Natural History’s Colonial Entanglements: Australian Objects in Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde

IMG_1269Recent years have seen a growing interest among museum practitioners, as well as the greater German public, in the history of objects acquired in colonial contexts. This turn to colonial objects forms part of a broader shift in the status accorded to colonialism in Germany’s memory culture. Long neglected or wilfully ignored, Germany has for a long time been reluctant to accept the responsibilities arising from the nation’s colonial past.

Objects and specimens collected in the colonial era have a particular role to play in this process, as demonstrated, for instance, by the heated discussions around the current reassessment and relocation of some of Berlin’s ethnological and ethnographic collections, which are to be housed, as of 2019, in the Humboldt Forum in Mitte. In this context, questions are being asked about the legal context of the objects’ acquisition and their adequate management by museum staff and researchers. How are such items to be cared for and stored? How, if at all, should they be made accessible to the public, and possibly displayed? Should they be returned? And there is a slowly growing understanding of the kind of complicated ongoing connections and obligations that these objects might establish between European collecting institutions and Indigenous communities today.

It might seem slightly eccentric to raise the issue of natural history collections within the context of these debates about the legacy of German colonialism and the attendant politics of collection, display and repatriation. Nevertheless, I want to situate natural history objects within such a framework for two reasons that foreground the entanglements of humans and non-human objects in our social histories. On the one hand, natural history objects form part of what clearly constitutes the biggest body of artefacts gathered by nineteenth-century collectors: the vast collections held by eminent metropolitan institutions such as natural history museums and botanical gardens. The relevance of these objects for a critical engagement with Germany’s colonial past might, of course, not be immediately apparent. As the natural world is habitually understood as lying outside of the sphere of human influence, natural history collections can easily seem irrelevant to the human-centred history of colonialism. Long treated as taxonomically stable, and hence immutable representations of the non-human world, these objects have only recently begun to be re-articulated within the economic, infrastructural, ideological and epistemological frameworks that brought them to Europe’s collecting institution (MfN 2016, 2018). Such a reassessment is important, not least, because most nineteenth-century collectors did not focus on one field of collecting alone. Yet the artefacts they accumulated were often subsequently redistributed according to the logics of a diversifying scientific field and are now housed by different institutions. Consequently, seemingly harmless objects, such as the bird skins deposited in the archive of our natural history museums, have become separated from more controversial specimens such as secret sacred objects or human remains held in anthropological and historical medical collections, which were often gathered by the same group of collectors.

Attention to Australian objects, on the other hand, offers an important contribution to the current reassessment of Germany’s colonial legacy, because the Australian colonies are seldom featured within the context of such debates. This constitutes a significant oversight, as German-born scientists and collectors profited immensely from the opportunities the British Empire gave them in the period before Germany gained access to overseas territories of its own (Kirchberger 2013). The knowledge they produced in the Australian colonies can therefore not be separated from the exploitative economic and administrative contexts within which it was assembled. Looking at natural history collections from Australia against the backdrop of these considerations allows for the reconstruction of some of the contexts that are typically considered irrelevant when a specimen of natural history is treated as a carrier of biological information only. In these objects human and non-human history become entangled in ways that link natural history to Germany’s nineteenth-century colonial aspirations and to the cruel realities that underpinned the production of scientific knowledge in colonial Australia.

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Anja Schwarz is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Potsdam.

 

Works cited

Kirchberger, Ulrike. „Ludwig Leichhardt und die transnationalen Gelehrtennetzwerke des britischen Empire.“ In Der Australienforscher Ludwig Leichhardt. Ed. Heike Hartmann. Berlin: Be.bra, 2013. 79–93.

MfN. Museum für Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung. “Conference: ‘Working on Things: On the Social, Political, Economic History of Collected Objects’.” Berlin, 21–22 November 2016.

MfN. Museum für Naturkunde Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung. “Conference: ‘Politics of Natural History, or: How to Decolonize the Natural History Museum’.” Berlin 6–7 September 2018.

 

My full paper on the study skin of an Australian mallee fowl in Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde from which this brief argument was excerpted can be accessed here.

 

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