were acquired during the Maji Maji Rebellion in Tanzania. We want to display them in the Humboldt-Forum in order to shed some light on this phenomenon and the history of the Maji Maji Rebellion, which, though many Germans are unfamiliar with it, is thought to have caused the deaths of almost 300,000 people. So telling this story here – the story of a real colonial crime – is no small feat. And that is why we – why the curators and I – went to Tanzania last fall and said „we have these objects and, together with you, we want to look back on and reappraise the history of the Maji Maji Rebellion and then to present that history together in the Humboldt-Forum.” And that, of course, is a collection where you say, okay, we’ll show it for one or two years in the Humboldt-Forum, and then we’ll return it to Dar-es-Salam, where it should stay.

Provenance research on ethnological objects is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the case of the Humboldt-Forum, the research will not be completed by the time the Humboldt-Forum opens but rather will be an attendant, ongoing process?

Absolutely. That’s just the way it is. The provenance of ethnological holdings is a relatively new issue, but one that we have certainly become very mindful of. There is a working group in the Deutscher Museumsbund (German Museums Association) that deals with precisely this problem, as it’s not a problem that just affects Berlin. It's a concern for any ethnological collection – not only in Germany, but in France, England, everywhere, across the world, or let’s say in the western World – that was acquired during this time; and it's the responsibility of the organizations that possess such collections to deal with it. And again, when I think back to provenance research on Nazi-confiscated art: in the course of our efforts, we, along with political decision-makers, have learned a lot – just think of the Washington Declaration, released in 1998. The Washington Declaration states that there aren't always clear-cut solutions and that’s why we have these „just and fair solutions.” In other words, when it’s no longer possible to reconstruct the truth completely, you should really simply try to find shared solutions, or compromises. I think that’s the job that needs to be done and we still have a lot yet to learn. But, of course, the picture some people paint – that it’s all plunder and should therefore all be returned – completely fails to do justice to the history of science, to the origins of these collections – it is absurd.

You mentioned the history of science just now, Professor Parzinger. You are responsible in equal measure for, on the one hand, the science and research done at the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), and, on the other, of course, the presentation of its art works. Is it possible to set priorities there and say that one thing is more important than the other?

No. All the institutions that make up the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz have a great and long-standing tradition of also being research institutions. There is no doubt that science and research are, and should be, at the heart of all the work related to the collections and key to the way we present information in our exhibitions. This is part of the Berlin tradition and we are very consciously and deliberately following in that tradition. In the course of research on the collections, new ideas emerge that then find their way into the exhibitions. And the great thing here for me – I started out, of course, at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archaeological Institute) – I was at a non-university research institute that didn’t have the opportunities that a museum has to present its results to the public. And it was here, at this institute, that I first became aware of the incredible potential that lies in really presenting, showing, explaining to the public the findings achieved by science. And that is what is completely lacking in many scientific fields, as they become ever more specialized; science and research are conducted in an ivory tower, completely cut off from the public. But science and research are financed with public monies, and so I think the things that we do – basic research in areas related to our collections, mostly in the fields of the social sciences and humanities – cannot be separated from each other. Research is invariably the basis for everything, beginning with conservation, and conservation science. And so the tradition – research in all areas, including research conducted with the aim of preserving our collections, is crucial. And it doesn’t only concern museums; it concerns the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library); it concerns the Geheimes Staatsarchiv (Prussian Secret State Archives), the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (Ibero-American Institute) – one of our most successful institutions in terms of fund-raising – and it is equally true of the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung (State Institute for Music Research).

The Foundation was created in 1957. The Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) passed a law – the law establishing the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz – to transfer the assets of the former state of Prussia to the Foundation. It’s a bit of a mouthful, and when you think about it – there’s MoMA, there's the Louvre, there’s the Prado. These are names that immediately call something to mind. But the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz? A bit unwieldy, isn’t it?

That’s part of the problem that we’re strugglig with. On the one hand, we’re much more than the institutions that you've just named. At the same time, it's tricky – this unique world of art and culture that brings together under a single roof all aspects of cultural heritage, national museums, national libraries, and national archives. There's almost nothing else like it. It is what makes the SPK so special, and you can’t put a label on it. But at the same time, it’s a hard thing to communicate to the public, a tough thing to market. Still, it is a job we’re going to need to do. We’ve recently restarted this process of improving the Foundation’s public image, the view people have of us. This is, I think, urgently needed. Our origins – of course, it's tied to the fact that we are the cultural institutions of the former state of Prussia, that it’s an entirely public foundation, which receives 75 percent of its funding from the federal government and 25 percent from all 16 Länder. It’s the only cultural institution that, because of its significance for the country as a whole, is supported at both federal and state levels. And you have to remember, this was back in the 1950s, when the treasures of our institutions were being protected from bombing and acts of war in West German warehouses; Prussia had been dissolved, and many of the holdings had been consolidated in Hesse; and Hesse said “right, Prussia no longer exists, Prussia was the owner, now we’re the owner.” These were the beginnings of what you might almost call an inner-German art-looting issue that ultimately led to the establishment of the Foundation and, in a long, drawn-out process, to these treasures being returned to Berlin. That process was not completed until the 1970s.

They are indeed incredible treasures, and you say more work needs to be done on polishing the Foundation’s image, on marketing. And there’s no question – the SPK is not a brand. What do you want to do specifically to change that?

„Museumsinsel” (Museum Island) is, of course, a brand that is comparable with the Louvre, the British Museum, or the Prado. But within the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin), the Museumsinsel is just one – albeit a very special one – of their locations. There’s the Gemäldegalerie (Old Master Paintings), Hamburger Bahnhof (Museum for Contemporary Art), Museum für Fotografie (Museum of Photography), and so on. I think the great challenge here is really to bring together this incredible diversity. And the name Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz or Staatliche Museen zu Berlin sounds a bit bureaucratic. It's not as easy to market. You have to try to approach it in terms of the contents rather than the name. But ultimately, what we would really want to do is to take this unique world, which really doesn't exist in comparable form anywhere else, with all its potential – and digital transformation, which we’ve already started, is really key here – so that for certain topics, you could access all the information that museums, libraries, archives and research institutes have to offer. Visitors to the museums – that’s what we’re working on now. So when you go to exhibitions, you’ll use apps and other things, augmented reality, virtual reality, all of these new technologies, and we have a 3D digitization center on the Museumsinsel, and the list goes on. We want the content created in the course of these developments to help us communicate information and also to support our research efforts, and at the same time to really enhance the visitors’ experience. There is great potential here, and I think it’s among the most important work we do.

You want to modernize the museums. And in a huge organization such as yours, that means that the museum directors have to cooperate much more closely. I had a look at the organization chart of the Berlin museums and, my, did I find a lot [of names]. The Ägyptisches Museum has a director, the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities), the Gemäldegalerie, the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings), Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum), Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art), Byzantinische Kunst (Museum of Byzantine Art), Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum), Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History), Münzkabinett (Numismatic Collection), Nationalgalerie (National Gallery), Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East), Gipsformerei (Replica Workshop), das Institut für Museumsforschung (Institute for Museum Research) and the Museum für Europäische Kulturen (Museum of European Cultures). I went through that long list especially to show how large this organization is. And now I’d like to ask you: with all these museums – so many principalities and so many princes and princesses directing and guiding them – how to you intend to foster greater cooperation? How do you intend to accomplish that? How do you intend to motivate them? I think it's no secret what an extraordinarily difficult job this is.

And it isn’t just a top-down process. You can’t just call the directors and general directors together and say „all right, folks, here’s what we’re going to do.” Instead, after I assumed the office of the presidency, we started a process of closer collaboration and coordination. And with processes like these, you need to continually reinvigorate and reinvent them. Now we want to take it to a new level. Whether it’s digital transformation, or communication and public image – in either case, it’s essential that you delegate responsibility. Just recently, for example, we appointed two digital chief officers, deputy general directors Ms. Haak from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Mr. Altenhöner from the Staatsbibliothek, who will move the process of digital transformation forward. Mr. Altenhöner will concentrate on structural questions, while Ms. Haak will be working on specific programs and projects. They’ll be taking a cross-disciplinary approach that will serve all five institutions of the SPK – its five pillars, so to speak.

And it’s crucial, I think, that the staff, the senior staff of individual institutions, individual museums, understand that they, too, definitely bear a responsibility for the group as a whole, and that each individual institution does much better when they develop these things together – as a group, as a whole. After all, competencies and capacities are not always distributed equally. When we work together, each of us can benefit from the other. And these goals – you have to market them, you have to try to create incentives. That’s key. Otherwise it won’t work. You can’t dictate this kind of thing from above. But so far, I have to say, in my experience, these have always been very constructive processes. And sometimes, I was just amazed at how willing and eager people were to collaborate. There are certain points where it's not easy, usually because you reach a point at which one person or another has to give up some autonomy. And in those situations, it’s vital to bring home to everyone the added value that this process generates.

One of your most important museums, Professor Parzinger – the Neue Nationalgalerie, designed by Mies van der Rohe and an icon of modern architecture – is undergoing a thorough restoration. We used to gaze there in awe at all the treasures of the 20th century. One focus of the collection is German Expressionism, with works from the movement Die Brücke, including Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner’s Potsdamer Platz as well as pieces from Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka, and others. It will be a few years before we’ll be able to see these works in the Neue Nationalgalerie again. Let’s think back for a moment to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. When it was being renovated, Peter Raue, our industrious arts attorney, simply brought them here to Berlin, to the Neue Nationalgalerie. It was the arts event of a century, a huge success. Why can’t we take this incredible collection of 20th- and 21st-century art to Bonn or Schleswig, to Munich or Marzahn, or to any town, for that matter, in former East Germany?

We did have the exhibition in the Jerusalem Museum, so we’ve taken the collection abroad. We’re working with these pieces in the Hamburger Bahnhof, too, of course. Works of the classical modernist period are being displayed there in the Kleihues wing in a series of temporary exhibitions – currently the fantastic Berlin exhibition. As far as your other point goes, of course – that’s something that will be more important in the future. The eternal question is how we can get people to come to the museums, to go the Kulturforum or the Museumsinsel, say, or to Hamburger Bahnhof. That doesn't happen on its own. We tried it last summer in the Kultur- und Freizeitzentrum, a cultural and recreation center in Marzahn. We put on an exhibition of objects from the Ethnologisches Museum and all the people who worked there and are part of the center – the Nikita swimming pool, the local municipal office, and everybody else – noticed it. We held panel discussions there, and people got involved in the discussions. It really attracted a lot of attention within the district and people were aware it was there. And I believe we have to do more of that kind of thing. That said, we need to appreciate, of course, that we can’t display high-quality, very valuable objects – real artistic treasures – just anywhere. Cost plays a role here, too, and simple feasibility. We’ve got a lot of collaborative projects up and running now, including some with schools. Children and youth – that’s very important, but we really want to reach all of society, and we have to try harder to attract people who don't typically go to museums.

Just as in all large cities, it’s chiefly visitors and tourists that go to museums. Let’s take one of your institutions, the Gemäldegalerie, which we mentioned before, as an example. I’d like to briefly list some of the artists contained in its collections: Cranach, Dürer, Holbein, Rubens, Botticelli, Bellini, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Tiepolo, Caravaggio, Goya, Gainsborough, Watteau – a virtual Who’s Who of the art world from the 13th to the 18th century. The Gemäldegalerie is located at the Kulturforum and, to be honest, Professor Parzinger, when I go in on Tuesday mornings, I always think I’m the only one there.

The Gemäldegalerie numbers are not too bad, for the most part. It has a mysterious quality, a special trick, of always making you think you’re the only one there. But, in fact, you’re not at all. Of course, a superb collection like that could afford to have many more visitors. I think two points in particular are key here, and we’re planning to work on both of them. For one thing, there's the central hall, which for so many years was never used for exhibitions. Now, though, the museums use it for exhibitions. The Botticelli exhibition was held there, for example, and it was the main area for the El Siglo de Oro exhibition. We want to continue to do that. The Tehran exhibition would have been there, as well. So, we want to continue to put on spectacular exhibitions in the building itself. And then, of course, over the long term, the entire Kulturforum will change. When you imagine, when the restoration of the Mies Van der Rohe building is completed, and when the new building, with its underground connecting passageway, is open – we’re going to have to come up with an open space design concept. I think we’re not going to achieve a really sustainable increase in visitor numbers until the location as a whole, with all of its new buildings, comes into its own and develops an entirely different feel. We need to be patient, it’s going to take some time, but I think it’s something the Berliners can really look forward to.

You mentioned just now, when you were talking about the Gemäldegalerie, that the plan had been to hold the Tehran exhibition there. How do matters stand now? To be clear, we’re talking about a collection owned by the Shah and his family, his wife – 20th-century art. How do things stand now?

At the moment, there’s no new news, nothing tangible. We keep hearing reports from Tehran, voices that say there’s no longer anything standing in the way of it coming to Berlin. But no specific moves have been made. We’ll have to wait and see. We would be able to show the exhibition again in the fall. I think it would be important to show this exhibition. There was a lot of lead-up to it, it was a matter of heated public debate, in Iran as well. We were very happy to see, after the first plan or the first attempt to show it in Berlin and then in Rome had failed, that the exhibition was shown in the TMoCA in Tehran with exactly those pictures, and titled The Berlin-Rome Travellers.

That was one of the criticisms made here – people said, „you’re just showing the pictures in the West, but they need to be shown in Iran.” Now they’re being shown in Iran. I am quite sure that had there not been these intense discussions, behind closed doors, in public, and with the media; had we not had that coverage, which was quite intense in Iran, as well, not just in Germany; had all of that not happened, this exhibition – with these particular pictures, with this particular title – would not have been held in Tehran. And I think, with that alone, we’ve already achieved a great deal. And I haven’t given up hope yet. We’ll see. A new cabinet is being formed now after the presidential election, and if we get some positive signals, then maybe we’ll go there again. In that case, though, things will have to move fast because either we manage to do it in the fall or we say goodbye to it for good. That would be a shame but, still, I believe we’ve achieved a lot.

You’ve been at it for nine years – let’s fast forward another nine years. What is the most important thing – and be specific, please – that you’ve accomplished?

I think in nine years the center of Berlin will look different. In nine years, when you go from Brandenburg Gate to the Museumsinsel, about half-way down, on the left-hand side, you’ll see the completed Staatsbibliothek Unter den Linden. It will be a magnificent temple of art and knowledge, restored to its Wilhelminian glory with modern ingredients. The new reading room, for example, with the latest research infrastructure, with an automated 3D scanning system, and more. Then, a bit further down, you’ll see the Berlin Palace. The design of the exterior space – I hope that the Sanchi Gate will be there, which we three founding directors proposed, as a counterpoint to the Brandenburg Gate. People will be streaming in. The place will be buzzing with life. People will notice it; they’ll go there often, take in events. Across the street, the Museumsinsel won't be finished yet. You’ll be able to see the Pergamon Altar again; the James-Simon-Galerie will have long since opened. The southern wing of the Pergamonmuseum will be getting ready to open. Maybe we’ll be able to start on the Altes Museum, which has to be thoroughly restored. And then, when you move on to the Kulturforum – in nine years, you’ll be able to enter Mies von der Rohe’s old Nationalgalerie and there, in the basement, you’ll see a portrait gallery, as I always say, of classical modernism. Then, through a passageway into the new building, which will be finished by that time, and you can take in the evolution of art in the 20th-century with all its abrupt changes in direction and revolutionary, new developments in the second half of the 20th century. And perhaps your senses will be much sharper when you then contemplate the magnificent collection in the Gemäldegalerie. The open space design for the area surrounding the new museum building for 20th-century art, which I hope will also serve to more strongly integrate all the neighboring buildings. That is really something that we can all look forward to. And Hamburger Bahnhof, which will have been “liberated” from the second half of the 20th century, will be able dedicate itself that much more to what is contemporary today. All in all, I think quite a lot will happen in the next nine years.

Originally the interview was published on Deutschlandfunk (in German)

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